The Doctor Susan Close Session
In this Session, Dr Susan Close talks to us about how taking exception to her supervisors published work led to her own PhD research project (and having him as her supervisor!), why she chose not to use the title of Doctor for a long time in her early political career, what made her decide to use it later on; and some very valuable advice for all students who are making decisions about their future.
I don’t think school kids should feel that pressure of I need to know exactly what I am going to be. The wonderful thing about our high schools is you do a very comprehensive, wide-ranging series of subjects and slowly work your way into the ones that you like the most and you are quite good at. If it is possible to keep doing that in the form of a BSc, a BA, then that is a great next step. If you find that you really like it, and you are good at it, why not see if there is a path to keep going and do postgraduate work which could be a Masters, it could be a PhD. Allow yourself to think, as a high school student, that this might be something you do. Don’t lock yourself in. But feel that you might have that capability and you might be interested and let yourself go on that journey
Listen to the Interview with Dr Susan Close
Q&A with Dr Susan Close…
What is the title of your PhD: The Australian Labour Party 1983-1991: traditions under challenge.
Where did you complete your PhD: Flinders University
What year did you graduate: 1997
What undergraduate degree/s have you completed: BA (Hons)
What is your job title, today: Deputy leader of the South Australian Branch of the Australian Labour Party
Interview with Dr. Susan:
Tamara: Okay. So today we’re talking to Dr. Susan Close. She studied political science at Flinders university and in 1997, she completed a PhD thesis entitled “The Australian Labor Party, 1983 to 1991 Traditions Under Challenge”. Since then she has held positions as an Executive Director at the South Australian Department for Environment and Natural Resources and Manager of Student Services at Adelaide University. Susan: was first elected to South Australian House of Assembly seat of Port Adelaide in 2012, holding portfolios in Education and Innovation, Manufacturing and Automotive Transformation. Since 2018, she has served as the Deputy Leader of the South Australian branch of the Australian Labor Party. In her free time, Susan continues her relationship with Flinders University as an Adjunct Professor of Business Government and Law.
Susan: Thanks Tamara. Great summary.
Steph: If you can just talk about what your current role is, and what your day looks like right now.
Susan: Oh, that’s interesting because it’s so different given the pandemic. My job is to be it’s a multiple jobs, really I’m the member for Port Adelaide. I have an obligation to the people who choose to send me to parliament on their behalf. I am the deputy leader of the Labor party. It’s important that I support my leader, that I am very active with the team and making sure that things are going well for the team. I’m also the holder of a couple of shadow portfolios, Education and Environment, as you may have picked up, they’re the two things that I’ve spent a lot of time doing in my whole life. They’re the ones that I decided to have as my portfolios. My day, if it’s not a pandemic, my day is probably, or, my week is probably up to 30% of interacting with people that might be going to presentation nights of local sporting clubs or graduations, fundraising dinners for, various groups. That’s a little harder right now, obviously. My interactions with people are different and not as many sadly. I spend quite a bit of time thinking about policy, talking to people now using zoom about, know what they’d like to see in education. What’s going on with environment. I had a phone hook-up yesterday about Marine parks, for example, where we really went into what we’re going to do about the government’s proposal, to damage Marine parks. And I’m also trying to spend of time, writing about education. I’m trying to make sure that I don’t lose that capacity to do a bit of research and a bit of writing, but that’s very much kind of my private little project that I just keep ticking over in the background.
Steph: Yeah. Despite the pandemic, trying to be very accessible to people and having conversations
That’s right, and we’re in an age of social media, we’re an age where you can have zoom. I dropped into a, a meeting of the junction community centre, which is a fantastic community centre in my electorate. They had them, their management meeting using that technology. I was able to drop in and as a result, they raised an issue with me that I then raised in parliament. I put that on my Facebook and people have engaged with that. It’s an awful thing that we’re all experiencing, but the technology that we have is softening some of that experience. I couldn’t imagine what this would have been like if it had happened 20 years ago, when email was dial-up.
Tamara: Can we go back and talk about your family? And when did you know that you wanted to go to university? So did your parents go to university and were you always going to be going to university?
