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Why I do what I do: how I ended up researching eating disorders

This month Jane Hahn has written about the journey to her PhD research project and what it means to her. Jane started her PhD research in 2021 at University College London. Her project title is: Early Childhood Adversity and its risk to Eating Disorders.

One of the most common questions that I get about my PhD is how I ended up researching the epidemiology of eating disorders.

I have wanted to pursue a career in mental health since I was 14. That part was actually quite straightforward to figure out. In my adolescence, I found myself being the listening ear to many of my friends who needed help. I chose my current career path based on the simple fact that I liked talking to people and finding explanations to why they were the way they were. In later years, I decided to focus on a research career because it was going to be more flexible in terms of job opportunities around the world. Research also fulfilled my natural curiosities about what makes some people more likely to experience mental health difficulties.

However, arriving at my specific PhD topic was much more complicated than knowing I wanted to be in mental health research. My research interests prior to my MSc were in intervention evaluation with specific focus on culturally tailored interventions. During my MSc, I was primarily interested in equitable help-seeking and access to healthcare, intervention, and mental health services. Many of these projects surrounding my project of interest were based on population data, which naturally led me to epidemiology. I started developing a real interest in population data and risk factors for mental health problems

I worked as a research assistant for a year after my MSc and my then line manager (now PhD supervisor) introduced me to my primary supervisor. He believed that my interests in access to healthcare and epidemiology may well suit my primary supervisor’s interests in the psychiatric epidemiology of eating disorders. The overlap in our research interests were in figuring out why such a small group of people experiencing eating disorder symptoms received diagnosis and subsequent treatment. My primary supervisor and I then worked together to investigate sociodemographic characteristics of eating disorder patients in primary care and how these characteristics affect key indicators of care, including diagnosis, consultation, and referrals. I cannot overstate the importance of the conversations and collaborations I had back then with my now-supervisors. I think in academia we’re so focused on the coming up with a brilliant research topic that we often forget that a huge part of our internal motivation is just enjoying the collaboration process with people in that area of research.

I already knew that I wanted to work with my supervisors at the threshold of the PhD application season. However, I had to have a final moment of reflection: I felt that my PhD research topic needed to emotionally resonate with me. The intellectual interests in risk factors for eating disorders were there, but I had to believe that my efforts were going to be well spent in this area, and that any research I produced could have tangible impacts. Then I realised that there were many people in my life, close and distant, who have had difficult relationships with food and their body and/or experienced eating disorder symptoms without receiving a diagnosis or help. So, being able to research this topic in the population resonated with my own internal values of how we should view mental health, and what we can do to prevent exacerbation of what is actually quite a common form of distress.

I want to put a disclaimer that my journey in developing a research interest is a) not the only way and b) not even close to being finished. A PhD is only the beginning of one’s academic journey, so I’m looking forward to developing more multi-faceted ideas, drawing inspiration from my research experiences of the past, present, and future. In the meantime, if I could offer some unsolicited advice on developing research interests I would say: talk to clinicians, researchers, patients, and those with lived experiences, especially when you don’t have it all figured out. These people are central components in the rich tapestry of mental health research, and I have no doubt that you will find inspiration in conversation and collaboration.

Jane Hahn 2022

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