Hello and welcome to my blog! My name is Caroline and I am a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. My research project focuses on Striga - a genus of parasitic plants that devastates harvests by infecting food crops. I am exploring the defence reactions that can make host plants more resistant against Striga. Due to my ongoing battles with anorexia, I haven't made as much progress as I would have liked but I am determined to finish the course.

This blog charts the ups and downs of life in the lab, plus my dreams to become a science communicator and forays into public engagement and science policy....all while trying to keep my mental and physical health intact. Along the way, I'll also be sharing new plant science stories, and profiles of some of the researchers who inspire me on this journey. So whether you have a fascination for plants, are curious about what science research involves, or just wonder what exactly I do all day, read on - I hope you find it entertaining!

Saturday 9 May 2015

Tips from the Top - How to make it as a Research Fellow!

This week, I was privileged to hear some words of wisdom from a researcher who had 'made it' up the greasy pole of Academia when I attended a seminar given by Dr Katie Field, research fellow in plant-fungal relationships at the University of Sheffield's Animal and Plant Science Department.

Katie's opening words, however, were not very optimistic: "My career has been one of blood, sweat and tears". Curiously, both Katie and I completed our degrees at Durham University, however Katie graduated in Plant Science , a course sadly no longer offered by the time I enrolled there. From here, Katie ended up doing a PhD almost by accident as her heart was originally set on doing a Master's course in Tropical Agriculture ( mainly for the field course abroad!). However, one of her late PhD applications went through to the interview stage and she "went along for the experience". As a result, she decided to undertake a doctorate at The University of Sheffield instead. Speaking from personal experience, I know how an invitation to visit the Animal and Plant Science Department at Sheffield can be life changing!

During her PhD, Katie clearly made the most of every opportunity to widen her contacts and broaden her experiences. For every student in the audience considering a career in academia, her advice was stark: "It's not enough to be good and work hard, you have to talk to people and do other things", whether this be demonstrating on undergraduate practicals, serving on departmental committees, organising seminars or even hosting a quiz for new PhD students. She also urged the audience to make the most of any grants available to give another dimension to a PhD project. For herself, this involved travelling to Australia to work for four months as part of a University of Sheffield Excellence Exchange scheme. Adding value to your CV is imperative for anyone considering a career in academia, particularly now every PostDoc position typically attracts around 30 equally qualified applicants. Even Katie, who managed to publish three papers (!) as part of her PhD describes herself as "not extraordinary" and struggled at first to secure a PostDoc position. Fortunately, she eventually succeeded and took up a position ( again at The University of Sheffield) researching the role mycorrhizal fungi played in helping plants to colonise the earth. "Postdocs are good fun - hard to get but really nice" she enthused. "You don't have to write a thesis and have more freedom to research what you want". But if getting a PhD is tough , and a PostDoc even tougher, then the next stage - a Fellowship - is "incredibly, incredibly difficult. The competition is so intense as a Fellowship can unlock the 'Holy Grail' of a permanent position". The application process is an order of magnitude more difficult, involving days of interviews for each post. As one who has succeeded in this area, however, (including a University of Sheffield Patrick Packington Fellowship,and a Leeds University 5 year Fellowship), Katie had five key tips to those hoping to break through:

1. Work REALLY REALLY hard ( but even that is not enough!)
2. Talk to people. Be collegiate and network, especially at conferences. Get involved with activities and committees in your Department
3. Prepare to be flexible. You may have to move, change your interests of field of study or even consider alternative careers.
4. Publish, publish, publish. Papers are currency. If you haven't got enough, it doesn't matter how good you are, you won't even get a look in.
5. Hang on in here. You WILL get rejected, it WON'T be fair, you WILL cry. Grow a thick skin and don't take things personally. It's not how long your fingernails are that matters, but how deep you dig them in!

A lot for me to consider when I come to planning my next stage of experiments.... And more pressure to work even harder! But even then, will it ever be enough if I do decide to try to make it as a researcher?

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