So you want to do a PhD in river ecology in Australia (Part 1)

So, you’ve decided to do a PhD in river ecology in Australia.  Good choice! But where is the best place to go?  Should you study in one of the large city universities, or head out into the country and study in one of the smaller regional universities? And how do you find the right supervisor?  There are many universities and departments to choose from and most have excellent postgraduate programs and academics who can supervise your project.  But each department has its own expertise, and it is worth shopping around for the place and the person that would suit you best. In an accompanying page, I have begun to list the universities in Australia that have good research backgrounds in river ecology.  There are quite a few, and it allows a bit of choice. The list will develop over time as I continue my search. The following is the first in several posts that I hope will help you think about how to choose where to go and who to study with. It will also provide links so that you can make contact and get the ball rolling. I will add to the series over the next few weeks to give some more hints about what I think are important considerations when contemplating a PhD in river ecology. Note: these thoughts are mine alone, are not definitive by any means and not officially sanctioned by any institution.  Make sure that you make an informed decision and look around for information and advice from a number of sources.

Where in Australia would you like to study?

Doing post-graduate research is a great way to see the country and learn about how people, animals and plants live in environments that you are not familiar with.  I began my studies at Monash University in Melbourne, went on to do a Masters by research at the University of Tasmania and then to do a PhD at Murdoch University in Perth.  Travel was not my primary aim; in fact my main motivation for moving was to work with really good fish ecologists with good track records of research.  It was quite confronting at times to move to new places where I knew virtually no-one, but I wouldn’t change it for the world, and think that it really enriched my thinking, my research and my life.

There are universities from all around Australia that support PhD studies in river ecology. From the Northern Territory (Charles Darwin University) to Tasmania (University of Tasmania), from Western Australia (e.g. Murdoch University, Edith Cowan University) to Brisbane (e.g. Griffith University), there are universities that have strong cultures of research and teaching in river ecology. Each university tends to focus on the environment and climate in which it sits, of course. So, you will get a pretty good picture of what types of ecosystems you will have open to you by where the university is located. This is not always the case, but it is a pretty good bet.

If you have a hankering for working with tropical species, then clearly you should be looking at one of the more northern Australian universities, like Charles Darwin University, Griffith University or James Cook University, all of which do lots of tropical and sub-tropical river research. Murdoch University in WA also has researchers who routinely do studies in the northern part of that huge state. The University of Adelaide and Griffith University also have good track records for research in central Australia, the Lake Eyre Basin and arid-zone rivers generally. If you want to work in alpine areas, then the University of Tasmania is a great place to go.  But the University of Canberra, Charles Sturt University in Albury and La Trobe campus at Wodonga are all within spitting distance of the alps and are good bases from which to study alpine stream ecosystems.  Most universities have campuses hugging the coast, and so finding a university to study at where you can work on coastal streams is not difficult. Melbourne University, the University of Tasmania, the Warrnambool campus of Deakin University and Griffith University are good choices if you want to work on coastal streams.

City or country?

Are you a city person or do you like the countryside? There are good reasons for wanting to study in cities, because they have so many resources, the univesities tend to be bigger, have more facilities, there are often more postgraduate students, there is public transport etc etc. But the downside is that unless you want to work on urban streams, you have to travel long distances and through city traffic to get to your field sites. That can be a real pain, believe me.

At regional universities or campuses (e.g. Charles Sturt University, Warrnambool campus of Deakin University or the Wodonga campus of La Trobe University) or universities in smaller cities (e.g. University of Tasmania), this is less of an issue. And being close to your field sites can be a great advantage. It means that mistakes are less costly and accommodation may not be an issue. It may mean being able to monitor your river better, because you can nip out at a moment’s notice and still be back in time to watch your favourite TV show. It may also mean being able to live within the catchment of the river which you study. This can give you greater insight into the environmental and social issues associated with your river. It is not to say that you won’t have to travel large distances if you want to work on arid-zone rivers, for example. But you don’t have to if you don’t want to.

What kinds of animals and plants are you interested in?

Generally speaking, the diversity of riverine fauna and flora in Australia is greatest in the tropics and sub-tropics.  So, if you want to work in regions with large numbers of species, and perhaps work on a project in community ecology, universities in the Northern Territory or Queensland are for you.  Research into the structure of river fish assemblages and the environmental factors that influence them, have been the focus of considerable effort at Griffith University. The Murray-Darling Basin would not be a great place to choose to work, for example, if you were after diverse fish assemblages – although there are lots of fish, but not always the ones we like to catch and eat. But temperate regions do support quite diverse groups of animals and plants – certainly enough to keep most PhD students busy and happy. In fact, some of the most diverse macroinvertebrate assemblages can be found in ordinary streams close to Sydney or Melbourne or other temperate zones of Australia. Tasmania also is a hot-spot for fish in the family Galaxiidae, which is one reason why I went there to do my Masters degree.  Temperate regions are also good places to find frogs, platypus and crayfish. Tasmania has a great freshwater crayfish fauna, with the largest freshwater crayfish in the world – Astacopsis gouldi.

If introduced species are your thing, you could just about go anywhere in Australia, although WA has fewer of these than most.  The more populous areas around big cities are prime spots to work on introduced species. The Invasive Animals CRC, for example, has its freshwater centre operating out of Queenscliff not far from Melbourne. If you want to help solve the carp problem, then the Invasive Animal CRC is a good place to start. They have a number of PhD scholarships available each year for projects related to introduced species, including carp. Mind you, carp have relatively recently made their way to Tasmania and occur throughout the Murray-Darling Basin, so take your pick where you’d like to work. In fact, the Murray-Darling Basin is home to many introduced species, so any of the universities in South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales, ACT and southern Queensland will give you access to this large area.  Many universities have links with natural resource management agencies whose job it often is to deal with introduced species. I can assure you, there is no shortage of work to be done on introduced species and we need bright, fresh minds to come up with novel ways to manage and eradicate these pests.

Stay tuned for more on thoughts on where to do a PhD in the next post, including: do you want to be a pioneer and how to find and choose a supervisor.

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2 Responses to So you want to do a PhD in river ecology in Australia (Part 1)

  1. YenDinh says:

    Dear Professor Paul,

    Many thanks for your very useful post for junior river ecologist. I am waiting for your part 2!

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