Category: Career

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

Research Support and Supervisor Development programme: Epidemiologic triad of a successful PhD

The last Friday workshopat University College Dublin addressed a group of twelve supervisors with presentations by an epidemiologist, a physicist, a careers and a graduate studies officer.

How to avoid common pitfalls in research supervision?

Codd, the Epidemiologist told us about the key things we needed to know as supervisors. They were three: administrative, personal and academic matters. Together, they create the host environment part of her Epidemiologic triad of a successful PhD (see figure 1 below).

Figure 2. Epidemiologic triad of a successful PhD

Administrative matters. We need to make these students ticking over. Know your school PhD director (she interviews all PhD applicants in some schools). Look for the policies and procedures that relate to PhD. Ask your administrators: “Could we have a workshop for the supervisors in the school – annual PhD supervisors’ workshop?” There are always issues with at least 10% of students. As a relatively new trend in Ireland, the structured PhD helps to pick up and resolve those issues.
Academic matters. What have potatoes and supervisors in common? Think about the annual cycle of potatoes – new potatoes, big thing in Ireland, if you leave them in bright place, they sprout, the old potato shrinks and dies – as the Tuber (see Figure 2). The PhDs are like your offshoots. 
Are you competing with your students? The last 6 months of PhD can be especially prone to competition because of the expertise that students learned.


Personal matters. Be hyper vigilant – watch out for early warning signs of troubles. Some student problems cluster and almost create types of students. Student types MC’s list:
Part-/full time, inter-/national, the endless, the eager beaver, the slow starter, the double jobbing one, the competent, charming disarming, manipulative, diffident/ incommunicado, demanding, insecure, dependent, impossible. Conflicts with supervisors occur and when they do it’s almost always about expectations. Share the burden – please talk with your colleagues about the pleasures and difficulties of supervision.

Dunne, the Physicist, brainstormed with us over a list of questions that we should ask our potential supervisees at interviews:
  • What supports do you have?
  • How they deal with crisis?
  • How would you define the plagiarism?
  • Overestimating what they know is a common mistake.
  • Reliance on email communication is bad.
  • The cultural stuff is huge, diversity is always a good thing, but you have to be more tuned in, as a supervisor. Usually the stuff that you don’t see coming creates the most problems.

How to help students through skills-needs analysis and key-skills acquisition for research & professional life?

Drs Harkin and Cunninghan explained what PhDs do after graduation and how supervisors can use an underutilised career-planning tool at the University College Dublin.
What do PhDs do after graduation? PhD is not the best option for all who start it. Those who won’t end up in academia need other skills to succeed in the big world. Ancillary activities are important – ask the students to volunteer, or enter competitions.
Which transferable skills will your doctoral students develop? Most graduate students don’t have good writing skills, administration, foreign language, basic computer skills, project management, because their programme doesn’t focus on them. We’re not there yet.
The Research & Professional Development Plan can help. The student should take the ownership of it. Try it yourself:
This post offered my views on the fourth meeting of the new Research Support and Supervisor Development programme (RSSDP) at the University College Dublin, Ireland. This programme is targeted at new and experienced faculty who would like to refresh their knowledge in the area. The 5 last-Friday workshops are 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. I covered the previous meetings in the posts about leaders, styles, and recruitment.  Watch this space for my observations from these workshops.

