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Stacie Tardif brings us some lessons from those who have walked the path before us
The Danish Academy of Sciences and Papers recently hosted an event for PhD researchers in Denmark and their transition into post-doctoratal positions. Several guest speakers from very different backgrounds were invited to speak about their journey into their career, and to provide some insight and advice to us youngsters. With looming statisticsclaiming that only a small percentage (0.45% in the UK ) of individuals will make it to full professorship, it is inherently clear that we must start thinking early on about exploring different career options. We received all sorts of advice, from detailed information regarding grant application opportunities in Denmark, to more personal anecdotal stories and reflections on what these individuals wished they knew before starting off their careers. Several themes recurred throughout the day:
The chairman of The Carlsberg Foundation, Professor Flemming Besenbacher, started off the day with an inspiring talk, appealing to our generation to embrace scientific social responsibility. He stated that the 21st centuries’ current global issues such as food production, water resources, and climate change can only be tackled with breakthrough innovations, and therefore as young individuals in society, he urged us to be risk takers:take part in innovative and interesting research which may ultimately result in fewer publications but will be much more substantial in impact. He also maintained that we should start considering other options than academia. As PhD researchers, we are currently developing numerous transferable skills which have been outlined in a recent report by the World Economic Forum  to be critically important in order to prosper in today’s society. As such, it is important to reflect on our personal competencies which may or may not be appropriate for the pace and space of academia. Professor Besenbacher counseled us to keep the following in mind when thinking of our future careers:
6 key elements for career planning:
Step 1 & 2- Know yourself and research your options
Step 3 & 4-Set goals and make a plan
Regardless of our future in academia or not, the skills required to write an excellent grant application are highly transferable to writing up successful job applications. Throughout the day we received lots of good advice on the ins and outs of grant applications. Before starting the process of writing a grant or applying for a job position, strong emphasis is placed on reading the call, paying particularly close attention to the small subsections that describe the assessment criteria. It sounds silly to highlight, however, it seems to be one of the main reasons why applications are rejected. No matter how qualified the person or brilliant the idea, with a pile of imminent applications ahead of them, members of the panel are likely to be running on little to no sleep, and looking for reasons to shrink their pile.
Grant applications are all about you, your network and your great idea! But what is a great idea, you may ask?
The panel, which in many cases is comprised of 5% of researchers from your specific field vs. 95% from other related but different disciplines, want to understand your great idea! As a result, it is imperative to keep it focused, simple and concise. Many applications have very strict page limits (do not put anything in the appendices, the panel is not allowed to read them) but it is important to keep in mind that other people have the same restrictions as yourself, and so it is doable. Do not repeat the same information in the application as this is a waste of space and time for members of the panel. To save space, make use of figures and charts (e.g. Gantt charts) which can incorporate a lot of information in a small amount of space. Applying for funding through industrial post-doctorate positions is another way to go. These are typically 1-3 year positions carried out by a recent PhD graduate (under 5 years after graduation in Denmark) that have an industrial focus. It involves teaming up with a mentor in a public sector institution (academia) as well as a mentor within a company. You are extremely cheap labor and therefore it is inherently benefitial to the company (and yourself of course) to have you there so don’t be intimidated to approach companies with your great idea. In addition, several databases and professional matchmaking clusters are available to graduates seeking these types of opportunities. Most importantly, industrial post-doctorate grant applications in Denmark resulted in a 50% success rate in 2016 and a predicted 45% success rate in 2017. This is significantly higher than grants awarded for post-doctorate grants in the public sector. These positions can also serve as a foot in the door and a stepping stone to a more permanent position within the company.
Here are some grants to apply for in Denmark (similar one’s can be found in most countries); keep in mind that most of the time, these grants are not tied with citizenship:
Other speakers throughout the day highlighted the importance of moving away from your supervisor and going abroad. This, at least in Denmark, seems to give you an edge over other candidates as you are not only developing your skills as a researcher and broadening your perspectives/ideas and visions, but also developing an international network which makes you very competitive. Debate was underway regarding the ease of movement once established with a family, however with proper preparation, one speaker even moved her entire family including children to another continent.
The importance of finding good mentors along the way was empahised on several occasions. These mentors can advise you on scientific matter, introduce your to relevant networks and people and help you understand the mechanisms and unwritten roles of funder organizations such as the public, private and research councils. Finding several different mentors along the way is also a good idea as they can advise you and teach you different approaches, skills and techniques. You will, of course, benefit in different ways depending on the mentor but finding at least one mentor that has the same interests/visions as you will be extremely valuable in the long run. Lastly, it is absolutely crucial that trust and honesty is built between you and your mentor. It is imperative that your mentor is able to tell you some hard truths along the way, if required.
It is important to understand that positions in academia are exceedingly competitive and there is some value in building a generalist profile, which can be adapted to several positions in different institutions. Instead of specializing very narrowly in a certain area, it may benefit you in the long run to have a profile and track record that is flexible.
