An economist and an ecologist discuss surviving their PhDs in a cross-disciplinary school

Do friends really make PhDs easier? Fenner is a School centres around interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary approaches to solving and understanding real-world problems, and real-world solutions. When you're surviving your Doctorate, being focused on a single discipline while surrounded by experts and students who come from different fields can be enriching, but also isolating. Here's how two Fenner School PhD Scholars - Melanie Pill and Meena Sivagowre Sritharan - discovered that despite their specialisations in ecology and economy hosting vast differences, ultimately, the two spoke complementary languages, and have helped each other through their Doctoral struggles and wins.

Melanie Pill
Both Meena and I started our PhD with the Fenner School of Environment and Society in March 2018. I don’t think any of us two had or still have an idea what we signed up for. Judging from the stories we heard from our Fenner colleagues, the road to becoming a Doctor is plastered with frustration, tears, stress and sucks every single bit of life out of you. 'Cancel your social engagements, make sure you get used to an average of five hours sleep and schedule your life according to the "pomodoro method" (aka the “tomato method”, 25 minutes writing followed by 5 minutes break)' was the common advice. It always ended with 'But try to enjoy it, the PhD is an unforgettable journey'. Well, yes, traumatic experiences usually stick with you forever…

I promised myself It'd be different. I promised myself to be prepared for it; prepared for the frustration, the stress, the sleepless nights and the pomodoro.

And then, wonderful Meena came long: my office buddy. On paper (the PhD paper), we don’t seem to have anything in common. Her project looks at the rarity of plant species (I call them "the precious ones"), and I’m trying to find global money to finance loss and damage from climate change in small island states. So where does this cross? EVERYWHERE!

It crosses from admin to Endnote, from framework to methods, from natural resources to R and from stats to Zieria laevigata. In the first month, I have learnt more about plant species than my grandpa taught me when I was little (bless his knowledge, he was amazing, don’t get me wrong!). We’re bouncing ideas off each other and practicing the tomato battle together. We’re literally pros at it… and always humble. At least, I am.

Frameworks are frameworks, methods are methods. They vary, they differ, but the basic idea doesn’t change.

The cross overs don’t stop there. We share a common love for crochet, the outdoors, discussing social issues and a healthy drink or two. We like to get up early in the morning to make the most of the day and are enthusiastic and excited of what lies ahead of us.

So… What’s the moral of the story? Never think that just because you seem to be the complete opposite of the coin, that your office buddy can’t be a wonderful friend to help you through the tears, the stress and the frustration; be there for you to get from admin to Zieria laevigata.

This is our story so far and I hope, with all my heart, you’ll be able to experience a similar one.

Meena Sivagowre Sritharan

“It started out with a drink, how did it end up like this?”
– (paraphrased from The Killers song, Mr. Brightside)

By “end up like this?”, I mean having an awesome office buddy that has now blossomed into a beautiful friendship filled with all things science, laughs and plenty of crochet!

Like Mel, I had a vague idea of what a PhD would be like, with most comments erring on the side of negativity, stress, long hours, the non-stop writing and planning and things undoubtedly going wrong in unimaginable ways. Truth be told, my first week felt a little like all those things, (un)settling into Canberra, not knowing anyone, being alone in my office and feeling overwhelmed until...

I met Melanie at a social drink meet-up. Matt, another PhD student, and I chatted to a small group of other PhD students and academics, including Melanie. We were both impressed with how Melanie had worked on the Montreal protocol. We all got each other’s names and contact details down, when Melanie mentioned PhD workspaces. Me, currently alone in an empty office, looking for someone to bounce ideas off or simply talk to, suggested Melanie move in, and Voila! Here we both are, she's working on human ecology, me on plant ecology, crocheting together, making meal plans and having movie nights.

I love hearing her talking about the people she gets to meet and chat to, inspired by her work ethic as she hunts down both papers and people to build up her already-outstanding profile and her PhD. I have learned so much on a topic I never knew existed; being holed up in my own echo chamber of plants, animals and ecological research. Yet, we both ‘semi-fangirled’ when seeing Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, walk past us, both surprised that someone other than ourselves recognised him.

Thus, despite our vastly different backgrounds, we share some incredible commonalities (as Mel mentioned previously). Most importantly, it has made a world of a difference in working on my PhD. Having someone to talk to, to understand your stresses and reciprocate these actions is both comforting and empowering on this tough PhD journey ahead of us.

And to think this all started out with a simple drink on a Friday afternoon, at the Fellows bar at ANU. Perhaps if more people decided to have a coffee or a drink with others from diverse backgrounds, not only could we learn new things and have friendships form but humanity itself could become an incredible force to prevent ignorance, prejudices and misinformation.

So as it easy it is to stay home and binge watch something in the comfort of your own bed, take the chance to be social, even when you aren’t feeling it. Even scientists, who often sleep restlessly in pursuit of knowledge understand that,

It is the encounters with people that make life worth living” – Guy De Maupassant