Susan: Yeah, look, I’m one of those really privileged people. I’m not a first in family. My mother was first in family. She, my parents are English and my mother came from a pretty poor background, like incredibly hard working and definitely the nicest of the grandparents were my mother’s parents are they were really good people, but they didn’t go to high school either of my grandparents. My mother was very bright born just as the war was starting and benefited from the grammar school system and got a scholarship to Oxford. She was just really dedicated to her education and so were her parents, my father far more privileged background, both of his parents went to university. The fact that my father’s mother went to university, that goes a fair way back, given how old I am, and of course, so he was always going to go to university. Now, he, because he came from a more privileged background, finished school three years earlier than my mother did.
Susan: I’m quite unusual in having a father is three years younger than my mother, because they met at university. It’s one of those foundational stories for our family is that, even with all of the class system going on in the UK, they were able to meet in a place of education. They would never have met otherwise. They came to Australia because my father got a job at Flinders University, not long after it started up. And my mother subsequently did too. The only job that my parents have ever had is Flinders University. I grew up kind of, I’m going to go to Flinders University
Tamara: So, they moved you for a job that really, when it came for a job.
Steph: You went to university straight after high school.
Susan: I did. I kind of hit a wall after second year, so it’s even more so the case now, but even then year 11 is quite taxing. Your 12 is very demanding. I’ll never go back to that. That was, that was the worst. My son is doing year 12 at the moment. I just feel for him so much in the pandemic. Well I think it’s a get out of jail free card in some ways. It’s like, well, we’ll never know what I would have got, but anyways, so, your 12 is really demanding. First year uni, it’s just a whole different universe of the way that you study a year in second year. I just went, I can’t like, there’s gotta be more to life. I like to say the only good thing that 60 minutes has ever done, I watched a 60 minutes show about Greenpeace and the work that they were doing. And I went, I’m going to go and do that. I went part time, did third year, over two years. I did honours over two years and I volunteered occasionally was employed by Greenpeace and just became an utter greening. That saved me, the people I met then, and my engagement. Also when you’re studying, if you have to do something else at the same time, you’re a bit more efficient with your work. I think. It didn’t do any harm to my degree other than I took longer. Yeah, I love study, but I’ve never been able to just study.
Tamara: It gives you an outlet and it gives you an opportunity to have a fresh mind when you sit down to it. I think to have other things.
Steph: It gives you a bit of perspective as well, if you’ve never been in the wider world, when you’re at university, you’re your perspective might be a bit more narrow.
Susan: That’s so true. One of the subjects I was studying was politics. To be engaging in politics, as well as studying it has kind of enriched both. Yeah.
Tamara: Yeah. Did you know that you wanted to study politics when he left school? Is that, was that always your ambition?
Susan: No, although I joined the Labor Party at 15, so kind of inevitable in a way. I, in that I was in year 11 and Bob Hawk won the election in 1983 and I got all excited and I want to be… this is the thing I get excited and enthusiastic. And I joined up. It was the Labor party and then it was Greenpeace. I didn’t think about studying politics initially. I didn’t know anyone who’d studied politics. I started with a very broad degree. So, I did three years of French. I did a year of Italian in first year, and I did two years of biology because I loved biology at school and I love the environment. I started politics in second year and caught up so that it became my second major really quickly because I suddenly went, Oh, this is what I’m supposed to be studying. I love this.
Tamara: Yeah. So it’s nice. You can have that sort of, that light goes on. It doesn’t have to be at the end of school.
Steph: What was your undergraduate degree at the end of all that?
Susan: Yeah, so it was a Bachelor of Arts and it was in the days, I think you can kind of still do this, but it was very much, you didn’t do name to degrees back. It was a BA and I did, Politics, and French were my two majors. The third line was made up of a bit of Italian and a bit of biology. Brilliant. I still speak of it. They trot me out now. When we are doing work as a Labor party and we’re doing a video because we can’t go to a functions, there’s all, you can speak Italian and it’s brilliant. You never waste anything that you’ve learnt. I find.
