So you want to do a PhD in river ecology in Australia (part 2)

This is the second part in my series on factors that may influence your choice of where to go, what topics might be worthwhile and who to study with when contemplating a PhD in river ecology in Australia.  This post considers the questions: Do you want to build on previous work or be a pioneer; and who should I choose to be my supervisor?

Do you want to build on previous work or be a pioneer?

Of course, as scientists we all want to be pioneers. After all, what is the point in repeating something that somebody else has done?  Well, it is worthwhile sometimes, but novelty will tend to get you further, and the requirement of a PhD is that it is ‘original research’. Having said that, some PhD students want to work in environments largely untouched by other scientists. They want to be pioneers and discover new species or describe the biology of an animal or plant for the first time.  Others would prefer to build on, and refine, previous work. 

The pioneers will no doubt make interesting discoveries, but working in unchartered waters can often mean a lot of basic groundwork.  It may mean having to invent ways to sample or it may require lots and lots of time searching for populations of your organism large enough to support a sampling program. It may even mean basic taxonomic work, so that you know which species you are studying!

If the environments have not been studied much, it can mean that the whole of your PhD will be doing basic work before the more interesting stuff can start.  However, with a good concept and hypotheses in hand, derived from theories developed elsewhere, some really great science can be done. But it does take ingenuity, imagination, planning and quite a bit of risk, in the process.

The alternative is to study in a populous (or popular) area, where much of the groundwork has already been laid.  The aquatic floral and faunal communities around most of the big cities have been described for more than a century.  So, you are unlikely to discover a new species or even describe a new distribution. But that has its advantages, because you can test hypotheses knowing that there are good populations of the model organism available.  In the brave new world of 3-year PhD’s, certainty helps to take the anxiety out of your studies, although it does diminish some of the enjoyment, I think.

Of course, in most of this discussion I am referring to animals and plants, whereas if you are turned on by riverine bacteria, fungi or viruses, then there are no doubt major discoveries to be made even in the most studied city-based river systems. One more caveat: I have found that even in those river systems which have been studied a lot and for many decades, it still surprises me how little we know of the biology and ecology of even common organisms.  Take Australian freshwater fish, for example. Of the 256 species in Australia, what percentage would you guess we could safely say that we know really basic biological information about, such as the number and size of eggs they produce and the maximum length to which they grow?  Actually it is only about 20% of species! There is still a lot to learn about even relatively common species, including ones that are large and taste good.

Who should I choose to supervise my PhD?

Now, this has varying levels of difficulty. The short answer is to think about what you want to work on and search for who is publishing in this area. 

Say it is turtles.  You just love turtles.  The quickest route to finding someone is to search on Google Scholar (or some other reputable scholarly search engine) for who is researching AND publishing in that field. If they are publishing in that field, it means that they are ACTIVE in that field.  They are not just talking the talk; they are walking the walk.  So, go on Google Scholar and search “river turtles Australia”.  You will get lots of hits, so limit yourself to 2008 and later, so that you get those people who are currently publishing in this area.  Sometimes the first author is a recently graduated PhD or Honours student and they won’t be in a position to supervise a project. Their publications list will usually be relatively short. But if there seem to be quite a few papers written by this person and when you track them down, you find that they have a good track record in this area and work at a university, then they may very well be a good person to contact.

In some ways, that is the easy bit.  You have found your turtle expert, but will they make a good supervisor? Sometimes brilliant researchers make unexceptional supervisors.  They may be fantastic scientists, but have terrible inter-personal skills.  You may be OK with the brilliant but arrogant or disinterested supervisor type, but they can be hard to work with.  The only way you can really tell is to go and work with them.

But there are a couple of ways to get some inkling of what they are like.  Firstly, see how long it takes them to get back to you if you email them with an enquiry.  They might be away doing field work and not get back to you for a few days, but if they never reply or they take a couple of weeks without apologising, then that is not good.  If they reply pretty quickly and are friendly and informative, then that is a good sign.  The other thing you can do is to try and contact one of their current or former PhD students.  This is not going behind their backs, in my opinion. A supervisor will be interested in your background and may ask for academic references.  When you apply for a scholarship, the university certainly will. So, why should you not be interested in your supervisor’s background.  After all, you will be seeing a lot of them over the next few years and the relationship is unlike any other.  If you have done Honours, you’ll have an idea what it is like.  But a PhD student and supervisor are together for longer. And personality issues for 9 months are one thing; personality issues for 3-4 years are another matter entirely. 

I always recommend that prospective students talk to my current students.  They are the best judge of what I, as a supervisor, am like. As a supervisor, it is not always pleasant to hear what your students say about you, but I’d prefer that they are honest and tell future students what they are in for. They can also give advice like: “His bark is worse than his bite” or “The first couple of months can seem hard, but it is worth persevering”.

When you meet your prospective supervisor, be prepared with relevant questions – some practical and others more philosophical.  Questions like: will I have a desk/computer/shelving etc allocated to me in the department?  Are there operating funds available for my project above the normal provided by the university? (Operating funds are usually tied to the scholarship, but your supervisor may have access to extra funds.)  What are the labs like?  Will I have access to the sorts of equipment (e.g. microscopes, boats, centrifuges) that I might need? Is there help with field work from other students or staff if I need it? Is there someone I can talk to about experimental design and statistics (that is, if your supervisor is not great at these…and many are not)?

It is also worthile finding out how your supervisor views PhD students.  Does he/she see them as poorly paid research assistants who carry out projects already largely designed, or does he/she see them as independent trainee researchers who are to be guided in the process of formulating their own project.  Of course, too much independence can be as bad as none.  A happy medium (no, not a jolly clairvoyant!) is the best option.

Almost finally, shop around.  Like buying a car, there will always been several models out there that could suit you. And definitely finally, start your search early and be patient. It is an important decision – one of THE most important you will make in your life, academic or otherwisee – so take your time over it. Good luck!

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.

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