“Uncertainty is the new normal: complexity is increasing and therefore this calls for a paradigm shift in science” Professor Basenbacher
As such, adaptability is crucial. It is also important to build a personal brand and work on your 30 second elevator speech. People want to know what you do but will quickly lose interest if you go into too much detail. If you are able to boil it down to several simple keywords/buzzwords, people will be able to categorize you, put you in a box and ultimately, shuffle you from one box to another depending on their needs. As academics, branding may seem like something that belongs in the business world, but try to think of it as being a recognizable expert or specialist in “blank” discipline. As your “brand” grows, this may open up new opportunities in the form of interviews, publications, podcasts, invited speaker talks and even local TV gigs and most importantly, new collaborations.
The most important advice we received that day was to be passionate about our work and to love what we do. Without this, success, whether that is through the academic route or otherwise, will be fleeting and somewhat anti-climactic. Needless to say, I walked out of the room feeling inspired and with a sense of urgency to get to work, be innovative, take risks and enjoy the ride!
For more detailed information about the day’s proceedings and individual speaker’s presentations use the following link: http://www.youngacademy.dk/da/Aktiviteter/Phd%20seminar.aspx
1. Taylor, M., B. Martin, and J. Wilsdon, The scientific century: securing our future prosperity. 2010: The Royal Society.
2. Forum, W.E. New vision for education: Unlocking the potential of technology. 2015. World Economic Forum, Geneva, Switzerland.
You receive a friendly e-mail from your colleague, where they show their interest in a secondment at your institution. The pressure is on! You may be of a calm disposition, but see how that fares when you’re screaming at the ICPMS for breaking down once again, while remembering that you never picked up the box of consumables you ordered the day before, and you just missed the compulsory morning Heath and Self briefing. Well fear not, practice makes perfect; here are a few simple tips to ensure the secondment is a raging hit. My advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience: I embraced the stumbles and screw ups, and turned them into powerful lessons like the ones below.
As the host, you have the main role – plan early. Do a Noah and build your arc before the rains come: get as much done in advance as possible. There is no shame in recruiting a little help; sit with your secretary (hopefully you have one at your institution), review all the necessary steps, and do all your sweating and swearing beforehand. Make sure you know all the potential weaknesses of the system and the necessary steps to be taken for overseas travellers (e.g. getting a visa). Planning time is precious since your colleague might stay only for couple of weeks, so make sure all the precautions are taken for things to run smoothly.Make yourself available to help during the planning, also local phone calls are cheaper for you! When helping your colleague finding an accommodation, think carefully about price, and also the location. It might take a while to get familiar with the public transport. Take a look at other properties near you: what do the hosts charge? Finding accommodation might be particularly challenging, especially in more isolated places. Some host institutions cannot guarantee a place on campus during peak season, therefore other options should be explored. Airbnb is a reasonable solution for short stays, but you have to make sure your friend are ready to accept that they might have to make small talk with strangers over their dinner, which sometimes can be intimidating.
Once you have sorted out accommodation, you need to make sure that the landlord can provide a receipt or a proof of payment for your colleague to claim back. It is important you clarify what the other institutions expect to receive. Before arrival provide several contact numbers (landlord, main student reception, security, and maybe also your supervisor’s phone number) in case of emergency, it can be really stressful as a guest if you can’t find your accommodation and can’t get hold of the host.
A good host not only helps planning the accommodation and travel, but since you know your University (institution) better than anyone else, you have to plan all the aspect of your colleague’s stay! There are many chances to interact with host life through websites, virtual tours, and social media. However, visiting the campus will give your colleague a real sense of the atmosphere, so you could arrange a guided tour to meet staff and fellow students, see the faculty, visit the local pub and restaurant, and more.
Make sure your colleague is aware of all the student union meetings, lab meetings, and other relevant ways of getting involved. Being an active member in the department can help him/her to gain a better understanding of what opportunities are out there and build a wider network. This is also a good way not to be stuck in front of a computer or in a lab all day, it adds variety to the day which can help decrease the risk of burnout.
It is also very important to ‘help others out’ without losing your own focus. Your positive impact on the world comes when you’re happy, so you really need to make sure you have a plan, a schedule to keep up with your everyday lab-life, but also being able to support and help your colleague visiting. If the rewards aren’t immediately apparent, contributing to the success of others pays off in the long run. Sometimes t’s difficult to say no to co-workers, but keep in mind that they are the one able appreciate your work and they will always be willing to help you out when you need it. After all, you have to remember that what is obvious for you (the drawer with the funnels, that 1 ml pipette that doesn’t work, or the balance in plant science that you are not allowed to use…) might not be obvious to someone who just got there.
Make sure you clarify what they expect from you and what you expect from them. Also you need to review and rehearse potential methods, protocols, and explanations. Be authentic, conversational, and real. Have a point of view. Bring something to the party. Own it. Time is crucial so make sure your explanations are clear and comprehensive. Essentially you’re saying, “Let me show you. See what I mean? Now look. Do you get the picture?”
