Phillip received a BA (Hons) in History and English from the University of Sydney before going on to the MPhil in Early Modern History at the University of Cambridge. In both degrees he worked on the career and life of the English poet and diplomat Matthew Prior (1664-1721). Phillip was a scholar of St John's College, Cambridge, where Prior had been a fellow for most of his life and to which he left part of his personal library. Following this Phillip had a six year career as an art handler at two international auction houses, which allowed him to develop his interest in art and material culture.
His dissertation research focuses on how imperial administrators in England, the American colonies, and on the African coast in the late seventeenth century constructed their authority. The dissertation argues that by displaying enslaved non-White children, maps and printed books, manuscript reports, and exotic material culture items, and with the active participation of elite women and non-White and non-Protestant men, the aspiring civil servants of the emerging British Empire created the criteria for their own claims to imperial power and established the forms of that power for centuries to come.