PhD – getting it the Kiwi way!

Science Towers near the duck pond at Massey University.

by Dr. Valerie Soo

A kiwi used to mean a type of fruit, or bird, to me. It dawned on me four years ago that a kiwi could also refer to a nation, and its culture, from two islands in the Pacific Ocean. These islands form the country of what we know as New Zealand (NZ).

From the moment I started to apply for a PhD studentship in NZ and subsequently a student visa, the child in me protested vehemently against my sudden development into a level-headed adult. Throughout my life till then, I was used to getting things done according to—well, mostly—my way. However, throwing juvenile tantrums did not, and certainly, would not help when there were gazillions of forms to be completed and submitted. I was left to deal with the unnecessary bureaucracy on my own, as there was little useful information tailored for my studentship1 and visa application2.

Of course, the bureaucratic process did not just end there. On the first day of my PhD, which I had naïvely imagined to be filled with intellectual discussions over cups of flat white3, it was instead filled with another round of forms filling to confirm my enrolment at the university, and to set up a payment method for my monthly stipend. I soon found myself agreeing with the saying about the lack of structure in PhD programmes in NZ4 Nevertheless, a loose framework that appears to shape every doctoral programme has become evident over the years. For instance, the official working hours for a PhD student are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. although many students work longer hours, including weekends. Those who use biological cell lines in their studies have to drop in everyday to feed their cells, or else there would be no materials to start an experiment. This unspoken rule also applies to me as many time-course experiments of mine had to be run for seven days consecutively. Coffee breaks and lunchtime became invaluable moments, when diligence and sheer determination, the commonly recognized attributes of PhD students, are redundant.

The Hauraki Gulf
The Hauraki Gulf, viewed from the Waiheke Island.

A few universities in NZ offer a graduate committee for every PhD student, i.e., a team comprising of 4–5 Principal Investigators (PIs). A PI is a senior scientist (who is usually a faculty member) appointed by the university, who supervises or oversees a PhD student’s research progress. However, most universities let one or two main PIs take charge of the student’s development. In the first year (which is also a provisional period for PhD students), the PIs usually exercise all their power to ensure that their protégés remain on the right track. Every PhD student will have to undergo a confirmation exam at the end of their first year to ensure that they are on the right track and have a good grasp of their research. Students who failed this exam in their first attempt are allowed to have a second try at a later date. Failing that, they will either be downgraded to a Masters degree (such as an MSc.) or in the worst case scenario, they could be expelled from the university without any qualification. I was lucky that my supervisors gave me plenty of pep talks before sitting for the exam (and of course, I passed!).

After proceeding smoothly into the second year, I assumed that my days of backbreaking work would lessen. I have settled into living like a kiwi by then, and I was eager to visit some interesting places featured in travel brochures (e.g. the Hobbiton village that made its way to the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies; and the Fiordland National Park that houses many deep fiords). How wrong I was! A large chunk of my second year was spent attending local and international conferences. Most international students in NZ have to apply for travel grants from external sources, as travel funds from the universities are barely sufficient for the local students, let alone the international ones. Travel awards from various societies, such as those from the NZ Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, are major financial sources for overseas trips.

After returning from various conference trips, I crept quietly into my third year. By right, I should be thinking about thesis writing, but these thoughts did not really sink into my mind (nor the minds of other students’ who are in the same boat). Instead, I spent days and nights in the lab to collect some sensible data, which I hoped would fill in the gaps of my thesis. It is also during this time that I spiralled into frequent bouts of grumpiness (well, to me, anyway). There seemed to be no light at the end of this PhD tunnel.

masseyYet I somehow managed to wrap up the experimental work and got my thesis completed and submitted early this year. As usual, the submission was accompanied by numerous forms with various signatures. After what seemed like an eternity (three months, actually), two local examiners and an international examiner finally finished examining my thesis and called for a viva voce 5 . Their genuine interest in my work was unexpected, and that led to a stimulating discussion during my viva. Three hours later, I found myself being congratulated for passing the biggest exam in my life. And the night was a bit of a blur after that…


1 Application for PhD programmes in a NZ university typically takes 2 months to complete. It is advisable to work closely with these two departments during the application process: the Graduate Research School that oversees the postgraduate programmes in the university, and the International Office that handles issues relevant to international students.

2 Application for a NZ Student Visa is a tedious process — it involves obtaining a medical check-up, a chest x-ray (both should be completed within the last 3 months), a police record certifying one’s behavioural record and an evidence of financial funds (at least NZ$15,000 per year). Visa approval typically takes a month, after all the relevant documents have been submitted.

3 Flat white is a type of coffee added with steamed milk. It is a popular beverage in Australia and NZ, mainly for its creaminess and velvety texture.

4 PhD programmes in NZ are 100% research-based, and generally last for 3–4 years for full-time students, or 5–6 years for part-time students. While PhD thesis can be prepared in the traditional format, many departments in Massey University are encouraging and adopting the manuscript-format.

5 Viva voce is also commonly known as the PhD defense. It is a closed oral examination, in which the examiners critique the scientific and technical aspects of the PhD thesis and/or the research. In Massey University, the examined student has to “defend” his/her work, as he/she is not given the written comments and concerns of the examiners prior to the viva. Three examiners are appointed for the viva voce: a PI from Massey University, a PI from another NZ university (both are termed as the local examiners), and a PI from outside NZ (the international examiner).


Valerie Soo has just defended her PhD thesis at Massey University, NZ. At the time of writing this article, she is preparing to move to the US for a postdoctoral training. Find out more about Valerie by visiting her Scientific Malaysian profile at:

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