Letter to a prospective phd student

Dear Student,

I write in anticipation of your imminent email asking me to be your phd supervisor. Firstly, I am flattered that you have chosen to approach me out of the blue, I look forward to hearing more about your proposed research. However, I receive many approaches each year as my institution – sensibly – asks that each applicant have agreed a supervisor prior to formally applying. Many of these approaches make similar mistakes that I would like you to avoid. So, before you do fatefully press send, I’d like to caution you first against making some common mistakes mistakes:

1. Don’t think of applying for a phd as the same as applying for any other academic course

A phd is a very different beast to a masters or a bachelors. The structured taught element of a phd is minimal. A phd is essentially your project. You get guidance, but in the main, this is just guidance and you decide how you want to progress. This means you should have a very clear idea about what it is you want to do, why, and who you want to work with before you approach potential supervisors.

2. Choose where to apply based on the people you want to work with

Fundamentally, a phd is about you working with individuals – in a departmental setting, rather than you working at a specific university. Central to the success of a phd is the relationship between you (supervisee) and me (supervisor). I and other potential supervisors are making a 3+ year commitment to work with you to develop your ideas, skills, thinking and research. It is a close relationship over a long period of time. For a supervisor, this is a big commitment – with clear potential rewards. There may be a good research group in the field you’re interested in, but really it comes down to you and your supervisors. A basic rule is that you should be applying to work with people who are cited in your research proposal. If you’re not doing that, you need a good reason why not.

3. Study the stated research interests of the chosen supervisor

Without clear alignment between your and their research interests, supervisors are unlikely to agree to supervise your phd. Supervisors are paid no more or less depending on how many phd students they have. Most supervisors supervise because they care about the research project the phd student is doing. Therefore the proposed research should closely fit the research interests of the potential supervisor. Sometimes these can be quite broad, some supervisors might be happy to support any work on a country they specialise in, but there has to be clear overlap. If not, then the supervisor may not be able to support your work well and your phd will suffer as a result.

4. Pay attention to the funding application timelines of your chosen department

I would not recommend you do a phd without funding. This makes securing funding central to the application process. Here is the process for my department. In order to be considered for most funding my department administers you need to apply in early February. Sure, occasionally there is some flexibility but we are beholden to the administrators that need to process your application along with hundreds of others. Applying in March and later really will not cut it, if you want funding. If you don’t want funding then you can apply much later in the academic year. Supervisors rarely have access to funding they can allocate to a phd student they find interesting, instead you must enter a competitive process and secure funding. Which means applying in good time with a strong proposal. You can find more details about funding available through my university and search for other funders here.

5. Approach your supervisor in good time

Quality in academic work is based on critical feedback and iterative improvement. Expect that your potential supervisor will provide critical feedback on your proposal and you will therefore need to do more work on it. If you’re applying for funding, this is doubly important. Your proposal needs to be very sharp and may need substantial work to make it competitive. This will take time, particularly if you can only work on it evenings and weekends. I would recommend you approach supervisors before October of the academic year before you wish to start – nearly 12 months in advance of your proposed start date.

6. Focus on your ideas and research questions

Many students spend much of their time talking about personal motivation for the phd. While this is the most important thing for you, your job is convince others to support your project rather than you as an individual. Academics are, first and foremost, interested in ideas. Your motivation is secondary to the ideas. It is the ideas that will attract most potential supervisors so focus on this and explaining how these relate to work the potential supervisor has done and is interested in.

7. Include a research proposal

A proposal shows you are serious and allows the potential supervisor to get a more complete picture of your proposed project and abilities. Again, a phd is your project, it is up to you to define it’s focus and limits. At a bare minimum, you need to include an abstract, along with a ‘if you’re interested I can send you full proposal’ line.

