09/03/2020 | 20:11
Tools for your PhD Journey – My Path
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Hi everyone, today I’m bringing you a different episode. Today I’ll be talking about my path – what brought me here to what I do today and to the Papa PhD adventure.
Your PhD is literally an adventure – it’s an exploration, a journey into the unknown. And some of the greatest lessons and memories of grad school that you will bring with you throughout your life are going to be the obstacles you found and surpassed along the way. And this is one of the most important messages that I’d like to share during this episode. What I’m going to talk about throughout is going to be what my career path has been like until today and what lessons I learned going through my PhD – what worked for me and what didn’t work for me.
And if you stick around until the end of the episode, I have prepared for you a toolkit where I summarize the most important lessons I’ve learned. A set of strategies that will help you go through your degree smoothly and be prepared for your transition into the nonacademic job space or into whatever comes after your degree.
I’ll also try and share advice on how to be very intentional from day one in planning ahead and preparing your professional life, no matter what it ends up being. Again, I will share a link to this toolkit at the end of the episode, so stay with me.
Now to talk about my story. Eventually you’ll see that I got stumped along the way, that I hit some roadblocks, but I have lessons learned from all of those obstacles and all of those difficulties. Plus, now having interviewed 30 plus guests on the Papa PhD podcast, I have also tried to collect some of the best advice that that they have shared on the show, and to distill it into this document that I’ll be sharing at the end of the episode.
So – My academic path started in Portugal. Coming out of high school I had two possible avenues – two things I liked and was good at. And these were languages and natural sciences. So eventually, I followed the scientific path and did a Bachelor’s in microbiology and genetics at the University of Lisbon. After my bachelor’s, I stuck around the lab where I had done my final project for a couple of years, TAing in different training programs and doing research in kind of a post-bac experience. Eventually, I had the opportunity of taking part in a program proomted by INFARMED – the drug and medicine agency in Portugal. At the time, generic drugs were being introduced in Portugal and I had the privilege of being part of a small team of graduates who were trained and sent out to medical centers around the country to explain what generic drugs were to the medical community, to dispel any worries or doubts they had about the quality and safety of these products.
It was a very formative year: we were trained on public speaking, on how to present the data, on how to discuss objections. All skills that really served me later on. And it was my first professional experience out of the lab.
After one year as an INFARMED representative, the government changed and the program was closed.
After that, through connections that I had made in this this position, I had the privilege of being invited to give lab classes, but at a private university in Lisbon – a school that was specifically offering training for people who wanted to have technical careers in the health domain. This was a great experience. I really, really enjoyed teaching. But what happened was that, looking at the professors, I started thinking that “I’d really like to teach at that level”. And what was the requirement to teach at that level? Well, it was to hold a PhD.
So five years after having finished my undergrad degree, I decided to embark on the PhD adventure. I interviewed in two PhD programs and I was accepted in the BEB program offered by the Center for Neuroscience and cell Biology at the university of Coimbra, a program with a strong neuroscience component.
I was part of the 2003 cohort.
We were 12newly minted PhD students in that cohort. There was a first year of seminars – a full year doing seminars on different subjects with researchers from around the world. And then, after this first year, we were told “well now you have to choose where you’re going to do your PhD research”. I wanted to work in cell biology / development, and I ended up visiting a lab at King’s College in London, a lab at the EMBL, in Heidelberg, and two labs at McGill University, here in Montreal. So you kind of know where the story goes. I chose to come to Montreal, to the Montreal Neurological Institute to work on development and cell biology in the olfactory epithelium, looking at signaling and cell differentiation in the different cell lineages of this sensory tissue.
If you are now in the process of looking at PhDs, at labs, some advice that I can share right away is: when deciding, try to assess the fit of the lab or of the institution culture to you – how well you’re going to fit into the organization and even into the research group that you’re going to be in. That’s very important because this is going to be your family for, four, five, six, seven years, depending on where you’re doing your PhD. Also, try and assess – and the best way to do this is to talk with alumni – how well students are mentored, managed and this at the level of the lab, but again, also at the level of the institution. What structures are there? How happy alumni feel with the experience they had going through grad school, in that setting. Also, if you are able to reach out to alumni of the lab that you’re looking at, try and see where they are professionally. This is important for two reasons: where they are in academia is important, what type of research they are doing, what type of success they had after leaving the lab and finishing, but they may no longer be in academia and one of the things that’s very important – and it’s one of the objectives of the Papa PhD podcast – is to learn what different things people who come out of academia end up doing.
So very important to reach out to alumni. It can bring you a host of different information and different insights that are going to be really, really useful in your career exploration.
