Coral Reef Ecology Laboratory - Professor Mark Ian McCormick

Mark McCormack Reef Fish Ecology

Student supervision philosophy

My research usually integrates both field surveys with field and laboratory experiments in an attempt to provide a holistic view of a process. My goal for students is to give them access to the experiences that will enable them to be excellent field biologists. My hope is to develop a high degree of independence of scientific thought, and give the students experience with all the modes of communication of scientific results that make for a good internationally competitive researcher. Doctoral students are encouraged to participate in internal seminar series, local and international conferences. I expect my students to attend research seminars with the school and ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. The more you attend, the better able you will be to put your own research into a broader perspective. It is crucial to expose yourself to research fields outside your own for your scientific development. Because of the emphasis on research publications for funding and post-doctoral fellowship positions, research objectives are devised to represent units that are publishable in international journals. Many PhD students also contribute to popular literature (e.g. Australasian Science) and promote media releases of scientific results through television, radio and newspaper interviews. The 51 completed and 22 present graduates students (Hons, MSc, PhD) I have supervised since 1995 have produced over 140 publications. Most publish in journals with impact factors over 2.5.

How do post-graduate research students determine what they will study?

Research projects are determined through discussions between the supervisor(s) and the student. Funding can at times determine the broad topic of research, but in general there is considerable latitude in determining the subject of research. Usually students have some idea of the fields that they are most interested in, but these are often broad and involve solving all the conservation problems known to coral reef ecology. This is not always possible.
    Employers are not often interested in the specific topic of your research, but rather how well you do, and whether you take the project through to completion (in this instance, a publication in a journal). The main goal of your research, particularly for Honours and Masters research, should be to learn the research techniques, rigorous scientific logic, sampling design, statistical analysis and scientific writing.
    When students are passionate about particular topics that are in line with my interests they can usually be accommodated.

What traits I like to see in my students?

I do not expect all students to be academically first class. In my experience, students that make the best researchers are those that possess the follow characteristics: passion; patience; perseverance; “common sense”; keen observers of nature; and the ability to learn from ones own mistakes.

Sources of Scholarship Funding

Scholarships are not available for Honours and Masters of Science. Domestic PhD students can apply for Australian Postgraduate Research Awards (APRAs), which provide a living allowance and fee-waiver. These are applied for in October each year, with results released in mid December. Currently, allocation of APRAs gives preference to students that have undertaken an Honours and achieved a First Class result. Domestic students that are upgrading to a Masters of Philosophy (research) can also apply for APRAs, but these positions are highly competitive.
    There is no funding to cover a stipend or fee-waiver for Overseas Masters of Science (coursework) or Masters of Philosophy (research) students. Overseas Masters of Science students (who have attained the appropriate grades - see guidelines) that are upgrading to PhD students can apply for an International Post-graduate Research Scholarship (IPRS), which are applied for in late September. IPRSs can also be applied for by students that already hold a Masters degree or a recognized equivalent to an Australian Honours (see guidelines). Candidates should be aware that IPRSs are very competitive and based on undergraduate performance. Having publications is part of the formula that is involved with scholarship allocation. Candidates should look at the JCU website for details of the application process.

Student Research Funding Sources

Research funding for students gets tighter every year. For Honours and Masters of Science Minor Project students, funding usually comes from the supervisor. For PhD students and Masters of Philosophy, funding initially comes from the supervisor, but students are encouraged to apply for their own funds during the first year. This gives students experience writing grant applications, which can be invaluable practice in selling research ideas and their abilities to funding bodies for post-doctoral or job applications. Successful funding applications also give students a funding history for their resume. The funding source depends somewhat on the nature of the project. Successful applications are often those that target research toward the mission statements or priority areas of the funding provider. For example, the Greenhouse office gives money for climate change oriented research and successful applications have included the influence of coral bleaching on fish populations, and the impact of temperature change to fish life histories.

Funding sources are available from the JCU Research Office.

Common sources of funding include:

•    School of Marine and Tropical Biology Doctoral Research Funds (JCU; only available for doctoral students who have completed their confirmation seminar; amount depends upon the year; usually usable for anything).
•    PADI AWARE foundation
•    Australian Coral Reef Society
•    AIMS@JCU - students have to me a member of one of the three research themes. Honours student grants ~ $1000.
•    Australia and Pacific Science Foundation - give variably sized grants for projects that can be oriented toward management and conservation.

