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Human geography graduates celebrate finishing PhD journey together

School of Geography and Sustainable Communities thrilled with five graduations in one ceremony

Even in the best of times, the life of a postgraduate research student can be challenging and isolating.

But for a group of students in the School of Geography and Sustainable Communities at the University of Wollongong, having a strong community around them and feeling truly valued in their school made the long road to a PhD much less arduous.

Dr Chantel Carr, Dr Elyse Stanes, Dr Charles Gillon, Dr Susannah Clement, and Dr Shaun McKiernan all graduated on Wednesday (31 October) with Doctors of Philosophy.

It is not unusual for a group of students from the same school to graduate together, but they all agree there was something special about this team of PhD researchers.

Dr Leah Gibbs, Head of Postgraduate Studies in the School of Geography and Sustainable Communities, said the small size of the school meant they all knew other well and were an integral part of the overall team.

“It is the newest, youngest school at UOW, and these students have all been with us from the start,” Dr Gibbs said. “We only have about 25 PhD students, so when there are five graduating at once, it is a really special moment for the school.

“Some of the students were undergraduates at UOW, others came to us as PhD students. Every one of the graduating students has helped teach our degree, so they are part of our teaching team.”

People and place are central to the School of Geography and Sustainable Communities – and its research arm, the Australian Centre for Culture, Environment, Society and Space – and all five graduates focused on a different aspect of this central theme.

“Some of the students were focused on environmental questions, social justice issues, greater human rights, but their theses were all about how people interact with places,” Dr Gibbs said.

Dr Elyse Stanes, whose research explored consumerism and clothing choices among young adults, said the sense of community in the school meant the PhD students were encouraged to share their experiences and to know they were not alone when dealing with the stress and struggle of a PhD.

“The very nature of a PhD makes it easy to create a feeling of solitude, isolation and loneliness,” Dr Stanes said. “There were often times when I felt completely trapped in my own mind.

“But while everyone is chipping away with, and getting tied up in their own projects, you quickly learn that your own experiences are not uncommon among other PhD students.

“Notwithstanding the fact that I’m lucky enough to work/study alongside incredibly fantastic people and total legends – for me, the blending and merging of our learning experiences formed the basis of really great friendships – and promoted a reciprocity that helped us deal with problems and complexities, including those beyond the PhD.”

Human Geography PhDs Graduation Main 2Dr Elyse Stanes, Dr Shaun McKiernan, Dr Chantel Carr, Dr Susannah Clement, and Dr Charles Gillon. Photo: Paul Jones


Dr Gibbs said higher degree research students played an integral role in the School of Geography and Sustainable Communities.

“They are really central to our work. They are not secondary to the academics in the school, they are essential to the team and to the sense of collegiality.”

It is a sentiment echoed by Dr Susannah Clement, who said the students always felt their contributions mattered.

“The vibe in the school is one of inclusivity,” she said. “HDR students were always invited to seminars and to school planning days. There were always morning teas, which are a great chance to catch up with each other. We were encouraged to go to and speak at conferences and broaden our academic network.”

During yesterday’s ceremony, Dr Charles Gillon delivered the remarks on behalf of the student body in an inspiring speech that encouraged every graduate to consider the world, the future, and their place in it.

Dr Chantel Carr, whose PhD thesis focused on the Port Kembla Steelworks and the makers communities that have thrived in the aftermath of worker redundancies, was awarded a special commendation for her research.

Although the five students are now heading off in different directions, it is clear their connection will remain for many years to come.

“I feel like I have found my tribe,” Dr Clement said. “It’s a group of passionate, caring and critical thinkers. I feel very proud to have done my PhD here.”

School of Geography and Sustainable Communities 2018 PhD graduates:

Dr Chantel Carr - For her exploration into how economies of thrift, care, and making-do have flourished within the niches and folds created by 20th century industrial capital, in a steelmaking city on the east coast of Australia.

Dr Elyse Stanes - For her exploration of the geographies of clothing and accompanying questions of materiality, care and sustainability, among young adults

Dr Susannah Clement - For her examination into the walking experiences and practices of families living in Wollongong

Dr Charles Gillon - For his examination of home ownership cultures, tensions and dilemmas in a coastal housing development.

Dr Shaun McKiernan - For his examination into the social and cultural dimensions of invasive plant management in Bega Valley