Melissa Norberg Ph.D.

portrait of Norberg

Associate Professor and the Deputy Director of the Centre for Emotional Health, Department of Psychology at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.

What would you like to share about your background and/or experiences in the McNair program?

The McNair program connected me with Dr Deb Hope, who then went on to supervise my Honours thesis. Deb is an expert in the field of clinical psychology and was a terrific mentor.

Do you feel the McNair Program prepared you for graduate study and research at the graduate level? If so, how?

By working under Deb's supervision, I could attend her lab meetings which exposed me to what her graduate students were doing. This experience helped me to know what would be expected of me during graduate school.

What do you like most about working in your current position?

I enjoy teaching, conducting research and supervising students. It is always a pleasure to help students realise their goals and help them feel a sense of belonging.

Looking back at your time as a McNair Scholar, was there anything that prepared you for your current position?

As a McNair Scholar, I engaged in independent research (well, as much as an undergraduate can). That experience helped me to learn how to balance my time. The mentors in McNair also engaged with us as peers. Although they were teaching us, it didn't feel hierarchical. Although a hierarchy exists in academia, no one ever enjoys being talked down to. It is always nice to see how terrific mentors balance being friendly and providing critical feedback.

As an undergraduate, did you have any positive mentor experiences that shaped your outlook on mentoring?

I had so many positive experiences with mentors at UNL. I still look back (20 years later!) and attempt to emulate my experiences from my undergraduate education.

What advice would you give in regard to searching for graduate programs? What characteristics did you look for in a school/how did you search for programs?

The advice I give students now is to look for strong scientific training as well as finding a supervisor who will challenge them to help them grow. They also need to find a supervisor who can adequately supervise their research; areas of interest need to match.

Did you go directly from your bachelor's degree to enrolling in a graduate program without stopping out?  If so, what advantages do you think that provided? If not, why was this the right choice for you?

Yes, I did. I'm not sure there were any advantages to it; however, I would say it was the right choice for me because in the end everything turned out OK. I think students today have it much harder. It is more difficult to get into to clinical psychology programs and even more difficult to get into academia. Now, most students will need to take a few years break to work as a research assistant to build up their skills and CV before applying to graduate school.

Looking back, was graduate school more or less demanding than you expected?

It was what I expected because I had great mentorship as an undergraduate. I was also friends with a lot of graduate students as an undergraduate and this was invaluable in preparing me for graduate school.

What was the most rewarding part of graduate school?

It furthered my resilience. During graduate school, I worked part-time in addition to completing side research projects. I gave up sleep much too frequently to fit everything in. During my first few years as an academic, I would often reflect "this still isn't as bad as graduate school; I can get through this". I also worked with different clinical and research supervisors and learned what I liked and did not like as a student. I now try to avoid doing the stuff I didn't like, but it seems a bit impossible at times. As much as I hate forgetting stuff, I often must ask my students to remind me about what we talked about during the last meeting!

I also built strong friendships with other students in my program and cherish these memories.

What experiences did you seek out as a graduate student to prepare you for working in your current career?

I sought part-time employment as a research assistant working on a large, nation-wide study examining treatment for alcohol abuse. Later, I worked part-time at an inpatient unit where I completed some of my clinical training to obtain more experience (and needed money) working with obsessive-compulsive and related disorders. I also completed a lot of side projects in addition to my masters and dissertation research, much of which I developed myself.

What's your best advice for McNair scholars about graduate school?

Graduate school is rewarding, but also difficult. You'll need to balance a heavy workload, especially if you must work to help pay your way through school. Figure out early on how to manage that stress in a way that does not interfere with your goals. Engage in as many opportunities as you can, but do not overcommit. Everyone you meet is a potential referee. You don't want to give people the sense that you are unable to follow through on your commitments. You also want to start building life-long colleagues. Check out the CVs of people who have jobs that you want. Work with your supervisor(s) to start building your CV to help you obtain similar positions.

How has your life changed since you earned your PhD?

It's not that people call me Dr now, because they don't. The PhD has allowed me to have the job that I want. I am in academia full time, but I also maintain a small private practice. I enjoy that I have a flexible career that allows me to do clinical work, engage in research, teach, and mentor students.

Are you currently involved in research, and if so, can you briefly explain your research?

My research aims to discover the factors and processes that contribute to the aetiology and maintenance of anxiety, obsessive-compulsive and related disorders, and substance use problems and then to use that information to improve treatment outcomes for these conditions. To do so, my lab engages in experimental research. For example, we might induce intrusive thoughts to learn what predicts the intensity to which people experience these thoughts as well to learn what predicts wanting to engage in rituals after experiencing these thoughts.

What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishments?

Three things spring to mind. 1) Being elected as National President of the Australian Association of Cognitive and Behaviour Therapy; 2) Delivering a sold-out public lecture at the Sydney Science Festival during National Science Week; and 3) Discovering that social issues contribute to hoarding disorder. This new information provides a novel avenue for advancement in treatment.

What, if any, advice would you give students who are thinking about stopping out before beginning graduate school?

It's OK to take a break as well as to discontinue. I experienced overwhelming distress during my first year of graduate school. The best thing anyone said to me during this time was that I could just quit if things did not improve. That one bit of advice helped me to realise that I could change my plans at any time; I did not need to fufil perhaps unrealistic expectations I had set for myself. At the same time, you do not have to listen to any doubts you may have about yourself not being good enough. You are good enough.