How the redefined ANU PhD focuses on community and support

14 Jul 2022

Progressing into and out of the PhD program is a rite of passage like any other, and I want people to come out having had a valuable experience and to be set up for future success

Getting a PhD is never easy, but Dean of Higher Degree Research (HDR), Professor Ann Evans wants to make it the best experience it can possibly be. 

The redefined PhD at ANU focuses on community, support and recognition of contribution - informed in part by Professor Evans' time studying at ANU. 

"I had an excellent PhD experience and was lucky to be part of a strong cohort," she says.

"My peers were a huge part of my success and creating community is so important." 

The new PhD Induction Program supports this, featuring a week-long, cohesive introduction to the ANU PhD, and beyond that, continuing to engage each cohort with activities and opportunities to get together.  

Professor Evans says one of the things she valued the most out of her PhD at the Research School of Social Sciences were her interactions with staff and other students.  

"There were so many opportunities for cross-disciplinary discussion, and I admired the academic staff's passion for their research, which allowed us to be passionate too. For me, those discussions and that passion got me through," she says.

Hooked on demography from the first time she saw a population pyramid, which looks at societies based on age and gender, Professor Evans says she found an affinity for understanding how society works using maths.  

"I always liked numbers and for me, counting people gave maths more meaning," she says. 

And her research in family demography, looking at people as they enter cohabitation, marriage or become parents, has given her an appreciation of the challenges around periods of transition. 

"Progressing into and out of the PhD program is a rite of passage like any other, and I want people to come out having had a valuable experience and to be set up for future success," she says. 

"We know it's hard to finish. We spend years doing the research and we are all excited by it, but bringing it all together at the end is a lot of work.  

"Finishing a PhD is also associated with a change of status for people. They're no longer attached to the University, no longer a PhD student, and it can be an uncomfortable transition to whatever comes next."  ​​​​​​​

Professor Evans says her role as Associate Dean in CASS (2013-19) gave her a valuable overview of the multidisciplinary nature of research. 

"There are so many different approaches - asking questions in new ways and using different tools to answer them - and I found that diversity fascinating," she says. 

"Also in that role, I saw the fallout when things don't work out for people. 

"You don't get into a PhD program without the ability to do it. But sometimes the scaffolding we have is not right for that person, and we are aiming to overcome that. 

"I would like to be able to provide a governance and administration of our programs that tries to remove some of the barriers that people face and enable them to engage fully with the university and their program."  

One of the main things Professor Evans wants to provide is a central level of support, so each discipline can deliver the best program possible without having to develop the tools to do that themselves. 

"For example, in industry and engagement, we want to increase internships and engagement with industry, where appropriate. We want to take that layer of administration away from academics and provide them with tools to make that easier." 

While a supported, positive PhD experience is crucial, Professor Evans also wants to ensure research students feel valued. 

"We want to recognise them as an integral part of the institution, and as the professionals and knowledge-makers they are," she says. 

"They are contributing to research and to the discipline they're in, and we want to genuinely recognise, acknowledge and celebrate the work they do."


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