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Dr Hanchao Hou’s PhD unlocked a career path in positive psychology research at Tsinghua University in China. With the support of the University of Melbourne and his supervisor, he gained the skills and knowledge needed to develop a whole new research framework.
Before his PhD, Dr Hanchao Hou had studied psychotherapy and counselling. But he felt he could do more to improve people’s lives.
“Traditional psychology focuses a lot on clinical psychology or abnormal psychology – a lot of negative things. Positive psychology focuses on the character strengths of humans and positive human experiences like happiness and love,” Dr Hou says.
Counselling and psychotherapy generally help people with psychological disorders. Through developing a better understanding of psychological wellbeing, Dr Hou says positive psychology research can help more people.
I’m a person with a lot of curiosity. Research and academic work are a good opportunity to satisfy my curiosity. Dr Hanchao Hou
Choosing the University of Melbourne for positive psychology research
A friend who lived in and loved Australia helped convince Dr Hou to choose to study in Australia.
“I think I watched a lot of videos about Australia, and I thought Australia was very beautiful,” Dr Hou says.
At the time, the University of Melbourne was one of only a handful of universities internationally with positive psychology research centres. The University of Melbourne’s high international rankings convinced Dr Hou to apply.
The city of Melbourne was also a great fit for Dr Hou.
“In Melbourne, there is a large Asian population. I could eat my hometown food and other Asian food like sushi and pho. Even though it doesn’t matter for academic achievement, it helped me to live well,” he says.
Building the foundation for an academic career at the University of Melbourne
The University of Melbourne’s reputation helped connect Dr Hou with respected colleagues, who would visit the Centre for Wellbeing Science from around the world.
“When they would come, they would also have an open office hour. I could communicate with them face to face,” he says.
Dr Hou had many opportunities to collaborate with other graduate researchers at the University as well.
“I collaborated with my PhD colleague to publish a paper. During this process, I learned a lot. I learned how to do meta-analysis, he says.
That paper has now been cited over 140 times. It was only published in 2021. It’s been cited a lot in a very short time. Dr Hanchao Hou
But research can also be challenging. PhD projects involve many uncertainties – your experiments can fail, or your manuscripts can be rejected.
A supportive supervisor can help manage these challenges. Having developed a self-critical and perfectionist mindset because of his previous educational experiences before arriving at the University of Melbourne, Dr Hou was hesitant to seek feedback. But his supervisor, Professor Lindsay Oades, proved to be very encouraging.
“Before that, I had an inner critical voice for my research. But after that, I learned to make improvements without too much criticism,” Dr Hou says.
A career in research becomes possible with a PhD
After graduating with a PhD in September 2022, Dr Hou has returned to China, where he is working as a postdoctoral fellow at Tsinghua University.
“I’m basically doing similar things as during my PhD: reviewing articles, writing papers, doing research,” he says.
With his colleagues, Dr Hou is combining positive psychology with technology to develop a field they call computational positive psychology.
Dr Hou is building on skills and knowledge learned during his PhD.
“Before my PhD, I also had a masters degree. I did research, but on a lower level only. I did things that didn’t have a lot of theoretical implications,” he says.
But after the PhD, I have a broader view. Now I collaborate with my colleagues. Now I can develop a whole framework, and the framework can hold lots of research. Dr Hanchao Hou
Advice for new graduate researchers
To succeed at research, Dr Hou says having patience is important.
“In some work you get feedback very quickly. But in research, feedback can take a very long time,” he says.
Yet seeking that feedback is the only way to improve. Dr Hou thinks many PhD researchers may be afraid to show their work to their supervisor because they fear being told their work is not good enough.
“I suggest: don’t be ashamed. Your supervisor is there to help you improve, not to criticise you or to judge you. Just show them.”
First published on 12 September 2023.
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