Mathilde Merridale Punter began her PhD in veterinary science at the University of Melbourne in 2021
“My partner was relocated to Australia, which is why I started looking for PhDs here. We previously lived in London. It was all quite daunting because I wasn’t familiar with Australian universities at all, though I was slightly protected in that the NGO I was working for as a vet advisor in London were happy for me to continue working for them remotely, so that gave me a layer of safety, if you like, of knowing that even if things didn’t work out with my plans to do a PhD at least I still had a job!
“I didn’t apply for an existing project opening. My PhD came about through my contacting people that work in the same area that I work in and asking whether any of them would be interested in creating a PhD position for me.
“I had a very firm idea of the topic I wanted to research, and of several possibilities within that, but I didn’t have an exact project or an exact research question in mind when I first approached them, so we built the project together. That was really the most daunting thing for me. I didn’t know how any of this worked; the concept of applying with an independent proposal rather than joining an existing group was very alien. But it is possible to apply with a top-level proposal, a skeleton proposal, and then dedicate the first few months of your PhD to building that, putting some flesh on the bones.
“What I wanted to research was exactly the area that I had been working in for my NGO, and the academics that I had contacted at Melbourne also had practical, on-the-ground experience with this sort of work. We put together a case for why it was so worth doing research in this area, and that’s what I used to apply for the PhD position.
“If I am honest, I think it is probably far easier to apply for an existing, pre-packaged PhD position than to apply with an independent proposal as I did – like applying for a job rather than creating one! It was a lot of work. But I don’t regret it at all, because the big advantage of doing it this way is that I get to do exactly what I want. I was able to design my own project, from a blank canvas, which is a privilege. By contrast, since being at the University I’ve spoken to a lot of PhDs who say that they wouldn’t necessarily have chosen their exact area of research, but it was what was available in their area of interest at the time.
“So my first step was to apply for a PhD position, which was relatively straightforward, particularly as I had lots of support from my supervisors. But that was only step 1, because that got me an offer with full international tuition fees attached. For me it just wasn’t an option to pay annual fees of $40,000-plus, so I was very dependant on getting a scholarship.
“The next stage was getting financial support. My area of research is working equids in low income countries, cart donkeys and cart horses in developing countries, which are a huge part of the economies there. It is in collaboration with the NGO that I worked for. Because it has some social significance, some development work, people were interested and so – step one and a half – I was awarded a fee exemption for my PhD. That made it into a possibility, so that felt like a huge step forward when that was confirmed. And then I was awarded a full scholarship by the University, which meant I got a living stipend as well. I consider myself very lucky to have received that.
“When you are applying for a PhD with a new idea it is very important to have a strong connection to your prospective supervisors. Now I am at the University I speak to people who would be potential supervisors and they are contacted all the time, they get constant approaches from people asking whether they have anything available. So you really have to stand out in that process, make sure you bring detail, don’t just randomly contact someone by chance. Busy academics are only human, they’ll respond to someone who really captures their attention. Perhaps because you bring something of value, which is what I think happened in my case. It was my connection to industry – I had been working at the NGO for some time – which gave me a really privileged insight into this sector. There are not many people researching into this area, even in an academic setting it’s hard to get access to it. But I worked for an NGO that had a lot of people on the ground, had access to a lot of data and information that would be useful, and that was my USP. It’s important to be able to pitch your case to the University on why you doing your PhD will bring value to them.
“The first stage of the PhD was fun, but still daunting. Looking back now, I knew nothing about research and how this would work. I didn’t know whether people would tell me what to do, if they would guide me, what to expect at all really! In a PhD, you teach yourself to be a researcher and the supervisors are really there to make sure you don’t stray too far from the path. So you have to look for things yourself, to learn for yourself, and they guide you and give you resources. You come up with ideas, and then discuss your findings with your supervisors. A PhD is a journey of you becoming a researcher, of learning those skills. They direct you to resources; they help you build to the questions you should be asking, but you still have to ask and answer those questions yourself. So the first part of my PhD was trying to get to grips with all of that, essentially.
“I work mostly in isolation, though the nature of my project involves collaboration with people on the ground for the NGO, so I talk to them a lot. But within the University I work by myself, which is why it is very important to create relationships in other ways – to talk to peers, other postgrad students, find people that you can relate to and can chat with about some of the common challenges and difficulties that you come across as researchers, regardless of topic. There are resources that are well established here – like the Postgraduate Student Association and so forth – so there is a lot of support for students at the University. So many groups and communities – something to fit any sort of person or interest – and so many emails constantly circulating offering social groups, sports groups, activities of all kinds. I think it is easy to build networks. Melbourne is a wonderful, melting-pot city.
“My top tip? Always, absolutely, ask your question. I think we are all so intimidated by this big world of academia where everyone is a professor of this or a doctor of that, but there are so many different support networks and so many people who have the same question that you have. No one really knows what they are doing as a PhD student, at least at first! So always ask, don’t be intimidated. Ask for support because people are always happy to point you in the right direction.”