This post is part of a series on what goes into getting a PhD around the world. In this post, Larissa Sayuri Moreira Sugai discusses getting a PhD in Brazil.

Where are you getting your PhD?

Installing automated acoustic recorders to monitor acoustically active anurans in Pantanal. Photo credit; Raul Costa-Pereira.
Larissa installing automated acoustic recorders to monitor acoustically active anurans in Pantanal. Photo credit; Raul Costa-Pereira.

I am pursuing my Ph.D. in Ecology and Biodiversity at Universidade Estadual Paulista (UNESP), Rio Claro-SP. My research is supervised by Dr. Tadeu Siqueira and co-advised by Dr. Thiago S. F. Silva – University of Stirling and Dr. Diego Llusia – Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. I was granted a Ph.D. scholarship from the scientific funding agency of São Paulo state (FAPESP) and also received a Rufford Foundation small grant for nature conservation, both of which enabled me to develop my Ph.D. research project.

Previously, I obtained a master’s degree in ecology and a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences at Universidade Federal de Mato Grosso do Sul, located at Campo Grande-MS. This is also the city I was born in and the region I had studied the most, which includes our Cerrado (savanna) and Pantanal (wetlands) biomes.

How long does a typical PhD take in Brazil?

Usually four years, with some places allowing an extension for one more year. Most candidates finish within four years. Along with the thesis, students also have to attain a Ph.D. qualifying exam, undertake compulsory modules in ecology-related topics and a teaching internship on undergrad classes. When funding is provided, candidates can spend a period doing an internship abroad. I took advantage of this opportunity to spend one year along with Dr. Llusia at UAM in Madrid.

Tell us about the process of completing your degree (e.g. must you sit in front of a panel? Is it a formal defense or more casual? Is your thesis examined by reviewers?). How “important” or “weighted” is your defense for your graduation?

The thesis defense seems more a formality than a notorious chapter of the Ph.D. candidate here. We don’t have honor levels attributed to the thesis defense, so your maximum achievement is to become another Brazilian PhD. Most defenses in ecology require a presentation to a general public and the panel (not all of the panel necessarily attend the presentation), followed by a debate based on the thesis document that has been previously sent to the panel. Each member of the panel have their own evaluation criteria, but overall it reminds me of the peer-review process. It sure is challenging to judge four years of exclusive dedication to research and all that can come with that. Thus, this peer-review format usually provides valuable guidance to improve the quality of the thesis. Especially when the committee identifies and generates discussions on topical issues without generating embarrassment – is there ever a need for that?–. Candidates can receive either an approval or a conditional approval upon working on the proposed changes before delivering a final version.

Finally, as our defenses are public, family and friends are usually present. And they are often shocked and “get lost” in the technical presentations that are often aimed towards the panel. Because the discussion relies on the document (thesis) already evaluated by the panel, perhaps we should start delivering plain and public-driven presentations aimed to those other than the committee, because those from the public that attend dedicated some of their valuable time to be there.

Tell us about your research.

I investigate how species interactions, mediated by acoustic communication, influence the organization of biological communities. In a broad context, I’m interested in assessing the role of ecological and evolutionary processes acting on the assembly of communities. While the debate of using ecological pattern to infer processes on communities is now pervasive in community ecology (especially in community phylogenetics), most of the work on signaling communities have assumed acoustic space to reflect selection against signal degradation. But selection likely acted under past and different ecological conditions, and the current patterns may actually reflect ecological mechanisms acting on the persistence or exclusion of species.

Anuran foam nests floating on a pond. Photo credit Larissa: S. M. Sugai
Anuran foam nests floating on a pond. Photo credit Larissa: S. M. Sugai

Therefore, I investigated tropical anuran communities within the Pantanal, the largest tropical wetland worldwide. Starting from dusk, you can find large aggregations of individuals from different species all signaling together, which is a super exciting system to investigate! To do so, I used acoustic monitoring to register species incidence and remote sensing techniques to characterize habitat heterogeneity. I used bioacoustics methods to summarize communities based on information extracted from species’ advertisement calls, and phylogenetic information to represent evolutionary history.

I found that the acoustic space of communities was highly similar, but along communities, it had a negative relationship with phylogenetic relatedness. These findings suggest the acoustic space to reflect strategies for public information use, and for anurans, this means benefiting from the use of non-intended information from ecologically different species to increase environmental awareness (e.g. predation risk). These findings open avenues for understanding how social interactions influence ecological communities, which have long been dazzled by the prevalence of approaches on the consequences of negative interactions.

During the journey of conducting my research, I became enthusiastic with the broad scope provided by acoustic monitoring. I have long been interested in remote sensing since I dug into it during my master’s (resulting paper here). It so happens that acoustic monitoring is another remote sensing technique, based on sound waves instead electromagnetic ones. For the future, I would like to continue contributing to integrative research on ecological multi-species systems using these technologies.