Steph: After your bachelor’s, did you go on and you did a…
Susan: I did an honours in politics. That’s right. Yeah. That was partly, I had a sense that I hadn’t grown up enough to go out into the world yet. That’s actually when we get to it while I kept doing the PhD. Also there’s a sense of kind of completing the Bachelor’s was to finish it off with the honours. At the end of honours, I went around a, Australia in a combi van for three months, which was great fun. I came back and I went straight into the PhD and look, I, I didn’t ever think I’d do a PhD. It was never part of the plan. I never wanted to be an academic because that’s what my parents did. I was going to do something different, but there were no jobs. This was a time when, the State Bank had happened, where there were no public service jobs in South Australia. I was very committed to staying here. I put in an application for the Commonwealth public service, but I wanted to be based here. They didn’t have any jobs here at all. They’re like, would you come to Canberra? I sometimes reflect what would have happened if I’d gone, but anyway, no jobs. And there was a scholarship. It kind of seemed a simple thing to go, well, just keep studying for a bit longer. I kept up my activism with the wilderness society by. I was married, I was renovating a house. There was a pretty full life going on, which is my excuse for why it took me quite a long time to finish my PhD.
Steph: Your PhD project was with a scholarship. Did that then dictate what your topic could be or should you have complete freedom?
Susan: Absolutely. It was a Flinders Uni scholarship, and it was basically at a couple of hundred dollars a week, which was thing. And, a bit of tutoring and just go for your life. So I was very grateful. I’ve been, I have so many reasons to be grateful to my university, not least that I’m Australian because they employed my father and also then they employed me.
Tamara: When did you come to your topic and what w so we’ve just read out your thesis title, but what was the question that you were going to answer?
Susan: Well, here’s kind of how it evolved. As I said, I’ve been a member of the Labor party for a long time, and they were very exciting times if you’re of that political persuasion, the Hawke / Keating government changed Australia, Whitlam changed Australia, but in this kind of flash that disappeared the magic of the Hawke / Keating government was that it lasted long enough for a whole lot of reforms to bedded in. Whitlam had put in a version of Medicare, but it was taken out again by the liberals when they came back in the fact that Hawke and Keating did so much work early and then, embedded it, Medicare became something that people would not allow anyone to take away. Exactly. Success is success in a way, you win elections. That actually makes a difference, to the longevity of the reforms that you make. That was very shaping of my entire time of being at university. The fact that there was this government, and I was active in the Labor party. Dean Jaensch was my supervisor at, in my honours as well, and is a lovely human being had written a book that I took exception to. I took umbrage with it, which was the Hawke Keating hijack, which basically said the Hawke and Keating had come and completely upended the Labor party. It was nothing like Labor, and they’d kind of turned it into a different entity. And I thought that was wrong. I wrote an entire thesis, with him as my supervisor, saying that was wrong. And he was such a gentleman. He employed me to do some research for him. We had a bet on the 1993 election because he thought that Keating would lose. I thought probably, he was saying, Oh, your heart, it’s your heart, not your head, but I was right. We won. It was a tremendous time in my life. And that’s really what thesis is about. The idea that there is an, there is a kernel of what it means to be in Labor that exists, but it looks different according to the times that you’re facing. The idea of Laborism, of supporting the workers, of pushing power from the top down has never gone away. The guise in which you see that the policies, can vary and, very much so the freeing up of the economy, the introduction of real competitiveness in our economy was incredibly painful for Australia, but almost certainly is the reason that we had until the pandemic 30 years of uninterrupted growth, that Labor did that really hard work. It did look different, but it delivered because Labor was able to sit down with the unions, and was able to have an accord with business and the unions and to shake up this country and modernize it. And I feel that’s a fundamentally Labor project, and that’s what my thesis was about.
Tamara: Does your thesis sit in the library at the parliamentary library?
Susan: It does in, Oh, it probably is in parliament. It’s at Flinders as well. When I was the candidate for Port Adelaide. I know of one, I won’t name the person, but one former member of parliament who went and borrowed it to have a look, because they told me someone’s come and had a look at your faces. I think just like, who is she, what is she up to?
Susan: I mean, one of my, probably abiding regrets, although I don’t spend any time thinking about it is I never did anything with thesis. I was sick of it by the time it was finished, I was working at the university of Adelaide. I didn’t even go to my graduation, which is a very small, funny story. But I didn’t go. And I, I, because I’d moved on. So it was done. Thank you very much, but I’m now, in fact, I remember I was at the graduation working as the director of Wirltu Yarlu, which is the Aboriginal organization within the University of Adelaide that supports Aboriginal students. I was the non-Aboriginal, acting director while the director had an illness that she needed to go and take care of. They were recruiting; it was then Roger Thomas. It became Roger Thomas. This little window, so that filled my life.
