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!

Friday 17 July 2015

Dreams of becoming a Professor....

Under the noble gaze of the portraits of past benefactors of the University of Sheffield, an eager throng of young researchers gathered. Drawn from across all departments in the Faculty of Science, they had congregated together with a single aim: to learn what it takes to transform a supervised Post-Grad student into a confident, career-striding research leader. 

And we hoped to find answers at the 'Steps Towards Research Independence Conference' held at the University's very own Firth Hall and organised by the Research and Innovation Services Team. The ambitious programme included speakers at various rungs on the Academic Ladder, and representing a broad swathe of the University's research portfolio. For PhD students aspiring to become a Professor one day, the natural next step is to take up a PostDoctoral research position - which, like a PhD, is a research project typically funded for three or four years. Whilst PostDocs are great for consolidating practical research skills and project management, before the funding runs out you already have to be looking for your next position. After about three postdocs you might get lucky and be awarded a permanent position, sometimes called 'tenure'. This brings security and freedom from worrying about what to do when the grant money runs out but can also involve added responsibilities such as lecturing. A Fellowship position however, can act as a 'Fast-Track' to a permanent position, bypassing the need to spend several years as a PostDoc. Not surprisingly, these are notoriously difficult to get....so we were eager to seize any nuggets of wisdom on offer today!
Firth Court, venue for the Steps Towards Research Independence Conference 

In the first round of the morning talks, we heard from a variety of speakers who had made the break into a Fellowship position. It became immediately clear that one size definitely does not fit all. 'The route has not been the same for all of us' asserted Dr Iwan Evans, a Sir Henry Dale Wellcome Fellow in the Department of Infection and Immunity. I was surprised at just how many sources of funding there are for Fellowships but we were cautioned that these often have a very strict remit about the projects that they will fund. When it comes to making applications, it can save a lot of time and wasted effort if you read the application guidelines carefully and check out the profiles of researchers that have received funding in the past. Otherwise, you could spend months on a proposal that will simply not make it through the first round. 'The IDEA is the most important thing...' we were told '... so make sure you have a strong idea first before looking at funding bodies. Don't try and come up with a project by somehow 'fitting' it to the application criteria'.

But coming up with a suitable project is only half the battle. It was slightly galling to hear that having six or even eight rejections was commonplace. Yet, the speakers maintained that 'rejected applications are NOT a waste of time' - as long as you read the feedback! 'Try to have as many mock interviews as possible' Dr Evans advised, 'you may cry at the end of them all but you will be in a much better position when faced with a panel of experts ready to tear your application apart'. During the questions, one audience member asked how does one squash in time for making so many Fellowship applications alongside the day job of research? The speakers admitted it had been a struggle and a lot of juggling - supportive partners were a key help - and that their sleep had certainly suffered. 'A quiet weekend is the perfect time to crack on with some applications!' one speaker said.
Panel Speakers during the morning talks

After the coffee break, we received some practical strategies towards gaining independence. Once again, we heard the mantra that 'Papers are currency' and that it is difficult to get through the first round of applications if you haven't got many citations to your name. 'Especially if they have pretty pictures that get on the cover of the journal' said Dr Ashley Cadby, from Physics and Astronomy 'because this makes the science look a lot better than it is!' Another recurring theme was the importance of forging external collaborations. Apparently, this is a brilliant way to demonstrate research independence, especially if you apply for a travel grant to spend time in an overseas laboratory. 'After all, being totally independent is a myth' said Dr Stuart Hunt from the Department of Dentistry. 'Research funders want to see collaboration and a multidisciplinary approach'. We were introduced to several organisations that run internship schemes - such as the World University Network, which funds 1 week - 4 month placements that can be taken at any of the universities within the network. I really must set aside some time to investigate these - it would be wonderful to put my improving French to good use!

Over the lunch break, I had booked on to one of the 1:1 CV clinics and met with Professor Pete Sudbery from the Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology who had been sent my achievement record yesterday. I was a bit embarrassed to find that, by accident, I had put on the same outfit I was wearing in my CV photo! Nevertheless, it was reassuring to hear that, if I was considering a career outside academia, I was doing the right sorts of things - science outreach, journalism, getting involved in departmental groups. But there was a major problem with how I had presented this on paper - "It's simply too dense!" Professor Sudbery said.  'If I have a hundred CVs to look through, I simply wouldn't have time to go through this and find out what you have done". As soon as he said that, my eyes were opened! Oh dear, it did look a veritable thicket of words. But Professor Sudbery showed me how I could drastically slim this down by focusing on the unique things that i had done and cutting out empty waffle words, such as 'team working'. After all, if you take part in communal activities, it is taken for granted that you can get on with people!
The 'Too Dense' CV

Unfortunately, I was unable to stay for the afternoon workshops but perhaps that is just as well as my head is now humming with new ideas for my work. I don't know yet if I want to stay within Academia but I DO know that I certainly don't want to become sucked into the dreaded 'PostDoc cycle' - unable to get a permanent position and constantly chasing new sources of funding every three years. So where am I going to go from here?
1. Chat to my supervisor about the possibility of collaborating with another lab as part of my PhD project
2. Look up some travel grant schemes that fund placements in other labs
3. Tear my CV apart!

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