#PhDChat : ‘Athena Swan – Quest for Change or Another Tick Box Exercise?’

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Image – Jason Corey

‘Opinion’ is our latest addition to The Hub. This is a space where writers can share their personal opinions about topical issues. In today’s article, a current PhD candidate* discusses her experience of becoming pregnant during her lab-based PhD. Should PhD candidates be treated as students (tax exempt stipend, no benefits) or staff (pay tax on salary, employee benefits e.g. maternity pay)?

I’ve been contemplating this post for a while – to write or not to write, to share or not to share. After careful consideration, I believe the story should be shared so that this issue can be debated by and with a wider audience. Perhaps this post can resonate with the collective experiences of others who found themselves in my position.

Women’s rights, equality for women and now promoting more women in science are hot topics today. But is it just another tick box exercise or an honest quest for change? What is the reality on the ground?

In 2005, the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) established the Athena Swan Charter to – ‘encourage and recognise commitment to advancing the careers of women in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) employment in higher education and research’. A statement on the ECU website reads: ‘We support universities and colleges to build an inclusive culture that values the benefits of diversity, to remove barriers to progression and success for all staff and students, and to challenge and change unfair practices that disadvantage individuals or groups’.

Since its inception, many universities have signed up to adopt the charter and have put measures in place so women in the profession are better supported such as flexible working hours, Job shares and scheduling events during core hours (10 am – 4pm).

Bridging the Skills Gap – Are you Skilled to Kill?

essential-skills-for-winning-chess Employers say they can’t get enough skilled labour. Further and Higher Education institutions talk about embedding employability skills in the curriculum. On a personal level, what does being skilled mean to you?Have you identified the skills you have and the skills you need to stand out in your job search or in your current profession? Are there any gaps or are are you skilled to kill? In this article, Dr Nadia Anwar discusses the term ‘skills’ and the importance of skills training.

Skills come both naturally and through training. They are the weapons of power with which you can make a long lasting impression on the highly demanding job market and influence people who play a significant role in your success. Although present in all, most of the time, skills need to be acknowledged and recognized by a person so that they could be appropriately demonstrated in his/her private and public life. However, what are these skills and how are they acquired still generate confusion in potential candidates and hiring agencies.

Skills function as a measuring tool to judge someone’s ability or the degree of efficacy in performing a task.

However, a significant key to understanding any process that involves an interaction designed to assess someone’s ability in any field or aspect of life is to place the concerned person in the context and environment in which s/he is being judged. Not only that, the context also needs to be accommodated by tailoring the skills according to its demands.

RE: The postdoctoral Conundrum – To Postdoc or not to Postdoc (feedback and advice for those considering whether or NOT to Postdoc)

Following the article by Dr Victor Ujor on “The postdoctoral Conundrum – To Postdoc or not to Postdoc!” two readers left very engaging and interesting comments on LinkedIn which we thought would be of benefit to our readers and the contributors have also very generously agreed for their comments to be shared with our readers.

Dr Lia Paola Zambetti, is an Experienced Scientific communicator and currently Assistant Head/Project Manager at A*STAR (Agency for Science, Technology and Research) and completed her PhD studies at the University College London. She advises that;

“If you are not 1000% convinced that you want to stay in academia (and have the stellar publication record that is a requirement nowadays) then probably…better to not postdoc!”

It should also be made abundantly clear right from the start that the % of success in getting an academic position is ridiculously low……”

Subsequently, Dr Chris Gaj, Director at the Research Partnership in Philadelphia, experienced healthcare professional and PhD Graduate from Yale University added to the comments made by Dr Zambetti below.

“To echo Lia, do not do an academic postdoc unless you really have to. If you have your heart set on being a tenure track professor, you probably have no choice but to pursue the postdoctoral fellowship pathway. If your interests lie elsewhere, do not use the postdoc as a default path. Strive to reach your goals. It may be that you are unable to get where you want to or even to a place that you can tolerate – if you are faced with the choice of an academic postdoc or pushing shopping carts/mopping floors/cleaning the trash compactor aisle (I am describing my first real job back in high school) then maybe an academic postdoc is better.

What I suggest to people looking for anything other than academic science is ‘do not postdoc unless there is no other viable option.’

And work hard to make sure you are trying to get other opportunities. Don’t do a half-____ed job of it. If the postdoctoral pathway is largely forced on you, always be working towards ways to escape.

Now an industrial postdoc is a different story. This gets you industry experience and sets you up for potentially going into non-scientific pathways like business. But I know these are hard to come by.

