Natalie Rimlinger has been having nightmares about Brian Schmidt.
She’s on the stage at her graduation ceremony, and the ANU VC has got her degree in his hand, ready to pass it over.
But he stops, hesitates, and asks her, ‘Do you have a year 12 certificate?’
Natalie answers no, she left school in year 10.
Brian looks at her and says, ‘In that case, you can’t get your PhD’.
Natalie laughs about how crazy this nightmare is. Of course she can get her PhD! After all, she has an Honours degree and a completed PhD thesis.
But then, she adds, she did actually call up the University to check.
Because when you’ve always thought of yourself as a drop-out, that idea can be hard to shake, even if you end up on a stage with Professor Schmidt.
Natalie says her journey from drop-out to doctorate was “bumpy as hell”. In recounting her story she warns, you better “hold on for the ride!”
“I was a rebel without a clue at school,” she says. “By year 9 it was easier to add up the number of days I was present than the number of absences.
“By the end of year 10 I had done everything possible to piss everybody off. I said, ‘Screw education’ and I moved out of home.”
The daughter of a Vietnam veteran, Natalie had been involved with the Veterans and Veterans’ Families Counselling Service. When she was 30, she had a conversation with one of their psychologists, an ANU graduate, which changed her life.
“He said to me, ‘You know what you’d be good at?’ And I said, ‘Nothing, I’m hopeless.’
“And he said, ‘You’d make an excellent psychologist because you’re human and you’ve lived through it.’”
She enrolled in a distance education program, her first assignment being on the history of emotions, two things she possessed in spades.
It turned out she wasn’t “hopeless”. In fact, she was quite the opposite. For her first assignment she got 98 percent.
“When I first started at uni I didn’t even know what a PhD was,” she remembers. “But then I discovered it was the biggest thing you can get.
“I said, ‘I’ll have one of those then, thanks!’”
Natalie transferred to ANU to complete a Bachelor of Science (Psychology) (Honours), going on to a Doctor of Philosophy in Clinical Psychology.
Her thesis topic might seem surprising: a study of gifted and talented children and their parents. What’s even more surprising is that this topic holds the key to Natalie’s earlier educational shortcomings.
“I realised my daughter is smarter than the average bear, and then I began to understand that she must have got it from me! We’re both gifted.
“Now when I look back at school it all makes sense. I wasn’t learning anything, I was bored and I demonstrated that boredom by acting out.”
Her PhD is, in a way, a continuation of her desire to act out and say ‘Screw education’, or at least screw the system that didn’t harness her abilities.
“I was literally the kid voted least likely to do anything worthwhile with their life. Well, you’ll have to call me ‘doctor’ now. That seems pretty worthwhile!”
Natalie’s thesis is dedicated to her dad, the Vietnam vet who’s had his own “bumpy ride” in life.
“My history has always been to start a whole bunch of stuff and not finish it, but my dad has always believed in me, no matter how messed up I was,” she says.
“I couldn’t have done it without him.”
Natalie gets choked up thinking about it, and says she’s sure her dad will be the same on graduation day.
But when he was there beside her to see her hand in her thesis, there were no tears, just, she says, “an idiot grin”.
“He was beaming, so someone said to him, ‘You must be so proud!’
“And he just said, ‘Not bad for a kid who didn’t get her year 12 certificate.’”
Not bad at all, Dr Rimlinger.