Research Edge

December 2016 - Issue 12
Defending your PhD thesis – a student’s perspective

Defending your PhD thesis – a student’s perspective

Mr Joel Fuller was the first PhD candidate to undertake an oral defence of his PhD thesis at the University of South Australia.  Joel’s research investigated the effects of different footwear on running performance and injury, and he received media attention for demonstrating that runners weighing more than 85kg are three times more likely to sustain an injury when running in lightweight running shoes, compared with when running in heavily cushioned shoes.

Here, he talks with Pat Buckley, the Dean of Graduate Studies (who also chaired his oral defence) about his experience.

PB: So Joel, given the oral defence is optional for current PhD students, why did you decide to do it?

JF: My supervisors Jon Buckley, Dominic Thewlis and Margarita Tsiros suggested doing it - Dom also spoke of having a good experience from doing his thesis defence in the UK.  Both of them made similar arguments that it was an opportunity for me to discuss my research directly with my examiners and it could help to scale down the extent of any required changes to my thesis.

PB: In hindsight, were there benefits to having participated in the oral defence?

JF: Yes.  The most immediate benefits are the opportunity it provides to talk about your work, rather than acting only on written feedback.  Being able to discuss my examiners’ written comments helped to cement my understanding and have real clarity around the meaning of their comments. And I guess it helped them understand my work better, because in the end, I only had to make some of the thesis changes identified in their written reports, rather than all of them.

The support that was available to me in the lead-up to the defence also made it seem like less of an examination hurdle. Don’t get me wrong, I knew it was part of the examination.  But being able to have a preparation meeting with a member of the Research Education team, being kept up to date on arrangements for the defence and having contact with the defence Chair and School staff all really helped me see it as an opportunity, as well as part of the examination process.

The longer term benefit of the defence is feeling more confident about meeting my examiners in the future or, indeed, following up with them for future advice or collaboration.

PB: How much preparation did you need to put in for your defence?

JF: I spent roughly three half-days preparing for the defence.  But this preparation was countered by the significantly less time I spent making amendments to my thesis afterwards, compared to if I was relying solely on the written reports.

PB: As Chair it was my role to support you as the candidate and to facilitate discussion with your examiners during the defence.  How did you find the defence itself?

JF: It was very engaging and I found that time passed quickly. It was structured around the questions the examiners wanted to ask, but I felt it was still a two-way conversation.  I wanted to discuss some of my examiners’ comments more with them at the time but this is something I could explore with them in future.  They raised some interesting thoughts – related to my work – for future projects and research.

PB: Once the defence finished and the examiners gave you the good news, how did you celebrate?

JF: I had a quick debrief with my supervisor Jon, who was present at the oral defence, and thanked him for his support.  It was getting quite late so I just headed home.  I had a celebratory dinner and drinks at the weekend and it sunk in a bit more then.

PB: From your experience of the oral defence, what’s your advice for fellow students considering it?

JF: I’d encourage other students to consider it. If I’d chosen not to do the defence, I would feel much more removed from my examiners, particularly if our paths do cross again in the future.  During the defence itself I think I may have rushed some of my answers, so I would recommend taking some time to pause before you answer the examiners’ questions.  Remember that you can also refer to your hard copy documents if you need to.

PB: Now you’re nearly there, Joel, what’s next on the horizon for you?

JF: I've accepted a lecturer position in the Macquarie University Doctor of Physiotherapy program.  At Macquarie I'll be helping to develop physiotherapists with advanced clinical decision-making abilities to practice person-centred healthcare in contemporary healthcare environments.  I'll also be continuing my sports injury prevention research and assisting research across a range of areas relevant to physiotherapy practice.

PB: Thanks, Joel, and our very best wishes for the future. Stay in touch.

Joel’s research has been supervised by Professor Jon Buckley, Dr Dominic Thewlis and Dr Margarita Tsiros from the School of Health Sciences.

You can read here to learn more about the steps involved in having an oral defence as part of your examination process, and here to find more detailed information about how it is conducted.

European insights into doctoral education

European insights into doctoral education

Staff and students recently enjoyed a colloquium focused on the evolving and changing faces of the PhD, told from a global perspective. The colloquium – EU Doctoral Pedagogies – was hosted by the Dean of Graduate Studies Professor Pat Buckley and the Dean & Head of the School of Education Professor Stephen Dobson, for the Hawke EU Centre for Mobilities, Migrations and Cultural Transformations. As a key part of the Hawke EU Centre’s commitment to facilitating bilateral dialogue and networks, this two day event brought together leading experts from Europe, and university staff and students for a series of masterclasses and a public lecture.

Professor Alexandra Bitusikova set the scene by outlining the key trends in doctoral education in Europe over the past 20 years. Drawing upon her extensive experience with the European University Association: Council for Doctoral Education, Professor Bitusikova discussed how doctoral education has been transformed in recent years, including the systemic establishment of doctoral schools, increasing emphasis on transferable skill development, and increased connectivity with industry and end users. Importantly, she was also able to reflect on some of the outcomes of these changes, such as those recorded in the EUA DOC-CAREERS Projects. She highlighted some of the contemporary challenges currently facing doctoral education in Europe, which includes diversity of doctoral programs, research integrity and protection, and widening participation.