Susan: What happened was I thought, well, I can’t, I don’t really want to go to graduation. Little, did I know my future would be sitting at other people’s graduations? And I, I’d had my bachelor’s graduation. I had my honours graduation and I couldn’t be bothered. I was busy. I had a moment of regret because my poor mother sits at Flinders graduations when she was in an academic, she’d sit there and watch everybody else’s child do this. I thought, Oh, the poor thing I should. I phoned up and they said, Susan: , we would love to give you the possibility of doing that. But it was this morning. So I managed to forget the date as well. It wasn’t meant to be
Steph: So you didn’t wear the floppy hat?
Susan: No, but as minister for education, I went to a graduation and they dressed me up because I was the speaker and I had a photo taken and I gave it to my mother.
Steph: You didn’t walk across the stage, but you were on the stage with the hat on
Steph: You talked about the question that you answered, but how did you answer that question? So what was your methodology?
Susan: So it was a combination of primary and secondary research as you’d expect a lots of reading of other writers who were analysing at the time, Paul Kelly, who I think still writes for the Australian, but had written in a very important book called “The Age of Uncertainty”, that I found very useful. There’ll be dozens of other books that I’m not no longer recalling, of course. But I also did interviews. I went to Canberra and interviewed various politicians interviewed Neil Blewitt while he was still here in South Australia in the member for, I think it was called Elizabeth then certainly in that area, and asked them how they felt Labor had changed and how it hadn’t changed. The Labor party, particularly at that time, still to a degree had incredible intellects. To interview Neal Blewett, who’d been a professor at my University to interview at Barry Jones, was really a privilege to get their insight from the inside of the Labor party. It was really, just a big kind of brawling argument with my supervisor. It was fantastic. It’s very good for you to have a supervisor who wants you to succeed but doesn’t necessarily think that everything he was saying is right. It’s really good process.
Tamara: It must’ve been interesting for him marking chapters going, I don’t know if I necessarily agree with that, but I will just let it fly….
Susan: The important thing is have you sustained an argument and that’s what he was there for. And yeah, he was absolutely tremendous. And so yeah.
Tamara: Did you interview Hawke or Keating?
Susan: No, I didn’t. I had, I should have had the audacity to ask them shouldn’t I, but I didn’t even think that would be possible. I met Bob walk many years later and told him what I’d written and he was just so generous and sweet. Yeah. He was a good man in many ways.
Steph: What are some of the challenges that you encountered during your PhD?
Susan: The challenges were largely my own challenges who I am. I am not a natural student in the set or academic in the sense that I don’t particularly like working alone. I like being part of a team. In fact, I think that’s evolved. And now in, I’m now in my fifties and I’m much more willing and in fact, crave a bit of alone time. Back then, in my early twenties, I wanted to be part of a group. So, it’s great having a supervisor, but in the end, a PhD is a very lonely task. It is your work. I found I was fighting against myself and when I finished it and got it through the pride I felt was not an intellectual pride. It was a conquering of myself, pride that I was able to do something that wasn’t naturally something that I relished and that felt good. There were, I’m sure. It’s so ago now, but I’m sure that there were a whole lot of methodological issues. I think I went for a little while on a journey where I thought I might do a survey and then I pulled back and didn’t so a lot of dead ends that happen in research that can be kind of, dispiriting yeah.
Tamara: It’s a few, it’s a few steps back.
Susan: Isn’t it having the courage to do that is a part of the growth of doing a PhD. Yeah.
Tamara: I think it teaches you resilience.
Susan: Yeah. I, I say I never really did anything with the PhD, so I didn’t do any publications, but I did do something because I had the rest of my life and it, doing it shaped that profoundly. It shaped my understanding of what I’m capable of, including doing things that I don’t really like doing, which is very important in success. And also, kind of ridiculously in a way it is a shorthand to people thinking that you’re smart and that’s silly because I know some pretty silly people who’ve done PhDs. Also, I know really smart people who haven’t gone to uni at all, or, just did their ordinary degrees, but nonetheless, I’m sure that I’ve benefited from, Oh, Doctor.
