Success Stories

Yvette Roe
Doctor of Philosophy Graduate
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Roianne West
Doctor of Philosophy Graduate
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Graeme Gower
Doctor of Philosophy Graduate
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Cass Hunter
Doctor of Philosophy Graduate
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Malcolm Connolly
Master of Philosophy Graduate
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Gawaian Bodkin-Andrews
Doctor of Philosophy Graduate
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Chelsea Bond
Doctor of Philosophy Graduate
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Yvette Roe
Doctor of Philosophy Graduate

Can you tell me about your experiences as a Research Higher Degree (RHD) student?

I can look at it now and look at it with a smile.  But I think it was an assortment of experiences which has made me more focused through the learning.  There were some really hard bits along the journey, for example, problem solving and learning and developing skill.  There were also emotional and the family issues along the journey.  The relationship with supervisors is critical. Would I do it again?  With what I know now, yes, I’d do it again.

What was your pathway into a Research Higher Degree?

I went from high school, I had a gap year.  I then went to do my undergraduate in UNE at Armidale, and then I worked for 16 years.  Then I did a Masters of Public Health at JCU, and moved to Adelaide to take up a PhD scholarship at University of South Australia, Adelaide.  I had always wanted to do a PhD.  I didn’t know what it involved, so for me it was the stuff about – I’ve always enjoyed learning and I have always seen my role in whatever I’ve taken as a translator of knowledge.  From very technical policy knowledge to be a conduit and a translator to community.

What support mechanisms or aspects of university life have contributed to you completing a Research Higher Degree?

I’ve been really fortunate that I’ve had a whole range of people travel the journey with me. I also sought out key advisors, key supporters and a network of encouragers.  I was fortunate enough to be included in a cohort of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander HDR students.  I was sharing the journey with a whole bunch of other Aboriginal and Torres Islander colleagues that were doing their studies.  Being a mature aged student helped.  I sought advice, I had some people around – I mean there’s moments where you actually lose complete confidence of yourself and you’ve got people around you who will just support you – encourage you.

What advice would you suggest for current Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students contemplating a Research Higher Degree?

Sometimes studying is the easiest thing, the thing that will trip you up is actually life.  Relationships, family, finance, things like that.  You’ve got to have good people around you, and you’ve got to drive this process. When I graduated, it was the most humbling experience because it’s actually a community of people that get you through it.  I felt very honoured that people had stood by me, that I’d drawn people into my life that supported me.  Now I have a responsibility to pay it forward to someone else.  So yeah, I guess for me I stand on the shoulders of giants that have walked before me and I’m very much aware of that.  I am also reminded that for me research is a form of activism.

Roianne West
Doctor of Philosophy Graduate

Director, First Peoples Health Unit, Griffith University

Can you tell me about your experiences as a Research Higher Degree (RHD) student?

I was working as an Aboriginal nursing academic, doing a PhD on Aboriginal nursing in Australia. I was part of an NHMRC Building Indigenous Research Capacity Building (BIRC) grant and it really was as a consequence of that program and the cohort model in particular other  having other Murris going through and normalising some of what you were going through. I wanted to pick a topic that was going to make a different and it wasn’t going to be a PhD that no one looked at. When you get all of those ingredients right, you’re in a job where you’re working on your PhD, you know that the outcomes of your PhD are going to align, you know that it’s meeting some of the priorities of the organisationsand the community  that you’re straddling, if you can get all of that stuff right you’re sitting very pretty.

What was your pathway into a Research Higher Degree?

I started as a junior academic that year, doing a PhD was a right of passage, you have to do it if you want to maintain your job within the university. I had a Masters by course work and then I started in the masters of nursing research prior to upgrading to a PhD. In hindsight what I’d do differently is I would do research before I went into my PhD because it made my job a lot harder. In saying that, I finished my PhD in two years and 10 months with three kids working mostly full time.  It was very busy, and not the way, Id recommend to anyone.  Undertaking a PhD is a privilege and an honour and doing it that way I did didn’t allow for me to appreciate that nor the learning that comes with a PhD.  I’m supervising students now and I try to ensure the lessons learnt through my PhD influence my supervision and students PhD journeys.