Dr Eucharia Meehan, Director of the Irish Research Council and former Chair of the Irish Higher Education Authority, provided a detailed case study of how a National Framework for Doctoral Education was developed in Ireland. In the European context, the National Framework approach is a unique initiative. Dr Meehan explained the drivers behind the development of the Framework, the learnings from this process, its key features and how it is currently being implemented and evaluated.

Professor Andrew Brown, former Head of the prestigious Institute of Education at University College London, approached the topic from a practitioner perspective and in the context of his speciality, education. He highlighted that his Institute now offered eight different types of doctorate (PhD, EdD, DEdPsy, etc), compared with one in 1995 (PhD). He considers that this breadth, combined with the broad range of associated career trajectories, creates a complexity which is a key challenge for supervisors and supervisory teams. Against that backdrop, Professor Brown explored the principles and practices of supervision and how different systemic responses can be used to address this complexity.

The colloquium also offered an opportunity to examine ways of linking enterprise and mobility with the doctoral experience. Again, the experiences of Europe as a whole (Professor Bitusikova) and Ireland (Dr Meehan) were presented and dissected. Professor Bitusikova discussed strategies and initiatives on strengthening the links between enterprise (industry) and academia in a European context and how doctoral students can be involved. Dr Meehan then provided specific case studies of similar schemes operating in Ireland designed to increase collaborative engagement between industry and academia with doctoral students as key partners. Ireland is seen as a leader in terms of providing nationally-supported mechanisms for achieving such engagement and, excitingly, Dr Meehan showed the audience some evaluation data that was literally hot off the press, showing the career outcomes for graduands of these programs, and stakeholder outcomes.

Professor Buckley, who is leading the implementation of the Transformed PhD at UniSA, said ‘This was a timely and informative colloquium. We had excellent feedback from each of our international guests about the directions we are taking in transforming the PhD. It was reassuring to hear that we’re focused on the right things, and approaching them in the right way. It was also good to be reminded that not everything is unproblematic, and that where possible, we should plan evaluation strategies to test the outcomes of our initiatives’.

Visit the Hawke EU Centre website to learn more about the Centre’s research and activities.

International Travel Grants can take your research overseas

International Travel Grants can take your research overseas

Are you interested in taking your research project overseas?  A UniSA International Travel Grant of up to $5000 can provide you with an opportunity to enhance your research experience and improve your thesis.  PhD candidate in the School of Pharmacy and Medical Sciences, Ms Michaela Johnson talks to Research Edge about her research visit to Germany and England earlier this year.

Firstly, what are you investigating for your research project?

My PhD research focuses on Parkinson’s disease, specifically developing a pre-clinical model of Parkinson’s disease so that novel treatment options can be explored.  While the typical motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease are well known, the wide array of non-motor symptoms such as constipation, sleep disturbances, depression and loss of sense of smell associated with this condition are less known.

Patients actually report these non-motor symptoms to have a greater impact on their quality of life.  Many of these non-motor symptoms present before the motor symptoms and diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease and there are also not many effective treatments for these non-motor symptoms.

Therefore in my PhD we are investigating treatments that target the early gastrointestinal dysfunction, which also have potential to prevent the development of brain pathology.

What led to your interest in this particular area of research?

My grandmother has Parkinson’s disease so when we first learnt about the topic in my undergraduate course I was really keen to know more, to understand what causes the symptoms, how it progresses and what treatments are available.  Because of this spark I decided to do Honours with Dr Larisa Bobrovskaya who conducts neuroscience research.  As I thoroughly enjoyed my Honours both in terms of the topic of Parkinson’s disease and working with my supervisor, I decided to continue in this field for my PhD.

You travelled to Europe earlier this year with your travel grant award.  What was your experience of taking your research overseas?

Receiving a UniSA international travel grant allowed me to study new laboratory techniques for four weeks at the Hannover Medical School in Germany and to attend an international conference in London.  Both of these experiences have broadened my knowledge of neuroscience and increased my confidence at presenting my research and discussing science with senior researchers.

By working with the Medical School I was immersed in a new research environment, which wouldn’t have been possible without a grant and support from UniSA.  For example whilst visiting Hannover, I was able to observe an awake deep brain stimulation operation from inside the operating room.

I presented two posters at the Ageing 2016 conference in London, one entitled “Constipation in Parkinson’s disease: A review of evidence-based treatments and the role of the pharmacist” and the other entitled “Development of an early pre-motor rotenone model of Parkinson’s disease” which won a prize.  The grant also allowed me to travel to areas I have never visited before and might not have ever visited; I also got to experience living in the snow!

Overall how have you benefited from the opportunities afforded by the travel grant?

Overall this travel grant has enabled me to gain an international perspective of the research world and reflect on the global importance of my research field.  It allowed me to develop solid networks that are likely to yield future collaborations with researchers I had aspired to be like. 

The time away from my project itself increased my motivation for my project, which is vital to keep working through the final stages of a PhD.  This has been an extremely beneficial experience that I would highly recommend to other PhD students, and even more so it’s a fantastic opportunity to put yourself out of your comfort zone and travel to areas you might not have considered before.

