The social-ecological drivers of tree growth and diversity: Interdisciplinary learning with smallholder carbon agroforestry schemes in Mexico, Uganda and Mozambique
This PhD was hosted in the School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh, in partnership with the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) which acted as a CASE partner.
I enjoyed the freedom to direct my own learning and spend time developing new skills that I wanted to gain. It is a very rare opportunity to have the time and space to do this.
What was your research about?
My research aimed to better understand the environmental and social factors that influence the growth of trees in tree planting (agroforestry) schemes in rural agricultural areas of developing countries. I conducted fieldwork to measure trees and interview farmers in Mexico, Uganda and Mozambique, then used methods from ecology and social science to analyse the drivers of variation in biomass. I also examined how to better use scientific and local knowledge in decision making programmes in these types of schemes. I found that social factors around farmer wealth and access to skills influence tree growth as much as environmental factors like water availability. Additionally, adaptive management by local farmers and agroforestry technicians using local knowledge were as important for the success of scheme as more technical knowledge, rules and regulations.
What made you apply to the E3 DTP?
I saw an unique opportunity to spend 4 years focusing on something I was very interested in. I also saw it as an opportunity to learn new skills and strengthen existing ones.
What did you find challenging in your PhD?
The PhD was much more enjoyable than I had been told it would be! It was challenging to balance the huge number of research and training opportunities with the number of hours in the day. I was initially surprised by the level of independence given to PhD students – I was effectively an independent researcher with my own small budget, which was liberating.
Looking back, what would you have done differently?
I would have gone to even more training courses while I had the chance!
Which aspects of your PhD did you enjoy the most?
I enjoyed the freedom to direct my own learning and spend time developing new skills that I wanted to gain. It is a very rare opportunity to have the time and space to do this with such freedom. I also enjoyed meeting such a wide array of people doing interesting things.
Conducting independent fieldwork in Mexico, Uganda and Mozambique. These were unique adventures that I was lucky to have.
Traveling to various summer schools and workshops in the UK, Germany and Chile, where I met a bunch of new people.
Which skills did you gain during your PhD?
The main new skills I gained were in: mixed methods research design; philosophy of science; statistics; GIS; computer programming. I suspect I also improved my organisational skills, given the amount of stuff I had going on.
The PhD helped me understand better the pros and cons of an academic career, and to demystify and be more comfortable with some of the different aspects of academia (e.g. the peer review process, teaching).
What would not have been possible without the DTP?
Students in the DTP had a much higher level of support than students funded by other programmes. This included both basic initial training on how to successfully do a PhD, and specialised courses on particular methods and subjects. The PIP was also a unique opportunity that allowed me to build some contacts in my home country of Australia, which I otherwise would have failed to do.
How has your PhD helped you to decide on a career path?
The PhD helped me to hone in on the research areas I am interested in (and those I am less interested in), as well as to find which methods I have strengths in (and those I don’t). It also helped me understand better the pros and cons of an academic career, and to demystify and be more comfortable with some of the different aspects of academia (e.g. the peer review process, teaching).
I was initially surprised by the level of independence given to PhD students – I was effectively an independent researcher with my own small budget, which was liberating.
I moved straight on to a post-doctoral position at the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University. The position was advertised in the last few months of my PhD, so I applied and was awarded the position on the condition that I submit my thesis before the start date of the new job. I am working on a project doing quantitative and qualitative analyses on the relationship between nature and human wellbeing in several rural developing countries. It is a much broader research topic than in my thesis, but the methods and skills are largely the same. I would not have been successful in applying if it were not for the new skills I learnt during my PhD.