The two of us: Michael Adams and Freya Croft

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 post graduate journey.

Freya Croft is a PhD student whose research aim is to better understand the interactions that people have on coral reefs and how these may or may not lead to conservation outcomes. Her supervisors are Associate Professor Michael Adams and Dr Jennifer Atchison (to be featured in a future article) both from Faculty of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities and the research group ACCESS (Australian Centre for Culture, Environment, Society and Space)

Meet the supervisor: Associate Professor Michael Adams

Can you explain your area of expertise?

I am a human geographer, and my primary interest is relationships between people and nature. I specifically focus in two areas: the practicalities of environmental governance and Indigenous rights; and the underpinning beliefs expressed as the human search for meaning.

My work ranges from examination of global environment and heritage governance to personal and auto-ethnographic analysis. Much of my work has been collaborative with Indigenous and other local communities, and conducted in partnership with other researchers, government agencies and NGOs in Australia, Sweden and India.

For the last ten years I have been particularly interested in our relationships with animals and oceans, stimulated by what I have learned from Indigenous teachers. I like to do full-immersion research: becoming actively and directly involved, completely embodied in the research material. While I have published extensively in conventional academic formats, it is writing in the environmental humanities and geo-humanities, as well as other creative writing that has significantly extended my research achievements and contributions. While that creative writing hopes to engage hearts and minds in discussing critical global and national issues, the governance work continues to help make practical changes in people’s daily lives.

How did you find yourself where you are now professionally?

It has been a pretty circuitous path actually! I have degrees in English Literature and Landscape Architecture and then a PhD in Geography, each separated by about ten years. I have worked for national parks, Indigenous organisations, and environmental NGOS (amongst others!), before arriving at UOW. Many of those jobs involved both practical and policy work with Indigenous people and environmental issues, so focusing my own PhD on relationships between Aboriginal people and national parks was an easy fit.

My first academic position was at UOW’s Woolyungah Indigenous Centre, which was a great opportunity to mentor Indigenous undergraduate and postgraduate students, while also learning lots more about local Indigenous communities. In one of our many restructures, I relocated to what is now the School of Geography and Sustainable Communities. I like Geography as a home, as a discipline it is very amenable to inter-disciplinarity and experimentation.

What makes a great PhD candidate?

I think you have to be pretty passionate about your topic, you are going to be living and breathing it for several years! It’s important to either already be, or be prepared to learn to become, a good writer – a PhD tells a story.

A PhD is pretty intensive so you need a capacity for hard work, but also the awareness to take care of yourself – the PhD is only part of your life! It’s good to be brave even when you don’t feel it, to say to your supervisors when you disagree, or when you feel lost and really need extra support.

Freya does not have an undergraduate geography background, she trained in history. That gives her many useful research skills but she needed to catch up on the geography side. She is really excellent at listening to feedback and incorporating it in her work, from field research to writing. The nature of our work means a lot of field-based activity, so it’s great to be comfortable with being outdoors and having practical skills – Freya is an ocean expert: scuba certification, lots of time on boats and in the sea!

How do you guide candidates on their journey?

We usually set up a program of regular face-to-face meetings, as well as ad hoc meetings when necessary. For remote fieldwork, which many of our students do, we have fairly detailed preparation meetings including risk assessment, emergency procedures and field techniques generally.

Supervision is a form of collaboration – supervisors learn from their ‘students’, as well as the other way around, so it’s good to have broadly compatible personalities. Most postgrads work extra jobs, and often get asked to contribute their expertise to the media or other areas. That is all good, but helping them manage their time, to protect the actual PhD time, is really important.

What should candidates consider when finding a supervisor?

I am personally in favour of there being a match on content knowledge, and in the supervisor’s broad intellectual approach. In addition to that I think you need to try and find out how available they are going to be – it’s pretty tough not getting to see your supervisor when you need to, or waiting months for feedback on drafts. Talk to more than one prospective supervisor, look at their research record, the other postgrads they have supervised. I think it’s important that the supervisor is committed to the student’s success, not that they see the student as just another asset to the supervisor’s career.

Meet the candidate: Freya Croft

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

My research aims to better understand the interactions that people have on coral reefs and how these may or may not lead to conservation outcomes.

I am specifically looking at the role of emotions in the experiences that people have while taking part on tourism activities on coral reefs. I am really interested in how these (often highly emotional) experiences (such as swimming with a whale shark or Humpback whale) can change people’s perspectives of coral reefs and their attitude toward the environment more broadly. I am really interested in the idea that these types of experiences can facilitate the uptake of pro-environmental behaviour in individuals. My case study was undertaken on Ningaloo Reef on the West Coast of Australia– which is an immensely beautiful and unique environment.