Steph: Do you want that title out when you…
Susan: No in fact, when I first stood for politics, I was in a very difficult fight because although Port Adelaide is a brilliant seat and it’s a good Labor seat, it was a by-election and it was a tough by-election. I was completely unknown. Although I’d lived in the area for 10 years at that point, but, I’d been busy, I’d had children, I was working. I wasn’t known in the community and the local Mayor who was very well known and had grown up in the area, decided to run as an Independent and by-elections are when independents win safe seats from governments, which is what were. So that was really tough. He used my title as a weapon. Doctor Susan: . Like it was some of ‘she’s an elite’. I’ve never wanted to use it that way. I now have it in parliament as my title, because I didn’t want to have the Hon. This is a weird side alley, but I don’t like that politicians are called honourable because it implies the others aren’t and not all politicians are honourable, let’s be honest. After I stopped being a Minister I was allowed to choose, did I want to ask to keep the title? And I said, no.
Susan: My title reverted to Doctor, Oh, that wasn’t necessarily what I was after either. But I am OK with that
Steph: Well you earned that
Tamara: Yes. Someone said yesterday, the first time they heard someone use it was when they got on a plane and they said, Oh, Dr. Furber.
Susan: I have had experience on international flights where the attendant has come up and said, so what your doctor are you and I’ve realized, no, they’re not actually interested that I’ve got a PhD. They want to know if I’m a medical doctor.
Steph: Yeah. Actually that’s why I revert to somebody who’s Oh, a doctor don’t I, Oh, not a real doctor,
Susan: Which is ironic because actually it’s the other way around. Yeah. But, but for all intents and purposes, we are not useful doctors in a very tight situation.
Steph: I can’t help you with your heart attack, but I can talk about how prevalent it is in society and social determinants that lead to heart attacks.
Tamara: You said your challenge, one of the challenges was the loneliness, but, and that you were, the excitement. Was there an exciting part other than getting to the finishing line?
Susan: That’s a really good point. And the life was exciting. A loneliness in my work, on the PhD, but loved the other students I was with, as you can tell, really loved my supervisor, loved being part of academic life. We all tutored, to supplement the scholarship. And I really enjoyed that. I, that was a very golden time for me, the academic student experience. And I look back on it fondly. I’m really glad I did it. I was lucky. I was lucky. I largely escaped HECS. I think the second year of my honours part time got HECS so I’m one of that generation and I’m so grateful and so sad for kids now that the pressure…
Steph: It’s ironically called HELP now. Which stands for higher education loan….
Susan: Oh is it?
Tamara: I actually studied my undergraduate degree in Edinburgh. So, because I had lived there for seven years, I was actually a resident, so I didn’t pay for my undergraduate degree. I came here and I didn’t pay for my PhD. I am also very privileged and very fortunate. I think my kids are just like, Oh, maybe we should…
Steph: Let be paying off my HECS debt for at least the next six or seven years. I at least managed to get through before the big uprise at a 25% increase I got through before that. I feel quite privileged to have only paid $40,000 for my education.
Susan: The consequences, on what you can do with your income, because it’s been constrained. Can you invest in a house? Can you travel, volunteering, experiment a bit with your career. Also what you study, I’m sure is constrained by the fact that people now paying for it and the rise of the name degrees, the rise of professional courses, rather than general degrees like mine. I mean, what did I think I was doing with Politics, French, Italian, and biology. I wasn’t thinking about what I was going to tell you that I was always feeding my brain and my personality, and I worry very much that we don’t give young people that opportunity as easily now
Tamara: because yours must’ve been a really rich experience to be able to explore politics and humanities and languages, social sciences.
Susan: I don’t know if the Flinders, layout, but, so there’s a Lake in the middle and I was on three points around that Lake. So I wasn’t, I’ve never been fitter. Yeah. Up and down, stairs…
Steph: Reflecting on all the work you did do in your PhD. Even though you didn’t have any publications that came out of it, what was the value of your project? So what came out of it?
Susan: Yeah. To other people, I’m not sure, I guess you’d have to go to one of the libraries that has copied products and see if people get anything out of it, but it has informed, well, as I said earlier, it’s informed me, helped me grow. It gave me, an acceleration in how I was able to get into my career when I did start it. Also, it’s in the contents of, it has informed me as later on a Labor politician. And I give a lot of talks. I’m last night I was on a subbranch meeting on zoom as the guest speaker. I’m not saying that every single time, what I, that period I studied it is relevant, but it’s remarkable how often it is because it was so shaping for Australia, but shaping for the Labor party. And, there was part of my thesis was looking at the faction system. I went on this weird experience, for a while. I think I was president of the party at the time. We decided that we’d go to subbranches as a right member, the right member of the left in a, an unaligned member and give talks about factions. What I’d done in my PhD gave me a lot broader sense than just my own personal experience. There were a lot of people that have heard me speak and a lot of that’s been informed by the PhD. So it might not be direct. Here’s my publication, but it’s informed who I am. And that’s informed people that are lucky enough to hear me.
