On the value of research partnerships (An interview with Maria Platt)

In this week's RED Alert, we interview La Trobe alumna Dr Maria Platt, who started working in the GRS as a Senior Project Coordinator in 2018. Maria shares her research background and offers some great advice to graduate researchers on engaging with industry. 


Photo by Alfons Taekema on Unsplash

Can you tell us about your research journey and your career trajectory?

I have always had a thirst for knowledge, even as a kid. In my undergraduate degree in Public Health I realised that there was this thing called 'research' and you could find out lots of interesting stuff, and you got to read articles! That was the bit that I really found quite exhilarating. When it came to knowledge, I really enjoyed the chase. Then I did my honours, and that took me in more of an anthropological direction, looking at the lived experiences of women with Hepatitis C. After this, I took some time out and started doing some research jobs. During this time I realised that I needed to do a PhD in order to advance in my research career further.

I undertook my PhD at La Trobe in the Australian Research Centre for Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS). Initially, my research was going to be focused on HIV prevention programs in Indonesia, but then it morphed into looking more at how women negotiated their way in and out of marriage without any formal level recognition of their martial status. So really, I was on an exploratory journey without a grand plan!

Toward the end of my PhD I was lucky enough to get a Postdoc at the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore, where I focused on extending my doctoral research, and branched out into looking at gendered labour migration in the Southeast Asian context. I was never really entirely sure if I wanted to ‘be a researcher’ or do academic work forever. I set myself a 5 year timeline to work that out. Once I achieved my goal of writing my book Marriage, Gender and Islam in Indonesia: Women Negotiating Informal Marriage, Divorce and Desire, I decided to move more into the research partnerships area, which is where I have worked at La Trobe since 2018.

What is the part of your PhD that you enjoyed the most?

It is such a long project, so it is hard to pinpoint. I can say I never really got sick of my topic! Perhaps the best moment was when I submitted my PhD and I drove down to the beach with music by The National playing loudly and me singing away!

What do you do here at La Trobe?

At the GRS I manage the establishment of industry and international partnerships, which includes setting up partnerships with international universities, and working with external partners to make things like mentoring, internships and industry PhDs happen. I am the point of contact for any student enquiries about mentoring, internships and industry PhDs.

What skills and experiences do you bring with you that you developed during your PhD and post-doc experience?

I developed an appreciation of the complexities that underlie any type of partnership, and how these have to be managed carefully so that all partners get what they require. During my PhD and research career I also learned project management skills, how to manage some big budgets, how to organise conferences and events. These experiences have all been invaluable.

Do you have any advice to offer to researchers on engaging with industry, government and the community sector?

I think partnerships with these sectors can be really beneficial in bringing together what is done really well at universities and embedding these in a different context where those ways of working might be valuable. Its also a two way thing, it can help both parties understand how things work on the other side. To students I would say: be upfront about what your expectations are and what you can and can’t do within a particular partnership. Sometimes it is better not to do something if it won’t be the best fit for both parties, rather than trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.

Maria, you co-coordinate the mentoring program for graduate researcher, have you ever had a pivotal mentor who has helped shape your career? Was there any advice they offered that still sits with you now?

Ultimately, my PhD supervisor became a good mentor both during my PhD and the years that have followed. She has been a really good sounding board, and sometimes those conversations have worked to help me do something different than what she has advised me to do! Sometimes the course of action is different from what your trusted mentor has advised – its having the conversation that matters. I remember that one of the overarching things that my mentor taught me was to be authentic and to do research with integrity. It's not just about collecting the data or meeting the targets. She taught me to follow my conscience, especially when doing fieldwork. That’s a message that still sits with me today.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Doing a PhD can be a great launchpad for lots of different career options – from working academia or as an analyst or something totally left field. I think the skill-sets you learn from managing a project, setting a goal and seeing it through are invaluable in so many ways.

Dr Maria Platt is a Senior Coordinator at the Graduate Research School. She graduated with a PhD from La Trobe University in 2011. Her work has been published in a number of journals including  Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology; The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology (TAPJA) and Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific.