A Higher Degree by Research (HDR) or Highlights Downunder Retrospective

Carmen Huser | Philosophie Studentin

Charles Sturt University

2013 - 2016

Doctor of Philosophy – Education


IRH - Studienbeihilfe


PhD an der Charles Sturt Universität in Australien

PhD Charles Sturt University

As this was not my first study experience on “the other side of the world”, I decided – again – to benefit from the great support of the Ranke-Heinemann Institute during the application process. After undertaking a study abroad in New Zealand during my Bachelor degree, this time, the application was a bit more special. I planned to apply for a Higher Degree by Research (HDR) candidature. Although the Institute supports fewer numbers of HDR applicants, the staff took their time to help me in sorting out what I needed for my application, and to communicate with my future university in Australia. Long phone calls and lots of paper work later, I received not only a confirmation of enrollment but also a scholarship by the Australian university that would make it financially possible to study Downunder for the next three years. Studying Downunder can get really expensive; it is wise to check for available scholarships plenty ahead of time!

My experience differs clearly to the more common “study abroad” at a university in another country for one session. I have a kindergarten teacher background. After working in a kindergarten and undertaking a Bachelor and Master degree specialized in Early Childhood Education, I had worked in childhood research for a couple of years. So, a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) postgraduate study has been the next step goal in my academic career. The outstanding opportunity to candidate at an Australian university as a postgraduate student has not only offered an incredible personal life experience but will be beneficial for my professional development. Although the 3 year lengths of my study course and the level of degree, there might be interesting information for any student who thinks about studying in Australia. I chose a university situated in a more rural area and not in the more famous cities, such as Sydney or Melbourne. Interested in the charm of Aussie countryside? “Go for it!” is all I can say. The following encapsulates reasons to study at Charles Sturt University, advantages of living in rural Straya – Australia is just too long to pronounce for an Aussie, a bit of daily slang and good advice for an amazing life experience.

Why Charles Sturt University?

Charles Sturt University (CSU) is highly favorable for my academic career. CSU has continuously and strongly invested in research and has become an established centre of excellence in research concentrating on key professions, including education, my area. The university achieved high quality performance in the national Excellence in Research for Australia assessment (ERA2010) for research. The 2011-2015 CSU Research Plan is also evidence that the university “commits to establishing itself as an internationally recognised teaching and research university, creating new knowledge and practice”. For my personal and professional growth, I perceive CSU as the excellent learning environment due to the fact that

  • CSU is well known for a problem-based approach in research and innovation;

  • CSU strives for further international recognition;

  • Research at CSU emphasizes high quality and sensitively considers ethical issues.

The establishment of the Research Institute for Professional Practice, Learning and Education (RIPPLE) is testament to CSU’s high levels of expertise in enhancing research and encouraging interdisciplinary research in the educational field, which is my area of interest. Additionally, I was delighted to read about the federally funded Collaborative Research Network (CRN) Excellence in Research in Early Years Education (EYE), one of the largest networks of research-productive EYE academics worldwide. CSU is one of the collaborating universities. Such collaboration is an inspiring and supportive environment first of all to research children’s learning, and secondly to take the next step in my own learning path.

In addition, CSU also offers great support for students. Librarians give you a tour and show you how to find the literature you need to successfully write your assignments and fill your brains with knowledge, or how to use programs such as Endnote to make life easier when writing a thesis and using a high amount of references. For stressful times, the CSU student counselors are there for you, individually, or through workshops about mindfulness, for example. And for the fun times, student parties are regularly held at “The G”, the campus bar. The Gums Café at Albury campus serves food (I can recommend the fresh made sushi or the yummy cookies), coffee, etc. for reasonable prices. Also, the Thurgoona Plaza shopping centre is only a 5minute walk away.

If you are interested in undertaking a PhD like me, CSU offers a range of online and face-to-face seminars on academic writing skills, literature search and review, methodologies, working with your supervisors, among others. There are also opportunities to “meet” with other candidates, researchers, and academic staff to “shut up and write”. Using Adobe Connect, you can meet virtually and find supporting structure and time management tools to get your academic writing done. At least once a month whole-day writing bootcamps are happening, and weekly “shut up & write” sessions are organized. You do not have to go through this on your own, because there are others in the same circumstances as you, and it really makes a difference. You get so much more done with this supporting system. It is like with my Pilates class: I know enough exercises to do on my own at home that are good for my back to keep me flexible and fit. But I do not do them alone at home. I need the Pilates class. I go there on a regular basis, once a week, same time and place, and get my exercise.

