Category: Career

Posts by Jano Klimas about the academic career and the long and harrowing journeys of academics.

How attractive are you for postgraduate students?

700 active research supervisors provide support to post/graduate students in University College Dublin. 17 of them took part in the second out of five last Friday afternoons about research supervisor development. Today’s topic was how to optimise quality applicant attraction. Mr Justin Synnott, Ms Una Condron and Professor Tadhg O’Keeffe explored characteristics of an ‘ideal’ or successful research student:

ii)                   Considering the measurement of applicant ‘success’
iii)                 Optimising your ability to attract desirable applicants
iv)                 Managing applicant expectations
v)                  What International students look for / have concerns about – case study
vi)                 Who sets the doctoral funding agenda / what is Europe’s approach?

Danger on the road

If I knew then… the presentation warned developing supervisors about the dangers of making wrong choices based on wrong expectations. The promotions metrics pressurize some scientists to take many doctoral students. Under pressure, many supervisors make wrong choices. A stressed supervisor typically fears three main things: i) whether the student would complete PhD, ii) if they don’t complete, whether the supervisor would be blamed for it, and iii) whether the thesis would meet the quality standards. A student’s dissertation can be a disaster or a success based on two early warning signs:
1. Ability (motivation is part of ability)
2. Writing – if students’ work isn’t written well, you’re in trouble

As supervisors and scientists, we grow. The speaker illustrated his growth using the PEED model shown in Figure 1 below. With age, concern for Promotions decreases and so do Ego (I care less) and Experience. But the Experience increases over years. The Danger of making wrong choices is biggest at the start. Midway through the career, the conditions for supervising students, as well as supervisors’ ability to make choices, improve.


Figure 1. Peed model


Going international

1.2 billion people live in India, where over 600 universities and 20000 colleges fail to satisfy the growing demand for research training. University College Dublin reached out and started to recruit Indian students. Several roadshows explain the advantages of studying in Ireland to Indian students every year. One of the benefits for supervisors who decide to take on an international student is attracting better fit candidates.

Funding agenda and policy setting

Internationalisation of the university environment remains on the top of agendas of post/graduate research funders. More and more people complete funded doctoral programmes every year. Although the number of PhDs awarded in US over the last couple of years reached 50000, the number of faculty positions didn’t grow so rapidly and stagnates at 5000. The situation is similar in Europe. The question is whether we need so many new PhDs? The growing relationship with industry may offer an answer. A PhD stops being an academia-specific training; acquisition of transferable skills is coming to the forefront of doctoral training, because they can be utilised anywhere outside academia. The challenge for supervisors and universities failing to employ the PhDs is whether they can at least prepare students for some sort of a zig-zag career in- or outside academia.
This post summarised my observations from the UCD Research Supervisor Support and Development Programme Workshop 2: 28-2-14.

Building research leaders and supervisors with Hugh Kearns

Are you sometimes worried about the progress of your research students and what happens with them?

Hugh Kearns, a Sligo-born research coach from Australia, ran two courses on this topic in the last week of January in Dublin: Building research leaders and Research supervisor support& development workshop. Hugh gave us best-practice tips, some of which I bring in this post.

Figure 1. The long road to project completion
  1. Supervisor vs advisor
    Language matters. While both of the above terms imply a person who ‘sees’ more than the other person, nobody’s view is really super-ior in science. A more experienced researcher can provide an add-itional perspective on student’s work only.
  2. PhD students never die; they just fade away
    Proper supervision perfects students. Busy advisors often overlook this simple truth. A PhD research project is a long-distance run that requires a lot of motivation and support. The former can be instilled by the latter. Think about your time before you take on a research student.
  3. Give them small victories
    Midway through the project, many students fade away simply because of the time that it takes to complete it. Breaking the bigger task into smaller steps creates opportunities for instilling a sense of mastery when students complete a smaller step, for example, a paper on a related subject.
  4. That’s enough – stop now
    The advisor’s perspective and experience is most valuable here. Data collection can go on forever. The literature review can reveal new and interesting studies all the time. This way, the research project won’t end. The golden rule applies to this problem perfectly: Less is more.
  5. GYO PhDs…
    Mentoring relationship and quality of the mentor are the most important factors of a successful student project. If the student and mentor have a chance to work together on a smaller project first, they can better decide whether they want to continue working on a PhD. A great way to start growing your own PhDs is to advertise your research topics on your website or notice board: “Here are the topics that I’m interested in supervising”
  6. Listen to your tummy
    Our research intuition is often the best indicator when deciding about a new student or when the progress is slow. If your tummy tells you something’s wrong, step back and take a moment to think about what caused it.
  7. Meetings build structure into a relationship
    Each mentoring meeting should have an agenda. Ask to student to take the ownership of agendas and meeting minutes, e.g., send in advance, remind me of what I’m supposed to do? Where’s the agenda?
  8. Airtime?
    If your speech takes too much of the meeting airtime, the student might not learn anything. Good questions for prompting students are:
    Tell me what you’ve been doing? Tell me what you think we’ve agreed? Tell me what you’re going to do next.
  9. Quick sneak peek at your results
    Some students might find it intimidating to send whole chapters for review by their mentor. To make it easier for them, you could ask then to send you an outline, a draft or bring a copy to the meeting. The key is to instill hope that the review won’t be shredded their work into pieces.
  10. Grains of sand on the beach
    Some PhD projects lead to Nobel prizes, but most don’t. Most graduate students understand the impact they can make on the world, but it’s no harm to emphasize that however small, their work counts.

