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Monthly Archives: January 2015

So you’re thinking of a PhD?

PhD application pic

Just finished some postgrad study and craving more research to sink your teeth into? Like the ring of ‘Doctor’ before your name, but a drop of blood makes you queasy? Then a PhD might be just right for you!

The Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) programme is the University’s highest level supervised research degree. We currently have over 1300 doctoral candidates studying at Otago, from both around New Zealand and overseas. Here are a few tips on how to get started with a PhD application.

Pre-requisite step:  You need to have put in some hard yards before applying – here’s the nitty gritty:

Every candidate must be a university graduate and produce evidence of ability to undertake research in the area of proposed study. Such evidence shall include:

i.  a Bachelor’s degree with first or upper second class Honours or equivalent (including a research component, e.g. a dissertation or a thesis); or

ii.  a Master’s degree (including an appropriate research component, e.g. a dissertation or a thesis); or

iii.  appropriate research experience (e.g. publications in academic journals, books, etc).

Got it? Cool – that will lead you nicely onto step one…

Step one: Find a supervisor!

Someone needs to be there with you on your research journey, to guide you, advise you, and support you; maybe even to provide you with coffee, chocolate, office space with a comfy chair conducive to napping in…

But in all seriousness, approaching a department and finding a supervisor with the right expertise, and that is able to supervise you, is the first necessary step. Keep in mind that this person will be your ‘colleague’ – we get regular feedback from completed PhD candidates that choosing the right supervisor off the bat is a crucial aspect of the PhD journey.

Step Two: The application process [Sidenote – you can totally apply at any time of the year – woo!]

a) If you’re a domestic student (‘Domestic’ includes Aussies; and international students who have previously studied at the Uni of Otago):

You will complete an online application form through eVision. You can access this from our website: http://www.otago.ac.nz/courses/qualifications/phd.html

After filling out the form, you will need to upload to eVision a research proposal, current CV, any academic transcripts for tertiary study undertaken outside of the University of Otago (we can get the Otago ones ourselves), and a Scholarship Application form – if you are applying for a University of Otago Doctoral Scholarship.

eVision then sends us your submitted application, and provided all the necessary documents are there, we will forward it on to your nominated department for them to complete their sections. Once it’s returned to us, we process it and flick it on to the meeting of the Graduate Research Committee to determine your fate… dun dun dunnnnn!

Check out this sweet flow chart for more detail: http://www.otago.ac.nz/research/graduate/otago084600.pdf

b) If you’re an international student (new to the Uni of Otago):

Once you’ve found that supervisor, contact the International Office (international.enquiries@otago.ac.nz), and they will work through the application process with you. Once they’ve done their bit, they send your application to us and as above, it goes to the GRC meeting for consideration.

Check out this just-as-cool flow chart for more detail: http://www.otago.ac.nz/research/graduate/otago084644.pdf

Step Three: The outcome

Technically you don’t need to do anything until we contact you – but bear with us, your application will be processed as quickly as possible. Sometimes we need to follow up on a few things, but rest assured, we’ll contact you as soon as we can with an outcome!

Other stuff:

Here are some helpful links to our website, where you can get more information on the process, and access other handy tidbits:

General PhD Information: http://www.otago.ac.nz/study/phd/index.html

More info on applying for the PhD: http://www.otago.ac.nz/study/phd/otago009275.html

The Doctoral Office is located in the Graduate Research School, on the Ground Floor of the Clocktower Building. If you have any questions, please feel free to email us at: phd@otago.ac.nz.

A Normal Decibel Conversation with the Thesis Whisperer

If you’re like me,* every so often you come across people in your line of work who you really feel like you should despise.  Not because they are rotters, but because they are just so thoroughly excellent at their job and in your wildest dreams you could never reach that level of excellence.  Not only are these rare beasts professionally stellar, they are hilarious and lovely to boot.  Ptchaw! 

Dr Inger Mewburn, aka the Thesis Whisperer, is one such person and it was my absolute pleasure to catch up with her when she visited Dunedin last year.  Inger presented a number or workshops for us and candidates who attended were gifted wisdom, realistic and helpful advice, and a bunch of laughs. 

Inger has an online presence that you should really check out and emulate; this is one time when it is most definitely a good idea to ‘use your eyes and plagiarise’**. Inger is innovative, insightful, engaged and helps thousands of thesis candidates across the world. 