Apart from that, I was lucky to find two amazing supervisors who commit fully to support their students. Regular individual fortnightly meetings are held to develop my thinking, reflect my writing and discuss my next steps for my research process. Further, my supervisors initiated a monthly running writing circle where experienced researchers and PhD students meet to feedback to one group member’s distributed writing. They share their knowledge while at the same time, offer dialogue and listen to your opinions.

So, there were good reasons to make my decision about applying to study at CSU on a professional level. But also on a personal level, living in another country, studying in another language, those are life experiences that will change you forever.

Albury – not really a big city

So, where exactly did I move? CSU has several campuses, all in more rural areas than the big cities. No, I did not move to Sydney or Melbourne, and also not to Brisbane or any other bigger or well-known city, but to a country-town called Albury. The twin towns Albury-Wodonga, with Albury on the New South Wales side and Wodonga on the other side of the border of Victoria, encompass around 90.000 inhabitants. Although it sounds small, there are shops, cafés, restaurants, museums, an entertainment centre, a theatre and an arts centre.

The university’s campus itself is very special. The campus has used a sustainable design. So, the buildings were built with many environmentally sensitive features to reduce the use of heating and cooling. The quite small campus is situated at the edge of Albury’s fast growing suburb Thurgoona, which is surrounded by ecologically significant wetlands. If you love bird watching, there is a huge variety of native birds around here. Galahs, king parrots, magpies and many more fly above your heads. If you are the “early bird” type, you might be lucky and see some kangaroos hopping around campus in the morning, or you might like an adventurous lunch outside in summer watching a brown snake passing by. It’s all happening here.

Moving downunder – rollercoasters!

Today, still in the first of three years of my program, I am working towards my research proposal and endorsement that is an important milestone in my candidature and part of my probation in the first 12 months. Undertaking a PhD program in Australia differs to programs at German universities. Within the first 12 months, the student (this is only information for a program in Education and might vary to a HDR degree in Science, Business or other disciplines) prepares a research proposal and presents it in the endorsement session where the proposed study is reviewed for acceptance. The final work, the actual thesis will be reviewed by three examiners who will give suggestions if the thesis will be accepted with no, minor or major changes. After several breakdowns in my supervisors’ offices, and sentences such as “I am not worth the scholarship” or “How naïve to think I can write a doctoral thesis in my second language”, I felt more sure about my capabilities. Luckily, my supervisors believe in me too. I am on the right track. But the first couple of weeks and months in Australia were just like riding a rollercoaster. “Take it easy!” The Australians tend to say.

However, I will never forget that feeling, waiting for my plane at Frankfurt airport. This feeling stayed with me until I had landed in Albury: “Oh wow, I am really doing this, I am going to Australia, I will stay there for the next three years, leaving family and friends behind!” It was overwhelming.

However, one could think, I had a smooth transition to Australia: I had met my supervisors beforehand in Germany. They are actually the reason why I made this decision. Not only are they internationally respected and acknowledged experts in my research area, but also experienced PhD supervisors and just wonderful, kind people as well. Apart from providing information on the range of scholarships available for candidates at CSU and of course their supervision, they also offered me their house and friendship. So in the first weeks, I had a roof over my head and a bed to sleep. Nevertheless, I had to find my own place to stay, and build my own social network. But I would have never thought that making decisions could be so exhausting: where shall I open a bank account? Which phone and internet provider is the cheapest and offers the most suitable plan for me? By the way, why do Aussies call it a “plan”, and not a “contract” when it comes to mobile phone provision? Why do I need to pay my rent weekly, but receive my scholarship fortnightly? In Germany, almost everything I knew about money transfer (salary, rent, internet bill…) runs on a monthly basis.

Among other things, I have learnt in those first few months:

  • public transport in the countryside is not as convenient as I was used to in Germany (still you can catch the bus 908 from Albury’s centre to the university every hour);

  • riding my push bike to university in summer was impossible (well, maybe you enjoy cycling 12 km in 42 Celsius); or

  • buying a second hand car in Victoria and then registering it in New South Wales is an interstate business and therefore more complicated and more expensive.

