NOTES FOR PROSPECTIVE RESEARCH STUDENTS

by

 

Dr Jack Pezzey

Fenner School of Environment and Society

Australian National University

 

Last updated on 17 January 2017

 

I seek new Higher Degree by Research (MPhil/PhD) students, of broadly two kinds (as noted below, when you contact me, please say which kind you think you are):

(A) Those interested in economic issues, but with little previous economic training, and wanting to do interdisciplinary research towards the MPhil/PhD in Environment & Resource Management. For this you may choose to enrol initially for an MPhil (which takes 1.5-2 years of research), so as to try the shorter degree first in case you decide that PhD-depth research is not for you, but to plan to upgrade to PhD status after 6-12 months of research, once we're both confident that a PhD is for you. However, some students aim for an MPhil from the outset; but for simplicity, I don't discuss the MPhil in Environment option further below, so please ask me if you need any further details.

(B) those wanting to do research in ecological, environmental or resource economics, ending up with either a PhD in Economics at the Research School of Economics, a PhD in Economics at the Crawford School of Public Policy or an MPhil/PhD in Environment & Resource Management. This means first either:

(i) doing Part A (coursework) of a PhD in Economics (at either the Research School of Economics or the Crawford School see the above links for details), and then moving on to Part B (full-time research) of the PhD in Economics. Because of the coursework required for the PhD in Economics, an MPhil in Economics is not available.

or

(ii) doing one of the Masters programs in the Research School of Economics, or the Masters in Environmental and Resource Economics in the Crawford School at ANU, and then moving onto a PhD in Economics or an MPhil/PhD in Environment. And to qualify for entry to one of these Masters degrees if you have no economics training, you will probably first have to get a Graduate Diploma in economics.

or

(iii) already having a degree or degrees in economics equivalent to PhD Part A, the Master of Economics, or the Masters in Environmental and Resource Economics. (If you already have a few courses in economics but not a whole degree, and want to do an MPhil/PhD in Environment with some economics content, it may be possible and a good idea to audit one or two masters-level economics courses in the first year of your PhD, but these courses typically presume a good deal of prior economics training, so they can be quite tough to take on their own.)

The notes below are to give you further guidance you are interested in applying to do a MPhil/PhD in ecological, environmental or resource economics under my supervision, or wish to undertake an interdisciplinary MPhil/PhD that includes a significant component of economics, or analysis of economic policy.

Ideally, the first step of your application is to browse thoroughly both the general information available on Fenner's Higher Degrees by Research page, and information about the PhD in Economics at the Research School of Economics, the PhD in Economics at the Crawford School of Public Policy or the MPhil/PhD in Environment & Resource Management. You need to understand the substantial differences between these three PhD degrees, since they affect which degree you may be qualified to enter, how long it will take, and what careers it can open up for you; so as noted below, when you contact me, please tell me which degree you wish to do. The second step is to read the notes below. These steps will give you a good idea of the third step(s), which in brief is for you to send me your CV (ideally with course grades for your degrees, since this affects your chances of funding), your research ideas (a short research proposal), a sample of your research writing, and tell me your funding situation; and the requirements of the fourth step, which is for you to submit a formal application.

To be successful in beginning and ultimately completing a PhD you require the following:

1. The funds to finance your studies for at least a three year period;

2. Adequate training in ecological, environmental or resource economics (if you wish to write a thesis with a significant component that involves economic analysis);

3. A well-defined research problem;

4. A supervisor who can adequately supervise your research;

5. The abilities needed to complete a substantial piece of academic research. 

To explain these requirements in more detail:

1.      NECESSARY FINANCE. If you are a well-qualified student and are either a citizen of Australia or New Zealand, or a permanent resident of Australia, you have a reasonably good chance of getting an Australian Postgraduate Award (APA) to fund your studies. If are a foreign student, you can apply for a highly competitive scholarship that covers the fees of foreign students. For further details see ANU's Scholarships page. If you are from a developing country, especially in Asia, you may also be eligible for an Australia Awards scholarship.

2.      ADEQUATE TRAINING. To go straight into PhD level research in environmental/resource or ecological economics you need to have performed well in a Master's (or Australian Honours) degree in economics. You may also need to do additional coursework depending upon your topic, particularly if you have not had courses in environment/resource or ecological economics at an appropriate level. If you do not have the necessary economics background, you may wish to consider first completing either a Masters program in economics or a Master of Environmental and Resource Economics at the ANU. If you would like to do a PhD thesis that involves interdisciplinary research you may need no formal training in economics, but you will need a strong background and training in at least one discipline or approach or topic that is relevant to the thesis. Whatever your background, in your initial enquiry to me please say which degree you're intending to do, and also if you have any thoughts about extra coursework you may need to do at the start of your PhD.

