A step into PhD-land / by Daniella Teixeira

I've taken the step into PhD-land, at long last. It has been many years at the back of my mind,  many years of contemplation. As quickly as I'd decide not to follow that path, I would question my choice. Back and forth, back and forth. Thinking about it was tiring! Out of necessity, I recently gave myself an ultimatum: now or never. I chose now, and here I am. A PhD candidate. It's a big step.

8 years ago I was a passion-fuelled honours student. I was, for the first time, guiding my own independent research (albeit with a lot help from my lab members) about species that I was in love with - sharks and rays. I was, and still am, utterly fascinated by these animals, and spending my days researching them was a bit of a dream. It drove my every waking minute for a good chunk of that year. I had plans for the post-degree future, how I would continue working with them and helping them in their crises. I dreamed big.

Fast forward a couple years and I'm working in my steady government job, doing what I can within the boundaries of my job to help the environment, but not really feeling complete. My job was important, and my team members were wonderful, but I knew that I had more to offer. I had to do something else. Something to light that fire in my belly again. But what?

A PhD. That was my first thought. I'd done well in my honours and could probably land a spot in a PhD program (Unlike some other countries, in Australia you can usually enter a PhD without a master's if you have a good honours). I could again pick a topic I was passionate about and dedicate my life to it. Get absorbed in it. It was the obvious choice, right? Wrong.

I was totally despondent about research and academia. Having spent a number of years in government, I could see first hand the gaps between research and policy. It seemed to me that the efforts of researchers are more or less wasted, because almost nothing is transferred to policy.  Being the one at the policy enforcement end, it was extremely frustrating to say the least. How could I subject myself to such difficult but meaningless work? Especially when we're talking about saving the world! Not gonna happen, I told myself.

Listening to me whine about my directionless life, a good friend of mine, who was herself a recent PhD student, suggested I take a look at a new coursework conservation biology master's program that was being offered the following year. She reckoned it was probably broad enough and practical enough to ease my research-to-policy concerns, plus it was marketed as teaching 'real-world' skills, and included courses taught by industry professionals. And a big plus - it could be done in 12 months (crazy, but good). That meant I probably wouldn't have to resign from my job, giving me the chance to slide right back into regular working life if I felt that I'd made the wrong choice.

Alright! I had a new lease on life. This master's was what I was going to do instead of a PhD. I had finally made a decision!

And I did. It was hard but it was awesome. To my delight, it showed me the research-to-policy trajectory much more clearly. It showed me that there is a world much larger than the government I knew, and many more organisations and people that were effecting change for the better. Surprisingly (or not, depending on who you ask), it totally sparked my love of research again. It took me right back to my honours self, full of passion and drive. Maybe because I was a bit older and more experienced, rather than being so focussed on one group of animals, I came away much more concerned with the issues than the species. My master’s degree exposed me to so many conservation stories, wins and losses, and I was stirred by them all. I became drawn to problems and the potential for change.

Going back to my old life was not really an option. At the very least, I needed to involve myself in conservation projects outside of work. Pay the bills and fuel my passion. That sounded like a good starting point for my new inspired self.

By some crazy stroke of luck, I landed a new job in a different government department.  The odds were against me: a last minute application and an unprepared interview (very unlike me) the morning after returning from a New Zealand post-degree holiday. I’d applied for the role following a friend’s suggestion, mostly because it seemed like a more research-oriented role, which strongly interested me. I later learned that the three people in that role prior to me had PhDs, which would have made me feel totally inadequate had I known that sooner. I still don’t really know how I ended up on top, but somehow there I was. Nearly two years on and I’m still there, still applying skills I learned during my degree and still learning new things all the time.  Some of my work even landed me my first first-author publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal (a big win!).

That was two weeks ago. Now I’m a full-time PhD student! How did that even happen?

As is typical of me, after my master's degree the toing and froing and life-contemplating was back in full swing. I was more passionate than ever about conservation and more interested than ever in the scientific discipline. But was subjecting myself to another 3-4 years of intense study really what I wanted? Would it get me where I wanted to go? Where do I even want to go? What about all the other constraints that come along with it - time, financial, stress, lack of social life etc.?

A few months ago, after endless deliberation and cost-benefit analyses, my very supportive partner said to me quite directly, “If nothing else mattered, what would you do?”. A lightbulb moment. Sometimes I really do need to step back from myself and look at things more simply.

So here I am today starting my journey in PhD-land. My life for the next few years will be all about the conservation of black-cockatoos. These beautiful birds aren’t doing so well in some spots, and I want to know why and what we can do to help them.  Despite all the struggles I’m told come along with a PhD, I’m pretty darn excited about this next phase of my life. I feel driven and inspired and that's always a good place to start.