•    Ecological Society of Australia - they have a number of research and travel grants for ecological research that is field oriented and applied, up to $6000

•   SeaWorld Research and Rescue Foundation - ask for expression of interest first, then full proposal to the successful few

•    Greenhouse Office
•    CSIRO (a CSIRO co-supervisor is require; these grant also have generouse stipend top up funds).
•    Lizard Island Research Station Doctoral Fellowship (benchfees and airfares to Lizard Is)
•    Australian Society of Fish Biology


Conference Travel Funds

Most domestic and international conferences have funds students can apply for to support their travel to and from conferences. This is done on a competitive basis.

ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. Students need to be members of the Centre, which is usually accomplished by affiliation of the students to a supervisor who is a chief investigator with the Centre.

School of Marine and Tropical Biology - often has one round of competitive travel grants, depending upon available funds.


Key to Student Success

The key to success as a post-graduate student is being organised and working consistently hard. You certainly don't have to be brilliant. You are expected to put in a minumum of a 40h week, and many successful students work 6 days a week. With a maximum of 3.5y for a PhD degree it's not hard to see why this is necessary. If you think this is hard work, then wait until you finish you get a real job!  Also, if you think it's hard work, then you are probably in the wrong field and it may be worth contemplating your alternative options as your post-graduate studies are an opportunity to be doing what you love. It's your enthusiasm that motivates you, since unfortunately, few people get rich by studying Marine Biology! When you have meetings with staff, postdocs, other students even have a note book with you to jot down ideas. Don't be shy about bringing a audio recorder into a meeting; personally I'd rather not repeat myself and I probably won't think of exactly the same idea again (many ideas are lemons, but some may be worth contemplating!).

The trick is to work smart and have good work flow.

Religiously use a bibliographic package. JCU recommends EndNote, and this can be downloaded from the library website click here  for JCU students. Many of the search engines will allow you to export directly into your EndNote database. The Web of Science search engine is available through the JCU library (and off campus), but there many others. For each reference, fill in the Keyword area of the file so that you can potentially search on keywords that are relevant to your project or how you think.

Most publications are sourced as .pdf files nowadays, so make sure you renames these with a sensible name so that you can find them again (each download costs the university money!). For example, use the typical nomenculature for research articles - Longbottom et al 2012a.pdf

Place all the pdfs into a folder in your 'My Documents' area with a sensible name e.g. 'Electronic References'. You can link each pdf to your bibliographic reference within EndNote with 'References- File Attachments'. This means with a click of a mouse you can bring up the reference whilst still in EndNote.

There are a number of good alternatives to EndNote, one of which is Mendeley, which is pssibly a good one to start with if you are faced with the daunting task of having a lot of uncatalogued pdf files. If you direct this software to the folder where you store the pdf it will automatically set up a biblio list with links to the files from the metadata within each of the pdfs (how cool is that!). It also takes EndNote files and files from other major biblio programmes.


Get a copy of Adobe Acrobat Professional (from your supervisor); that allows you to put in Notes and Highlight the pdf files. You can write copious notes in the margins of the pdf this way. Make sure you simply copy and paste these notes into the Notes section of the biblio reference in EndNote; this way you will never lose them (how often have you tried to find a reference within that pile of references that almost touches the ceiling?!).

Try and train yourself to read references off the computer (or tablet) screen, rather than printing out; that way you will always have all the information you need with you when you need to write; and what's more, you'll be able to find it with a computer search. As you read more literature you will start to have new and exciting ideas. Unless you scribble these down in a logical place you will lose them, and it is unlikely that you will ever think of them again!

At the start of your project you and your supervisor will sit down together and map out a framework for your research project. If it is a Masters, then it is equivalent to a minimum of 2 scientific research publications (a PhD a minimum of 4 or 5 publications).

If you know you will have 4 chapters (General Intro, Data Ch1, Data ch2, General Discussion), then open up 4 word documents with headings for each. Put the structure of the chapters into the files (e.g. for the data chapters: title, intro, methods, results, discussion, references). Then, when you read an article, put down the ideas you have concerning your project into the relevant parts of your thesis framework. This may mean cutting and pasting whole paragraphs of text from various references that are particularly relevant (if you do this, make sure you put quotes around them and give the name and date of the author, so you don't bump into plagarism problems!). When you design an experiment, put the design and method down immediately as comprehensive notes in your word document. When you are in the field or laboratory, write notes of what you have done in the document also. Likewise, when you do your analyses, write the analytical methods in your methods section and put summaries in your results section. Remember, Honours students need to put tests of statistical assumptions in an Appendix. If you do this religiously, then you will find that when you come to actually sitting down to right a paper, you already have most of the framework and ideas already there.



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