The second workshop was part of the new Research support and supervisor development programme at the University College Dublin. This programme is targeted at both new, inexperienced research supervisors and those more experienced staff who would like to refresh their knowledge in the area. The 6 last-Friday workshops will be based on sharing of practices with experienced supervisors and students, case studies, open forum discussions and knowledge sharing with colleagues on policy in the research supervisory field. Watch this space for my observations from these workshops.

Do you work on holidays?

Does holiday work pay off? If you find answering this question difficult, my experience and benefits that I see in working on a holiday may help you.

I always take too much stuff to work during holidays. I don’t know whether you work on vacations or not, but if you do, you may be struggling with overscheduling too. Holiday work may seem unjustified to many, but for me it brings fresh air and pleasure to my research work. The pleasure lies, surprisingly, in working slowly, without pressure. To work outside business hours is an attempt to catch up on tasks, to put urgent matters to sleep, or to squeeze extra tasks into fully-booked schedule. None of these apply to me. Working around the clock causes the work to dominate and the initial motivation to fall into background. The first impulse for work is passion. For me and other researchers, it’s passion about science. Daily routine of research career provides many opportunities for loosing this passion. Emails accumulate in the work inbox faster than ever before. Meetings after meetings wear down even the most resilient among us.

When I go on vacation, all of these unpleasant things stay behind, in the office. I pack only the duties that I enjoy; I nurture my passion. The lack of tender-loving-care makes my passion too hungry though and I often pack too many books to read, print too many articles to review, and save too many draft manuscripts on my memory stick. The inability to go through this mountain of work poses an obvious trap of labeling this as another failure to meet my goals. I avoid it swiftly by commending myself on the progress of decreasing the amount of these failures over years. Next year, I’ll pack less.

People work on holidays for many different reasons. If rekindling the passion for work isn’t enough for you to sacrifice holidays, Jacquelyn Smith writes about 8 other benefits of working on a holiday in the Forbesmagazine: money, recognition, extra vacation days, celebrations during off-peak times, chance to show-off leadership, and team play. Read her full article here. http://www.forbes.com/sites/jacquelynsmith/2013/11/25/the-8-benefits-of-working-on-a-holiday-this-year/

Enslaved by the Annual Symposium of the Society for the Study of Addiction 2013

The term Addiction comes from the Latin “enslaved by”. For two days, we became slaves of addiction conferring, once again, at the SSA conference in York, UK. Here’re my perceptions from this scientific slavery.
 

De-normalisation

Alcohol is so widespread in our community that abstinence is almost abnormal, argued one of the conference delegates. It’s hard to disagree with that. Recovery is helped by achieving a sense of normality about abstinence or lowered use. Professor Robert West took this issue even further and talked about denormalising use (check out his blog). Looking at the issue from multiple angles, he warned about the potential negative consequences of stigmatising use. Stigmatisation can backfire by increasing healthcare costs for people who not only use, but also have to deal with the stigmatisation and its negative effects. It seems that normalising safer use or normalising quitting is the way to go. My point about negative effects of stigmatisation reinforces the belief (supported by evidence) held by many harm reductionists that balanced information about drugs is the best form of primary prevention.
 

Skeltergate coffee

The most useful part of the conference for me was the opportunity to talk to colleagues at my, post-doctoral, level. I met the first friend before the conference, in a coffee place – Skeltergate. Skeltergate is a small cafeteria really close to the conference hotel. My friend waited there for me with a research paper in one hand and a pencil in the other. He definitely made the best use of his time. He and my second friend, who lives in London, are emerging researchers who recently relocated because of work. Both have a very busy working schedule, which includes working at 4 AM before breakfast, or after 11 PM when kids go to bed. I asked one of them how many hours per week he worked and he replied that working time is not a meaningful variable in academia. In another words, productive researchers work all the time.
 

Don’t stop working

Checking email is not work, it’s a compulsion. True to this statement, most people checked their inboxes during the conference lectures. Others did so in the cafeteria. Some people did not read their emails when they were out of office and enjoyed the opportunities of talking to other delegates. The academia did not manage to enslave all.
 