Read here about eligibility, conditions and how to apply for an International Travel Grant to travel between July and December next year.  Applications close on 15 February 2017 so start working on your application now!

2017 PhD top-up scholarships available for healthy development research

Healthy Development Adelaide (HDA) is calling for applications to the HDA & Channel 7 Children’s Research Foundation PhD (top-up) Scholarships, valued at $5,000 per annum for up to 3 years.

Domestic and international students who are commencing a PhD in 2017 in the area of Healthy Development and holding a competitive postgraduate scholarship, are invited to apply.  Disciplines include, but are not restricted to, biochemistry, biomedical engineering, biostatistics, demography, dentistry, economics, education, endocrinology, epidemiology, ethics, genetics, indigenous health, law, nutrition, obstetrics and gynaecology, paediatrics, pharmacology, physiology, politics, psychiatry, psychology, public health and sociology.  Preference will be given to projects with a multidisciplinary focus and that enhance more than one discipline within the research topic.

Applications are due by no later than Friday 27 January 2017.

More information about eligibility, conditions of funding and how to apply is available on the HDA Scholars page.

Data and your research

Data and your research

An essential component of the research lifecycle is research data, and how it is collected, stored and shared for potential re-use.  Data and datasets come in many types, including excel spreadsheets, programming code, specimens and images through to interview transcripts.   Check out the Research Data Management guide to start thinking about what you need to consider for your research and contact your Academic Library Services Team for further advice.

UniSA researchers can access several types of datasets by emailing the Library’s Research Outputs Repository Team (ROR)  The Repository Services team will then assist you with the application process.

Available datasets are HILDA (Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia) Survey; LSIC (The Longitudinal Study of Indigenous Children) and LSAC (Longitudinal Study of Australian Children).  These datasets need to be carefully monitored and a report must be sent to the Department of Social Services (University of Melbourne) at the end of each year.  All of the datasets are either encrypted or password protected for confidentiality with original copies remaining in a secure location.

ABS CURF datasets (Confidentialised Unit Record Files - CURFs) – are files of responses to ABS surveys containing detailed data whilst maintaining the confidentiality of individuals.  Access to this dataset is requested via the ABS website.  Once you are verified as a UniSA staff or student, a copy of the dataset can be sent.  For more information visit the ABS CURF homepage.

IMNIS program wins national collaboration award

The Industry Mentoring Network in STEM (IMNIS) program, of which UniSA is a partner, has been named the Best Higher Education & Training Collaboration in the 2016 Business/Higher Education Round Table (B/HERT) awards.

IMNIS is a national industry-led mentoring initiative of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE), linking PhD students in STEM with experienced industry mentors who provide advice and act as role models for industry-based STEM careers.  The aim is to develop a new generation of industry-aware PhD graduates; through engagement with industry mentors, research degree students expand their knowledge of, and appreciation for research and development, and commercial activities in relevant industries.

Over the past two years programmes have been established in three States with 100 PhD students from 11 Universities, partnering with industry groups such as AusBiotech, Engineers Australia (WA) and TechInSA (formerly BioSA) to recruit leading professionals in their fields to mentor these students.  In 2017, it is planned to expand the existing programmes into other States and to develop mentoring programmes in the Agriculture and ICT sectors, with the aim of having over 500 PhD students each year being mentored by industry leaders.

Learn more about the IMNIS program and how you can become involved.

Getting ready for end of year arrangements

In preparation for the University’s closure during the end of year break, research degree students and staff are reminded of the following:

Thesis submission

If you are intending on submitting your thesis before the University closure during the end of year period, please speak with your supervisory panel/local area to determine staff availability and internal closing dates for thesis submission.

Variations to Candidature and/or Scholarships

  • All variations to candidature/scholarships must be fully signed and submitted to the Scholarships and Candidature team, Student and Academic Services, by close of business 16 December 2016. Any variations to candidature submitted after this date may not be processed before the University’s end of year closure.
  • Leave of absence should be submitted if you are not intending on working on your thesis over the holiday period. This will ensure that your consumption is suspended over this period.   Retrospective leave will not be approved, except in special circumstances, so it is important to have your application submitted before 16 December 2016.

If you have any queries or concerns relating to candidature and/or scholarships and the University end of year closure, please contact the Scholarships and Candidature team via

Have your say on Research Edge

Research Edge is the online publication for research degrees at the University of South Australia (UniSA).  We are conducting a reader survey to seek feedback on what works well in the current publication and where improvements could potentially be made.

Take this short survey to help shape the future direction of Research Edge – responses close on 9 January 2017.

If you have any queries relating to the survey please direct them to

Don’t miss this opportunity to have your say!

Emily Johnston

Quick facts

> Don’t forget to complete the reader survey on Research Edge – responses close on 9 January 2017.

> Completion scholarship and fee relief scholarship applications close on 28 February 2017 and 30 March 2017 respectively

> Make sure you’ve returned any candidature and/or scholarship related forms to the Scholarships and Candidature team by 16 December 2016.

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