3.    A GOOD RESEARCH PROBLEM AND MOTIVATION. Before I meet or talk to potential students, I like to see some initial idea, in writing - typically a 2-4 page research proposal, with a few references to existing literature - of what research really interests you and motivates you to do a PhD. (It also helps me to know something of your current career goals: after your PhD, do you want to become an academic, return to your existing job, become a consultant, public servant, NGO adviser, etc?) This idea can be developed in stages as our initial correspondence develops. However, for guidance, here's what I'm ultimately looking for in a research proposal, though rest assured that you normally won't achieve all of this until you present your Proposal seminar about 6 months into your PhD! A well-defined proposal should include concise descriptions of:

(a) the general research problem, and why it is interesting;

(b) the part of this problem that you plan to do your PhD research on, and how this would lead to a contribution to knowledge - that is, something new and different which no one else has done before (see also (d));

(c) the methodology and approach you plan to use (mathematical economic theory? state-of-the-art econometrics? basic spreadsheet analysis? policy analysis? interviews and surveys? etc), including any data sources you might need that are not freely and publicly available;

(d) what has already been done by others working in your research area; that is, a literature review. If you have access to on-line databases like Web of Science, EconLit or Australian Public Affairs, it takes no more than an hour or two searching there for keywords to locate recent literature (particularly in refereed academic journals) that's relevant to your topic.

A Master's or Honours thesis can often provide a good start on all these, and also some indication of your research abilities (as mentioned under 5. below). But don't worry, most of the early research ideas that students send me are grand, vague and under-informed about existing work. That's OK to start with, but you will then need to be willing to make some noticeable progress towards (a)-(d) during correspondence or conversation with me before I'll take you on as a student. It also pays to look at my research interests, to see where they might overlap with yours. Regarding the requirement for new knowledge, you must realise that though a PhD may help you save the world or your country's environment, it is not enough just to wish to study ecological or environmental economics and thereby become an ecological saviour. Every PhD must be a contribution to knowledge, and for that to be possible, most research proposals end up a lot narrower and more focused than students' initial idealistic plans. Finding out what other people have already done is a key part of this narrowing, so at some stage in our correspondence I'll be expecting you to do at least a basic literature search if you haven't already done so. You should therefore tell me if you don't have access to the databases mentioned under (d), since this obviously makes a big difference to what literature you can find, and I'll need to take that into account.

4.      ADEQUATE SUPERVISION. Prospective PhD students often do not realise that ecological/environmental/resource economics covers a huge field (not to mention interdisciplinary research in the environment), and that any one academic can cover only a small part of it in their research. Unless your supervisor knows at least something about your research topic, or wants to find out about it so as to develop a new line in their own research, they will not be able to supervise you as well as you would wish. (This is not to say that you must look for an exact fit: as mentioned above in 3., a PhD is all about finding out something new, so inevitably at some stage in your research you will acquire advanced knowledge or techniques that your supervisor does not have.) So you should look closely at the research interests, curricula vitae and recent papers of the main ANU academics supervising in ecological/environmental/resource economics, who are among the academic staff listed on the People page of the Economics and Environment Network webpage. Some of these may not currently have spare capacity to supervise you, but you usually need to contact them in person to find that out. For more about me, see my research interests or use the link below to the rest of my website.

5.    RESEARCH ABILITIES. Students often find it difficult to know if they have what it takes to do a PhD in environmental/resource/ecological economics. A number of general skills and talents are needed: intelligence, curiosity, creativity, energy and perseverance, analytical and modelling skills (depending very much on the precise research proposed), self-discipline, communication and writing skills, etc. Some of these skills you will develop or enhance during the PhD, but you must have at least the minimum training, ability and motivation to undertake a PhD. Obviously I or any other potential supervisor will want to know what your referees say about your research abilities, but you should also expect that we will be testing them out, directly or indirectly, at some stage in our early correspondence and meetings with you. A key indicator of your ability is a recent piece of writing you have done that is both creative and investigative. The obvious example would be a Master's or Honours thesis, some kind of discussion or position paper from your employment, or a conference paper. It will help if you can send me a copy (preferably electronically) as well as a research proposal.

Good luck and welcome to the world of research!

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