Friendship makes a PhD “less daunting”

27 September 2022

A solid friendship has helped a group of Christchurch students who met in high school make it through their undergraduate degrees.

  • PhD friends

    Connor Melton, Liam MacDonald, Trudy Calje-Van Der Klei (Ngāti Wai) and Baxter Williams have been friends since high school and now they’re all studying towards their PhDs at the University of Canterbury.

Sustainable Development Goals 4 - Quality Education

Now, they’re taking on a bigger challenge, with all four embarking on PhDs at the University of Canterbury this year.

Baxter Williams and Connor Melton were friends in primary school and they ended up in the same Year 10 form class Cashmere High School as Liam MacDonald and Trudy Calje-Van Der Klei (Ngāti Wai).

They quickly bonded through shared interests and their strong academic abilities. “We ended up doing similar classes, we’re all very science-y. We’ve definitely based quite a few of our decisions about what to study on what the others are doing,” Trudy says.

They credit their former teacher, Leigh Barker, who co-ordinates Gifted and Talented Education at Cashmere High School, with helping to set them on the path towards independent research by giving them challenging and interesting projects to work on.

Liam is now studying towards a PhD in Maths, while the other three have all pursued Mechanical Engineering, with Trudy now specialising in Bioengineering. 

They say having support from each other has helped them get through the challenges of student life and was a big part of the decision to start post-graduate study earlier this year.

“I would have had a less enjoyable time without these guys, and I don’t even know if I would be here at all without them,” Baxter says. “Just having a few people that you can say, ‘Hey, I need some help’ to. It was a very reciprocal thing.”

Trudy says having her friends around makes a PhD, which can take three to four years to complete, seem “a bit less daunting”. “I’ve asked the others, ‘Am I crazy for doing this?’ And having them around me means I know it’s not just me.”

Baxter says it’s great having someone to bounce ideas off and ask questions that he might not feel comfortable asking other people.

Trudy agrees: “We’ve gone through our degrees together and we’ve known each other for so long, so we can be totally honest with each other.”

Connor’s PhD is biomedical-based, developing therapeutic footwear for people with plantar heel pain. Baxter is investigating sustainable management of electricity demand and Trudy is working on optimising mechanical ventilation for hospital patients, while Liam’s PhD is in optimisation, currently focusing on gradient descent methods.

While they are in different buildings on campus and sometimes work from home, they keep in touch on social media and catch up in person whenever they can.

They say PhD study is more flexible than they’d expected, giving them the opportunity to fit in their interests outside of academia.

Working towards a PhD isn’t all they have in common, with each of them keen on being in the outdoors. Baxter and Trudy are regular skiers, Connor is a national medal winning distance runner, and Liam is an experienced rock climber who heads out to Castle Hill and Flock Hill whenever he can. Trudy likes to go surfing in the morning before getting into some study at home.

Connor says, unlike with undergraduate studies, there isn’t a feeling of “looming guilt” at the end of the day about having to do more work on an assignment. “Instead, you can treat postgrad studies like a job, and you have more flexibility to fit other activities into your day. I think you get a lot more freedom and personal fulfilment with this sort of lifestyle."

The four students have each received University of Canterbury scholarships towards their post-graduate study. They’ve also had supportive academic supervisors who encouraged them to pursue PhDs.

Part of Trudy’s motivation for doing a PhD was her Māori heritage. She says not many of her whānau have degrees, but her mum who is also studying towards a PhD, in midwifery, is a notable exception.

Liam’s mum, a primary school teacher, recently completed a Master in Speech and Language Pathology from the University of Canterbury.

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