8. Make sure your proposal follows basic academic norms

My institution provides some generic guidance on this here. The patter blog is good for general guidance on academic writing. You need to show that you understand what is required to when proposing research. Ironically, in a phd proposal you are not committing to doing a specific research project. Most phd projects change in the course of their first year and a more complete proposal is required to graduate the first year. Instead, you are showing that you know how to do a research project. Supervisors are looking to see that you understand academic norms and will be a strong student. Committing to supervising a phd student presents risk for supervisors too. A weak student can consume an enormous amount of time for support over the 3+ years they take to complete their project. So, potential supervisors are looking to see that you have what it takes – the proposal is the main way we judge this. (On this – a bit of a flashing warning light for me on this is if the student does not actually improve the proposal using feedback provided – This will basically be the basis of our relationship for 3+ years. Get into the habit of responding to feedback now. )

9. Keep your proposal short

Concision is key. The generic guidance from my department above says 1–1500 words. I’d say around 2000 words is closer to the mark. You have lots to cover in a proposal so you’ll need to boil the literature down to it’s essentials, covering only what is relevant to your project (while showing you are aware that the rest is there). For a 2000 word proposal I’d recommend a structure that is something the like this:

  • Abstract (150w)
  • Literature review (1200w – which usually means 3 paragraphs on the main elements of your conceptual framework and 1 on the proposed case)
  • Research questions (100w)
  • Methods (500w)
  • Work plan (100w table – I don’t see the point of these myself but it’s a requirement in my department)
  • References (not included in word count)

10. Make your proposal sharp

In order to secure funding your proposal needs to be sharp. The competition is strong and you need to stand out. If I am interested in in your proposal I will help you improve it, but we can speed things along by avoiding some of the more common mistakes such as:

  • Abstract – not including one, not summarising your research in the first sentence, not summarising your main concepts, questions and methods, not making a case for why your research is important (why it should be funded) in the abstract.
  • Literature review – not narrowing down quickly on the most relevant ideas and literature and spending lots of time on broad basic points, not highlighting gaps in the literature, not defining key concepts, not following a clear structure (easiest is broad to narrow), not using topic sentences, separating the ‘literature review’ and your ‘conceptual framework’ (you don’t have the time/space for this), detailing the case more than you detail the conceptual framework used to analyse it.
  • Research questions – not including them (these are the pivot on which the whole proposal turns), not making sure they are focussed and specific (basically, the narrower, the better), not using analytical language developed in the literature review, not clearly linking to the problems and concepts laid out in the literature review.
  • Methods – not citing the academic literature on your chosen methods, not linking the methods to the research questions, spending lots of time on questions of ontology and epistemology, not providing detail on what data will be collected – how it will be collected and how it will be analysed, thinking that you have to include a quantitative element to be ‘rigourous’,
  • General – not writing in full sentences, not using proper english, not having someone proof read your proposal, not keeping the proposal short, not making sure there are clear links between the literature – questions – methods, not citing clearly and fully.

Please do not be discouraged. I offer this peremptory advice in the hope that you do approach me (or someone else having decided they are a better fit and less condescending) with a strong proposal and we (or you) have a great time working together. I see the above steps as the best way to make the best start towards succeeding in your phd. I look forward to hearing from you.


Brexit, mining and CSR

All this recent news about Brexit has reminded me of this article in The Times (behind a paywall – apologies). It tells the story of one of the areas which voted for Brexit. As we now know, these were often rural areas which are relatively poor for whom foreign labour threatens wages, jobs and services. This article was one of many in the weeks following the vote where the London-centric media tried to figure out what the hell had just happened to them by dispatching unsuspecting correspondents to far flung corners of the nation (to which they never then returned, but it’s the thought that counts, right?). What stood out to me though was that this story was based in the formerly prosperous (and oddly famous) town of Grimethorpe, South Yorkshire. Prosperous that is, until the mines closed.


The Grimethorpe Colliery Band

The story of mine closure leading to decline and poverty, as friend of the blog Dylan McFarlane tweeted recently, is a global one. Dylan was pointing to a recent article on The Conversation telling the story of mining towns in Guinea. These towns had seen limited prosperity and a great deal of inequality as the benefits of Bauxite extraction had not been widely shared.

