A PhD Down Under: Doctorate Studies in Brisbane

by Juliana Ariffin

Brisbane city as viewed from Victoria Bridge which crosses over Brisbane River and connects to South Bank.
Brisbane city as viewed from Victoria Bridge which crosses over Brisbane River and connects to South Bank.

Brisbane is a sprawling city that sits on either side of the gentle curves of the Brisbane River. It is a city of bridges and parks and is best seen from the deck of a CityCat1 while it glides down the length of the river, or from the top of Mt Coot-tha (the highest point in Brisbane and home to the lush Botanical Gardens and Sir Thomas Planetarium). As a lover of nature, I find that the best thing about Brisbane is its proximity to forest reserves with excellent hiking trails, beautiful beaches with great surf, and the three largest sand islands in the world (Fraser, Stradbroke and Moreton Island) where you can camp, dive, snorkel, surf or go whale and dolphin watching.

I first arrived in Australia to pursue my degree in biomedical science in Brisbane in 2007 and made a decision to start my PhD four years later. At the time, I was looking forward to conducting research, publishing papers and going to international conferences. I had also planned to thoroughly enjoy the best of Brisbane and to keep exploring down under. I had plans of flying to Melbourne in the winter for skiing, shopping in Sydney, diving the Great Barrier Reef in Cairns, and hopping over to visit the ‘Middle Earth’ in New Zealand. To say the least, I was full of optimism and anticipation when I left for a short holiday in Malaysia before starting my PhD in Australia. But fate had other things to offer.

My journey as a PhD student began with me returning to Brisbane after a lovely holiday with suitcases packed to the brim and a heavy heart. It was February in the year 2011 and the most disastrous flood in Queensland‘s history rendered me homeless and swept away all the belongings I had accumulated throughout my years of living in Brisbane. Instead of immediately beginning my PhD at the Institute for Molecular Biosciences (IMB) at the University of Queensland (UQ), I found myself camping on a friend’s sofa bed and putting off my PhD for a month while I looked for a new place to stay.

I had already experienced the stress of house hunting in Brisbane during my undergraduate years due to the rising cost of living in Australia and high demand for housing. This was most apparent to me in the price of rental properties near the university, where even garages are refurbished and rented out to poor students. With the floods, the situation worsened and rental prices skyrocketed. Thankfully UQ recognised the trouble incoming students were going through and provided me with temporary accommodation until I found a new place to stay.

After the floods, I slowly got back on my feet. In Australia, first or second upper class Honours year graduates may skip doing a Masters degree and immediately apply for tuition fee and living allowance scholarships for PhD. However these applications are increasingly competitive as Masters graduates or research assistants with a couple of publications under their belts are often awarded the scholarships.

Determined candidates may even volunteer to work in labs for free while they gain experience and authorship on papers to become more competitive for scholarships. In my case, I was fortunate enough to be supported by my principal investigator (PI) and the IMB for my living allowance, and received a tuition fee scholarship from UQ. I also spent some time tutoring to supplement the stipend I received.

The beach at Burleigh Heads, Gold Coast.
Jacaranda trees blooming in November in Brisbane.
Jacaranda trees blooming in November in Brisbane.
A bottlenose dolphin at Amity Point, Stradbroke Island.
A bottlenose dolphin at Amity Point, Stradbroke Island.

Soon it was time for me to go through my first ‘milestone’. These milestones or yearly tests are especially critical for first year PhD students, who have to give a confirmation seminar and are evaluated on their research project and capabilities by a panel of scientists that consists of their co-supervisors and examiners. Students who do not succeed are allowed a second try after 3 months, then are either downgraded to a Masters degree or expelled. Fortunately, I was thoroughly groomed by my PI to present the best of my research and survived my confirmation without any mishaps.Once I started my research project, I found that unlike my Honours year that in retrospect seemed like a 100m sprint, my PhD was like a marathon that required copious amounts of determination and stamina. My field of research is Immunology and I worked many late nights and weekends isolating macrophages from human blood, then infecting them with bacteria to study human immune responses. Most of my experiments took at least a week to prepare and were performed over several days, as is the norm for most PhD students who work with cells or mice. My first year passed very quickly in this way, with me occasionally fleeing the lab to drive to the coast for a lovely afternoon at the beach, or to go horse riding on the mountain trails.

In my second and third year, I maintained a better work life balance and exercised regularly while minimising weekend work. Most labs are quite social and would often get together for weekly soccer games, to celebrate birthdays, or for beers on Fridays evenings. We would also go on lab retreats that involve traveling together to an exotic location (the mountainside or beach) to have a series of talks, socialise and discuss future research directions.

Although I was enjoying my PhD, my research was not progressing as well as I had hoped it would and I began to seriously think about the direction of my scientific career. My institute has a weekly seminar series with invited international speakers, alternate career talks for early career researchers (ECRs), and a training program for science ambassadors to engage in science communication with the public. I took the opportunity to attend talks and workshops and began to realise the importance of broadening my skillset beyond basic research skills. I started to pursue extracurricular activities by joining the postgraduate students committee at my institute, and networked with researchers from other institutes to gain a broader perspective on life in science in Australia. I also attended a research commercialisation workshop that is compulsory for third year PhD students at my university. This led me to apply and obtain an internship position at the research commercialisation company where I worked part-time 8 hours a week for three months. Through this, I was introduced to a different aspect of science and learned to evaluate early-stage technology, develop business strategies and conduct market analysis. This helped me to remember the bigger picture and see how interesting scientific discoveries can be, even when my own research was lagging. I enjoyed it so much that I still volunteer at the company even after my internship is over.

The Great Court, St Lucia campus, The University of Queensland. Source: www.scmb.uq.edu.au
The Great Court, St Lucia campus, The University of Queensland. Source: www.scmb.uq.edu.au

Now I am starting my fourth and last year of PhD and thankfully, my research is beginning to turn around. I have found a new, exciting and promising project to work on that has helped me regain my enthusiasm for science. The challenge now is to wrap up my PhD and decide what direction to head to next. I hope to finish my journey soon, while having gained a lot of knowledge and confidence to handle anything that may be in my future.


1 CityCats (short for City Catamarans) are the fleet of ferries that shuttle passengers from ferry terminals situated at the city and various suburbs along the Brisbane River till the last stop at the University of Queensland.

About the Author

JULIANA ARIFFIN is a third year (going on fourth year) PhD student studying human immune responses at The Institute for Molecular Biosciences at The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia. Prior to beginning her PhD, she worked for a year as a research assistant following her Honours degree. In her spare time she reads fiction, dabbles in photography and considers genetically engineering a zombie propagating virus to repopulate the earth. Find out more about Juliana Ariffin by visiting her Scientific Malaysian profile: http://www. scientificmalaysian.com/members/julianna/ 

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