What support mechanisms or aspects of  university life have contributed to you completing a Research Higher Degree?

It really was as a consequence of that NHMRC program and the cohort model and having other Murris going through and normalising some of what you were going through. But also we had a post-doc fellow that was like the mentor who just followed you up consistently about your work. So I finished my masters under that program and started finished my PhD all as part of the NHMRC Building Indigenous Research Capacity Building grant. Network opportunities twice a year where we met, and they were sort of like your check-in points. The beginning of the year they’d re-focus you on your PhD, then you’d come back together at the end and re-focus you again, and there were writers’ retreat in between. We had a writers retreat every year, they were amazing. I had no Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members on my supervisory team, all non-Indigenous people content experts in their respective areas.  They were involved in the NHMRC grant in some capacity so they were getting their cultural capacity built through that mechanism which helped to take some of that responsibility off me to a degree

What advice would you suggest for current Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students contemplating a Research Higher Degree?

Choosing a topic that aligns with your work and passion.  Would also highly recommend prior research experience and/or as your undertaking Higher Degree by Research (HDR) studies ie. concurrent course work in research.  Selection of your principle and co-principle supervisors is also important to your success including Indigenous and Non-Indigenous expertise to ensure your work is positioned strongly in both environments. The support of you family, friends and colleagues is also as important. Seek out opportunities to network with other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander HDR students.

Graeme Gower
Doctor of Philosophy Graduate

Senior Research Fellow, School of Education, Edith Cowan Institute for Education Research, Edith Cowan University

Can you tell me about your experiences as an Research Higher Degree student?

I was one of those students that took quite a long time to complete my PhD. It ran over 10 years but I did the PhD whilst in full time work and that certainly took its toll. I found that in the last two years, I actually completed most of the thesis itself. So by that time, after the eighth year some of the previous chapters that I’d written became out of date or dated. So I had to delete a couple of chapters and change some of the research questions to make the thesis relevant, and up to date.

The other thing that I encountered was the passing of my co-supervisor in the seventh year of the study. That brought my studies to halt for a short while but the replacement supervisor actually played a major role in getting things restarted and back on track. He was more of a strategist in planning and mapping out things the way that they should be, and how they should happen.

It wasn’t until the second co-supervisor took over that it really made things a lot clearer to me. That really brought me back on track, plus the pressure to complete it. So, those pressures plus an internal desire to complete the thesis really stoked things up again for me.

What was your pathway into a Research Higher Degree?

I did a course work Masters with a research component before enrolling in the PhD. Prior to that I did postgraduate studies in educational administration, a Bachelor of Education, and my initial degree, the Diploma of Teaching.

I finished my Masters in ’99 and I didn’t submit the proposal for the PhD until 2004. So there was almost a five year break there. My supervisor for my Masters said, Graeme it’s time for you to get started on a PhD. We were working on this research project entitled “Teaching strategies for Aboriginal children with conductive hearing loss” and he said, why don’t you base your thesis on this study? Virtually that’s what I did in the end. So it was really motivation through being involved as a researcher and encouragement from my Master’s supervisor.

What support mechanisms or aspects of university life have contributed to you completing a Research Higher Degree?

There was no group of Indigenous researchers doing their PhDs or Masters as such, but the Faculty organised regular sessions where all PhD students could come in and talk about their thesis, and discuss any issues or milestones reached. I didn’t bother going to any of those, to be honest. I spent most of my time meeting with my two supervisors, to discuss how things should happen and the progress that I had made. So I mainly worked through my supervisors rather than accessing any external Faculty support. They were there if I needed them.