Inger’s Blog, The Thesis Whisperer, is known as the go-to resource for research candidates and academics interested in research training.  Her work on Twitter is highly regarded and she provides many a moment of sanity for those being swept along by the crazy ride that is the thesis journey.  Not so shabby for someone living in the pornography capital of Australia***. 

I asked Inger the tough questions and here is a completely unauthorised, mostly true rendition of that conversation.

*Horrible    

**Style-wise I mean; for Pete’s sake, do not claim that you are the Director of Research Training at ANU. 

*** To be fair, she also lives in the actual capital of Australia and happens to work at an institution that is ranked 25th top University in the world.

Claire Gallop, Graduate Research School

 

Dr Inger Mewburn, Thesis Whisperer and thoroughly good-egg

Dr Inger Mewburn, Thesis Whisperer and thoroughly good-egg

What brought you to Dunedin?

The Graduate Research School!  I connected with Claire through Twitter and was invited to come to Dunedin.  I’ve been eating, running and working with interesting students. The workshops I’ve been running have been on exams, avoiding research mistakes and employability.

What’s the funniest story you have about an Airedale terrier?

It was a long time ago, let’s move on.

What do you think the main differences between NZ and Australian PhD candidates are?

New Zealanders are very reserved in a workshop situation; you think your jokes fall flat.  <Mine do!>  It is a little bit more difficult as an educator because the feedback is so much more reserved than in Australia. New Zealand students are also very modest.  I was running a writing bootcamp at Victoria and every 5000 words you get a squeezy Lego block to celebrate.  In Australia there is a lot of celebration when the students they reached these milestones but in New Zealand the students would mention it quietly and not want any fuss made about it. Being more reserved doesn’t change the fact that they are just as smart and interesting though.

Are there standard hurdles for all/most PhD candidates and if so, what can they do to minimise them?

People don’t recognize where they are up to or that ways of writing a thesis are different to what they did as an undergraduate.  You write multiple drafts, not one draft.  You make a mess and clean it up. It’s not a good idea to minimise these hurdles; it’s how you become an academic researcher.  We learn by doing but we think it’s wrong because it’s different and because it’s not talked about.

If you had limitless resources at your disposal, what support would you like to provide for thesis candidates?

Bootcamp.  This weekend we ran one at Victoria.  It is a 28 hour weekend programme that I call the Mother-in Law Treatment. When I was writing my thesis I went and stayed with my mother-in-law.  I handed her the child, locked myself in a room and she fed me.  This is what we do on Bootcamp.  We take away all the distractions and care for the students while they write. At this Bootcamp there were 22 people and they wrote 249,000 words between them.  The challenge is to write 20,000 words each and we teach a different approach to writing.  You learn to make a mess and clean it up. We have academic skills advisors, a yoga coach – we take a very holistic approach.  We also change the conversation from bonding over how awful writing is to celebrating our achievements. It is targeted at people who will not finish any other way; people who are over-time and are desperate.  <Hey, that’s me!>  It works, we’ve had 5 completions that we wouldn’t have otherwise had so it pays for itself several times over. It was developed at Melbourne University by Liam Connell and Peta Freestone and there’s a blogpost about it at the Thesis Whisperer.

What is the one thing you think PhD candidates need but don’t realise they need? Only one?? Most common problem is that they think they are a student still.  They are called candidate for a reason. There is lots of baggage that comes with being a student, particularly in their attitude to writing.  You need to write multiple drafts.  The student attitude to their supervisor is just to trust them but you need to realise they are a colleague and also a competitor – coopertition.

Would you like to fight one horse sized duck or one hundred duck-sized horses?

Hmmm, that’s a tough question.  Which poop smells worse, because I’m going to kick the s**t out of them?  Duck poop smells worse than horse poop, so I’m going with 100 duck-sized horses.

What’s your favourite sandwich?

The Bánh mì.  Mmm, the carrot, chicken, coriander.  Crunchy, sweet and sour- so tasty.

Australians like to steal our stuff (Split Enz, Phar Lap, Pavlova) –  would you like to take Whaleoil?

Only if you take Andrew Bolt.  Perhaps we could put them on an island and they could fight each other?

