29 Jul FINAL POST by ALL ESRs- MSCA Fellowship Impressions
As Nelly Furtado et al. (2007) claimed: “All good things come to an end”.
So it is with this blog and the NOWELTIES ITN program.
In this last article, we, Nowelties’ early-stage researchers (ESRs), express our impressions on the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) fellowship in which we participated. Focusing on four essential aspects:
- Mental health
- Supervision and guidance
If you intend to apply for a MSCA program that involves a European joint doctorate (EJD), or you want an insight view on the MSCA EJD project, look no further. You are in the right place.
What hurdles regarding permits, accommodation, and traveling did you overcome? Should and how could supervisors become more involved in this process?
Being an EU citizen may facilitate all the involved processes. However, one might experience that moving every six months, while extremely helpful for broadening the views, may be challenging to find your place and establish long-term relationships with the people you met along the way. On the other hand, one can expand their way of thinking and learn about different cultures.
As a non-EU ESR, apart from the challenges of finding a place abroad, one might experience additional stress related to residence permits due to the huge bureaucratic procedures. Depending on the nationality as a non-EU citizen, different regulations might apply. However, the lack of administrative support in this situation could put additional pressure on the performance due to the time-consuming procedures. For example, if ESRs need to move from Germany to Spain to perform research for 12 months, they will need to cancel their apartment in Germany and find one in Spain. Their primary employment remains in Germany. At the same time, they must maintain an address on which they are registered in Germany. This most often does not have a practical (and legal) solution. An option to relieve the burden to some extent is to follow a secondment for up to six months. The requirements for obtaining a residence permit for six months are more straightforward, and one could consider subletting your flat.
Apart from the MSCA National Contact Points, the support from the supervisors is an important part of this process since they are the first and maybe only contact at that point. They should provide ESRs with necessary information regarding the documents and procedures, and possible options for the accommodation or give them the contacts of other students who probably have more experience finding the accommodation. Finding a new place to live and navigate bureaucratic procedures (combined with your ongoing research work) can be time-consuming and stressful, especially if one does not speak the local language. Thus, sound guidance and support from the supervisor can be beneficial at that point in ESRs’ work.
Most of us had the experience of working in different laboratories, which is highly insightful because we learned different ways of doing things (techniques, methods, equipment, etc.). However, it is crucial that one plan the research stay (i.e., your experimental work) according to the advantages but, most importantly, to each laboratory’s limitations. In this sense, in addition to the support of your supervisor, it may be effective to coordinate practical matters with a lab technician.
What did we expect regarding collaboration between different research institutes regarding their technical possibilities?
An ITN project is designed so that each PhD student can perform their research independently from the outcome of the others. It is okay that each project can stand on its own, but does it have to if students discover possible synergies in their work? Key ingredients for successful collaboration are communication, leadership, and process validation. We experienced some downfalls in that field. Our initial attempt to make some joint decisions on selecting contaminants, water matrices, etc., we found it partially unsuccessful. Due to this, we may have missed potential benchmark to compare, new materials or new technologies.
Moreover, the inevitable substitution of our in-person project meetings with virtual due to the Covid-19 pandemic had a detrimental impact on our potential collaborations and interactions. Fortunately, we at least had the chance to meet in the first and the last project meeting. Still, in hindsight, the quality of face-to-face meetings has no comparison to virtual modalities.
What were the psychological efforts involved?
Already in pre-Corona times, mental health was not necessarily the first attribute to describe the life of predoctoral researchers . Quite sad since research is, after all, mental work that should be sparked by the joy of discovering the unknown rather than following the motto “publish or perish”. However, mental health problems usually are not appearing overnight. They result from constant friction between your current self and the environment. Declaring ourselves to the environment can help to identify these frictions at an early stage and to find ways to eliminate them – either by personal change or by a change in the environment. The limited possibilities to exchange concerns and troubles with other peers during the lockdowns or also because of moving to a new lab, these frictions can cause abrasions, which are often left untreated because they are neglected by the individual and remain unnoticed by the environment. The increasing pressure along the PhD project can finally lead to open, infected wounds. While abrasions usually only hurt when in contact with irritating agents, the pain of infected wounds may be permanent. The same concept can be applied to mental health issues. We all have to stand tough times sometimes and get hurt along the way. The problem arises when one cannot cure these wounds, e.g., by having channels to declare oneself. It would be recommendable to give new PhD students more training possibilities and information on how they can detect and tackle mental health issues.
Supervision and guidance
How was the interaction with the supervisors?
Some of us, or maybe all of us, experienced the downsides caused by a structural problem in academia: the lack of sufficiently trained and experienced researchers with the inadequate temporal capacity to train new students. The limited time some PIs have between teaching, conferences, project acquisition, and general management of the research group may not be enough to get deeply involved in the investigation performed by a PhD student. The partial lack of guidance may result in unnecessary waste of resources and delays in the research work since conceptual errors cannot be efficiently eradicated at an early stage of the project. Nevertheless, regular guidance does not exclude delays if the topic is new to the supervisor or the research group, leading to constant uncertainty and slow progress.
On the other hand, there are supervisors whose help and regular guidance were crucial at the beginning of the individual PhD project. To establish good foundations and have clear objectives, weekly meetings with the supervisor, at least for the first months, are quite fruitful. Later, the meetings can be done bi-weekly and once a month. Being in touch with your supervisor/s regularly can help you keep track of your progress and avoid unnecessary experimental work. However, the initiative most of the time should be taken by the students themselves because of the busy schedule of the PIs.
What are we most thankful for?
MSCA scholarships can offer a wide range of benefits. Being a highly competitive fellowship, you will experience no economic difficulties in moving between countries. Thus, we feel thankful to have been able to live in two (or more) countries, discover beautiful places and meet awesome people. The multiple changes in the environment did not make our PhD journey more straightforward, but they made it worth the struggles. All the uncertainties around us made us understand better what our principles are.
Regarding all the difficulties we faced and unfulfilled expectations, we have learned how to:
- take a stand, when necessary,
- adapt to multiple environments,
- and accept and deal with obstacles.
Living in different places allowed us to see and visit countries, beautiful cities, and areas and experience other cultures. This project permitted us to meet new people and gain future contacts for work and life. But most important, it brought us, 14 amazing young researchers, together, and now we can call each other colleagues and friends.
We are thankful for having a formation that promoted constant training, networking, and traveling. We faced different work strategies and met kind and interesting people; this broadened our vision and enriched us. Moreover, the interdisciplinary environment helped us progress with our research.
Overall, the project took us beyond our limits, making us realize how far we could go.