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

It took me a while to develop this research topic! I initially started my PhD in History and then transferred into the school of Geography as I felt that I wanted to look at more contemporary environmental issues. I came into Human Geography with an interest in ocean conservation and I was very keen to work on a project that looked at some aspect of this. I travelled to Ningaloo Reef with my family on a holiday not long after I began my PhD. I had an amazing time on this trip and fell in love with Ningaloo Reef. It is a really beautiful place that is home to an amazing array of marine animals

Following this experience, I sat down with Michael and Jenny and we decided that I should focus my research on something in this area. It took a lot of workshopping with my supervisors to construct and refine the topic and the associated research questions. I feel very lucky that I was able to conduct research in this area, as I spent three months doing fieldwork at Ningaloo Reef and had some incredible experiences (which included swimming with humpback whales – a long standing dream of mine).

My interest in this field has stemmed from an on-going love of the ocean and of being near water. I grew up going on family holidays to the beach and also to the Great Barrier Reef – which made me realise how beautiful and special coral reefs are. The urgency of issues currently facing the world’s coral reefs has also motivated me to do work in this field.

How did you find your supervisor?

I found my supervisors by chance! I emailed the head of Postgrad students in Human Geography, which at the time was Dr. Leah Gibbs, and expressed my interest in transferring into this school and starting a project that looked at human interactions with the ocean. She then got me in touch with Michael and Jenny, whose research interests both overlap with the research I was hoping to do.

Both Michael and Jenny have expertise in human-nature relationships and both have done a lot of work relating to marine environments. They both very kindly decided to take me on as a PhD candidate despite the fact that I had not studied Human Geography in the past. I feel incredibly lucky to have them as my supervisors. They both bring different perspectives and approaches to any research questions – which has helped to shape the way that I work.

How do you think your research can change the world?

The future of the world’s coral reefs is quite uncertain. Anthropogenic climate change is resulting in mass coral bleaching and pollution, which is significantly damaging reefs all around the world. However, reefs are so important to both natural ecosystems and to humans. We rely on reefs for food, for tourism revenue and to protect coastal communities from storm surges and flooding. They also act as an important breeding ground for marine animals and contain a highly disproportionate percentage of ocean biodiversity. Protecting reefs is therefore an incredibly important environmental challenge.

It is often easy to get bogged down in the immense and often seemingly insurmountable issues facing the world’s oceans (particularly the predicted fate of coral reefs) and sometimes it is hard to see solutions through this. But I believe that it is important to stay optimistic and to do as much as you can to shed light on any possible solutions and to help make people aware of the way their behaviour may influence conservation outcomes.

Social science and examining the way that humans interact with the environment is, in my opinion, such an important part of bringing about change. Humans caused these issues, and it is now up to us to try and do everything we can to mitigate or overcome them.

What advice would you give someone considering doing postgraduate studies?

I think that it is important to do something that you are passionate about. A PhD is a long slog – that is full of ups and downs – and it will be far easier if you are doing something that you care about and that will keep you motivated for 4 (or more) years!

Other than that, I would say that it is really important to try not to get too stressed or too lost in what you are doing. You have to try and maintain balance with the other aspects of your life. Sustaining social relationships and being able to relax will always help you work hard when that is needed.

I would also say that it is really important not to compare yourself to other PhD candidates. Everyone works in their own way and you have to really find what works for you. But make sure that you spend time getting to know your fellow HDR students and other staff members. Building strong connections with people will make your time at uni far more fun and a lot less stressful! Luckily the School of Geography and Sustainable Communities is a very social, inclusive and supportive school!

I also think it is really important to take time out. If it’s a sunny day go for a swim at the beach or go for a walk. I always feel much more motivated after doing this – and seem to find a lot more inspiration in the outside world then when I am sitting at a desk. It can be easy to get caught up in the stressful and hard aspects of doing a PhD but at the end of the day, it always helps to remember that this is such a unique opportunity – you work on something that you love at your own pace and get to dedicate a number of years to learning and thinking deeply about really interesting topics.

  • ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR MICHAEL ADAMS: To read more about A/Prof Michael Adams take a look at his Scholars Profile
  • DR JENNY ATCHISON: To read more about Dr Jenny Atchison, take a look at her Scholars profile
  • FREYA CROFT: To read more about Freya Croft take a look at her ACCESS profile
  • AUSTRALIAN CENTRE FOR CULTURE, ENVIRONMENT, SOCIETY AND SPACE (ACCESS): To read more about ACCESS, take a look at their webpage