This post is part of a series on what goes into getting a PhD around the world. In this post, Max Mallen-Cooper talks about getting a PhD in Australia.

Where are you getting your PhD?

Max Mallen-Cooper. Photo by Alan Kwok
Max Mallen-Cooper. Photo by Alan Kwok

I’m doing my PhD in the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences (BEES) at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. It’s one of those departments where most people know each other and there are lots of nice social events to ease the mental strain, like communal morning tea every Thursday. I do have mixed feelings about the open plan layout of the office space; on one hand you end up having some nice chats with friends nearby, but it can be quite distracting for people who are sensitive to noise.

How long does a typical PhD take in Australia?

The typical PhD in Australia is supposed to take 3 years, and the salary is usually provided by the government. Students can get an extension of 6 months on top of the 3 years, but then the salary is cut off. In reality, lots of people take about 4 years to complete the PhD and end up in this incredibly stressful period of writing and working casually on the side.

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?

At the end of each year, I present my findings from that year to the School and meet privately with a panel of my supervisors and two other academics. There is no thesis defense once the PhD is submitted, it’s just reviewed by two external reviewers in the field – domestic or international – in a similar manner to peer review. You then respond to the comments, but often these don’t go back to the reviewers and it’s actually your university that decides if you’ve addressed them adequately. It’s the night of the submission, not the conferral, that we tend to celebrate, typically at a local pub.

Max looking at ground close-up. Photo by Alan Kwok
Max looking at ground close-up. Photo by Alan Kwok

Tell us about your research.

We all know that climate change is causing a massive upheaval of ecosystem composition and functioning. Species are shifting in space, retreating to refugia, flowering at different times, etc. One group of organisms that receives relatively little research attention is the cryptogams, such as dryland biocrusts or tundra lichen mats. These communities are a huge component of global nutrient cycles and affect things like soil stability and the movement of water through the landscape.

Many people select pre-determined PhD projects that already have grant support, but I was so excited about exploring climate change in biocrusts that I basically found supervisors who were interested and wrote my own proposal.

For my PhD, I’m trying to enhance our understanding of how dryland biocrusts respond to climate change using a species-specific, trait-based approach. I’ve always been interested in the ecology of global change, and once I chanced upon the wonderful model system that is the biological soil crust, it was an obvious choice for a PhD. Many people select pre-determined PhD projects that already have grant support, but I was so excited about exploring climate change in biocrusts that I basically found supervisors who were interested and wrote my own proposal.

I use transplantation, historical data and modelling approaches to predict the responses of biocrusts to future climate change and to determine the primary drivers of their current range limits. There is a large fieldwork component to my PhD. My transplant experiment spans a 650 km aridity gradient (every trip is 2500 km on the car odometer!), and I have historical resurvey sites scattered across a 1200 x 650 km2 area of drylands in south-eastern Australia.

Max in the field. Photo by Dony Indiarto
Max in the field. Photo by Dony Indiarto

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

There are no requirements beyond the research at my institution. Teaching is recommended for the sake of experience but is by no means mandatory. I’ve only taught sporadically, such as a course field trip or a single lecture, because I have an intensive fieldwork schedule that never allows me to commit to a full semester of teaching. I’m planning to teach more in my fourth year when my field experiments are completed.

Are there any particular challenges with getting your PhD where you are?

Because I wrote my own project, it had no funding at the start. I wrote about 10 small grant applications in my first year, but they took about 6-12 months to process, and I needed to install my long-term experiments early. Therefore, there was some initial financial strain where I was using my personal savings to pay for research costs, but luckily I ended up getting most of the money back in grants.

Early in the PhD, I also found it difficult to manage my time between research and touring with my brass band, Hot Potato Band. I used to do 5 days of research, then play gigs on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, and then go back to the university on Monday, completely exhausted. It was almost like leading two lives – the diurnal PhD life and the nocturnal musician life. Eventually, we got another trombonist in the band so we could share the gigs.

What do you like about your PhD and PhD process?

Max in the field. Photo by Alan Kwok
Max in the field. Photo by Alan Kwok

I’m still fascinated by the miniature world of biocrusts. This is probably an embarrassing admission, but sometimes when I’m looking at biocrusts under the microscope, I manoeuvre the samples so it looks like I’m the Millenium Falcon flying over an alien planet. And even though I find the organising stressful, I love going on field trips and being out in remote arid nature reserves.  I like that teaching is an optional extra, rather than a mandated quota of hours as part of the salary. I also like that there is a lot of flexibility in leave and holiday time, so I can choose when to tour with my band.

How do you do your PhD (study site, methods etc)?

I use transplantation, historical data and modelling approaches to predict the responses of biocrusts to future climate change and to determine the primary drivers of their current range limits. There is a large fieldwork component to my PhD. My transplant experiment spans a 650 km aridity gradient (every trip is 2500 km on the car odometer!), and I have historical resurvey sites scattered across a 1200 x 650 km2 area of drylands in south-eastern Australia.

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

I chose a PhD because I had been involved in several research projects during my undergraduate degree, either volunteering or leading, and found them very interesting. At this stage I would really like to continue in academia, but much like the contestants on the Bachelor, I’ve steeled myself for a likely eventual rejection.

Follow Max on twitter or read some of his published work here.

This post is part of a series on what goes into getting a PhD around the world