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Graduation stories - a First Class degree after six years!

14 July 2016

Rachel Smyth_main_2

Midway through studying for her degree, Rachel Smyth suffered several mental health setbacks and was advised by doctors not to return to university for her final year.

However, she persevered and – six years after she began her studies with us – graduated last Thursday with First Class Honours in Psychology.

Here, she tells us how she did it with the support offered at Abertay and what her plans are for the future.

Mental health

“While I was at university, I got diagnosed with several mental health disorders, including panic disorder and generalised anxiety disorder. I also had several physical diagnoses as well, such as hypothyroidism and fibromyalgia.

“These prevented me from finishing my course in 2014 when I was supposed to, and I was advised by doctors not to return to university for my final year, as they believed it would do me more harm than good.

“But I pushed through, working mainly from my bedroom this year and, thanks to incredible support from Student Services at Abertay – especially Liz MacDougall – and my dissertation supervisor Dr Fiona McConnochie, I got through and got my first class!

“My family have been incredibly supportive and my fiancé Lee, who I met here in Dundee, helped me every step of the way. I believe that it was all down to this support network, as well as my own guts and perseverance – even on the really bad days – that I was able to achieve this.”


“My hometown is Portstewart in Northern Ireland and I chose Abertay because I wanted to see what life would be like somewhere new. Abertay was also a good choice for me because it is a smaller university than some other options and I felt that a small, tight support network at university would be perfect for me.

“As a student with mental health issues, one of my biggest considerations was the support given to students who have to overcome various hurdles in order to remain at university. Abertay certainly provided this support. Student Services were fantastic. During my final year, Liz MacDougall from Student Support inspired and motivated me to continue despite any difficulties that I encountered. She helped me believe in myself and taught me that no matter what hurdles you come across in life, with hard work and determination you can achieve anything.


“I chose to study psychology because I’ve always had an interest in learning why people do what they do. I was keen to study human behaviour and explore the many things that make us who we are and learn what makes us interact with others in the way that we do. I also had an interest in the clinical side of psychology due to my own experiences of mental health issues.

“The most enjoyable part of my course was finishing my dissertation with significant results that showed ways that can help others improve their wellbeing. Through my own research, I discovered that students often have very low wellbeing or, in other words, feel quite low about aspects of their mental or physical life. So, I decided to find ways to try to improve student wellbeing and found two positive psychology techniques that may prove beneficial.

“Those who took part in my research were undergraduate students at Abertay and I found that the practice of a mental imagery technique (imagining doing well in an exam, for example) improved student wellbeing. Additionally, practice of a progressive relaxation technique (tensing then relaxing muscle groups) also had a significant, beneficial effect.

“The best part about carrying out my own research project was feeling that I had done something to help other students. It would be interesting for further research to examine whether these techniques could alleviate symptoms of mental health issues and I would like to conduct research involving this in the future.”


“Dr Fiona McConnochie was my Clinical Psychology lecturer and my supervisor for my dissertation. She provided a great deal of support throughout the research process and inspired me to continue in my dream of working in the field of clinical psychology.

“Dr Siobhan MacAndrew was another inspirational lecturer who I had the pleasure of working with through each year of my course. She taught me that anyone from any background can succeed and to never give up on your dreams.

Future plans

“Once I‘ve graduated, I will take some time to volunteer and gain work experience in the area of mental health. My dream role would be to help people on a daily basis who experience mental health difficulties. Long-term, I may consider completing a PHD to become a clinical psychologist.”

Come to Abertay

“I would definitely encourage other students to study at Abertay. Work hard, be determined, but also enjoy yourself. Never forget that there is support available that can help anyone overcome any barriers to learning.”

Many congratulations to Rachel on gaining her First Class degree! We wish her all the best with her plans for the future.

To find out more about her course, please visit our course pages:

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