I got a lot of support from the Dean of the Faculty. In the last year she really urged me to put my efforts into completing it, and so did the previous Dean. She said, well I’m happy to give you a 50 per cent reduction in teaching load or two days a week to work on the thesis and that was very helpful. I think without it I would have really struggled to meet the deadline. So from an administrative aspect, certainly the Dean herself gave me lots of support.

Also a former colleague struggled through the PhD himself and managed to complete it and personally I thought, well if he can do it, certainly I should be able to do it as well. My supervisors said the same thing. I just said, well I’ve really got to put my mind to it and find time for it. That really, again sparked motivation within and the desire to finish it; just knowing that other people had done it.

What advice would you suggest for current Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students contemplating a Research Higher Degree?

Pick your supervisors carefully; the ones that will want to spend time helping you with your studies, in good times and in bad. I was lucky. With all my three supervisors, they were on campus and located, only two or three doors away from my own office. So I had ready access to my supervisors, and I think that’s important. Sometimes when you work on your own, you get stagnant and/or lose direction. I think getting two good supervisors who are willing to spend time with you, and dedicate time with you is important. Working full time is difficult. You really need 50 per cent study time each week, to really complete a thesis. So having the support from the Dean, especially if you are working full time, is certainly a big blessing.

Cass Hunter
Doctor of Philosophy Graduate

Indigenous Social Ecological Researcher, Coastal Development and Management Program, CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere

Can you tell me about your experiences as an Research Higher Degree student?

Completing a PhD was a big challenge but at the same time my skills grew immensely. I had such personal growth as I was pushed out of my comfort zone.

What was your pathway into a Research Higher Degree?

My path to a Research Higher Degree was through an Honours program. I did not rush into doing a PhD and spent a year after the Honours year mapping out a project and reflecting on the requirements for undertaking a PhD. After assessing the pro’s and con’s of doing a PhD, I decided to take on the learning adventure attached to a higher research degree. I moved interstate (Queensland to Tasmania) for supervision reasons as I thought being surrounded by experienced researchers was a critical component of a PhD.

What support mechanisms or aspects of university life have contributed to you completing a Research Higher Degree?

My support mechanisms involved supervision from experienced researchers, interactions with other PhD students, advice and reassurance from my mentors, and support from my partner and family. Listening to the journey of other PhD students through sharing an office was valuable as I realised doubt and concern was a part of the journey. I was not based at a university during my PhD studies so university life did not contribute to my completion. I was based off campus in order to be located at marine research laboratories. This meant I overlooked the potential support from a University system.

What advice would you suggest for current Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students contemplating a Research Higher Degree?

My advice is do not rush into doing a Research Higher Degree and try to increase preparedness through self-reflection and scoping. Self-reflection includes assessing: “what is the motivation for doing a Research Higher Degree?”; “what is plan B if plan A isn’t going according to plan?”; and “what are the personal sacrifices for undertaking a Research Higher Degree?”. Scoping questions includes assessing: “what is the availability and experience of supervisors?”; “can the project be completed in the allocated time?” and “is the Research Higher Degree likely to take you on your desired long-term career path?”. Better preparation and ownership of the project design is more likely to set the project off on the right foot and put you in the driver’s seat for overcoming future hurdles.

Malcolm Connolly
Master of Philosophy Graduate

Doctor of Philosophy student, Charles Perkins Scholarship recipient

Can you tell me about your experiences as an Research Higher Degree student?

This has truly been on of the best things I’ve done in my life. The postgraduate experience provides you with many skills that are beyond your initial expectations. While I completed my Masters of Philosophy part-time and this has been a personal and professional achievement, I must say that I recommend to others to avoid part-time study at this level. It’s just way too hard as I felt as though that I didn’t get the best out of myself. You need more time to focus on the job at hand. My Masters of Philosophy focused on sustainable commercial harvesting of spinifex for Aboriginal communities in north-west Queensland. I thoroughly enjoyed this experience. Now I’m exploring the possibility of a PhD at University of Cambridge, UK. I would never have thought when I started my undergraduate degree that I would be in this situation many years later.

