From panic to PhD paradise

Faced with the massive decision of what to do after university, Erik Simmons was in a state of panic. One year later, he recounts the stress, the searching, the breakthrough and how he ended up with the PhD project of his dreams at UQ …

There I was - a fourth-year university student. It was April 2015 and I was still bewildered by what was next for me. This phase of my life I would call: panicking.

Erik and friend at James Madison University.

There I sat, frequently combing through opportunity after opportunity posted on the internet. With the end of the year looming, I knew that the time was imminent to make a decision on my future. The suffocating pressure was nauseating.

Harvard, the university I originally preferred to attend, had delivered no prospect of admittance. And I felt a certain detachment toward the other universities who had already graciously extended acceptance. Panic. Do I accept an offer to pursue something I’m jaded by? Do I fall into the ranks of perplexed millennials who wander aimlessly through post-grad life? I combed the internet with an unrelenting fervor.

I stumbled on the ad by pure happenstance; ironically, through my painstaking analysis of Harvard’s graduate website; a vague, yet titillating description of a PhD opportunity in Australia. Sounds fascinating. I sent an innocuous email expressing my interest. Needless to say, I had very low aspirations of being considered.

Lo and behold, it was to my astonishment that I attracted the eye of the Triple P Innovation Projects team. I underwent a series of interviews to assess my compatibility with the program. At the end of each interview, I would say farewell with an increasing thankfulness for having such a fortuitous venture on the horizon.

Is this really happening?

For months I vigilantly watched my email, waiting to see if I had gained another step in acquiring a PhD spot. Interview after interview, month after month. Until the news came through:

“I am writing to follow up on our interview. I am pleased to confirm that the TPIP team agrees that you would be a great fit for our group."

I would call this phase of my life: elation.

This led to a chaotic explosion of paperwork, bureaucratic stepping-stones, and international forms. It was a race against time to get all of the necessary documentation and satisfy all of the school requirements from across the world. With merely days left before the beginning of my candidature I received my confirmation of enrolment, scholarship, and student visa.

Yes, this is happening.

My name is Erik Simmons and I’m the newly recruited PhD candidate who will embark on a collaborative journey on the research frontier.

I am a recent graduate of James Madison University in the United States of America.

As an undergraduate student, I had an inherent love for the psychological sciences and the craft of writing. In my free time, I find myself constantly gravitating toward new subjects. My academic interests also include physics, philosophy, biology, mathematics, energy innovation, among many others. When I’m not binging on knowledge, I enjoy sports, casual reading, and social gatherings with friends.


My PhD project will be a portion of the Capturing Coral Reefs and Ecosystems Scheme (CCRES), showcased in Changemakers magazine. This World Bank-funded initiative is an interdisciplinary and inter-university effort led by UQ. Our objective is to partner with other countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines to jointly develop tools that will help save the planet’s coral reef systems.

In the scheme, researchers from the Triple P Innovation Project are working with researchers from behavioural sciences, engineering, business and marine environmental management to tackle issues such as food security, sustainability and energy poverty. This blog offers further detail.

The idea is to have the bulk of my involvement be with behaviour change in Indonesia with the Capturing Coral Reef & Related Ecosystem Services project. I envisage a project where I can engage with the locals, other researchers, and experts to develop an inter-disciplinary psychology-based community intervention program to promote sustainable behaviour change, in particular to change the way the Indonesian people interact with the reef that supports their food, industry and tourism. Unfortunately, these ecosystems are under threat from pollution, overfishing, unsustainable development and climate change.

Coral reefs in Indonesia.

While helping the Indonesians build solutions to ecological problems, I hope the program will also contribute to the overall psychological well-being of the people involved.  If we can help change the negative ways people behave toward the coral reefs, the possibilities may be endless for our behavior change.

What drives me

As I considered my options for graduate school, I could not pass up the opportunity to be at the cutting edge of impactful, psychological work. I was more than delighted to learn that I would be working in close proximity to Dr Matt Sanders, a behaviour change icon and one of the most prolific scholars of our era.

The appeal transcended the fixation on my own field, and vision to collaborate with others. There is no greater opportunity in the world than to be able to work with leading scholars, such as the leading ecologist Professor Peter Mumby, systems-thinking experts like Dr Carl Smith, and leaders of exemplary initiatives like Mel King.

"I have fallen into a community of support and excellence."

The prospect of working in close proximity with such brilliant minds was electrifying. And here we all stand in a shared space on the cusp of discovery. As a fledgling academic, this is what I want my legacy to be.

Beyond the nature of my formal experience, it is the atmosphere of UQ and the centre that keeps me engaged. I have fallen into a community of support and excellence. I was told before arriving that my time spent as a graduate would focus more on just a project, but also my development as a scholar, professional, and person.

If my first year is any forecast of the remaining journey, I believe my growth here will be exponential.

Last updated:
7 June 2016