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Rhianne Scicluna

PhD student at the School of Psychology
Rhianne Scicluna is a current PhD/Doctor of Philosophy student at the School of Psychology. She shares why she chose to study psychology at the University of Sydney and how a scholarship has assisted with her studies.
Rhianne Scicluna

What is your background/study journey?

After finishing year 12 I was faced with the dreaded question; ‘what do you want to with your life?’. Something I didn’t realise, was that I would chop and change many times and that the question should really be ‘what do you want to do for the next few years.’ Naturally, I chose a Bachelor of Advanced Science, a relatively generic degree that satisfied my interest for all things science.  

After completing my first year of this degree, I realised I was particularly fascinated with the brain and human behaviour. So, I made the decision to transfer to a Bachelor of Psychology (with honours).

In my third year I began scouting out potential supervisors for my honours year. At this point, I was interested in psychiatric disorders and wanted a supervisor with interests that aligned with mine. At the end of my third year I met my honours supervisor, a behavioural neuroscientist with an interest in drug addiction research. I conducted a year of honours research in his lab, realising that hey, I kind of love research.

After honours I took a year off study, working as a research assistant in my supervisor’s lab and traveling Europe. Before I left for Europe, I was offered to study a PhD with a scholarship in the lab I had been working. The PhD was a continuation of my research from honours in drug addiction. At this point I was considering two career paths, a medical degree or a PhD. I recognised that my passions lie with helping others, the brain and travel which tie in very neatly with a PhD in behavioural neuroscience.   

What was it about studying at the University of Sydney that appealed to you?

The University of Sydney is currently ranked 4 in the world and 1 in Australia for Graduate employability, meaning that we produce students who are job ready. For me entering a Bachelors degree, this was critical. 

When choosing a university for a PhD, supervisors are critical to this decision. It is important to choose a supervisor or lab group that conducts research that piques your interest and keeps you inspired. The University of Sydney has a great selection of potential supervisors with academics that are world leaders in their field. In fact, the University of Sydney is ranked 27 in the world in psychology. Overall we are also ranked 1 in Australia and 2 in the world for research impact. A key player in my decision to do a PhD with Sydney was my lab group, comprising of supportive, young scientists who made my transition into a PhD seamless.

The University has state of the art laboratory technology, having built a brand-new lab just before I joined and continually updating equipment and resources. Having completed an undergraduate degree at the University I was familiar with the teaching styles and really enjoyed the University’s approach to providing intimate teaching. I enjoyed it so much that I’m now a University tutor and lecturer myself.  The Sydney campus is a beautiful place to study, with heritage buildings like the quadrangle and beautiful cafes like the Courtyard, making it an easy choice for me.

The University of Sydney has a great selection of potential supervisors with academics that are world leaders in their field. In fact, the University of Sydney is ranked 27 in the world in psychology. Overall we are also ranked 1 in Australia and 2 in the world for research impact.

Tell us about your honours year. How did it prepare you for your PhD?

Honours is like a taste-tester of a PhD. It’s an intensive training course that equips you with basic knowledge and skills you need to conduct research, like planning experiments, running them and writing up scientific research. Honours is an opportunity to do your study on your own time, it’s like running your own business; you decide when to work and how long to work and this is reflected in your output.

Honours not only teaches you the technical skills for research but it also teaches you to manage your time, how to be a leader and a teacher and importantly, how to work collaboratively in groups. These skills are critical for a PhD and a career in research.

Describe your research project and how you came to undertake work in this area. What impact do you hope your research will have?

I work in the field of drug addiction at the Brain and Mind Centre. Specifically, I’m exploring novel drug treatments for opioid addiction. My ultimate goal is to improve current treatments for opioid addiction. Currently, opioids kill more than 130 people per day in the United States alone, that’s more than deaths from guns or car accidents. There is a serious lack of efficacy with current treatments, so I hope to contribute to the development of more effective treatments to alleviate suffering. 

In what ways has a scholarship assisted you with your studies?

A scholarship has been critical to my candidature. The scholarship provides me with a living allowance that is spent on things like rent and food. The scholarship is paid on a salary like basis making it really easy to manage finances. I supplement this income with money from teaching when the semester is on.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about undertaking a PhD at USYD?

Passion is really important when deciding to do a PhD. Make sure you choose a topic that you can sustain interest for at least four years and choose a supervisor who can nurture and fuel this passion. On that note, choosing a supervisor you get along with at an interpersonal level is critical. This is someone who you will work with for the next three to four years, make sure your passions and interests are mostly aligned.

While it’s important to have an initial research proposal idea this will change again and again and the final thesis is rarely similar to the proposal. A PhD is a roller-coaster ride however, a PhD and a career in research can be wonderful with conference travel, teaching opportunities, working on your own time and more importantly, the opportunity to pursue your passion.

It’s important to set yourself up to be competitive for your PhD scholarship applications, A PhD is a full time commitment so having a scholarship to support you financially is invaluable.  PhD scholarships are mostly allocated based on academic merit so a strong academic record is a good start. The University has one of the largest research schemes in Australia so make sure you research your scholarship options. There are a range of faculty, general and partner scholarships to apply for.