Career path: nursing school lecturer and researcher

August 2015 Vol 15 (4)

The eye is small and should be ‘pretty easy to learn’ thought ELISSA McDONALD but, an ophthalmology PhD later, the now nursing school lecturer knows how wrong she was.

Elissa McDonaldName: Dr Elissa McDonald

Job title: Lecturer, Massey University’s School of Nursing (Albany)

Nursing & other qualifications:

  • Diploma in Nursing (Comprehensive) 1994 (AUT)
  • New Zealand Diploma in Business 2004 (Universal College of Learning)
  • Diploma in Management 2004 (New Zealand Institute of Management)
  • Master of Nursing (First Class Honours) 2010 (Massey University)
  • Doctor of Philosophy (Ophthalmology) 2015 (doctoral scholar, The University of Auckland)

Briefly describe your initial five years as an RN

I initially worked for two years in a regional hospital in the paediatric/maternity wards and also as a practice nurse in a busy community clinic. I stopped working for five years while my children were pre-schoolers and then studied towards a business qualification while nursing part-time at weekends at an accident and medical clinic.

Did you have a career plan (vague or definite) on becoming an RN? And how did those first five years influence your subsequent career?

I decided to study nursing as a teenager due to a desire to make difference in the world. I was keen to work for the Royal Flying Doctor’s Service in Australia or for the Red Cross, but, at only 17, I didn’t fully appreciate the experience required for these roles. However, working as a practice nurse strengthened my interest in primary health care.

What lead you into your current field or specialty?

When I returned to full-time nursing after gaining the business qualifications, I applied for and was offered two positions at an outpatients clinic: one medical and one ophthalmological. I didn’t know much about the eye, but thought the eye is small and should be easy to learn quickly... how wrong was I! It took at least six months just to learn how to use the equipment and what ‘normal’ looked like. There was so much to learn. I had the invaluable support of the local ophthalmologist, who taught me beside the slit lamp for the five years I worked there, plus an experienced enrolled nurse, who initially showed me the ‘ropes’.

In order to fast track my career, I began my Master of Nursing (MN) at Massey University and focused as many of my assignments as possible around ophthalmic conditions/diseases/treatments. My master’s research project consisted of conducting a systematic review of anti-viral medications for herpes zoster (shingles, which can also affect the eye) which was published in a prestigious British antiviral journal.

As a result, I was approached by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to assist them on development of guidelines for treatment of herpes zoster. By the time I completed my MN I had a good working knowledge of common ophthalmic conditions, and an introductory level of knowledge in research, but I was ‘hungry’ for more…

What qualifications, skills or stepping stone jobs do you think were particularly helpful and/or necessary in reaching your current role?

My academic supervisor at Massey advised me to study towards a PhD in Ophthalmology at The University of Auckland and arranged an initial interview with ophthalmology department head Professor Charles McGhee. Not only did Professor McGhee agree to accept me within his department, he also supervised my doctoral research. I moved back home to Auckland with my family.

The change in culture from nursing to medicine was significant, with a focus on quantitative research (which I thoroughly enjoy). I have never been strong at maths, but upskilled myself to be able to conduct my own statistical analysis for my thesis, which investigated the best treatment options for microbial keratitis (infection of the cornea). I have had the opportunity to present my research at international and national ophthalmology conferences and have published my research in acclaimed international journals. Having academic supervisors and a supportive family who identified my potential and encouraged me to aim high was probably the most significant factor in my achievements to date. 

What personal characteristics do you believe are particularly important for nurses working in your role?

The first is tenacity, not to give up when something appears too difficult. Being able to set goals and be driven to achieve them despite obstacles. Prioritising and managing workload is essential, as it is easy for work/research to be consuming. I always have Friday evenings and Saturdays free of work. In fact, I don’t even turn my computer on. It is vital to have a healthy work/life balance and ensure there is dedicated time for family.

What career advice would you give to nurses seeking a similar role to yours?

For nurses who wish to advance their careers, I recommend finding an area you are interested in and specialising (although I have found every area becomes interesting when you start learning more about it). Postgraduate education is important for knowledge acquisition and development of critical thinking and can help advance you in your specialty. Make the most of your learning opportunities and remember the things in life worth having don’t come easily. 

Describe your current role and responsibilities

I am currently a lecturer at Massey University, School of Nursing. I supervise postgraduate students completing their prescribing practicum and am involved with teaching student and postgraduate nurses about research. I also provide seminars in pharmacology (for registered nurses) at the Pharmac Seminar Series held in Wellington, and provide peer review for various medical journals. I am also mum to four lovely teenagers aged 13–19 years and one naughty kitty.


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