What still irritates me:

  • that older ladies serving coffee, but also very young supermarket staff call you things such as “Darling”;

  • that most cafés would be closed on Sundays, and have short opening hours on Saturdays, when I love to have a cup of coffee and a piece of cake (but you will enjoy breakkie here!);

  • why everything has an abbreviation (breakfast=breakkie).

It was clear to me that it would not be the easiest thing to live and study in an English speaking country. I still remember my time in New Zealand. Not only is my vocabulary limited, but I needed to get used to different accents. Another challenge in Australia is the Australians’ “passion” for abbreviation. Names are shortened, people’s first names or names of places, such as Yack (for Yackandandah). But as I already mentioned breakfast becomes breakkie, mosquito mossie, tradesman tradie and so on. But come on, please, what is a sanga or sambo? Did you know it? A sandwich! There you go. The list goes on and on. Last weekend I met a German girl. I picked up the familiar accent in her English, and although I get annoyed by people asking me where I am from, or even more concrete if I am from Germany, I also popped the question. While we were chatting she mentioned that she found it funny and also strange if Germans tried too hard to copy the Aussie slang. Well, if you stay here for a while, you might like to “become local”.

By trying to assimilate to their way of pronouncing words, maybe I hope to also become more familiar with their way of thinking, feeling and life attitude. One morning, I arrived quite frustrated at university. The bus drivers were the source of my frustration for a couple of times: driving off 2 minutes pre-departure time, probably thinking no one would show up anyway which meant to wait for another hour to catch the next bus, or not passing a corner with a bus stop etc. One staff member at the School of Education teased me (one typical thing they love to do), so I almost exploded. I was not in the mood for any jokes. He tried to calm me down and said: “You know, Carmen, Australians can laugh about themselves!” Take it easy! There it was again. Do not be too hard on yourself. Have a cuppa! A cup of mainly referred to tea. Drink tea and carry on?!

Life in Albury

Studying at Charles Sturt University, and especially at the Albury campus facilitates living at the border of New South Wales and Victoria. Melbourne is not even a four hour drive away, but also catching a plane to Sydney is possible. During the heat wave I experienced during my first Aussie summer with 40 plus degrees over weeks, I appreciated the Murray river, today the border between the two states. But as the Wiradjuri, the original custodians of this land always highlight, the river was never a border to them. Anyway, the river brings cold water from the mountains. It is the best way to cool down your body in summer: to jump into the river and float down the current, it is so much fun! However, be careful with the strong current. From spring to autumn, the “Riverdeck café” in Noreuil Park is the best place to be; next to the river, you can enjoy delicious food or a coffee. But one very Aussie thing is to grab your own picnic and meet with family or friends, sit under the trees and have a chilled drink, or even barbeque your dinner at one of the several free gas facilities (all around Australia). The Botanical Gardens are another good spot for a picnic. From September to April, Albury city council organizes live music in the Gardens, BYO (bring your own food or drinks) is always allowed.

When the leaves turn yellow and red, you can go for a drive to Bright and follow the autumn festival. A must-do in the beginning of June is the Winery Walkabout where people dress up and go crazy while tasting the delicious wine from the Rutherglen region. It is like the Oktoberfest and German Carnival put together. In fact, the Rutherglen wine region were established mainly by German migrants.

If you like skiing, the Alpine region is in front of your door step. Mount Buffalo, Falls Creek are closer than a two-hour drive. Yes, there is snow in Australia. In and around Albury, you will experience four seasons, not comparable with German winters though. Sitting on a hillside, CSU campus provides a stunning view in winter time. You can see the snowy peaks of the mountains that surround the area. And if you feel like Christmas in the middle of the year, “no worries” (very Aussie), people celebrate Christmas in July with roast turkey. But you will also enjoy Christmas in December, then with chilled white wine or a beer and grilled prawns. Summertime is festival time in Australia, do not miss the chance to catch one of the many festivals, there is plenty to choose from.

If you are a coffee snob: the best coffee in town you can get is from “Iconic”, the coffee van at the Caltex petrol station, corner to the Botanical Gardens. Serge and Emily provide amazing coffee and small cakes every morning, Monday to Sunday. If you want to combine great coffee with food, go to “Streetbean” (unfortunately it opens only Monday to Friday off the main street combined with the second hand designer women’s fashion store “The Changing Room”), “Elektra Café”, “The Proprietor” or “Mr. Benedict”. If you want to escape to Italy, go to “Patty’s Patisserie” where Patricia and Florin tempt you to indulge yourself in éclairs, macaroons and more calories. Or do you prefer France? No probs, a creperie is just around the corner. However, do not forget that you are in Australia, do not pass on a chance to go to a pub! Maybe go for a parmi (chicken with tomatoes, bacon and cheese on top) or a pie, and do not forget to pour tomato sauce (ketchup) on it. Are you more of a friend of organic, fresh and local food? “Lemonhead” has recently opened in Lavington serving simple ethical food. Every second Saturday, you will also find all you need at the Farmer’s Market at the Gateway Village on the Lincoln Causeway to Wodonga.

Entertainment might not be the same as in a big city, but you can go to the movies or the theatre. The Hothouse theatre showcases the performances in a former butter factory at the Gateway Village; bigger cultural performances can be found at the Albury Entertainment centre or at The Cube in Wodonga. Also, Albury’s Library Museum provides the stage for cabarets, concerts and acrobatic shows, such as “A little bit of shhh!” For rock and singer/songwriter lovers, there is lots of live music at pubs all around town, often for free! If you want to put on your dancing shoes, ZedBar, One Nightclub, Groove Saints etc. offer a range of music styles to suit your preferences. But do not forget the reason why you are here. Studying, right?!

What is another great thing about living in this town? You can actually afford going out because you do not have to pay a fortune on rent. I live in central Albury in a shared flat and pay $125 rent per week! Yay! Central Albury is the best place to live if you want shops and cafés in walking distance. If you like a great view, you will find it in West or East Albury, and if you want to live cheap, there is Lavington, but has the worst reputation. And for those of you, who want to fall out of bed and walk over to uni, but do not like to be on res(idence), Thurgoona is a growing suburb with lots of new houses (hurray for modern heating and cooling systems!). If you want to pay less on car registration, and you have no problem with driving a few kilometers more, than you should consider moving to Wodonga, the twin city. Victoria’s registration on any motorized vehicle is less expensive than in New South Wales. Keep in mind that houses might not be as insulated as houses in Germany, although the weather conditions differ from minus degree in winter nights to 40 plus degrees on summer days. Therefore, it is also wise to check for good cooling and heating systems. New houses with integrated solar energy can decrease electricity and gas bills. And believe me, electricity prices are insanely high.

Social networks

Searching via different internet platforms (easyflatshare, gumtree…), I moved into a small unit in central Albury. Not only did it improve my life in terms of being close to shops, cafés and social and cultural life, I have also found my new family. My housemate is an Aussie guy, a tradie (I would not even have a clue what the word tradie meant before arriving in Australia. Do you? Go back to the section where I describe Aussies’ passion for abbreviation!). Other social networks such as couchsurfing helped me to meet new people outside of the university life.

There are many sport facilities, yoga places, community groups where you can get active but also meet new people and make friends. Community work is part of the culture here. I started the park run a couple of weeks ago. It is a free organized event. People meet every Saturday morning at 8am for a 5km run. You can get registered so they record your running time. (More info: http://www.parkrun.com.au/alburywodonga/ )

My passion for dancing Salsa Cubana offered another opportunity to connect to people in this country town. If you think, only Melbourne and Sydney can offer you great places to party, dance and socialize, never underestimate the power of small communities! (Interested in any kind of dance, ballroom, swing or Salsa, go to http://www.awdancecentre.com.au/ ). My Salsa teacher has become a wonderful friend, and the best thing is, apart from our passion for music and dancing, we share two other important things in our life: being from another continent, and writing a doctoral thesis in a second language.

In fact, the most important friends here are all girls doing their PhD at CSU, some from the School of Education like me, but also from other disciplines. We support each other when it comes to practicing oral presentations, or convincing each other that we can do this, or sometimes leaving study behind and just enjoy life. I would recommend to every international student to find those amazing people in your life abroad who encourage, support and celebrate with you!

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