What was your pathway into a Research Higher Degree?

I commenced university in ’97 and graduated at the end of ’99. Following this I had a year break and then completed my BA Honours at The University of Queensland. I finished my Honours in 2003 and then it was another five years before I enquired about undertaking a Masters of Philosophy. I decided to do the Masters because I wanted to improve myself professionally and personally. I felt as though just having an Honours degree wasn’t good enough in the job market and academically. I didn’t seem to be competitive enough with other people who had higher degrees.

What support mechanisms or aspects of university life have contributed to you completing a Research Higher Degree?

I found that it is important to develop a strong relationship with your postgraduate supervisors as they can point you in the right direction (so to speak) and provide guide you through the research process. You also need to discuss your ideas and problems with others so it is essential to talk to other PhD graduates and other postgraduate students throughout your study, even if they are not from your discipline or area of study. Having deadlines are important as it makes you focus on the job in front of you. The university provided this support by setting these deadlines and making sure you stay on track to completing your thesis.

What advice would you suggest for current Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students contemplating a Research Higher Degree?

If you have the opportunity in uni breaks to go and work with other researchers – like go on archaeological digs or go on a research program with somebody who’s doing their PhD or their Masters – then take that opportunity. Or even go work in the field that you’re interested in as a volunteer. I’m a very practical person so I think getting as much practical experience as you can is important. While it might seem unimportant at that undergraduate stage if you’re serious about doing postgraduate research I think that would be very helpful to understand what other researchers do and the amount of work that goes into doing these higher degrees.

Photo credit: Barry Skipsey, Desert Express Photography

Gawaian Bodkin-Andrews
Doctor of Philosophy Graduate

Associate Professor, Centre for the Advancement of Indigenous Knowledges, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, University of Technology Sydney

Can you tell me about your experiences as an Research Higher Degree student?

I started my PhD back in 2003 as a full time student. Early on there was a fair bit of struggle in that I didn’t have a scholarship and after the first year I came very, very close to quitting due to just financial difficulties.  It was hard to find work and study at the same time but my supervisors were very supportive there which was really good.  Eventually came through with an ARC grant that paid a stipend as part of it, which was very helpful.

What was your pathway into a Research Higher Degree?

I did a Bachelor of Arts at University of Western Sydney (UWS).  I majored in psychology and sociology and then there was probably about a year of not really knowing what to do and then eventually decided to do my Honours in psychology after I became aware of some of the anti‑racism research within social psychology.  I went through my Honours, burnt out as part of the process.  I just found it a little bit too intense for me. I was working for Native Title Services as what you would call a notifications officer but gradually became a little bit despondent with that simply because I wasn’t in a position to help the Traditional Custodians as much at all. I was more or less giving a lot of bad news stories to the communities.

I ended up applying for a job at what was then called the SELF Research Centre at UWS, which was basically an administration position. Didn’t get the job, but a couple of months after that I got a letter from Rhonda Craven saying ‘I don’t know how you slipped through our fingers’ but could you do a PhD with us?  That’s how I got into my PhD, a lot of luck there.

What support mechanisms or aspects of  university life have contributed to you completing a Research Higher Degree?

Intellectual support was good at the time but it was very much driven by the supervisors’ epistemologies and so forth, very quantitatively driven as well. Financial and personal support I thought was absolutely excellent.  I can say I would not have finished my PhD without the support of my supervisor. The financial support was absolutely critical.  I was simply not able to survive otherwise during my PhD. So the more opportunities universities provide to Indigenous students in terms of financial support obviously the better the outcomes will be for that university’s Indigenous representation.

What advice would you suggest for current Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students contemplating a Research Higher Degree?

Go for it. Don’t get coaxed into a project that your supervisor wants you to do.  It is what you’re passionate about. This is the most important issue. Don’t get coaxed into a methodology or method that your supervisor wants you to do.  Make sure that you are comfortable to learn about the processes you want to pursue within the PhD, but most importantly make sure you’re passionate and comfortable about what you want to research.

