What does it mean to be a PhD student?

Obtaining a Phd degree is no small feat of work, in Australia, it requires 3 years of full time study which includes writing grants, publishing papers and of course, conducting research. In some degrees, PhD students are also required to complete course work, lucky for me I am on purely research focused PhD scholarship. I am a PhD candidate at the University of Adelaide, which is where I also completed my undergraduate degree. I thoroughly enjoy the lifestyle of a PhD student, I enjoy the independent research, getting to become fully immersed in scientific discovery and of course meeting other like-minded PhD students . Is a PhD student actually defined as a student though? When it comes to getting concession tickets to a concert or student discount on the bus, absolutely I am 100% a student. When it comes to getting holidays, getting to switch off for a portion of the year, getting asked at the Christmas lunch table every year- what are you doing with your life? I am absolutely not a student, I have a proper job…. I say as I buy the 2 ply toilet paper dreaming of the day when I can finally afford the 4 ply. A PhD is somewhere between study and a real job. You get paid, but not quite enough, you get some responsibility, but not too much. It is scientific limbo land and I live it. When I am not grumbling over toilet paper I am working in the Lab. “Lab” is a cool term for laboratory and this is where all the magic happens. This is where I take sediment samples and extract plant DNA from them.. Okay Ive lost you? Lets back track… as plants loose their leaves or their roots grow, they leave behind traces of themselves in the form of DNA, this DNA binds to the soil and over time sediment layers form capturing and holding the plant DNA… What this nicely creates is a time capsule of information that can be accessed if you are to take sediment cores from the environment and analyse them. You may be thinking what is the point in that? Well the point is that I can literally reconstruct past environments, basically, I can see what plants were around hundreds to thousands of years ago. I do hope you are starting to think that’s cool, I certainly do, but then again we have established I am a PhD limbo scientist who cannot afford toilet paper. Basically, the more we learn about the past the better we can protect the future, and that’s what we are all about right? Creating a sustainable and habitable future. 

Taking sediment cores in a mangrove habitat in South Australia

If you ever talk to a PhD student just ask them about their project, we can literally talk for hours. This is what we live and breathe all culminating in a final series of printed paper, that we call a thesis, that we hand in, that we verbally defend and then we say farewell and venture out into the real world. Goodbye limbo land, hello actual responsibility. Job hunting and if we are to get technical, its called “post docking”- basically a fancy term for ‘job after you finish your PhD’…but I digress… lets get back to the here and now. The plants that I work on are mangroves, saltmarsh and seagrasses. These are all coastal plants and are actually the most important habitats on the planet! They capture and store more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than any land forest (carbon dioxide is that nasty gas everyone keeps warning you about that causes global warming), they support all marine life providing habitat and nurseries, they hold and trap sediment which means all those beaches we love to go visit don’t erode away, they are also the main reason we have beaches worldwide with crystal clear water as these plants filter the water column. Have I sold you yet? Coastal plants are awesome! And one of the most fortunate things I get to do in life is work on these amazing systems. 

Saltmarsh field (Tecticornia spp.)
Mangrove habitat (Avicennia marina)
Seagrass habitat (Zostera muellerii)

So what does an average day for me look like? Well that is absolutely impossible to answer… right now while I am writing this blog I am sitting by a pool in Miami, a week ago I was running a nature walk through Adelaide for new University students learning about wetland ecology, pollination and the history of plants in Adelaide. The week before that I was pulling 12 hour days in the lab… every day is different, unique and you never know what it will bring, that’s the beauty of being a PhD student in science.

Hopefully in all this I have at least raised your interest in marine plants but also given you some insight into what it means to be a PhD student. I would love to hear from other PhD students out there, what are you working on? How are you managing life as a PhD student? Leave your comments below.

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