Steph: And you are really well located to really make an impact. And we want our politicians to be educated and experts.
Susan: Now of course, my association with Flinders Uni, I have not given any lectures this year because of the pandemic, but in the last couple of years have given a number of seminars and lectures about my experience but informed, by my understanding that I gained through my study.
Tamara: And so do you, you use many of your research skills in your role now?
Susan: Yes. I don’t know once you’ve gone through university and particularly through the rigors of a PhD, I don’t know that you ever don’t think that way. In particular, when I am contemplating a policy area, I’m quite methodical about how I equip myself with the knowledge that’s necessary. With becoming a minister, you don’t, unless you’re the premier and the deputy premier, you don’t get to choose what you’re going to do. The premier forms of your, the leader in know, position forms of you and you’re given it. In 2014, when we formed government, I’d been a backbencher for a couple of years leading up to that. The premier, Jay Weatherill rang me up and said, I’d been selected to be on the front bench. He said, okay, so what you’re getting is, and just read it out and I’m scribbling down.
Susan: It was that Manufacturing and Innovation, portfolio, and Trade briefly, which is another story. I didn’t know anything about it, but I was not an ignorant person. That’s the idea of politics is that you don’t have experts because they can’t, you can’t always have, a doctor or a nurse or a physiotherapist be the head of health, which one would you choose if you were to, or an epidemiologist, perhaps? So you can’t have the, an expert, you what you’re supposed to be as an intelligent generalist, but once you’re given the portfolio, you need to learn a lot about it pretty quickly. You’re just less than a year later, Jay phoned me up again and said, so Tuesday you’ll be Education Minister, absolute gold I often say to people, and it was my, just the most extraordinary experience of my career. It would probably never bettered being Education Minister here for three years.
Susan: I had to learn to be education minister while being education minister. To do that, I needed to be able to research. I needed, I read a lot. I essentially interviewed people, although they thought I was just having a conversation with them. I built up a picture of how does this work and what isn’t working. That’s what a PhD really is trying to understand how the thing that you’re looking at works, and whether there are ways that don’t work that could be fixed or what the critiques are, what the major philosophies are. That’s the approach that I took, I think was very much informed by having been at university and particularly doing a PhD.
Tamara: She had to not, I suppose, not just throw the first thing at it to be able to really think about critically, think about, and look at where, what works in other places.
Susan: And where’s the data? What happens when you’re a minister in particular, it’s, you’re much freer and opposition is that there’s an entire department that has seen ministers come and ministers go, and they tell you essentially out of the best of their good natures, they tell you what to think. That isn’t necessarily the only way to think about it. You have to have the capacity to interrogate and show me the data and critical thinking is the golden skill, right. That doesn’t look right. I that doesn’t make sense to me because I know this, go away to think about it some more, tell me again, in a different way, or have another look at the data. It very useful to have had those skills. Now there are a range of skills that make a good minister, and you don’t have to have been an academic, but that was my path. I used my knowledge and my approach.
Steph: Do you think you’d be where you are now without a PhD?
Susan: It’s the unanswerable, isn’t it? Where, how much does your past, every element of your past is essential to get you where you are? Probably I, I, it was probably essential. It’s certainly very shaping.
Tamara: We’ve talked about your experience. Did you feel like, that you needed to make any sacrifices or, any compromises along the way while you were doing your PhD?
Susan: I guess I, in the early years of having proper work, I wondered if I had, was behind that if I had started work earlier, would that have been better for me, but that’s, again, it’s unknowable, isn’t it? But no, I, I have no negative feeling and no real regret about those choices.
Tamara: And would you do it again?
Susan: Well, I, I would tell my younger self to do it again. I’d probably say to have a bit of a hurry up
Steph: How long did it take you to complete?
Susan: I can’t actually remember when I started it.
Steph: Well, and I couldn’t find that information online.