So far, so familiar. Mine closure, it turns out, is one of the thorniest issues facing mining companies looking to improve their social and environmental impact. One answer I saw in Ghana is the creation of foundations which pay a percentage of company profits into a fund a proportion of which only pays out when the mine closes. Even these, I suspect, will only slightly soften a very sharp drop in economic prosperity.

In Europe, sudden drops in economic prosperity have historically been associated with a shift towards populist, nationalist leaders and rhetoric that we are currently witnessing. As surprising as Brexit was for London-based elites, its seeds were sown in the industrial and mining policy of the 1980s. This all raises the question of what difference might have well managed closures made? If today’s best practices had been adopted 30 years ago would things be different? Would Grimethorpe be prospering and actually in need of foreign labour? (My inner pessimist makes me think this is unlikely, CSR seems only to be able to do so much)

For those of us interested in mining and CSR, the Brexit vote should renew attention on the long term political consequences of mine closure. The effects of mine closure and decline are an important but under-researched area. The mining industry has just seen a marked global downturn as the decades-long commodities boom came crashing to a halt. Hundreds of thousands have been laid off and many mines closed. As a result, telling the story of Grimethorpes around the world is more pressing than ever.

Image from The Guardian.

The modern way to regulate the mining industry


This recent story about Miningwatch Canada attempting to sue the Mount Polley Mining Corporation and the British Columbia Government, has caught my attention. Their claim is that “it has now been over two and a half years since the Mount Polley disaster happened and yet, despite clear evidence of violations of Canadian laws, no charges have been brought forward by any level of government.” Indeed, last year the company has been allowed to resume operations at the site. Effectively, Miningwatch are using a private prosecution to goad the state into action – and the state is responding by trying to get the case stopped.

There are a few things about this that are interesting. The first is that for many actors in the field, the best way to increase pressure on mining companies to improve their practices is through the courts. There is a steady drip drip of stories of mining companies headquartered in the developed world being sued for the behaviour of legally separate (but often wholly owned) subsidiaries in developing countries. This is obviously not the case for Mt Polley – a Canadian mine being sued in Canadian courts – but this shift to the courts is telling. Acacia and Vedanta are being sued in UK courts (and as I pointed out on twitter, UK lawyers meeting their clients in Zambia in the Vedanta case was last week were subject to some pretty serious hassling) and Hudbay is being sued in Ontario courts. Monterrico Metals settled out of court before a verdict was reached in 2011. My own research shows that these cases are being “very attentively watched” by the industry.

One particularly interesting (for me, at least) finding from my research was that these cases often draw on the voluntary standards mining companies have adopted. Unlike the Miningwatch Canada/Mt Polley case above, these are often civil suits based on the tort of negligence. In essence, those suing the mining companies are accusing the companies of being negligent in their behavioiur. In order to establish what is negligent, the cases need to establish a ‘standard of care’ – a standard against which the mining companies can be said to have been negligent. In the past, this was often done using internal company policies. Now, however, with many companies signing up to international voluntary standards it’s these standards that are being used to establish standards of care. If mining companies have signed up to standards, and the courts establish that following these standards would have avoided the human rights abuses companies are being sued for, then the companies will have been negligent. The financial penalties of this can be enormous – just look at BP. BHP Billiton is hoping to sign a $1.55bn agreement with the Brazillian federal prosecutors to avoid $47.5 billion civil suit following the Sanmarco tailings disaster, having already settled with federal and state governments. All of a sudden, the vague sounding pledges of voluntary CSR and environmental standards have teeth.

In my own research, these cases, amongst a range of other pressures, are creating a new regulatory landscape for mining companies. Courts, bringing together hard and soft regulation, increasingly appear to be a modern way to regulate the mining industry.