Chelsea Bond
Doctor of Philosophy Graduate

Senior Lecturer, The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit, The University of Queensland

Can you tell me about your experiences as an Research Higher Degree student?

It was actually quite isolating. I think it is isolating to do a PhD anyway but being an Indigenous PhD student I was even more isolated. Within my school I was on the margins in terms of the research that I was doing, as well as just being the one black person in that school doing a PhD. When I was studying, the school that I was enrolled through was going through a restructure and during that time the Indigenous health unit, which I was part of, was pretty much demolished. So both of my supervisors moved to other institutions. They continued to supervise me unofficially and it was through their generosity that I had some consistency, but it was really very isolating. I didn’t really get to go to many of the postgrad things, because they weren’t supportive spaces for me.

It was isolating from that perspective then it’s also isolating because I didn’t have anyone of my family or my community who understood the journey I was going through. I didn’t have friends or people in my social network that could read things for me, or talk through what I was going through, or reflect on how hard it is to be a writer. So it was isolating from both sides.

I started in 2003 and at that time there wasn’t the critical mass of Indigenous Research Higher Degree students that we’re seeing now. I spin out now going to forums and you see a room full of people who are doing their PhDs. The increase in numbers has been in more recent years. I finished in 2007 and even then, there were maybe 100 in the country that had done their PhD. I think it’s been since that time until now that there’s been a more significant increase. I say to students now through going, there are so many opportunities to support Indigenous postgrad students. It’s so awesome. You can actually go to things where there are other black people doing PhDs. I didn’t have that when I was doing mine. I met a couple, but they were interstate. That was by chance and us initiating a relationship, as opposed to there being a formalised gathering where we could come together. The only one thing I did go to in the final year was the first the summer school at The University of Melbourne.

What was your pathway into a Research Higher Degree?

So I did an undergraduate degree and then I went out to work because I had a scholarship where I had to do bonded rural service. While I was doing my bonded rural service, one of the lecturers who taught me during undergrad nagged me to do Honours. He saw something in me. So I was able to do Honours while I was working out in a rural community as a health worker. I incorporated that into my work. So officially I was working full time while studying full time. I made it part of my work. I did a couple of years of research work back with UQ for a while and the same person who pushed me to Honours said, you really should think about doing a PhD. I sort of decided to go ahead and do it because I was planning to have children and I thought that I could do that and continue to study.

I didn’t realise what I was getting myself in for. I just had my eldest son and he was just about to turn one. The same person who was supervising me in Honours, then supervised me in my PhD. It was basically his encouragement because I had no idea what honours was, or PhD or any of that stuff. I didn’t have any aspirations to be an academic.

What support mechanisms or aspects of university life have contributed to you completing a Research Higher Degree?

Exposure to research as an undergraduate student helped me get a sense of what that is and developed my confidence, that I actually knew I had skills in that area. Then I had supportive relationships that encouraged me. There are so many opportunities to support Indigenous postgrad students now. It is so awesome.

What advice would you suggest for current Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students contemplating a Research Higher Degree?

I strongly encourage people to pursue a Masters, Honours and PhD. It is hard but I think it’s worth pursuing. I think it’s becoming easier these days because there is that critical mass and there are structural organisations that help support Indigenous students. I also encourage them that it’s okay if they don’t intend on being an academic. There are other research pathways. When I finished my PhD, I didn’t become an university-based academic as such. I worked in project work and health service research, while I had a small family. I eventually secured a full-time academic position some years later. So for me it’s just really about encouraging students just to go on a journey. It keeps doors open in ways that you might not anticipate at the time when you are doing it. I also encourage undergraduate students thinking about doing a Research Higher Degree to think about their own identity in this journey. In terms of whether they see themselves as an Indigenous person who happens to be doing research or whether they’re an Indigenous person who does research and their Indigeneity informs their research agenda and methodological approach.

Photo credit: Lyndon Mechielsen, The Australian