Susan: That’s interesting. I probably suppressed it in some way. Not that friends with Google. So it took at least five years. Yeah I think around five. Yeah, so that would be about right. Three years of a scholarship.
Steph: Now three years is how long are you get? Could you have done the PhD you did in three years?
Susan: A normal human being definitely could have. Therefore, I should have been able to, but I was on a journey and I needed that time in a way that was just how my understanding unfolded and what else I was doing in my life unfolded. I didn’t stop being active with the environment movement during the time. For example, I didn’t stop being active with the Labor party. I would have been unwilling to make that sacrifice too, and I might not have been successful because I don’t like being alone that might’ve pushed me to go, well, actually, I’m not going to finish it. For me, it worked the way, it was a different circumstances. You find something in yourself, don’t you and your succeed anyway, usually, but I’m glad I had it the way I did.
Tamara: For anyone who is contemplating, a PhD who is listening. Obviously if somebody asks you at probably it comes down to the individual, but for people who are listening, what would you say about if they’re thinking about postgraduate studies?
Susan: I think, it depends on what you’re sacrificing to do it. I was in the best possible situation to do it. Now it, if you’re having to spend a lot of money to do it, or you’re giving away an opportunity to have a career, for a period of time, that’s quite a big sacrifice with an unknown payoff. I certainly wouldn’t say that a PhD is the only way to be successful and to have used your university time. An undergraduate degree is a very useful thing to have, and you learn a lot and you get a lot of the discipline of study from it, if you do it properly, however, if you can find a way to do a PhD and it’s something that calls to you, it is a source of quiet pride that you can have. You’ve done the thing that is the ultimate in your study experience, you’ve got the PhD. So don’t feel trapped by it. Don’t think that if you don’t do a PhD, then somehow it’s not worth having been at university. It isn’t necessary, but if there’s a way to do it and you have the desire to do it, certainly if you start it, finish it because you’ll always regret that. A lot of my friends and I would say they were academically much brighter than I was. Didn’t finish. It’s a really hard road to not just start one, but to finish one. If you’ve started, please finish it, you will feel very good about that.
Steph: What about the kids at high school, who might be thinking about a future pathways, and making the decision of going to university and then what to study when they get there?
Susan: Look, and I’ve always said, I never knew what I wanted to do when I grew up, but the point is not to necessarily have the answer to the end of the story, but it can’t be nothing that you’re doing today, tomorrow, and next week, you must be doing something and that something takes you to the next stage and the next stage. I don’t think that kids should feel that pressure of, I need to know exactly what I’m going to be. Some do. Some have got a really strong little light inside them, and that’s fabulous, but lots don’t. They shouldn’t feel that means that there’s nothing they can do. There’s always something. Do the thing you’re interested in if you can.
Tamara: Maybe the take your path of a pure Bachelor of Arts degree and not one of the professional degrees and feel your way from there.
Susan: I finished school at 17, just turned 17 when exam started in year 12. I was a little younger than summer now, but I was probably even younger in the sense of being quite immature and I needed just to keep growing. The wonderful thing about our high schools is that you do a very comprehensive wide-ranging series of subjects, and you slowly work your way into the ones that you like the most and you’re quite good at. If it’s possible to keep doing that in the form of a Bachelor of Science, Bachelor of Arts, if it’s possible. I appreciate it’s a luxury for a lot of people, then that’s a great next step to take. If you find you really like it, and you’re good at it, why not see if there’s a path to keep going and do postgraduate work, which could be a master’s. It could be a PhD and allow yourself to think as a high school student, that might be something you do. Don’t lock yourself in but feel that you might have that capability and you might be interested and let yourself go on that journey. I just I’m so conscious of how much harder it is now, financially for students. I, I feel for them, but if you start a professional degree and you really hate it, that’s not a great place to be either. If you just need a year or two, the great thing about universities is how flexible. If you don’t know what you want to do, or you haven’t quite got the ATAR to get you into the law or the engineering or whatever, start on a general degree, enjoy that first year or two do well. You can translate that into the professional degree. Even though that means that you don’t have the BA or the BSc, you do have what you’ve learned doing it.
