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Where are they now?

Taking on a PhD commands a huge commitment from students to produce a large and complex body of work examining a unique idea. Lizzie Thelwell speaks to four ECU graduates whose theses have taken them in some surprising directions.

Picture this: you’ve toiled for two, three, possibly more years researching and writing up your PhD thesis on a chosen topic. It’s been the focus of your life. You graduate, armed with a doctorate in a specialised area of research to take into your career.

What that career looks like might appear obvious. But while some graduates continue in their area of expertise, some go on to a career far removed from their research discipline. Others combine both. All, however, share a common thread: their PhD has equipped them with the research, communication and self‑discipline skills to excel, whatever the field may be.

Professor Joe Luca, Dean of ECU’s Graduate Research School, says the skills PhD graduates acquire are powerful and attractive to industry, community and government sectors.

“PhD graduates have the ability to think critically, problem-solve and produce original solutions to problems,” he says.

Luca emphasises the importance of PhD students acquiring broad, transferable skills in the course of their studies, in addition to expertise in their chosen research areas.

So what doors can a PhD open?

Member for Cowan, Dr Anne Aly MP

Dr Anne Aly MP

Then: Media constructions of terrorism and the other, 2008
Now: Member for Cowan

Personal cause makes for meaningful work

Dr Anne Aly has turned her passion for understanding terrorism into a successful career as a parliamentarian and internationally recognised expert on the subject.

“There are not many opportunities in life to work in an area that is also meaningful to you,” she says.

“As a mum, a migrant, a policymaker and a Muslim, I felt it was important for me to try to understand.”

So, with an English literature degree, postgraduate language studies and a Master’s in Education already in hand, Aly embarked on a PhD thesis to look more deeply at perceptions and media constructions of terrorism.

She completed her PhD in two‑and-a-half years and started publishing in her first year.

“Don’t wait until you’ve finished your PhD; start collaborating and publishing as soon as you can,” she advises.

Aly says her doctorate was the foundation for her career as an academic and the springboard for being awarded three Australian Research Council grants.

It has led her to working with the United Nations on developing programs and policies on national security and counter-terrorism, and being invited to Obama’s White House to talk about violent extremism.

“My PhD enabled me to build on my existing skills; I explored my writing more and learned a lot about networking and collaborating with others,” Aly says.

“In the same way, as the Labor member for the seat of Cowan, I listen to the stories of my community members so that I can be a responsive and effective member of parliament.”

Professor Andrew Woodward

Professor Andrew Woodward

Then: The use of proline and abscisic acid as a determinant of salt tolerance in Eucalyptus species and clones, 2004
Now: Cyber security researcher and Executive Dean, School of Science, ECU

From plants to computers

The two majors of Professor Andrew Woodward’s undergraduate degree led him on very different paths – one to complete a PhD in plant biology and the other to a career as an academic in cyber security and Executive Dean of the School of Science at ECU.

Continuing his studies in biology, Woodward’s PhD thesis topic explored the relationship between a single amino acid called proline and salt levels in eucalypts.

Unfortunately, his scholarship ended, so he turned to his major in computer science to gain part-time work in a computer laboratory while he finished his thesis.

“This was the late 1990s in the dot com boom – a time when, if you could turn on a computer, you had a job,” he says.

“Part-time turned into full-time, I became a research support engineer and worked my way up through academia.”

Woodward says although his PhD was in a different discipline, it provided him with useful skills that have shaped his career.

“A PhD certainly ticks a box that you need to take on a leadership role, helping you to problem-solve and look at issues strategically,” he says.

“It teaches you how to manage yourself in an unstructured environment – there are no contact hours or people telling you what to do (most of the time).

“It didn’t, however, prepare me for the politics of working in academia – that is something you need to learn on the job!”

Woodward now has a job that he loves, in which he spends time promoting his school internationally, learning about new cultures and continuing to contribute his expertise to the current body of knowledge in cyber security.

Associate Professor Elin Gray

Associate Professor Elin Gray

Then: Characterization of neutralizing antibody epitopes on HIV-1 Subtype C envelope glycoproteins to support vaccine design, 2008
Now: Cancer Research Trust and Cancer Council WA Fellow at the School of Medical and Health Sciences, ECU

Serving the local community

Associate Professor Elin Gray says her PhD project on HIV enabled her to conduct research relevant to her local community.

After working in HIV clinical trials in South Africa, she completed a PhD to help develop a vaccine for HIV.

“We aimed to understand the body’s first immune response to the virus and how it evolves,” she explains.

“The work is still ongoing, but it was fantastic to be a part of a large, dynamic international collaboration.”

Three years later, Gray moved to Perth to apply her expertise to melanoma research, focusing on the characterisation of blood markers for diagnosis and treatment.

“I debated whether to continue my work on HIV, but it’s not the hot topic here that it is in South Africa,” she says. “Melanoma research is very relevant to the Australian population, so I feel like I am doing something useful for my immediate community.

“It’s very rewarding.”

Technical skills from Gray’s PhD have been directly transferable to her current research.

“Both my PhD and melanoma research require the analysis of single cells. The topic of the work may change, but you can apply your methodologies to whatever you are working on,” she says.

Her PhD also gave her confidence in her expertise and the ability to engage with collaborators and peers: “It enabled me to think critically and seek the opinions of other researchers,” she says.

Gray now has nine PhD students working under her supervision who are using this research to help treat other cancers such as lung and ovarian cancers.

Dr James Brooks

Dr James Brooks

Then: Cognitive fatigue: Exploring the relationship between the fatigue effect and action video-game experience, 2015
Now: Human Factors Scientist for the Australian Government’s Department of Defence, Defence Science and Technology Group, Melbourne

Transferable skills

Dr James Brooks is putting the skills he acquired doing a PhD thesis about video games to good use in his role as a Human Factors Scientist at the Department of Defence.

Brooks completed his PhD at the age of 25, but before it was even finished he moved to Melbourne to start his new job.

“Although I hadn’t quite finished my PhD, the Department was interested in the skills I had developed whilst undertaking it,” he says.

“The role fit perfectly with my interests.”

His PhD thesis explored how playing action video games affects players’ performance and whether they experienced the same cognitive fatigue as non-gamers.

For the PhD, it was all about what the video games looked like, but now he designs the interfaces that soldiers might use in the future.

“We incorporate psychological and physiological factors into the design of systems that are easy to use, reduce errors and improve performance,” Brooks says.

While studying a Bachelor of Arts (Honours), he realised it was the research component he really enjoyed.

“The PhD was something that I really wanted to do,” he says.

“It taught me how to examine large volumes of literature and to think analytically.

“This directly correlates to what I do at work now.” Brooks says the main difference between doing his PhD and his current work is the opportunity to work closely with others from different backgrounds.

“During the PhD I was often working in isolation, but now I am part of a diverse team of scientists and Defence personnel that shares knowledge to identify and plug gaps in our research,” he says.


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