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Abroad2 and Other PhD Equations – Getting More Out of a PhD (Despite Covid)

The equation for a successful PhD is more than just ‘research + writing = thesis’ and a really successful doctorate is more than the sum of those obvious parts. But some of the opportunities you’ll have during a PhD are not always clearly communicated. Here are some suggestions from someone who has come across them to help you make up your mind and make the most out of your studies. Even in the middle of a pandemic.

The experience of starting a PhD (or being in the process of applying or deciding on doing one), is accompanied by plenty of thoughts: What kind of challenges await you? Which are the career options and professional horizons you can broaden? How is your life going to change? what new balance (if any) is going to arise from the chaos?

It sounds very poetic until you add all these factors together and you end up with an equation that would frighten even a senior PostDoc in Algebra! Now imagine that you try to solve this equation ridding a monocycle, spinning on lava, while self-isolating due to Covid-19.

But don’t worry, because I am here to brighten up your day! Apart from the known and expected opportunities within a PhD, there are some hidden gems that often only become apparent further down the road. And, since I have been walking this road for quite some time now, I can share some of these less-known opportunities that can make your PhD journey even more fruitful and entertaining.

Moreover, I myself had to readjust and keep on track with hidden opportunities during Corona-times. So I’ve included some tips for doing that, too.

1) Abroad2

This might be a rare one, but for me it has been the most impressive opportunity so far. My doctoral school offers its PhD students the opportunity of a six-twelve-month research stay abroad. During these months our salary is still covered and the extra costs for travelling and accommodation are reimbursed. Impressive or what?

For people like me who already left their country to do a PhD abroad it might sound very complicated to go even. . . “abroader” (or abroad2, if you will). And it sure is, for bureaucratic reasons at least. More than that, it is not easy to depart in the middle of your project and let your current obligations aside.

BUT this is a great opportunity to explore different working cultures, build your own network and establish collaborations for your home institution. If you are currently applying for PhD positions, make sure to ask your (future) supervisors about such opportunities for research stays (there are also relevant grants you can apply for). And if such a chance appears do not hesitate!

Covid-19 adaptation

Since travelling during the last year has been extremely limited, going abroad certainly sounds like that imaginary friend we had in kindergarten. However, the situation can be saved by establishing distant collaborations.

For instance, my supervisor and I, had approached a lab in another country willing to take me in for six months. When this proved too difficult, we found a way to ship material between the two labs, perform experiments individually on site and in the end share the analysis.

As a result, my project has seen a lot of progress, instead of being limited to my own group´s potential. For those of you not directly committed to on site experiments, this strategy will be even easier to apply.

2) log in a committee

With all the studying, writing and researching going on during a PhD, the last thing you probably want to think of is extra commitments. But if one of these possible commitments is being part of an organising committee I strongly advise you to give it a chance.

I was recently part of the organising committee of my university’s annual Doctoral Day. A conference where PhD and selected master students got to present their current work. I will not lie. It was exhausting. I had to work extra hours to contact sponsors, book facilities and even mount advertising posters across the city. But the outcome proved worthwhile and I’d definitely recommend this kind of work if the opportunity arises.

You get to meet and cooperate with the rest of the committee members, which might lead to future collaborations. Moreover, it is a brilliant chance to gain skills in event management and looking for funding – some very strong assets for any CV nowadays. So, next time an event is advertised by your institution, ask how you can get involved in the behind-the-scenes fun!

Covid-19 adaptation

Many meetings and conferences were cancelled or postponed during this year. Fortunately, most of them shifted to an online format. This means that absolutely nothing is lost! My university continues running Doctoral Days and Data Clubs online. People are still needed to organise the schedule, evaluate abstracts and distribute virtual talks and e-posters.

And since the world is generally shifting towards a more online project management model, the skills one can obtain from such activities during the PhD studies, will be regarded a strong asset in any career path to follow.

3) The ∑ of fun

Now prepare for the most radical statement of my post: not everything in a PhD has to be stressful! There are some events and activities organised within a doctoral school or department that you might not know about (yet) but definitely shouldn`t miss.

One such example that I have really enjoyed so far is the initiative of several of the city´s universities to invite a monthly guest speaker who shares the personal career stories behind and beyond their official CV. In this way I have found out about all the challenges, disappointments and critical decisions that have led to several successful careers and become more aware and better prepared for the future myself.

Another similar activity led by my university involves the industry visits. These offer an excellent insight into the corporate world and the work opportunities it might offer to a future PhD holder who wishes to leave academia. And, most importantly, you get to personally meet possible future employers. Believe me, I had no idea of such initiatives back when I was still applying for my PhD because they were not mentioned anywhere. Knowing about them back then would have definitely made my decision easier.

Covid-19 adaptation

I was very happy to find out that educational institutes like mine but also plenty of industry members, have been willing to continue their inspirational / educational / informational platforms online.

Many big pharmaceutical companies (at least in my field of expertise) now offer virtual site tours and are more open to aspiring employees approaching them online for information. My department also changed its informal and super entertaining career days to online events.

If something like this does not exist at your institute, well what are you waiting for? Aren’t we the ones supposed to change the world? Start by introducing such an idea to your peers and supervisors. After all, no one wants to spend the pandemic alone. And this is a good chance to be alone, together!

Getting the most out of difficult times

In conclusion, always have your eyes open for opportunities during a PhD that might not be extensively discussed or advertised at the application stage. Each university, institute or PhD / Masters track have their own. Contact the other members of the community in advance and make sure that you are fully aware of what’s going on around you.

The earlier you realise what your PhD is able to offer you, the more advantage of it you can take. Even in stressful times like these, the world doesn´t stop spinning. You just have to adapt and make the best out of it, both regarding your PhD project and the extra opportunities surrounding it.

After all, it´s the small extra things that can solve the equation and shift the balance of the monocycle so you can even roast marshmallows over that lava this winter.




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Last Updated: 21 January 2021