Aitor’s thoughts on being in an ITN

Hi dear reader,

This is Aitor again, writing from Rome…
After some thoughts, brainstorming and discussions with my colleagues from the ITN, I thought it would be interesting to publish a post about how it is like to be in an international PhD position, or a European network such as DNA-Robotics.
I believe that, if you’re going out of your master’s degree and are thinking what your next step should be, if you find yourself in application processes for PhD programs or have been chosen already, you may find some useful information by reading this post.
Just a quick disclaimer, I don’t mean to discourage you, quite the opposite, but the truth must be spoken!

PhD sure can be fun, but also very challenging, so ask yourself… Do you really want to do this?

If you read the presentations of the other early stage researchers (ESR) in our network, I think you will agree on this: Even though we are quite diverse in scientific and personal terms, we all had in common a personal interest in research.
Maybe this makes it difficult to give valuable advice, because it was very clear for me that I wanted to follow the PhD path, but if you’re thinking about choosing the same for you, consider before applying if you really want to do this…

I say this because I don’t believe a PhD is for everybody as it can be very frustrating and challenging at times, you will be tested under many conditions and your problem-solving capacities will be developed with time. It is a challenge that rewards only if you dedicate time and efforts and you might not need the degree to get your “dream job” or to reach the position/career you’d like to have in the future.

When pursuing a PhD you should also consider and carefully weigh it against the investment in your time and energy and how it will affect your personal life. It takes some personal sacrifices, a lot of preparation and a bit of luck to achieve. Although you will get support from your coworkers and supervisor, you’re mainly working for yourself and your future.

My first suggestion would be for you to take some personal time and rationally think about the following questions… I should also state, that although the answers need to be personal, you should also talk to your acquaintances, previous supervisors and professors as their experience might give you some valuable insights I cannot touch upon in this short post.

The questions are as follow, with some follow-ups behind each of them.

1.     Why do you want to do this?
Consider whether a career in academia would go well with you, or if it would be better to work in a company. You might have financial aspirations that a purely academical career does not offer, or you might be so curious that the industry would not be intellectually exciting enough for you. Some industrial positions require a PhD while others do not. You should do the research based on jobs you’d like to have and then evaluate if a PhD is something for you in the long run. Keep in mind that in academia it’s necessary to have a PhD, but it’s not enough to achieve a fulltime position (you need to do at least a postdoc). Think also about the type of research you would be performing, the skills you want to develop and the person you want to become…
I believe that if you have an interest in research and your curiosity has driven you before to understand things, a PhD might be something for you. I also believe that if you don’t identify yourself as a curious person, but you really want to get an interesting R&D position in the industry, this path might be necessary to achieve this. Think about this, only you can really say what you expect from life.

2.     Are you ready for the ride?
If you are still reading and I haven’t bored or discouraged you, get ready for the ride you’re about to embark… It will be sometimes hard, full of learning and exchange experiences, you will meet amazing people and will become the “master of a research project” dedicating your life to it for at least 3 years.
You will probably learn things you never knew existed, discuss with incredibly smart people and share your experiences. You will probably learn how to think critically and solve problems, which is an incredibly rewarding experience.
You will likely travel too, for working experiences and discovering interesting people around Europe.

Since the only PhD I’ve done is this one, I cannot really say that the information following this part would be extremely relevant if you’re not doing at least an international PhD program, but you might still discover a thing or two if you keep reading (so yeah, don’t quit on me now!)

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Check some more information on https://www.slideshare.net/DesiLinguist/why-not-do-a-phd/16-Why_NOT_do_a_PhDbr

Still here, future or “wannabe” Early Stage Researcher (ESR)?

If after thinking about the previous questions you can say with confidence that you wish to pursue this path, then you should start your research in the portal of the European Commission’s Euraxess, looking for early stage researcher positions (https://euraxess.ec.europa.eu/). These are positions that you can have when you have under 4 years of professional experience after your master’s, and in some cases can lead to PhD degrees.

In this somehow “tricky to use” search portal you’ll be able to find all the European Research Positions, jobs, tips, assistance and other very useful information for your future migration, and I’m confident that you can find answers to any related question you might come up with by browsing and reading carefully.

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My goal is not to make a “how to” tutorial on using that portal, there are plenty around the web. I think, it would be more interesting to share my experience of how it is to become a migrating researcher and write about things I wish I (and other colleagues) knew before finding our ESR positions.

First thing is that you’re going to be moving out of your current country, which brings some bureaucratic considerations that are too complex and diverse to put all here. In general, you should find out if you need a Visa or special work permit, which depends on your nationality. You might need to follow a special procedure to come to Europe, and I would suggest you contact the consulate or embassy of interest in advance because it can take a while to finish in some cases.

When you’re going to consider a country, think about the salary they offer and how it will be taxed, because this way you’ll avoid drawing fancy pictures of your life when it might not be the case. All European countries have different schemes and it would be wise to have that information at hand. One way to go about it is to put the salary that’s offered into a tax calculator for the specific country you’re interested in applying. With this in mind you can draw a picture of the standards of living that you’ll have in that country, I’ve personally used the portal from Numbeo every time I’ve had to move and have never had uncomfortable surprises either in Europe, Asia or America (follow this link to check it out https://www.numbeo.com/cost-of-living/)

Besides your personal economic situation, the finances and size of the investigation centers, companies or universities you are applying to, should be of your concern. You’ll be able to reach your maximum potential as a researcher if you have an appropriate environment, for example, a big center with loads of equipment. Personnel and money might be more interesting in scientific terms than a smaller, with scarce equipment and resources but the competition and stress can also be higher.