Always keep searching for the water pump

Before the conference, my PI suggested reading a bit about John Snow (1813 –1858) – an English doctor and a pioneer of anaesthesia and medical hygiene. Being the father of modern epidemiology, he traced the source of a cholera outbreak in Soho, London, in 1854. The outbreak was long, had too many victims, and no one know what kept it going. Dr Snow found the poisoned water pump, which everybody drank from, and shut it down. The figure below shows his memorial plaque at the Park Inn.

Tweeting

In contrast to the high prevalence of personal computers, the SSA Twitter banter was quiet again. Maybe it’s because there’s no official #hashtag for the SSA conference. Some people use the whole title (see figure below), while others tried to establish the #SSA2013 hashtag. This tag was used in 5 tweets only. What’s more, it’s being used as a hashtag for Space Situational Awareness 2013 conference, which was in London the weekend after SSA.

 

Check out also the blog about the conference by Sally Marlow

Re-entry shock – you can’t go home again

Culture shock is defined by Wikipedia as the “difficulty people have adjusting to a new culture that differs markedly from their own. A reverse culture shock a.k.a. “re-entry shock” or “own culture shock” is a state when returning to one’s home culture after growing accustomed to a new one produces the same effects.

First culture shock hit me when I arrived to Portland, Oregon, in March. I thought it was over then and that there will be no more surprises about adjusting to my normal life in Europe. I did not know that the second culture shock comes when people return to their home country. Many students on exchange programs experience it. Here’s my rant.

Big surprise

The shock of the transition to Portland, OR, was surprisingly weak. It took me only a couple of days to adjust and embrace the new life there. The easier this transition went, the more difficult the second transition was.  It was new and unexpected for me. The beginnings were really difficult, manifesting in confusion and other negative feelings.

Business as usual – as if we never left

My normal life, as I knew it before, was over. Most things remained the same. The things I hated before are still there and I still hate them. But I was not the same at all. I could not avoid a feeling of disconnect between the past and the present life. Another fellow told me a story of how on her first day at work, everything turned as it was in a split second. There was just one word of her boss and just one look of her colleague and she was back to her old relationships.

Repulsion

Stereotyping and hostility towards host nationals were not as new to me as other re-entry symptoms. When we came to Ireland first time, everything and everybody looked very different. This time, my eyes became very critical this time, though; every small weakness of the new-old country seemed like a giant disadvantage.

Physiological stress reactions

I was lucky not to have any serious stress reactions, but some of my friends suffered. Depression was lurking in the background and sometimes jumped into Facebook statuses, e.g. “I have grown two wings but I can’t fly”. Examples of what happened to people who came back included divorce, no house, no job, mood swings, or people at work are not welcoming them. Compulsive eating/ drinking/ weight gain occurred too: another fellow have lost 5 kg while on fellowship but upon her arrival she toured her family for 2 weeks and gained that weight again. My mother in law lived in UK for five years and when she came back home, she wanted to return to UK immediately.

Disappointment – inability to apply new knowledge and skills

People aren’t interested in my experiences from abroad. I will never be able to use the knowledge I have gained abroad. Ambitions and competition hinder cooperation, people see you like their enemy. In the previous country, if they saw you being good at something, they supported you. Here, they envy you and try to make it harder for you. This country is broke and there are no growth opportunities. There are no money, no jobs. I could do much more if I stayed there. Smart people struggle to survive here. How can they live in such miserable conditions?

Rootlessness – I don’t belong here

Feelings of alienation and withdrawal are common symptoms of culture shock. I felt that people aren’t nice here. They don’t appreciate if I smile at them or if I start talking to them. They don’t like me and don’t understand me. I feel so weak here, so helpless and isolated. I need their response or feedback. I need to engage with them. People see the “wrong” changes when they look at me. “You’ve lost weight” somebody said and I didn’t believe her. Three other people said it later. This was not the type of change I was proud of or that I wanted them to recognize.

Boredom

The shift from a big town in a big country to a smaller country was dramatic. This is a small town, there’s nothing here. This is nothing. No life, no culture, no fun. It is boring. Services are undeveloped, ineffective and slow. They are not customer orientated. People are dull and everything is made on such a small scale that it doesn’t even matter. Everything is small. Cars, trains, houses are small; I need more space to live better. Bicycling is unsafe, there are no bike lines and cars don’t share the road with cyclists. The streets are dirty and the greens are overgrown; nobody cuts them regularly.

Our flat is very small; we need to move out to a better place. I don’t like this area; I don’t understand how I could live here before. We threw away most of our things when we came back home. Our home was not our home any more. This state is well phrased in the saying “you can’t go home again,” first coined by Thomas Wolfe in his book of the same name.
Hope

When people return home after living abroad, it can take a while to adjust to their home country. Some don’t get used to it at all. I had the privilege to meet people who succeeded in bending their new lives. The new life wasn’t great. They lived in small apartments and struggled financially. But at least some of them enjoyed what they worked on. It was a demanding and low-salaried job, and often not just one. This gives me hope that things can get better. This country doesn’t have big events, venues or communities, but there are many small, which can serve the same purpose.