Susan: Take advantage of the flexibility of our university system. I would say also the vocational system, it’s not as integrated as I’d like, but you can start at TAFE and TAFE is excellent and has a lot of courses. Frankly, if you’re looking at something like being an electrician and you look at electrical engineers, the way that technology goes now, they are merging. Just because you think that at the moment, you’d like to do something that is more labelled vocational doesn’t mean that university won’t be something you’re interested in later. There’s a lot of pathways from TAFE, a lot of pathways to just enjoy all of them.
Steph: Have you had a chance to reflect on your PhD journey before?
Susan: Never! No. It was all finished and in the past. Oh and now I’m being labelled Dr. Close….
Steph: We are asking people; do where your thesis is in your house? I know it’s in a library.
Susan: Do you know why I know where it is because you asked me what the title wasn’t it. I went and I took a photo of it and brought it into work so that I could type it in and tell you both what it was called. I think I recall what it was about, I just couldn’t remember what title I said.
Tamara: So, does it sit on a bookshelf.
Susan: Yes, yes. We have an office at home that my partner and I both have little computers set up in. Actually, we have books in every room. I’ve noticed that books are no longer a decorative item that you can go into people’s houses, it’s like, they’ve been abandoned or abolished a little bit. They’re not. Whereas when I look even in the bathrooms, there’s something to read, everywhere. But yeah, the thesis sits over in the corner along with my honours thesis.
Tamara: Well, it’s nice that it got an outing this week.
Steph: And then the last question,
Tamara: Last question is, I really it’s about myths that you hear about, PhDs or academics, something that you hear that, not to be true and that you’d like to kind of set the record straight on.
Susan: Well, I mean, I, I guess I said the kind of myths you don’t want me to say, which is that people assume you’re smart and that doesn’t necessarily equate. I guess there’s different kinds of intelligence, right?
Steph: Maybe a PhD shows one kind of intelligence,
Susan: It a hundred percent does. It’s not like you can be a complete fool to achieve a PhD, I presume it’s just, it doesn’t necessarily mean a very broad or a widely applicable intelligence. I guess the myth is the inaccessibility of academics and I’m lucky I’ve grown up with academics. They’re, they’re often quite interesting and strange eccentric is a word that leaps to mind. But they are lovely human beings. It’s not a hugely well paid, well it’s a well-paid job, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not a hugely, well-paid or high-profile job. It’s a job people do because they have a dedication to the subject and dedication to passing that on to students. They tend to be just genuinely well motivated, caring about the students before them. If you’re a, and if you’re doing year 12 at the moment, and you’re contemplating going to uni and you find those academics just horrifyingly remote, and you don’t know how you could talk to them and that’s not the right.
Susan: I’m sure there are a few…
Steph: It is so thrilling when you get an email, it’s like you noticed me. You saw I was in this field and you emailed me.
Susan: The vast majority of academics that I’ve known being a student and working at the University of Adelaide for a while. Still, some of my very good friends from there, they care about people. They care about their students in particular. Regard them as accessible and also love talking about what they know about. So, ask them questions.
Tamara: Yes. Yeah. Well, we have learned through this project is that academics like talking,
Susan: It’s how to edge away politely that’s the skill you need sometimes.
Tamara: As opposed to on the, and on the, in a similar vein is all those people that not necessarily teaching students, but are doing what they love for the good of humanity, and then not they’re out to destroy lives, especially the way we think about science and anti-intellectualism at the moment. It’s the whole, Oh, they’re going to all these people, they’re killing us with their vaccines. It’s like, no. These people have dedicated their entire life to helping.
Susan: I am stunned that in a pandemic, there are seriously, anti-vaxxers still. The idea that the one thing that could make this go away is not regarded as being a good for people is remarkable.
Steph: How can a vaccine, be scarier than what we’re experiencing right now?
Susan: Exactly! Polio, smallpox, measles, but yes, academics, the researchers are there for the benefit of humanity almost exclusively, and they should be treated with respect.
Tamara: Totally. Cause you cannot ever step into a PhD and have that grit and motivation if all it is about yourself.
Susan: That’s right.
Steph: Yes. And there’s no pot of cold at the end of this either. So yeah,
That’s not to say that again academics can’t be a little self-absorbed – they are human.
Susan: I have heard that politicians like to talk about themselves a little bit, too. I am not sure if that is true.
Tamara: Okay. Well thank you so much and should hear from you. It’s really amazing to hear from you and thank you for your time and your generosity and your stories, and just thank you.
Susan: Thank you.