Aside from research, what else are you expected to do as part of your PhD?

You are expected to improve your intellectual maturity and little by little become more independent in your own research. This includes delineating your research line, creating a professional network, and making collaborations.

What are some challenges you’d like to share associated with obtaining your PhD where you are located?

A contextual glimpse: The postgrad course I’m enrolled in was inaugurated in 2013, coinciding with a series of prospective lecturers joining the university and, specifically, the ecology department (amongst, Dr. Siqueira and Dr. Silva). Postgraduate programs provided by public institutes are financed by the government and at that time, whenever you enrolled in a public postgraduate program, it was quite common to receive a scholarship provided by our governmental scientific funding agencies (CAPES, CNPq, and Finep). In the bigger picture, postgraduate programs in Brazil were financially thriving by a series of investments for graduate and research consolidation, precisely between 2007 to 2014. We officially dove in the economic crisis in 2014.

In a nutshell, things got worse (2015-Dilma Rousssef’s impeachment), worse (Michel Temer’s presidency 2016-2018), and worst (Bolsonaros’ turn 2019-?). Science is not currently thriving in Brazil. The chronic series of budget cuts, including postgraduate scholarship suspensions, drove postgraduate programs into crisis. Many lecturers and researchers moved abroad or joined structured universities where they strive less to do science (a reverse source-sink dynamic), and there were no calls to fill these positions, nor others from retiring professors. Back in 2015, myself and other 15 fellows enrolled in the doctoral postgrad course at Unesp-Rio Claro. This year, only one candidate enrolled.

Back in 2015, myself and other 15 fellows enrolled in the doctoral postgrad course at Unesp-Rio Claro. This year, only one candidate enrolled.

Watching the system gradually fall apart can give you a grim outlook as a Ph.D. candidate. Calls for a university’s ecology chairs are becoming increasingly scarce and highly competitive. Theoretically, we should strive to obtain post-doctoral fellowships, but their availability may be undermined by a series of embargos by the ministry of education. Perhaps we should try a chance abroad, but the majority of people are loosely prepared in foreign languages, especially to face such a highly competitive market. The challenges are endless, but we need to keep sanity at safe levels to prepare the best of ourselves for such times.

What do you like about your PhD and the PhD process?

Being advised by people with different backgrounds was a nice experience to navigate in distinct theoretical and methodological approaches to survey ecological communities. It also made me push myself harder to assemble meaningful pieces into a consistent research proposal. This process helped me become more autonomous and critical compared to what I used to be in the beginning as a Ph.D. student.

A concerning issue is that from the perspective of the candidate, you are expected to achieve standards and deliver results irrespective of your background. Perhaps postgrad staff sometimes fail to account for variation in social, cultural, and intellectual experiences of candidates along with their development as a Ph.D., which is largely unbalanced across and within regions of Brazil. On the other hand, advisors are increasingly overloaded by teaching and administrative tasks since our educational system started to overlook the maintenance of universities, and mentoring can be negatively affected (see Dr. Silva’s opinion on doing science in Brazil). This unhealthy atmosphere for science on both sides triggers a snowball effect, and how embedded a candidate is on the snowball largely reflects the quality of the thesis.

What are you working on now?

Currently I’m writing my thesis and preparing resulting papers for submission. I was able to publish a review on passive acoustic monitoring in terrestrial environments and a perspective on the value of acoustic recordings as registers of the ongoing biodiversity crisis. I still have six more months to go.

Why did you want to get a PhD, what are you hoping to do with it, and what did you not realise going in?

A pond within the Barranco Alto farm, located in the Nhecolândia region of Pantanal. Photo credit Larissa S.M. Sugai.
A pond within the Barranco Alto farm, located in the Nhecolândia region of Pantanal. Photo credit Larissa S.M. Sugai.

I wanted to get a Ph.D. so I could do ecological research and sharpen my research interests. Looking back, I’m happy to see what I have been able to do and to have perspective for the future, even with the issues mentioned earlier. Before enrolling in the course, I didn’t realize how stagnant and bureaucratic administrative processes truly can be, hindering your ability to do research. Experiences were related to receiving an international grant, importing some devices, and keeping up with discussions from the postgrad board.

My goal is to obtain a teaching/research position in a good public university in Brazil with a postgraduate program in ecology. Meanwhile, I’ll apply for post-docs and keep on discovering what ecological communities can tell us and tracking habitats to assess impacts from environmental changes.


More about postgrad endeavors in Brazil:

Dr. José Alexandre F. Diniz Filho’s blog

Dr. Marco Mello’s blog  


You can follow Larissa on Twitter (@sadjuri) and her website (https://lsmsugai.weebly.com/).