Three years post doctorate

27 April 2014
Transitions are life changes that allow us to pause, reflect and plan. Here’s a short history of my transition from the pre-doctoral to the post-doctoral stage. Read the full story here.
Hungary 2007. My Hungarian adventurewas a real turning point in my career. I had to commute to work and spent long hours in trams. Bored of watching cars and people, I started to read open-access articles about addiction. When I found something really relevant to my PhD, I felt like a gold miner who just dug his jewel out of piles of dirt. My passion grew stronger with every new paper.
Figure 1. Jano in transition
Ireland 2008. When we arrived to Ireland in late 2008, I had a small EU grant, with a budget of 3000 euros, and an unclear host organization. We survived for almost a year living from my wife’s EVSstipend and seasonal part-time jobs. My PhD and the EU grant took most of my time, leaving only a couple of hours for job-hunting. When I eventually ran out of money, it was late winter and the job market had dried up. Finally, I found an academic job, initially advertised as a PhD in Translational Medicine but my potential boss – Prof Walter Cullen – told me at the interview that I should apply for a p/t job on the same project. That’s how I came to research drinking among methadone patients in primary care at UCD.
Oregon 2013. In July 2011, only two months after receiving PhD, I have attended a summer school on addiction in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Dr McCarty, the school director, lectured about various policy models and evidence-based treatments for several days. Two years later, I did a NIDA fellowship with Dr McCarty at Oregon Health& Sciences University. Read this post about how I got there.

Lessons learned from junior post-doc

1) Write a lot. Like some teenagers, I used to write poems, songs and short stories. Then I stopped for many years. In Oregon, my wife surprised me with a Prompt-based creative writing course for my birthday. She thought it would be good for me and that I would enjoy it. Dr McCartyencouraged me to submit an essay to the Wellcome Trust Science Writing competition and to write a lot. Since then, writing became the core of my work.
2) Learn a lot. If you think of life as a huge learning experience, you welcome trouble as a gift.
3) Keep at it. Perseverance is critical in science. Progress takes years. New knowledge accumulates slowly. And the desired change is uncertain. While I was distributing clean needles to injecting drug users in inner-city Bratislava, Slovakia, I could see the effect of my work immediately. Now I have to wait ages and the change may not come in my life.
I’ve learned many more lessons than just these three, but I’ve learned how to separate the weed from the wheat from the chaff too. I don’t write about the minor lessons.

Future plans for senior post-doc

  • To stay true to myself
  • To reach a position of independence by:
    • conducting a randomized controlled trial
    • supervising work of junior investigators
  • To maintain a happy work-life balance
  • To pass the accumulated knowledge and skills on other:
    • Doctors and helping professions, by helping them become more competent and confident in addiction medicine research
    • Medical students, by helping them discover and master addiction medicine research

Clinical trials are about human dynamics: RCT course in Belfast, May 7-8

As a trialist, the pressure of working on a trial is much bigger than being in a small group educational session. Challenges of implementing a trial are multiple, mainly influenced by the values of outcomes for different people. Whose question is the trial answering? If you’ve ever found yourself puzzled by these issues, you may find some solace in reading my notes from a courseon clinical trials. 

7 instructors and 21 participants – all from Northern Ireland (except 2 Dubliners), 2 medics, three 1-st year PhD students and some professors – talked about clinical trials for two days last week at Queens University Belfast. The aim of the course wasn’t to learn everything, but to think laterally about trials. Professor Clarkecovered the basics of starting trials: formulating a clear research question, deciding on comparisons and placebos and dealing with confounding factors. The 7 main ways of dealing with confounding are:
  1. Matching
  2. Exclusion
  3. Stratified sampling
  4. Standardisation
  5. Multivariate modelling
  6. Randomisation

The pleasures and terrors of trial recruitment were described by Dr Maguire. Everybody struggling with meeting the recruitment targets should read the top 10 tipsfor recruiting into trials at the All-Ireland Hub for Trials Methodology Research website. Trialists should plan for what they’re going to do if things don’t go the way they planned. Recruiters can also become tired and it’s good to think ahead about what would possibly prevent them from recruiting. Even small rewards to recruiters, such as cream eggs, can increase their satisfaction. Satisfaction=Retention. Research networks for General Practitioners can facilitate recruitment.

Dr McAneney introduced us to the role of social networks in clinical trials. We are all connected.  All the users of Facebook can be linked by 3.74 steps. Networks make the trials work or crash. Networks allow diffusion of innovation. Decisions of participants and researchers are influenced by networks.

Prof McAuleyhelped the participants to write the protocol and funding application for their first trial. Publishing a trial protocol sets the bar pretty high for researchers – transparency and accountability are keyIf it’s not possible to publish the protocol in a peer-reviewed journal, then post it online. Every protocol is changed over time and they should be listed on the first page. The CONSORT diagram is an essential part of a protocol. It’s the only slide that’s projected during meetings of grant reviewers.

