PhD stories: Carrie Wilkinson

Vulnerabilities and adaptive capacities of households that are self-sufficient for water in a changing climate

The University of Wollongong (UOW) has so many high achieving PhD students, working towards solving real world problems. Each month we will meet one and hear their story

Carrie Wilkinson's doctoral research focuses on the practices and experiences of households that are self-sufficient for water in regional New South Wales. She aims to better understand the vulnerabilities and adaptive capacities of households that are self-sufficient for water in a changing climate

Year you commenced in HDR study?


Year you were awarded Doctorate (or plan to be)?

I plan to submit early-2020

Working Title of Thesis?

Saving Water for a Rainy Day: living with rainwater tanks and tank water in a changing climate

Please give a broad description of the topic or question you investigated as part of your research

My doctoral research focuses on the practices and experiences of households that are self-sufficient for water in regional New South Wales, Australia. Specifically, I am interested in residents’ engagements with the materiality of non-mains water sources and infrastructure, namely the rainwater tank and rainwater. By taking seriously the vitality of water and rainwater tanks I want to better understand the vulnerabilities and adaptive capacities of households that are self-sufficient for water in a changing climate, and extend these lessons to other contexts (such as cities), given the extremes of drought and flood we are currently experiencing and which are expected to increase pressure on water supplies world-wide now and in future.

Can you provide some background on how you came to HDR research?

I completed a Bachelor of Science--co-majoring in Human Geography and Indigenous Studies--at UOW in 2013. This included an honours project where I examined the geographies of bird-watching by interviewing and going on walk-along interviews (i.e. bushwalks) with people who watch birds as leisure practice. I left Wollongong at the start of 2014 having already secured a graduate position in Canberra. About two months in I was offered a six-week research contract at UOW on the back of some research work I had assisted with as an undergrad and so, for a myriad of reasons, I jumped at the chance and found myself back in Wollongong. The six-week contract turned into a year and when the work finished at the end of 2014 one of my honours supervisors convinced me to enrol in a PhD. 4 years later I’m still here!

How did you and/or your approach change over that time (how you imagined it would be when you began, how it actually is, and what your view is now)?

When I started out, I was focused on finishing in 3 – 3.5 years. But that ended up being an unrealistic goal for me. It’s definitely become more of a marathon for me, not a sprint, which took some adjusting to mentally. But I’m happy now taking “the slow road”. Everyone’s journey is totally different, and it’s been such a privilege to be able to pursue other interests and opportunities, such as sessional tutoring, being a research assistant, volunteering and pursing other work interests outside of UOW that, alongside my PhD, both complement and broaden my research and career interests.

What were some highlights of your HDR study?

I can’t get enough of being out of the office – the opportunity to travel within Australia, and overseas, for PhD fieldwork and research assistant work, for conferences and seminars, where I get to present my research findings and network with others, has been a hugely rewarding experience. It’s not exactly your conventional office!

What were the lowlights?

It can very easy to overcommit to things - one session I ended up committing to too big of a tutoring workload whilst also doing research assistant work on top of my normal casual work days off-campus. Trying to juggle all of that plus putting in the hours on my PhD… everything kind of fell in a heap and I reached total burn out. I’d like to say that I learnt my lesson but I still find it hard to keep a balance. I love working on my PhD but I also love tutoring and research and it’s hard not to say yes to every opportunity.

Describe the most important things for PhD study (e.g. supervisor support / library resources / peer support / holidays)?

The support of my peers is a massively important aspect of what keeps me going in my PhD study. They’re the ones who are there, working alongside you day in day out. Even though we are all pursuing totally different research projects and career aspirations, we’re all working towards a common goal and just knowing that whatever highs or lows your feeling at the moment, they’re riding that rollercoaster right alongside you, really helps to keep everything in perspective. Weekly sessions at Unibar help as well!

I also think that I am really fortunate that within my School (the School of Geography and Sustainable Communities) we have such a fantastic culture of community and support. I’m really lucky; my wonderful supervisors are just down the corridor and I am surrounded by the most generous community of academics and post-docs, teaching, research and admin staff who are always up for an impromptu corridor- or tea-room chat. I couldn’t do it without them.

What advice do you (or would you give) to those considering HDR study or currently studying?

My advice would be that as an undergrad or HDR student take any opportunity you can get to assist with a research project. It gives you a fantastic insight into how research is done, by allowing you to work alongside an academic at UOW and/or stakeholders in the wider community. Just thinking about undergrad study, within the School of Geography we offer directed studies projects and research internships, as well as an international fieldwork intensive subject, all of which count towards your degree. Internships and international fieldwork experiences were not on offer when I was an undergrad (how I envy students coming through today!), but I’d say that my experience working as a research assistant was formative in my decision to pursue and continue with HDR study.

How do you think your research can change the world?

I don’t know if my research “can change the world” perse but I certainly hope that it will prompt a conversation in Australian water governance that shifts the current focus away from big infrastructure and top-down approaches to water (in)security. Desalination, water pricing and demand management are by no means the only, nor the most effective, strategies for meeting domestic water demand. Living with small-scale water infrastructure, like rainwater tanks, can radically shift how we live with and consume water in Australia. Self-sufficiency for water necessitates an ongoing and active engagement with water and the wider environment and I believe that my research shows that communities and towns, certainly, and even cities, could be transformed by citizens who are taking the lead towards more engaged and sustainable water use.


ACCESS: For more about ACCESS (Australian Centre for Culture, Environment, Society and Space) Click here

THE STAND: Carrie also features in The Stand View here