Brenda Shore Award – The Person Behind the Name

A number of scholarships are named after folk  who have very generously donated money to help students fulfill their academic dreams.  I always find it interesting to learn more about people who do this and in what I hope will be a regular feature here on the blog, this post looks at the person behind the named scholarship.  To learn more about the Brenda Shore Award  I caught up with Lorraine Issacs who helps with the selection process for the  Award and we also hear from students who have benefited from her generous bequeath.

brenda shoreMel:  Hi Lorraine, thank you for taking the time to provide us with some background to the Brenda Shore Award.  I guess the first question I have is, who was Brenda Shore?

Lorraine: Brenda Faulkner Shore, nee Slade, (1922-1993) earned a BSC from Otago University in 1944-45, majoring in Botany.  She was awarded an MSc and PhD, also in Botany, at Cambridge University in the early 1950’s and taught Botany at Otago until 1983, reaching the position of Associate Professor.  She was enthusiastic and enterprising, and over the course of 35 years became a prominent figure in the Botany Department  as a researcher and teacher.  In later life she added the ability to paint botanically accurate plants to her many accomplishments, and always championed higher education for women.

Mel:  The Brenda Shore Award is administered by the Otago Branch of the New Zealand Federation of Graduate Women.  Can you tell me a bit about the NZFGW and the connection to Brenda Shore?

Lorraine: NZFGW is an organisation of women graduates which aims to improve the status of women and girls, promote lifelong education and enable graduate women to use their expertise effectively.  It awards educational scholarships to deserving women:  Brenda Shore was the second holder of an NZFGW Fellowship which helped her attend Cambridge University.  She showed her gratitude to NZFGW by setting up the Brenda Shore Post-Graduate Research Trust to assist Masters’ and Doctoral research by Otago University women, the recipients to be chosen annually by a panel of NZFGW members.

Mel:  When you are assessing scholarship applications, who in your mind is the ideal applicant that you like to support through the Brenda Shore Award?

Lorraine:  Because of Brenda Shore’s own preferences and interest, we like to choose postgraduate applicants studying one of the natural sciences (eg. Botany, Zoology, Marine Science, Geography, Environment of Science, Ecology) and carrying out research in the Otago, Southland or Antarctic areas.  They also, of course, need to be passionate about their work, have the potential to add value to their society and be doing research to a very high standard.

Mel:  I know you have reviewed a number of applications over the years, what is one tip you would give someone who is applying for a scholarship?

Lorraine:  We ask applicants to tell us in 100 words about their life experience:  women who use those 100 words wisely to tell us about their experiences, skill and potential to be successful in their future endeavours will have more chance of winning a Brenda Shore Award.

Mel:  What is your favourite thing about being involved in the process of selecting a candidate for the Brenda Shore Award?

Lorraine:  It is wonderful to give away money to serving women scholars and know that the faith we have in them will spur them on in their higher education.  Since 2004 we have given 34 awards worth a total of $184, 000 – who wouldn’t be pleased about that!

Mel:  Last year the Brenda Shore Award was awarded to Kirsten Ward-Hartstonge and Natalie Howes.  I caught up with Kirsten and Natalie and asked them to explain what winning the Brenda Shore Award meant to them

Kirsten Ward-Hartstonge, PhD candidate,  Biochemistry: One of the aims of my Master’s project was to determine the phenotype of effector regulatory T cells in colorectal cancer. To do this I had to design a new flow cytometry panel using a large range of new antibodies. The Brenda Shore award allowed me to purchase a variety of antibodies I would not have been able to purchase otherwise, and I would not have been able to get such a thorough phenotype of my cells of interest.  This greatly benefited my project as I was able to get a more detailed insight into the cells of interest that I was looking at and to complete my research to the highest possible standard.

Natalie Howes, PhD, Food Science:  My PhD has a large component of field work that requires me to travel extensively. At the time of receiving the Brenda Shore Award I was travelling 400km per week to collect samples from a farm in Southland for a period of four months. The Brenda Shore Award assisted with the significant cost of this travel which would have otherwise been financially burdening. The scholarship also enabled me to purchase sampling equipment on a need-to-use basis. This was especially beneficial for my farm trials due to their relatively unpredictable nature.

The Brenda Shore Award closed on 28th of February.  For more details about this scholarship including application information please visit the Brenda Shore Award page on the University of Otago Scholarships website.

Happy New Year

We at the GRS Blog are quietly easing into 2015 and will be back on deck next week with an awesome post.

In the meantime if you want something to read,  check out the BBC 100 Things we didn’t know last year.  My personal favorite – Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are know as Curly Fu and Peanut in China.

Enjoy