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Lifelong learning: Deakin grad celebrates second PhD at age 80

Among the beaming graduands at last week’s ceremonies at Costa Hall was 80-year-old Dr Wendy Crebbin, celebrating her second PhD.

Joining her at the ceremony were two of her four children and Alfred Deakin Professor and Chair of Surgery David Watters, her PhD supervisor and long-time collaborator.

Dr Crebbin first met Professor Watters shortly after joining the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS) in 2002 where she was Manager of Education Development and Research following a 30-year career in teacher education, plus several years as an international education consultant.

​​​​​​​Between 2011 and 2012, Wendy and Professor Watters collaborated with others to develop a model of clinical decision making that came up with a four-stage structure – Diagnosis and Management, Preparation for a Procedure, Intraoperative Decision Making, and Reflection and Review.

‘In a different piece of work we also defined the levels of competence through which trainees progress from novice to expertise.’

Wendy explains that her second PhD – entitled ‘Learning and Teaching Clinical Decision Making in Surgery’­ – takes this research a step further.

‘At the end of 2014, I was about to retire when David asked if I’d like to follow on with this research as a PhD.’

'While the first stage – Diagnosis and Management – has been researched for over 40 years, there was very little published research in the clinical environment.'

Dr Wendy Crebbin,
Deakin University

‘Through the PhD, I was able to flesh out the four stages and fill some of the knowledge gaps.

‘The key outcome is that I have been able to provide senior surgeons and other clinicians with a standardised method for assessing the skills and capabilities of junior surgeons, and guiding their progression.’

'Ultimately, it’s all about improving patient safety and surgical outcomes.'

Dr Wendy Crebbin,
Deakin University

Wendy, who also teaches in a Clinical Decision Making course at RACS, says that her strong research interest in how people learn and think was developed during her days in teacher education.

‘I’d done lots of research into how the brain develops and how schooling can be better tailored to promote learning, and this has played into both my PhD studies.

‘My first PhD, in the 1990s, looked at quality teaching in higher education and found that universities, government, teachers, and students all had different expectations of what quality teaching is.

‘In a surgical environment, senior surgeons know they need to use baby steps to develop expertise, but as one of the surgeons said to me about preparing for an operation, “no one taught me how to do this”.’

'None of them had been taught to be teachers and this fascinated me.'

Dr Wendy Crebbin,
Deakin University

Asked how she felt as she prepared to walk on to the graduation stage – again! – Wendy says she was feeling ‘very proud of myself that I got through it.’

‘You’re only allowed to do one PhD in each discipline. Having spent most of my life as a professional educator, to switch over to medicine was a big challenge.

‘Like anything, it was a bit easier the second time around! I was better able to ask questions, probe into people’s thinking, and get them thinking about their thinking.’

And what advice does she have for anyone considering a PhD?

'Just go for it. Believe in yourself. Expect that you will get writer’s blocks along the way and accept those for what they are. Talk to other people. Talk about what you’re doing as that often helps you clarify your thoughts.'

Dr Wendy Crebbin,
Deakin University

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