Don’t let the brush turkeys get you down…

If you’ve spent any time on the St Lucia or Fig Tree Pocket campuses you’ll be familiar with UQ’s brush turkeys. They’re those scrawny, black birds with weird red heads that make a mess around gardens and pathways, and contribute significantly to sustainable employment for ground staff. And they’re also a bird everyone loves to hate.

But the brush turkey can provide some interesting lessons. While these are relevant to all students, I am particularly thinking about lessons for higher degree by research (HDR) students who are working at the pinnacle of learning and higher education.

I challenge you, HDRs, when you’re feeling like it’s all too much – look to the brush turkey!

The brush turkey you see scraping and scrabbling around making a mess will be the male of the species. While it looks like he has no goal in sight, he is actually in the painstaking process of building a ‘mound’ in order to attract a mate. This mound looks like complete rubbish to most of us, but it is, in fact, soil and plant material which will be super useful if he ‘gets lucky’ and his mate lays eggs. The mound will protect the eggs and help them incubate to produce the next generation of bush turkeys.

Building this mound might take the male brush turkey up to one month of seriously hard work: forget brush turkey gym – this guy is in constant work-out mode!

And worse still is that during this whole process he has set backs. Rain can wash away part of his hard work, ground staff are continually ‘cleaning up’ the material he moves across paths and other walkways, and he is regularly interrupted by passers-by wandering across his cache of dirt and composting materials.

Personally I quite often look at the brush turkeys’ efforts and wonder why they just don’t give up. But they don’t. When a male has started creating the mound, I see him day after day as I walk to my office, doing the same thing, over and over. Sometimes I see that the ‘mess’ has been cleaned up for my walking benefit and yet, somehow, over time I see progress – against all the odds.

And eventually, a large mound is ready to be used.

Which brings me to higher degree by research students. Doing research and completing a thesis is an enormous task (let’s be real here people: 40,000-80,000 words is a serious piece of writing).

To be fair, the HDR student is not doing research to attract a mate (at least I haven’t heard of this as a motivation yet), but there are similarities between their experience and that of the male bush turkey.

Firstly, HDRs do have an end goal in sight even though it might not be obvious to everyone around them. And they may look like they’re working with an enormous amount of ‘rubbish’ but they are sifting through a lot of literature which will eventually inform the shape of their research project.

As they work to create their ‘mound’ they sort through survey results, experimental results, data and more data looking for the makings of the elements of their thesis: the final research questions, philosophical underpinnings, best methodological approaches, data analysis, interesting points for discussion and all the other elements that go to make up that final thesis document. Their brain definitely gets a work out!

And of course they have set backs: experiments that don’t go according to plan: participants or advisers who for some reason cannot continue to take part in a project; results that force a reframing of the research question and ‘starting again’; personal setbacks that mean time out from their research... the list goes on.

But look to the brush turkey! Over time, with persistence and hard work, the thesis begins to take shape until, remarkably, it’s finished and ready to make its contribution to the next ‘generation’ of world knowledge. 

So when you see the brush turkey in action, consider the higher degree by research students here at UQ and the amount of work and effort they put into their degree. And research students? Don’t let the research get you down – or the turkeys either. Rather, when you see them around the campus, use them as a source of inspiration and motivation to be persistent and keep your goal in mind.

And if you happen to find a mate as a result of that thesis? Then well done, you!