At the end of a PhD what you really learn is how much you don’t know

Matthew undertaking a beach surveyMatthew Phillips is undertaking his PhD at WRL on the topic of beach recovery following storm erosion toward improving an understanding of post-storm beach morphodynamics.

Using unique Coastal Imaging and fixed Lidar datasets, his work has provided valuable insight into the nature and forcing of beach recovery including post-storm sandbar, shoreline and berm morphodynamics on wave-dominated sandy coastlines. Initial outcomes of this research have been recently published in the Journal of Marine Geology

Why did you get into engineering?

"To be honest going into my last year of high school I didn’t really know what engineering was. It was actually my year 12 design and technology teacher that had the foresight that I might like environmental engineering and suggested it as a next step after school. I took her advice on board and put in my university preferences with environmental engineering at the top. She was right! I liked it so much I’m now doing a PhD in it. I am thankful to have someone who knew me well enough to point me in the right direction when I wasn’t sure where to step."

What do people not understand about what you do?

"I have done a lot of beach surveys as part of my PhD where I go out on the beach with surveying gear and measure how the sand has moved since we last measured it. At first some people think the surveying gear is a metal detector, others think you are taking photos for google earth, others ask what the water temperature and quality is like, while others just have no idea what you are doing and are curious enough to ask. They usually get it pretty quick once you get a chance to explain yourself.

People are sometimes surprised when I mention that I look at how the sand comes back to the beach after storms. Most are familiar with the rapid erosion that storms cause on our beaches, either through the media, past memories of large storms or school geography lessons. Less are aware that beaches can progressively recover after a storm."

What advice would you give to prospective civil or environmental engineers interested in undertaking a PhD?

  • "Pick a topic that you are passionate about. PhD’s are not always smooth sailing. They involve hard work, many dead ends and will absorb your mind. Being passionate about your topic will keep you motivated when your work is challenging and make it more rewarding as you progress and find results.
  • Data analysis can be overwhelming but you don’t need to solve all the world’s problems at once. Have research objectives that you can work towards in small achievable steps.
  • Learn to re-evaluate your direction when you get stuck. Take a step back and find another path to try toward your research objectives.
  • Take opportunities to pick up new skills throughout your PhD. Whether it be computer programming, using new instruments, journal paper writing, public speaking etc.
  • Avoid isolating yourself. Be sure that you have regular contact with your supervisors. Also try to work in an environment alongside other PhD students in similar fields if you can. It’s always good to have someone you can bounce ideas off, or at least verbalize your thoughts to.
  • Keep a balanced lifestyle. PhD’s can get mentally absorbing but your mind needs to rest. Find a hobby, past-time, sport or something to do to take your mind off it and get you away from the computer screen.
  • As my supervisor advised me, at the end of a PhD what you really learn is how much you don’t know."
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