There are pros and cons to everything…

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I should add that, none of these financial aspects matter if you don’t find yourself happy where you are, so get the time to exchange at least some mails or calls with your potential coworkers before making any choices and ask them about their working conditions and mood of the lab. Find out if they publish a constant amount of research papers, if they get the opportunity to interact with other groups, how the principal investigator is, among any other question you might come up to. It is very important to have an accurate picture of the working environment, and if you can visit the lab before signing anything, even better!

Finally, the culture you’ll be living in should also be somehow interesting to you or at least provide conditions where you would easily adapt. For instance, don’t go to a huge city if you don’t like crowds! Or don’t go to a place where everyone speaks a language you are not interested in learning or hearing!

My goal with these statements is for you to answer this, vital but difficult question that has no objective answer.

How will you feel when living there?

If you can have a clear picture of this, you’ll be sure to make a good choice between the different Marie Sklodowska Curie Actions projects. And don’t forget, if you’re having trouble answering, that a trip never hurts, it is always good to visit the cities where you would be living before making your choice.

When you put together the financial conditions of the lab, the standards of living and scientific parts, you’ll be able to choose which programs to applying to. I believe there’s no “right way to choose” and in the end the choice should be a compromise between these aspects.

Never forget that finding an international program is also a matter of statistics: You will be more likely to be chosen as a candidate if you apply to many positions with an adequate application every time.

This would consist of a strong CV, presented in a simple and concise way along with a personalized motivation letter where you should clearly explain why you want to join that specific team and what brought you to apply.

With these paragraphs you’ve been reading (and the questions you’ve been asking yourself) you should be able to write a strong cover letter and get at least some interviews. The result of the interviews will depend entirely upon the recruiting team and yourself, so make a good impression and keep it simple. If you got to this point, they are already interested in you, so keep your cool, you’re halfway in!

If it was positive and you’re recruited you’ll be very anxious for some time because you won’t know straight away, it’s a long process so be patient.

Trying to find a compromise is like keeping your balance. Video downloaded from https://9gag.com/gag/aGgRmj6

If you have been chosen by a lab, or an ITN… Congratulations!

If you get to this point, you’ll probably be excited about your new life. It’s also a good time to take some vacations and use this opportunity to enjoy your current place of residency, you will soon be leaving and it’s sure you’ll miss it (or some of it, at least). Start as soon as you can your migratory bureaucratic procedures and get more familiar with the research undertaken, checking your classes should help remembering key concepts used in your future institution.

During this “waiting to move” time, it would be wise to get up and close with the techniques and instruments they have in your host institution and carefully read their papers. This might be the most valuable advice at this point, because, knowing well the research and scientists in your host institution is very important since you will know who to talk to when you start running into scientific problems.

This “preparation time” might be a bit boring and slow, but you will miss it very much after you start in your position, so savor it, it’s sweet to feel relatively free from responsibilities and the ride ahead of you is full of surprises and emotions.

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If you’ve never been abroad, it would be positive to get to know the culture you’re moving to, its geography, language and other interesting facts… It will be your home for at least 3 years and if you do things right during your stay, it will also become a part of you!

Culture shock is a thing, some people have a hard time with that, others, like me, do not. It always depends on your personality and the support you get when you arrive, not only in professional terms, but in the personal too. It’s great to make friends as soon as you can, they will open doors to that city you wouldn’t hope to find by yourself. Discover your new home and make a niche there for you, it will make your life so much easier. There are plenty of events for international students in most European cities, join them to meet new people but don’t forget about the locals. The latter might be a little bit trickier to find but, as a “rule-of-thumb”, you should join events and activities that include them. If you have a hobby (like photography is for me) you just must do it in your new home to eventually meet people. If you lack personal activities, it’s never too late to start one, it will make you a more complete person!

Besides these personal advices, professionally, quickly get used to what they regularly do in your institution, the work culture and how they go about their days. Also, to do as soon as you can, define your workspace and where the materials are in the lab, get to know the grounds and instrumentation to become independent and avoid disrupting other people’s activities, it will also speed up your workflow.

A few final words on this are that, there’s no right or wrong way to emigrate, but I think if you follow this advice, you’ll have an easier time when starting your project.

How to thrive in your PhD…

At the moment of writing this post, I’m only months into my program, so I don’t really have valuable advice on tackling the hurdles we face as PhD students. I guess that, for me, most of it has been frustration over experiments I plan and don’t work, drafting crazy ideas that will probably never be executed and the casual excitement when you get a nice result. With my previous experiences as a researcher, I know this to be normal. Science advances at a slow pace but as time goes on and you acquire more experience, you make less mistakes and advance slightly faster. Keep in mind that training in research is a step by step buildup process that relies on making mistakes and understanding why you made them. It’s sometimes more helpful to have negative results than positive ones, you learn much more this way.

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When researching this topic, reading online, speaking with my colleagues and supervisors of the program, the most part I found was about mental health issues and how to tackle it. It is commonly known that the motivation should come from within and that you should cultivate a “fire inside” that drives you in your projects to become a successful researcher. Always remember that you’re doing this for yourself, and it’s partly up to you how well and fast you advance in the project.

I also think that you should make a place in the city that hosts you and can call home, you should have side activities to cultivate a balance in your life.

To be successful you also need to be happy

Final Remarks

Above all, remember that this is a long ride, with ups and downs; your problem-solving capacities will be stretched, you will acquire new experiences and collect a few more friends and contacts for your network. Even in the darkest moments, you’ll be able to see the positives and have fun doing it.

Enjoy your program, you’ll only have that experience once in your life and it will be worth it!

Thank you for the (probably too long) read and feel free to contact me through Instagram (@lifesamples) or mail if you come up with any questions, or just want talk about your experience!

Image credit for the featured image: PhD Students, by @lifesamples (Instagram)

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