The most critical skill is time management, finding a good structure to the day and keeping a day planner helps keep various demands in order. Structure and sticking to set times to write, read, and lab work can be particularly challenging (and stressful) when dealing with equipment, instruments, and people. It is important to set aside time from your research and books to take a break, what a better moment than sharing some time off at the café with your colleague? You can take a walk around the campus – hopefully no need for umbrellas – and have the time to recharge, and don’t forget to enjoy the journey!
Now you’re ready. You are the perfect secondment host.
I want to thank Stacie for being always interested, motivated, and curious about research. I really had a good time with her, and I am glad that our friendship is not dependant on mood swings and bad hair days. Thanks for your support.
I also wanted to thank Coren, for knowing exactly when to tell me what I want to hear, when I want to hear it the most. I consider myself very fortunate for having a chance to work with both of them. It was a great learning experience for me. I wish we had more time to spend together outside work, and visit the UK a little, but I really hope you will come back soon!
In 1917, while working with bacterial isolates from wounded World War soldiers in France, Félix d’Herelle published what he called the discovery of “an invisible, antagonistic microbe of the dysentery bacillus”. d’Herelle had discovered bacteriophages, viruses that infect bacteria. One hundred years later, phage research is intrinsically linked to other major scientific events: from the identification of DNA as the genetic material, all the way to the discovery of CRISPR-Cas systems.
This year, it was with excitement that I I flew to Paris to attend the 100th anniversary celebration of bacteriophage research at Institut Pasteur, the “cradle” of bacteriophages and, arguably, the most important microbiology research institute in the world.
Over the course of 3 days, I was honoured to listen to world-class scientists sharing major breakthroughs in phage research and, as a REMEDIATE scientist working on environmental virology myself, I received the honour of sharing my own findings with the rest of the phage scientific community in what was a very special event.
From studies on global ocean viromes and biogeochemical cycling, to studies on phage therapies as solutions for antibiotic resistance, these 3 days in Paris showed that phage research is booming all around the world and that it is as important as ever before. One can only wonder what the next 100 years of phage research will bring!
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Born and raised in Greece. I graduated in Environmental and Natural Resources Engineering in Technological Educational Institute of Crete, in Greece, 2014. After that, I embarked on a MSc programme at the same Institute, graduating in October 2016 with a Master in Geoenvironmental Resources and Risks and a written thesis in Laboratory scale application of Spectral Induced Polarization (SIP) method for environmental monitoring.
After my studies in Greece, I moved to Belfast for the REMEDIATE project. My role in Queen’s University focuses in geophysical approaches in site assessments. I will try through fully controlled laboratory experiments and larger scale applicationσ in contaminated sites the utility of geophysics in environmental monitoring.
I will carry out most of my work at Queen’s University Belfast which is ranked in the top 200 universities in the world according to the 2015-2016 QS World University Rankings. Queen’s is much more than just a place for work as it is located in Northern Ireland; a place is not probably the first destination that someone will think about vacation, but it is worthy to visit. The earth of joyful “ginger-heads”, good drink and the beautiful nature. And if you do not believe me just take a walk along the river, where the eye cannot find the end and the soul rejoices seeing seagulls flying above your heads.
1 Dilute the 99 arrived As-primers; 2 Use Primer-Blast to check the specificity of 99 As-primers; 3 Use AlleleID to check the parameters of 99 As-primers; 4 ARGs HT-qPCR of the CCA samples; 5 ARGs HT-qPCR of the Tellus archived soil samples; 6 Order the oligo of 99 targeted fragment; 7 Regular PCR with 99 As-primers; 8 Sequencing of PCR-product of 99 As-primers; 9 Pig manure manuscript.
That’s a recent to-do list. I like to start every day with writing and checking my list, because it’s one way for me to clear the fog so I don’t miss anything important and can quickly move into “working” status.
However, there was a lot on my plate: faced with this long list of tasks, even imagining how I should manage my time to shorten it to a more refined list made me feel tired. “One by one, one by one, just pick one and focus on it first”, I told myself, and dragged my body into the lab with my tired “soul”.
Days passed. One day I found, not for the first time, that I couldn’t fall asleep, and I was staring at my to-do list. I suddenly realized the to-do list is not only helping during work time but also “helping” me after work! I couldn’t help wonder if there is a so-called work and life balance, especially for a fallen leaf who is far away from its root.
By talking to friends and colleagues, I realised I am not the only one who has this problem, and I found a solution. “There are always more things waiting for you to do, you should think about what you have done instead of what you haven’t done.” That day, I made a done list after I finished work:
1 Ordered the primers; 2 Centrifuged and diluted the primers; 3 Parameter check; 4 ARG HT-qPCR of CCA samples (1/2); 5 Conference registration; 6 Targeted fragment collection.
After this, I had a very good sleep…
To-do lists and done lists are like yin and yang. A to-do list can direct you to focus on the tasks, and a done list can motivate you in a happier and more positive way, and can be used to review the day and give you a chance to celebrate accomplishments. PhD life can be fulfilling and challenging. Balanced self-management provides comfort for fallen leaves waving and dancing in the wind. From that day on, every time I feel overwhelmed, I ask myself before I finish work, “What is on your done list?”