Dr Mariana Pinto Da Costa
Meet Dr Mariana Pinto Da Costa, who conducted her PhD at Queen Mary as a Doctoral Research Fellow, and Consultant Psychiatrist at the East London NHS Foundation Trust
1. During the time you have been conducting your PhD at QMUL as a Doctoral Research Fellow you have worked as a Consultant Psychiatrist at the Newham Centre for Mental Health as well as a Lecturer at the Institute of Biomedical Sciences Abel Salazar at the University of Porto. Could you tell us more about this, and how you manage to fit it all in?
I have been teaching at the University of Porto since 2011 both undergraduate students, and also postgraduate students in the area of Forensic Psychiatry, where I initially focused during my psychiatric training. I kept this role until today, and it has been a pleasure to meet and remotely support several young professionals interested to learn more about Psychiatry, and to pursue a career in this field.
Towards the end of my PhD, I started working as a Consultant Psychiatrist at East London NHS Foundation Trust, which followed my previous work in this NHS Trust in an honorary capacity since I started my PhD.
I have always been a strong advocate of the importance of clinical academic careers, and the advantages of combining research work with clinical practice and the benefits for both. It was very important to have one clinical day of work per week throughout my PhD to be able to establish the right research questions that clinical services need investigated, and to implement the findings from research evidence in my clinical practice.
During my PhD I investigated a topic that I am very passionate about “Volunteering in mental health”. I have been very curious to learn more about this topic, and research it, developing an intervention, and testing it in a trial. I received much encouragement from people in the field, especially patients and volunteers, which has been fundamental to overcome the challenges I faced.
After I finished my PhD I started supervising an MSc student who has been conducting a qualitative study about the experiences of volunteers in prisons in Portugal. It has been such a pleasant and gratifying experience to support younger colleagues to conduct further research in this topic and seeing the project shape to different fields and settings.
2. You were recently selected as a finalist at the UK Doctoral Awards and distinguished with an Honorable Mention for your thesis "Volunteering in mental health - towards a new model of support". Many congratulations for this. Could you explain what your thesis is about?
My PhD thesis reported a mixed-methods study looking at social relationships between people with psychosis and volunteers in different formats (face-to-face and digitally). Through focus groups and a survey, I have collected the views on these relationships of different stakeholders (mental health professionals, volunteers and patients) in three European countries (Belgium, Portugal and the UK).
In consultation with people with mental illness and community volunteers, I developed an intervention – the Phone Pal - to remotely connect patients and volunteers over a smart-phone, which was tested in a feasibility trial, with very encouraging findings.
Previously, for my PhD research, I received an International Award Distinction for the Janice Sinson Award with the top three prize, I was nominated by Columbia University featuring in the Top 100 Innovative Women Leaders in Global Mental Health, and was distinguished with a Fellowship by the World Association of Social Psychiatry.
I was now very pleased to have this Honorable mention and having external academics selecting my thesis in the Top 5 in the United Kingdom in the category of Management and Social Sciences. Hearing the talk from a Nobel Prize winner at the 10th Doctoral Research Awards was really inspiring and eye opening to reflect about what is ground-breaking research, and the story of their career path until their discovery, and thereafter.
3. What was your educational and training background and what advice you would give to a student wanting to follow in similar footsteps?
When I was 17 years old, I entered the Medical School and studied at the University of Porto from 2003 to 2009. During my medical studies I studied abroad for two years (in Italy and in Poland). For this I won a prize in 2009 from the European Commission “Erasmus Student 2 million – Erasmus, Success Stories”. I kept passionate about mobility and collaborated with the European Commission writing the Erasmus+ Generation Declaration, which I presented at the European Parliament about the future of this program.
After one year as Foundation Trainee in Lisbon, I then started my psychiatry training in 2011. During this time I had clinical and research experience in Africa, where I was screening alcohol, smoking and other substances involvement in primary and mental health care users in Angola, while studying for the International Master on Mental Health Policy and Services at the NOVA University of Lisbon supported by the WHO.
This experience encouraged me to strengthen my knowledge and skills in research, and I sought to pursue a PhD in the United Kingdom. I then joined Queen Mary University of London in October 2015, where I have conducted my PhD with the support from the NIHR CLAHRC North Thames and funding from the East London NHS Foundation Trust.
To a student who wants to follow similar footsteps, I would tell them: Do research in a topic that you are passionate about, and truly want to investigate. Find the right mentors for you and a research environment that is friendly and supportive in what you would like to achieve. Think about the skills you would like to gain during a PhD and the experiences that you would like to have whilst you are a student. Find a role model, someone who inspires you, and that you would like, in your own unique way, to follow. I would also prepare them to be mindful of envy and competitiveness that exists sometimes in the academic world. But I would reassure them, that even when the wind blows against them, that they should remain hopeful as they will bounce back. Opportunities arise where there is talent; and that when one door closes, other door opens. I would encourage them to be true to themselves, to follow their principles and values, and find other people who share the same ethics and interests, and who they can trust and rely on. I would tell them to make good friends and colleagues, with whom they might wish to continue to collaborate in the future.
Doing a PhD is a unique experience, which is shaped by how much or little support you have, the knowledge and skills you acquire, and the opportunities you have whilst pursuing a PhD. But conducting a PhD does not define one’s career. I would rather say that is normally one of the key early milestones, if one wants to continue conducting research, and pursuing an academic career.
Resilience is paramount for PhD students – it’s a marathon, not a sprint! But it is not only about the thesis, it is mostly about the path to get there, and the experiences you have along the way, how you overcome the challenges that you face, making you one step closer to be an independent researcher, which I suppose is one of the expectations of a PhD student.