No matter where you are in your pathway. Good luck, God bless, and try not to let the job market get you down. It took me about 18 months to find a real position. 12 months in graduate school and 6 months after defending, but it did happen. Just try (I know it’s REAL hard) to stay positive and keep moving forward.”

Many thanks to Dr Zambetti and Dr Gaj for sharing meaningful advice and allowing us to publish their comments on the hub

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#PhDChat – The Postdoctoral Conundrum; to postdoc or not to postoc?

5. Postdoc conundrumFor many PhD candidates, undertaking postdoctoral training after their PhD programs appears as the “natural” career transition upon graduating. This is not an exact science and in today’s post, Dr Victor Ujor discusses the ‘postdoctoral concept’ and offers beneficial tips for PhD candidates thinking of the of the next steps in their career after the PhD

For most PhD students particularly in the sciences, as soon as they near the end of the grueling PhD journey, they are literally feverish at the prospect of landing a real ‘money-paying’ job. In today’s economy, such jobs are few and far between. Nonetheless, they still exist, but to get one, you ought to have a roadmap from the onset. An overwhelming number of PhD candidates drift towards the Postdoctoral end of the job spectrum for a number of reasons.

First, most PhD candidates feel they are expected to do a postdoc – gain extra experience, get more publications and then land the real job. In some cases, that does happen, but if one does not have a clear-cut strategy as to how to negotiate the winding Postdoctoral alleyway, they might end up stuck in a convoluted maze for an unpleasant period of time. Second, more often than not, Postdoctoral positions are more available that positions in industry, which pays more. Third, some PhD candidates are confused about their career prospects i.e. should they decide to ditch academia for industry.

For PhD candidates at the confusing intersection between the end of the PhD program and a vastly hostile market, perhaps it is important to clarify the concept of a postdoctoral experience .

 What is a Postdoctoral experience really?

#PhDChat – 5 Common CV mistakes and how to overcome them!

4. CV Mistakes

Have you applied for positions you believe you have ALL the requirements and skills for but never seem to get past the first hurdle – an invitation to interview? In this article, Dr Jeff McGarvey, identifies common mistakes made on CVs by applicants for job opportunities in his laboratory. Although this article is directed at science graduates, many of the points Jeff addresses are relevant to non-scientific disciplines.

I recently advertised an opening for a microbiologist position in my laboratory with very specific requirements including: minimum education of a BSc. (MSc. preferred), experience working with pathogenic bacteria (Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria etc.), and molecular biology experience (DNA extraction, cloning, PCR, DNA sequencing, etc.). After 3 weeks, I received about 35 CVs from candidates wanting the job. While the majority of CVs were well written, there were a few that did not serve the candidates well. Here are a few of the most common problems I encountered.

#PhDChat – From Industry to Academia, A Personal Lesson in Change Management!

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As the popular saying goes, ‘The only constant thing in life is change.’ It is essential as an aspiring professional to develop the capacity to manage change. Navigating through new ‘territory’ comes with challenges but it can provide opportunities for growth too.  In this article, Hephzi, reflects on the first year of her laboratory based PhD and how she is managing her – not so common – move from an industry background into academia.

After 8 years of working in industry, I decided it was time for a different challenge. When I received news of being awarded a studentship to pursue a PhD program, I was obviously overjoyed. I had spent about 2 years searching and applying for a suitable PhD program and I had finally achieved my goal. Interestingly, the offer came with a BUT… The following clause had been included –“As your route to academic studies is a bit circuitous, it would be good if you could write a covering letter that states why you want to do a PhD after your time in industry.”

“How interesting,” I thought. The clause seemed contradictory to what I had heard at various conferences and workshops I had attended over the last few years while carrying out my research to inform my decision to pursue a PhD program.  I had always thought that industry loved academic recruits and that academics would value industrial experience. Since moving into academia, I have come across academics looking to move into industry, with little success. It now seems to me that this is not the reality of the situation. Industry and academia are not necessarily viewed as two sides of the same coin.

#PhDAdvice – How to ‘survive’ the viva experience!

 

Are you a researcher, masters, PhD or doctoral candidate with your fated ‘viva/defence’ looming? In this article, Dr Nadia Anwar reflects on her viva experience and shares tips making your viva a positive experience. Good luck!

The term ‘viva’ comes from the Latin phrase viva voce, which literally means ‘by word of mouth’ or ‘with living voice’. It is somewhat surprising that many people, although possess sufficient information about oral examinations and face to face interviews, have no substantial knowledge of the term viva voce and what really goes into preparing for it. The main reason for this is that popular terms used for viva in England are oral examination and post-submission interview or assessment. In countries like India and the US, the word is translated as verbal defence which has pretty much the same connotation as the word viva. The difference is that whereas the former is conducted in a form of seminar or presentation in front of a large group of specialists and non-experts – sometimes including colleagues, friends and family – followed by rigorous Q&A, the latter is done in the privacy of a room and under the critical eye and observation of examiners.