Dr Shorterand Prof Buntingcontinued with tips for analysing outcomes. The essence of any research is control. Although power calculations for trials seem difficult, they involve only a short sequence of basic steps. Categorical outcomes require more data and more participants than continuous outcomes. Analysis of clinical trials assumes that our participants are all from the same population. The classical assumption of trials analysis was that individual differences do not matter, they were ignored. Another assumption that things are measured perfectly never holds.

Finally, Dr Dunlopfinished the course presentations with ethics and data storage.

You have to breastfeed some of them on the way – what is your style of research supervision?

In the old days, the PhD was just a lone scholar with a supervisor. That situation created a lot of dependence and power imbalance. Nowadays, the universities are moving towards a supervisory-team model which diffuses imbalance and dependence. This shift requires a change in thinking and re-training on the side of supervisors – such as the research supervision trainingin University College Dublin, every last Friday afternoon.

The last meeting focused on:
i)                   Research supervisory styles
ii)                  Identification of roles and responsibilities
iii)                 Expectations of research students and supervisors

Figure 1

PhD aims to move the student from a dependent research mode to an autonomous one. In the classical model, the power and control in the relationship was distributed unequally. The supervisor controlled student’s working time, vacation, travel (to conferences) and thesis. She was the moon on the student’s sky, but for her, the student was only one of the many stars on her sky. She was there with all the cookies in the jar (See Figure 1). Success in such an uneven relationship, as measured by (PhD) completion, wasn’t guaranteed. Understanding of own communication style, role and expectations can help more PhDs finish and enjoy their work.


Personal tendencies of the supervisor and the PhD student can be very different. Because we naturally seek communication with similar-style students, and avoid students who don’t ‘talk our language’, it’s important to know your style. The Meyers-Briggs Personality Type Inventory (MBTI) can help you identify your style.

How many PhDs should you supervise at a time?

2, 3-4,  5, or 6-8?
There’s no definitive answer to this question. The value of the question is the question. The optimum number is Discipline-specific and also depends on the dynamic of the research group (note. not applicable for some disciplines). My two previous posts about the supervision training brought advice of Hugh Kearns, about the time management of academics, and Tadgh O’Keeffe, about the dangers of taking too many research students in the early career stages.


My first task on the research job in Ireland was to go through a two-foot high pile of articles, sort them and throw out irrelevant papers. For people new to research, it is important to clarify the expectations. According to the literature, clarification of the following areas was perceived as crucial by PhD students:
(1) Working practices
Timekeeping, annual leave, weekends – students found it useful if they were told to take the PhD as a full time job.
(2) Management of meetings
Agenda, minutes, goals are best delegated to students – it’s their PhD. Hugh Kearnsalso advised that meetings build structure into a relationship. Each mentoring meeting should have an agenda. Ask the student to send agendas in advance of the meetings.
(3) Communication
Clarify to the student about the communication channels, Email, phone, etc., but most importantly, tell them about when to (not)call you and how prompt are you going to be responding.
(4) Co-supervision
With the increasing popularity of the co-supervision and supervisory teams, the role and involvement of the co-supervisor should be clear. We found the co-supervision useful in teaching addiction literature reviews, when I provided methodological advice to my PI’s students.
(5) Training
Recognisable transferable skills certificates or credits are in high demand globally. If you don’t believe in transferable skills training, your students won’t do it.
(6) Writing and publications
Ask students to write from the beginning. Give clear goals and set time frames. Clarify how you’re going to provide feedback on writing, ie. email or oral. Explain co-authorship of group papers. Borrow students your own thesis or give a printout of your paper.
This post offered my views on the third meeting of the new Research support and supervisor development programme at the University College Dublin, Ireland. This programme is targeted at new and experienced faculty who would like to refresh their knowledge in the area. The 6 last-Friday workshops are 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.

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.