On Academia and Whereabouts: Insights From Grad School

November 11th, 2014


This text was fully written by humans.
  • In this post, I share insights from my experience in grad school, discussing accidental discoveries and the excitement of unexpected results that lead to potential impactful papers.
  • I reflect on the structure of academia and their research environment, contrasting the negative aspects of a hierarchical lab with the positive dynamics of a more communal and collaborative setting.
  • I dig into the value of teamwork, highlighting the benefits of brainstorming and how the growth of their team has contributed to the progress of my project. I also discuss the importance of conferences for networking and offer tips on maximizing the conference experience, emphasizing the need for meticulous planning and strategic selection of presentations to attend.

Insights From Grad School: A Little Discovery.

In this blog post, I list my recent insights from grad school: on academic structure, team work, and effective networking at conferences. I hope that in case you are an early-stage researcher, these insights turn out to be helpful to you!

Firstly, the best ideas come to mind effortlessly and out of the blue. Recently — quite by accident — while playing with the parameters of my digital networks pretending to be real fMRI data, I got a suspicious and unexpected result. And when you get an unexpected result in science, it is either a mistake or a discovery…

After an in-depth look, it indeed turned out to be a discovery… And material for a separate, perhaps quite impactful, paper. I was speechless, because I hadn’t even thought about dealing with this particular subject-matter. But I guess I will, because it calls for publication. It is a pity that I cannot share more information here in public but you know how it is — Intellectual Property, confidentiality of the scientific publication process, et cetera.

Insights From Grad School: On The Structure of Academia and My Research Environment.

Secondly, the best-performing labs tend to have a cloud structure — which is not surprising when you think about it. My former lab was a kind of dictatorship where every student, every graduate student, and every postdoctoral researcher had one and only master whom they had to serve. It was very toxic and unproductive.

Many other labs have such a pyramidal structure, where the Postdocs reports directly to the boss, where each doctoral student has one Postdoc to work with and only meets the boss once in a while, for instance, once a week. And, each undergraduate student has a doctoral student to look after them. They also meet the boss only once in a while, for instance, once per month.

My current research environment is different — it is rather a kind of commune where you don’t know what’s going on and who is doing what with whom. Ideas arise spontaneously, and basically everyone works with anyone who is suitable for it. It must be quite a sport, or an art, to keep the balance so that people collaborate, but at the same time do not step onto each other’s projects. So far, I am not complaining, although it may get tight in a while once we get more students onboard. I am really happy with what my environment looks like.

Insights From Grad School: On Team Work.

Thirdly, I highly enjoy working in a team even if, de facto, there are no results for a long time. I’ve always known that I like brainstorming, but I didn’t know it was that crucial. In my first year, I saw clear benefits over my previous contract with the naked eye. However, it was somehow difficult and sad for me, because I had a difficult topic and I was alone with it.

Now the topic hasn’t gotten any simpler, but my team has grown. Four months ago, a new Postdoc was co-opted to help out with the project, a month ago the second, today the third … and I can already feel that my project started to roll.

Two weeks ago, I showed my underdeveloped results at a student conference at our institute. In December I will show it at a small conference in London, and the paper is under construction. I do not know what is more fun for me: the fact that I produce something slowly for myself, or the fact that I am dealing with great minds, but both give me great joy.

Insights From Grad School: On Postdocs.

Fourthly, there is a huge leap between PhDs and Postdocs in terms of skill and experience. We now have four Postdocs in the lab, and I don’t know if it’s a regularity at all or just a local fluctuation, but all of these postdocs are extremely sharp.

Admittedly, three of them do the methodology, and the fourth one is more oriented at processing and handling large data sets, but it is definitely a lot of work as well. I have the impression that the Postdoc in our lab who finished his doctorate just six months ago and started his first postdoctoral contract, is three years better than the best doctoral student who will finish in six months.

This makes me realize how hard it is to find a good postdoctoral contract today, and that the market is staggeringly competitive… and that even if I’m doing better than most graduate students around, my personal goals are still far away.

And in general, PhD contracts seem easy to get in the Netherlands. Postdoctoral contracts are much harder. It feels like they lure you into this system, and then leave you alone to fight for survival for life and death. PhD students are the cheapest labor and they produce 80% of all publications in the Netherlands. No wonder that there is no control over the number of PhD students admitted to grad schools every year. Capitalism in its purest form.

Insights From Grad School: On Conferences.

Lastly: a conference is not a vacation. I recently had a poster at a small local conference at my institute. I must admit that I was surprised at how most PhD students treated their presentations. We had two poster sessions, at noon and in the evening, accompanied by drinks (it is the Netherlands after all).

I must say that most of the posters were deserted in the evenings. It seemed inconceivable to me not to stand there until the end and not answer the questions. Most students abandoned their posters midway and went for the drinks. Then, we went to dinner and it was all the same: I sat at a table with my new friends from other institutes, trying to learn as much as possible, while most of my friends from my institute were sitting in their own little circle and their comfort zone.

And now I am facing a more serious challenge than a little conference at our institute. For the third time, I am going to the largest conference in Neuroscience in the world bringing together 30,000 presenters in one place, namely the Society fo Neuroscience annual meeting. This time, in Washington.

Contrary to appearances, such an escapade is a real challenge, if you want to use your chance for networking to the maximum. And since you are traveling on your own account, first you have to get a room in a cheap hostel. Criteria? Low price, wifi, and proximity to the conference center. It can stink and there can be cockroaches, whatever.

Then you have to dig out a list of all the students and teachers from the three summer schools you have been to so far to keep old contacts. Write to everyone and additionally search their names in the conference search engine to check if they are presenting a poster or even a speech.

Then you have to review all the key names in neuroscience as such: Nobel Prize winners, top professors, the authors of groundbreaking publications, and the like. Then all the key researchers in my current discipline, namely causal discovery in fMRI. Then, in the discipline I’m thinking of for the future: calcium imaging in mice. Additionally, you should look for keywords like “resting state,” “ICA,” or whatever else is related to your project. Lastly, you should search the conference program for reviewers and journal editors to which you intend to send your nearest paper — to be able to smile at the right person.

But the fun doesn’t stop there. Once you have listed all the talks and posters you want to see, the second phase, namely the selection, follows. Of course, most of what you choose overlaps in time, and the conference center is huge. So, when choosing, use the map of the center and evaluate if you can run from one presentation to another in a given time.

It is also necessary to arrange the numbers of the posters selected for each of the ten sessions in the correct order so that the slalom between them is done only once. And then make a plan of action minute by minute, remembering about reserving the time for lunches and for socializing with friends in the evenings, not to waste opportunities and valuable friendships. Conferences can be a hard time. And yet I am very glad that I am going. Good times are coming.

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Please cite as:
Bielczyk, N (November 11th, 2014) On Academia and Whereabouts: Insights From Grad School. Retrieved from: https://nataliabielczyk.com/insights-from-grad-school/

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