Plan B: COVID-19 challenges for field-based PhD students

8 12 2020

Originally published on the

Blistering heat, pouring rain, finding volunteers, submitting field-trip forms, forgetting equipment, data sheets blowing away in the wind — a field-based research project is hard at the best of times. Add white sharks into the mix and you start to question whether this project is even possible. These were some of my realisations when I started my Honours year studying shark deterrents. 

A specific memory from my first field expedition was setting off on a six-day boat trip with the comfortable sight of land getting smaller and smaller, in an already rough ocean, to find one of the most feared fish in the sea, the white shark. I was intimidated, but also excited. 

Over the next few days reality set in and I experienced the true challenges of working in the field. When there were no sharks around, I had to concentrate on the bait line for hours in anticipation of a sudden ambush. When there were sharks around, it was all systems go and there was no room for error — not with a fish of this size. It didn’t matter how tired or seasick I was, the data had to be collected. 

When I found out that I had been offered a field-based PhD extending my shark-deterrent research from my Honours, other than being over-the-moon, I knew I had a big few years ahead of me. I immediately began preparing mentally for the challenges that came along with my field-based research. Particularly the long periods of time I knew I would spend away from home and my family. 

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10 things I wish I knew before doing an Honours degree

19 08 2019



In 2018 I started my Honours degree in biodiversity and conservation at Flinders University. I had completed my Bachelor of Science in 2017, after being accepted in the Honours stream through my Year 12 Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR).

I will not sugar-coat it — I was a bad Bachelor student. I scarcely attended classes and at times submitted sub-par work. I believed that as long as I didn’t fail anything I would still be able to do my Honours, so I did the bare minimum and just got by. However in the last semester I discovered I needed an average GPA of 5.0 to secure my Honours position, regardless of what stream I was doing. Panic ensued, I was already too deep in my final semester of not achieving to pull my grades around. Thankfully, I was eventually accepted, after having to plead my case with the Honours board.

In the end I managed to score myself a First Class Honours and a PhD candidature (and hopefully soon a publication). Honours was definitely a struggle, but it was also one of the best experiences of my life. I just wish I had known these 10 things before I started …

1. You will fail

Not the brightest note to start on, but don’t fear, everyone fails. Honours is full of ups and downs, and at some point, somewhere along the line, something in your project will go wrong. But it’s okay! It happens to every person that has ever done an Honours or a PhD. Whether the failing is small or catastrophic, remember this happens all the time.

More importantly your supervisor or co-ordinator sees it all the time. The best thing to do is tell your supervisor and your co-ordinator early on. It may be a simple case of steering your research in a slightly new direction, changing the scope of your project, or even taking some extra time. It’s okay to fail, just keep pushing. Read the rest of this entry »

How to contact a potential PhD supervisor

1 04 2015

It’s probably fair to say that most university-based academics regularly receive requests from people around the world wishing to be considered as prospective postgraduate students (mostly PhD). I probably receive an average of 3-4 such requests per week via e-mail, as do many of my collaborators. Unfortunately for those making the inquiry, I trash most of them almost immediately.

It’s not that I’m a (complete) bastard; rather, it seems that few of these people have given very much thought to their requests, or how they might be perceived. Indeed, I’d say that about 90% of them are one-liners that go something like this:

Dear Professor,

I wish to write you to seek for supervision towards PhD degree. If you not intersted, assist me to get other supervisor.


Yes, with all the bad English, impoliteness and lack of any detail, these types of requests get deleted even before I get to the close. One recent e-mail even addressed me as “Dear Sir Hubert Wilkins …”. Sometimes, you really must wonder how some people have enough common sense even to turn on the computer.

I’m not naïve enough to think that most of these are serious requests for supervision; indeed, many of them seem to be desperate cries for help to assist people to quit their country of origin, for reasons that have nothing to do with academic pursuits.

So for those people who are genuinely seeking academic supervision, and in a vain attempt to stem the number of pointless e-mails I receive (yeah, right), I offer some tips on how to contact a potential PhD supervisor: Read the rest of this entry »

Write English well? Help get published someone who doesn’t

27 01 2015

imagesI’ve written before about how sometimes I can feel a little exasperated by what seems to be a constant barrage of bad English from some of my co-authors. No, I’m not focussing solely on students, or even native English speakers for that matter. In fact, one of the best (English) science writers with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working is a Spaniard (he also happens to write particularly well in Castellano). He was also fairly high up on the command-of-English ladder when he started out as my PhD student. So. There.

In other words, just because you grew up speaking the Queen’s doesn’t automatically guarantee that you’ll bust a phrase as easily as Shakespeare, Tolkien, Gould or Flannery; in fact, it might put you at a decided disadvantage compared to your English-as-a-second- (-third-, -fourth-, -fifth- …) language peers because they avoided learning all those terrible habits you picked up as you grunted your way through adolescence. Being forced to learn the grammar of another language often tends to make you grasp that of your mother tongue a little better.

So regardless of your background, if you’ve managed to beat the odds and know in your heart that you are in fact a good writer of science in English (you know who you are), I think you have a moral duty to help out those who still struggle with it. I’m not referring necessarily to the inevitable corrections you’ll make to your co-authors’ prose when drafting manuscripts1. I am instead talking about going out of your way to help someone who really, really needs it. Read the rest of this entry »

Student opportunities with Australian Wildlife Conservancy

8 09 2010

A colleague of mine, Dr. Matt Hayward of the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC), asked me to circulate some Honours, MSc and PhD student project opportunities. I thought this would be best done by publishing the call as a blog post.

The AWC is a non-government, non-profit organisation dedicated to the conservation of Australia’s wildlife and their habitats. AWC’s south-east region has a team of 7 ecologists who work closely with the land managers to carry out AWC’s Conservation and Science Program. The Science Program includes strategic research designed to help us manage threatened species more effectively. Several of these research projects are suitable for Honours, Masters or PhD projects.

This prospectus provides an outline of the student projects that are currently on offer in the south-east region. The majority of the projects are based on one sanctuary, although some aspects of the research may be done on other AWC sanctuaries and/or government conservation areas.

AWC will partially support these projects with equipment, staff time and expertise, and accommodation. In some cases, AWC may also provide some vehicle use and office facilities onsite at The Scotia Field Research Centre. We anticipate these projects will be collaborative efforts with input from students, academics and AWC staff, with appropriate acknowledgement for all involved. These projects are offered on a first in, first approved basis and have been offered to multiple universities.

More details on the sanctuaries and AWC are available here. If you are keen do one of these projects, please contact Matt Hayward and we will then formulate a research proposal and research agreement. Eight project descriptions follow. Read the rest of this entry »