Photo of Mt Polley disaster from Al Jazeera

Listen to my PE3C talk on the ‘political ecology of the firm’ from July

So I realise I never uploaded this talk I gave in July. Which is a shame as I think it was quite good. It is, however, unashamedly theoretical and niche – it’s for researchers who are interested in political ecology theory, rather then the broader audience of mining and CSR that most of my blog is for. You can listen to the talk here:

Listen to my talk on politics, CSR and development

Following the success of my last podcast I’ve decided to record my talks and stick them on this blog. So, here is the audio for my talk ‘Talking about politics: corporate social responsibility and development in Ghana, Perú and Zambia’ at Mining and Communities Solutions 2016, University of British Columbia, 5-8 June 2016.

Despite this being my first talk at a mining industry conference, it went down really well and provoked quite a bit of discussion. Listening again I hear it mainly as a masterclass in saying ‘erm’ a lot (I was rather nervous) but I did get my main points across quite well. I had little reason to be nervous it seems as my message – that we need to talk about CSR as a political intervention into host countries and communities – was broadly well received. This conference was a gathering of people who really do what to improve the impacts and benefits of mining for local communities and therefore very encouraging. I’ll be posting about my ‘take homes’ in the coming days.

Do let me know what you think.

Samarco tailings disaster: this changes everything?

The recent collapse of a tailings dam at the Samarco project in Brazil has caught widespread attention. It was clearly truly awful and exposed, in connection with the Mt Polley dam failure last year, a key weakness in the the mining sector’s efforts to clean up its act. A good source to read on this is Saleem Ali’s blog over at The Conversation. One quote that caught my attention however was this tagged on to the bottom of an interview with Stuart Kirsch about his book on the OK Tedi mine published last year:


“the response to the Brazilian disaster suggests that the default assumption now seems to be that corporations are responsible for their environmental impacts, at least when they are caused by sudden events. This is very different than the way BHP dragged its feet for more than a decade after the problems downstream from the Ok Tedi mine became well-known”


The times, they are a changin’. What BHP could get away with 10 years ago it can’t now. The mining industry needs to up its game. This strikes me as very similar to Hevina Dashwood’s argument that in the 1990s the mining industry found itself thoroughly out of step with a new discourse of sustainable development. The industry was forced to up its game or lose influence and investment.


Of particular note is that this was no frontier cowboy junior operation, this project was co-operated by two of the worlds largest mining companies. Companies that really should know better. The usual excuses do not apply. If these two companies can’t build a facility that doesn’t dump sixty million cubic meters of down a valley, wiping a village off the map, killing at least 13 people, and destroying a river, who can? What hope does the mining industry have when its leading lights cause these kind of catastrophes?


These questions may explain quite how many press releases the ICMM has put out in the last few weeks, a remarkable 5 since the beginning of December, including, importantly, a global tailings management review. If nothing else, the industry needs to be seen to be taking this issue seriously. However, if history is anything to go by (and, in all honestly, it may not be) the industry will drag its feet. I think more than any other issue, if the mining industry fails to get tailings management right, it will never stop being the global whipping boy for environmental mismanagement.

Mt. Polley triggers Canadian soul-searching on how to regulate the mining industry

Dead in the water?

The Mount Polley catastrophic tailings spill of last summer in western Canada has led to a new round of news stories, discussion and debate in Canada about how to regulate their mining industry.

The Mount Polley spill was one of the worst mining spills in the history of Canadian mining and raises questions of whether the current ‘light touch’ regulatory regime really works. Search warrants for Imperial Metals were carried out last week following the report from an independent panel which found evidence of design flaws but said it could not conclude anything about management culpability.

Particularly damaging for advocates of self regulation, the Mining Association of Canada refuses to release details of the self-assessment the Imperial Metals gave itself before the spill, no doubt because it shows they gave themselves a clean bill of health. The report was effectively just about the paperwork and not whether the plans were actually being followed and not checked by independent parties.

The consequences of this investigation could be very wide ranging and affect mining worldwide with increased requirements for third-party verification and more stringent tailing management in coming years. Industry commentators in Canada are already working hard to argue that regulators should not overreact.

One take home from all of this: CSR in the extractive sector starts with effective environmental management. Without this, CSR is dead in the water.

Image from CBC.