The three of us: Pauline McGuirk, Gordon Waitt & Hilton Penfold

Behind every great PhD candidate is a great supervisor (or two)

The University of Wollongong (UOW) has so many high achieving PhD students, working towards solving real world problems. Behind every great PhD candidate is a great supervisor (or two). We hear from both to understand their perspective of the postgraduate journey.

Hilton is a PhD student interested in understanding the multiple factors that influence how and why tiny house dwellers source, consume and dispose of water, energy and food. His supervisors are Senior Professor Gordon Waitt and Senior Professor Pauline McGuirk, both from UOW's Australian Centre for Culture, Environment, Society and Space. 

Meet the supervisors:  Senior Professor Gordon Waitt & Senior Professor Pauline McGuirk

Can you explain your area of expertise?

Gordon: My expertise lies in better understanding everyday behaviours. Rather than thinking of behaviour as attributable to an individual, my work revolves around thinking about what we do as inherently spatial. This means paying attention to not only politics and economics, but also the material, the cultural and the embodied. Understanding everyday behaviours has never been more important in a context of our changing climate, international migration, congested cities and increasing energy costs. I am interested in very mundane practices like cycling, driving cars, laundry, showering, keeping warm/cool and the refrigeration of food. Yet, these everyday practices shed crucial insights to the challenges and dilemmas of transitioning to a more sustainable society.

Pauline: I am an urban political geographer. My work revolves around how we govern cities; that is, how we coordinate and manage them. This has changed from being focused on government to involving lots of different types of actors (from the private and community sectors) and multiple kinds of practices (from regulation, to markets, to collaboration, and to persuasion). This makes urban governance a geographical question, in that we organise the governance of different kinds of urban issues through different kinds of spaces and scales. As the geographies and practices of governance change so does its politics and power relations. So I’m interested in understanding too how different forms of urban governance has different implications for urban places, communities and power.

How did you find yourself where you are now professionally?

Gordon: My journey began in Edinburgh, Scotland. I always excelled at geography at both school and university. In 1989, I migrated to Australia to take up a lecturing position in geography. Supported by colleagues, my professional journey is full of opportunities to teach, supervise, mentor, research and participate in university governance. No two days of the journey are the same. My journey is one full of both the challenges and rewards of working in a university that celebrates the achievements of staff in all the dimensions of being an academic.

Pauline: I’ve always been interested in questions of social justice and how these are reflected in the spatial, social and political organization of cities. Urban Geography was the ideal discipline for me. After being awarded my PhD in Dublin, I gained a lecturing position in Australia and after building my research experience and expertise, I became Director of a research centre. Over the years, I’ve collaborated with colleagues and learned that thinking together really helps us push our understandings further.

In 2016 I brought everything I’ve learned about my research area, research collaboration and research leadership to the University of Wollongong where I know direct the Australia Centre for Culture, Environment, Society and Space (ACCESS). Here I have a terrific platform from which I can continue to work collaboratively to think about contemporary urban challenges and how we might address them, and to guide the Centre’s research and our commitment to understanding the changes and conditions needed to craft more just and sustainable futures for people and places.

What makes a great PhD candidate?

Gordon: Passion. Dedication. Independence. Collegiality. Problem solving. Writing. Humour. Flexibility. Time Management

Pauline: A love of learning and an interest in ideas; a willingness to ask questions and contribute to shaping the answers; the combination of an independent mind and a sense of collegiality; a capacity to organise thinking and a willingness to learn to write (as academics we are always learning to write, and to write better); the capacity to work constructively with critique; and recognition that completing a PhD is at least as much perspiration as inspiration: a willingness to work dedicatedly is essential. 

How do you guide candidates on their journey?

Gordon: Five principles to help direct a PhD candidate through the journey: planning, meetings, professional development; research training; flexibility and difference.

  • Planning. Goals, Timelines. and Outcomes.

  • Meetings. Regular schedule of meetings

  • Professional development through attendance of conference, workshops, professional development opportunities

  • Research Training – Remaining mindful that a PhD is a research training

  • Flexibility and Difference – Celebrating the diversity of doing a PhD. That, each PhD is different, and celebrating the fact that achieving the goals of a PhD can be demonstrated through a variety of pathways.

Pauline: I take a one-on-one approach, working carefully with my students to develop the questions they are pursuing and to help them draw together the kinds of theory and methods they need to explore those questions. I try to build both their sense of independence and their understanding that, in scholarly work, we build knowledge together, drawing on what’s gone before and on the ideas and conversations we have with our colleagues and our research subjects. In human geography, we tend to use writing to work through our ideas to identify problems or let new ways to thinking about existing problems come to the surface. So I make my students write early and often. I don’t hide from being critical of their work (constructively!) but I also aim to make them confident that they have me to rely on to help them work through the inevitable sticking points.

What should candidates consider when finding a supervisor?


  • The theoretical approach of the supervisor.

  • The contribution of the supervisor to the field.

  • The personality of the supervisor.

  • The research context within which the supervisor is working.

  • How many students a supervisor is supervising.

  • How frequently the supervisor will meet with a student.

  • How do supervisors prefer to meet with a PhD candidate.

  • Are you becoming part of a collegial team?

  • How does your proposed project resonate with the supervisor’s field of expertise. 

Pauline: The student should seek out a supervisor where there’s a broad alignment in expertise and in the broad approach to the project. So talk to a few prospective supervisors, read their work, learn about how they think. Try to have a conversation (in person or by skype) to see how they ‘do’ supervision and what their expectations are. This will help you learn about the research environment and what your day-to-day experience would be like. And talk to other students about the research environment and the other kinds of collegial support that are available. Ideally you’ll find a supportive environment and a supervisor you can communicate with easily.

Meet the candidate: Hilton Penfold

Can you give a description of the topic or question you are investigating?

In my PhD research, I am undertaking qualitative research to better understand how people are living in tiny houses. Tiny houses are relatively small, low-density dwellings, such as shipping container homes and tiny house-on-wheels (THOW), which have been popularised by social media and lifestyle television programs. Specifically, I am interested in understanding the multiple factors that influence how and why tiny house dwellers source, consume and dispose of water, energy and food.

How did you select your research topic? Where does your interest in this field stem from?

My PhD topic was inspired by the research that I conducted during my honours research year in collaboration with the Jerrinja Aboriginal community at Orient Point, NSW. The project sought to understand what home means to elderly Jerrinja people, with the aim of incorporating Jerrinja meanings of home into the co-designing of tiny houses. The development of co-designed tiny houses sought to facilitate the return of Jerrinja elders to Country at Orient Point. After my honours year I still had a number of unresolved questions regarding how people are living and consuming resources in tiny houses. I decided to submit a research proposal and then later to build my own tiny house in order to experience tiny house living first hand.

How did you find your supervisor?

Gordon and Pauline were my honours supervisors. During honours, we worked very well together so I knew that they would provide me with the criticism and positive motivation that I would need throughout my PhD candidature. In preparation for honours, I began speaking to a number of human geography students and staff members at a social barbeque hosted by HUGS (Human Geography Society) about my interest in undertaking research with a focus on Indigenous Australian culture and environmental sustainability. While speaking with Gordon at the barbeque, he mentioned that he had recently been contacted about an exciting collaborative project focusing on co-designing eco tiny houses with the Jerrinja Aboriginal community at Orient Point, NSW. Gordon suggested that the expertise of Pauline would suit the research focus.

How do you think your research can change the world?

My research findings suggest that tiny houses simultaneously provide opportunities for socio-economically disadvantaged groups to ‘upsize’ and for socio-economically advantaged groups to ‘downsize’. Tiny houses are currently providing opportunities for Australians from various socio-economic contexts to reduce their household bills, avoid rental dependency, and avoid getting a mortgage. These financial savings are providing opportunities for people to spend more time and money on implementing household sustainability measures. I believe that if tiny houses are built, used and regulated effectively they stand to create positive social and environmental changes in the world.

What advice would you give someone considering doing postgraduate studies?

I would offer three pieces of advice: First, find what motivates you. I am fortunate that my personal interest in the topic of tiny houses motivates me. However, there are still times when I lose motivation. At these times, it is important to remember that you are not expected to be motivated 365 days in the year. Pace yourself. Balance the exciting stuff with the mundane stuff. Second, find what works for you. Test the advice that other people give you and then decide if it works for you. I analyse my performance on daily basis and consider why I work better and worse in different settings. I am also cautious of my own emotional state and how this can improve and impede my performance. Third, find a sense of belonging. It is easy to get lost in your research and lose a sense of belonging and community. I have found that spending time socialising other HDR colleagues fills me with a sense of belonging and gets me excited about doing my own research. Listening to podcasts about science also provides me with a sense of belonging to a global research community.

  • SENIOR PROFESSOR GORDON WAITT: To find out more about Gordon, visit his Scholars profile.
  • SENIOR PROFESSOR PAULINE MCGUIRK: To find out more about Pauline visit her Scholars profile
  • HILTON PENFOLD: To find out more about Hilton, take a look at his profile on the ACCESS web page.
  • AUSTRALIAN CENTRE FOR CULTURE, ENVIRONMENT, SOCIETY & SPACE (ACCESS): To view more of the projects being worked on at ACCESS take a look at their website