Lived Experience

I wanted to be a violinist and now I’m a suicide researcher: Why career change can be the best present to your future self

By Rhiannon Leake.

Change is hard, no matter what the change is. My name is Rhiannon and I’m a second year PhD student within the Suicidal Behaviour Research Lab (SBRL) at the University of Glasgow. I also have an MA(Hons) in Music, and am an orchestral violinist.

I’ve played the violin since I was 7 years old, and the earliest dream I can remember is to play the solos in Rimsky Korsakov’s ‘Scheherazade’ in the Royal Albert Hall. My whole life up until 22 was music; living and breathing rehearsals, practices, lectures and exams. Don’t get me wrong, music has given me some of the most amazing memories. I’ve toured multiple countries with orchestras, played some of the most amazing repertoire and even met my fiancé through orchestras, which is why I never imagined my life taking this turn.

Towards the end of my undergraduate degree, I could tell that something wasn’t right. I wasn’t enjoying my classes, I had little motivation for assignments and just generally felt uneasy about my situation. Fortunately, I met the most amazing mental health professional through the university, who showed me that life is full of changes, and one course doesn’t necessarily equal a life in that area. From that I decided to complete an MSc in Psychological Studies (Conversion) with the view of becoming a counselling psychologist.

Unfortunately, I was unsuccessful after the counselling psychology interview and it hit me hard. Everything I’d done for two years was leading towards that doctoral programme, and I felt like a complete failure. However, I am a firm believer in karma and destiny, so after a ‘recovery’ period, I decided to look around a bit more.

Searching for what to do next was hard. I, like many people I know, have interests in a million and one things, so narrowing them down and trying to work out what could actually work took a long time. But then I discovered the Suicidal Behaviour Research Lab at Glasgow. As someone with personal lived experience of suicidal ideation and behaviour, I was very interested. As someone who is also very active on social media, coupled with the increase in media attention surrounding social media, self-harm and suicide, it felt like this was what the world was trying to tell me to do.

I wrote a research proposal and sent it away to two universities,  eventually hearing back from both. The initial discussions were some of the most nerve wracking I’ve ever had. Right from the start, imposter syndrome was present. I’m a music graduate, can I really do a PhD in mental health?

The answer is yes. I am incredibly fortunate to have found my niche in the SBRL at Glasgow. I have two fantastic supervisors, and a group of likeminded people who all care greatly for each other, and will try to help with any level of daft questions and requests. Being part of the lab has allowed me to research what I really care about, whilst also being under the guidance of supervisors, research associates and other students who are just as passionate about suicide research as I am.

This blog post wasn’t written with the intention of being a breast beating exercise, more talking about career changes, and how taking that leap of faith into the unknown can ultimately lead you in a new and amazing direction. Leaving music and beginning to work and research in the field of mental health has changed who I am as a person, but for the best. It’s allowed me to combine my lived experience with my passion for helping others, and since I love what I’m doing, I can’t look back.

Career changes are huge things, there’s no question about it. Moving universities, cities or even countries can be terrifying. Finding potential supervisors and topics in areas you’re not familiar with is equally as daunting, but it can turn out to be the best decision you’ve ever made. Of course there is a lot of planning and preparation required for career changes, but sometimes the best thing to do really is to take the leap of faith. However, make it an informed leap – make sure you’ve researched the area you want to move into and contacted potential supervisors. Research ideas are great, especially when we’re passionate about them, however someone needs to supervise them. Make sure your interests align with those of the institution and/or research group that you’re applying to, and check in with yourself to ensure that you’re wanting to do this for the best reasons. I knew because of my lived experience of suicide as well as past social media engagement that this was what I wanted to research, because I wanted to help inform and change social media policies surrounding mental health and self-harm/suicide content,. My advice? Make sure you’re undertaking the research because you’re passionate about it, not just as a stepping stone.

Don’t get me wrong, part of me misses the years of music being my entire life, but I’m here in my second year of my PhD and honesty I can’t look backwards, only forwards. Taking the leap from music to psychology has been the best decision of my life, and despite the stress of research, not a single cell in my body regrets it.

So if you’re considering moving fields, the best advice I can give is to make sure you’ve researched your options as thoroughly as possible. Don’t be impulsive and randomly apply to programmes; scout around see what’s out there before making any rash decisions. Changing fields is hard and undoubtedly nerve-wracking, but can also be one of the most rewarding decisions of your life, so long as it’s properly considered, researched and implemented.


Rhiannon Leake (@Trhii_Leake) has an MA(Hons) in Music, but decided to follow a path into mental health research by completing the MSc Psychological Studies (Conversion) at the University of Glasgow before beginning her PhD in Mental Health within the Suicidal Behaviour Research Laboratory (SBRL) at the University of Glasgow. She also works as a Distress Brief Intervention (DBI) Practitioner within the Scottish Association of Mental Health (SAMH).

Featuring Photo by Jess Bailey on Unsplash.

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