The main task of a candidate when placed in such a context is to justify the propositions made in written work (e.g. dissertation, thesis…). The candidate is also required to exhibit extensive knowledge of the written thesis through verbal defence while demonstrating sound presentation skills, as well as the ability to communicate clearly and convincingly.

Although my experiences and observations, may not be relevant in all situations and contexts, I hope they clarify some of the confusion prospective viva candidates often face during their academic or research journey. My knowledge of the viva process is based on my personal experience which I will describe under four headings.

First, prior to my viva, I had the opportunity to attend a number of tough interviews; both academic and professional that demanded a high level of subject knowledge and confidence – two crucial prerequisites to succeed in a viva. This experience unraveled many aspects of my personality that I was hitherto unaware of. I learnt that I perform well and confidently in interviews that relate to my specific discipline and research Since this revelation I have stopped considering myself a Ms Know-it-All who can provide a satisfactory answer to all questions (a general misconception of people with PhDs). Now I focus more on what I am good at – my forte. It is, I believe, absolutely alright to accept your limitations and act normal in any given context.

Second, I attended many workshops which specifically dealt with the nature of viva process and the possible expectations of potential assessors/examiners. These workshops provided me with a good platform to practice my presentation skills and discuss my confusion with my facilitators and peers.

If such platforms are unavailable, another way to prepare for a viva is to practice Q&A with colleagues and friends. The success of this activity, however, depends on a candidate’s capacity to sift through any feedback given. Because although useful, a discouraging comment by a colleague or failure to deliver in front of friends can cause anxiety rather than boosting confidence in a candidate. With this kind of experience a candidate goes to the viva room with a pre-formed feeling of unpreparedness.

In some institutions, a practice oral examination called a mock-viva is usually performed before the main viva (oral defence). In an attempt to respond to the questions in the light of advice given during and after the mock-viva, we become conscious of what and how we are performing which may block our natural capacity to deal with a challenging situation.

 I would advise potential candidates against forming strong opinions about their performance during a practice session (from an informal or mock session).

Third, I acquainted myself with available resources and second-hand information explicating and busting myths about the Draculean nature of viva. I also gathered information by talking to recent graduates about their respective experiences before and during oral examinations.

The tips you get from online resources and various institutional websites although very useful, are mostly person-specific and sometimes applying them to yourself may hinder the natural flow of many useful ideas and eureka moments that are triggered only during the highly nerve wracking experience of a viva. The challenge is to understand how you deal with tense and taxing situations. Since all have different levels of tolerance, we need to devise our own emotional strategy to cope with the viva experience. I think the key to good performance is to ‘be yourself’!

ccc843b77ba91304da77da27f4d6ab4fDisplay the knowledge you possess not the one you fabricate to impress.

I am of the opinion that different candidates react and respond differently when in a viva situation. Over preparation sometimes compromises the spontaneity of the moment. A very common mistake that candidates make during the viva or oral defence process is to “run the show” or overtake their examiners. It is good to show your examiners that you can be flexible and confident at the same time. Depending on the mood and environment of the room, you can relate interesting anecdotes and little incidents and experiences from your life that have somehow impacted your research process i.e. connect your research with the world that exists outside its immediate domain. No matter how trivial, these useful diversions sometimes contribute in facilitating your access to your examiner’s mind. Since, the emphasis is on the creation of new knowledge, original research and advanced scholarship, unless your knowledge collides with the real world, it is not going to make sense to your listeners and readers.

I have now come to the conclusion that performance in a viva depends not simply on how well you have memorized your written work and how far you have been able to converse fluently about the primary and secondary sources you have cited and quoted but on how confidently and comfortably you respond to your examiners’ questions in the particular environment in which you find yourself on the particular day you are invited to appear. In all respects, the ritual is person-specific and context-driven. The venue where an oral examination is conducted is like a liminal space where endless possibilities for your future are created. Coming out successful from this space is what gives you an edge over other candidates.

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About our writer – Dr Nadia Anwar completed her PhD in Nigerian drama from The University of Northampton, UK. She is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Management and Sciences, Lahore. You can read her other contributions to The Hub here and here.  

If you enjoyed reading this article, please share and subscribe to our network! We would love to share your stories in The Hub as well so do get in touch – info@aspiringprofessionalshub.com.