So, I chose McGill and I was a visiting research student at the MNI from 2004 to 2009, when I turned in my thesis. McGill and the experience of being at the MNI was a great one in terms of what was organized for the students: journal clubs, opportunities to present your data to other groups in the institute, and also, the student body was really, really fun. There was a lot of intramural sports and meetups happening. So it was a really great environment. I did have a rough experience eventually and mostly because I went into the experience a little bit unprepared. And one of the main things is that I was coming as a visiting research student, and had a scholarship from Portugal, which was four years. That was it. There was no way to extend it, and as a visiting research student, I wasn’t eligible to get funding here. So, that was one of the roadblocks that I hit later on. But I did hit roadblocks in my research, the first projects that that we decided that I would work on didn’t work out as expected. Which ended up losing me one year, almost two years of time getting data that was trashed. So, two years to start something new was not a lot and, and in my case, it had to do with having gene targeted mice that addressed my particular question. And the model that we had, was not perfect, which means that I ended up turning in my thesis without any published articles. And the other consequence was I was not going to be a professor after all. So once I had hit these roadblocks, I knew that I was going to go the non-academic path. Before telling you how I went about doing that and what happened after, I am going to say that six years after my defense, which was in 2010, so in 2016, I got an email from Development – the journal – saying that I was author on this paper and that they needed me to register etc, etc. I reached out to my PI who told me there was no mistake – the paper stemming from my findings was submitted and was going to be published. This was an emotional moment for me, even six years down the road – it was a confirmation that the work that I did, the hypothesis I posited and defended was valid and enough so to be published on a high-ranking journal. It was a good moment. And it was a moment to get back in touch with my supervisor and share my emotions at the moment, in my happiness at that happening. I’m still grateful that he chose to surprise me like that.
So, one point here is, obstacles and difficulties are part of life. They teach you things, they teach you things about yourself, and they make you grow. So if you find it in yourself to be able to go back and show gratitude to people who were there and who, at a certain time you may have blamed for this or that difficulty or bad situation in your life, you’ll see that it’s a very enriching exercise and it will make you grow even more.
Now, what came after? So, between turning in my thesis and defending, I started scanning my network for opportunities and attended career fairs – all those types of things that my Institute and McGill University was offering. I started discussing entrepreneurial projects around science communication with like-minded colleagues, and, eventually, I found a job as a science tutor in a distance education program. In the meantime, as I was doing that, I found out about a medical writing agency that was actively hiring McGill graduates. And I had contacts in this company – people who were coming from the Institute I had done my research at. I reached out, learned about what medical writing is, and, eventually one of my ex-colleagues got my CV to HR. And then I got a first interview, then a second, and then I landed my first post-PhD full time job. This was my first experience in North American corporate culture, let’s say – it was very interesting, again, very formative. Working at this Company was a great school for me. They had a really strong onboarding system. There was continuous training throughout the almost five years that I was there: training on writing, on different aspects of the job. There were possibilities of career development within the company, which again, was great, and also one thing that was interesting was that there was possibility of moving laterally within the company. So you could start as a medical writer, and become a medical editor, or, eventually, if project management was your thing, you could start as a medical writer and become a project manager. So the five years at this company taught me a lot. And, and especially, I really appreciate how much effort was put into training us. Because they were actively hiring PhDs, they had this whole system of getting the PhDs in and through the onboarding system that they had, teaching them the style of writing that was best suited for the type of content they produced. So, they taught you to tone down your academic speak and to write for a public that, mostly, was composed of sales forces in pharma companies. So, this would be in the context of drug launches or new drug indications… It was writing and preparing materials to teach representatives to know their product, to know the treatment landscape out there, some drug economics too, and also there was a part that I enjoyed most which was more the physiopathology of the disease – the whole biology behind it. So, again, almost five years where I learned a lot. But eventually, I had an opportunity to put one of my passions it to use and it was my passion for languages. Someone I knew was a project manager at a company who dealt in continuing medical education, and they needed a translator. So, I left the company and I went out to work on my own, translating different continuing medical education materials. I really, really enjoy the medical and science translation space and working in that domain, and eventually, I went on to get a certificate in translation again at McGill University, the School of Continuing Studies, because I wanted to learn about the theory behind translation. And I took courses in linguistics, terminology, comparative stylistics, translation technology. The cool thing, also, of this certificate was that at the end there was a practicum, where, if selected, we were asked to translate an actual article that was going to be published in a Higher Education magazine from English to French.
As a medical translator, a lot of what I do has to do with translation projects in pharma, medical devices or continuing medical education, but also some medical writing and some audio and video transcription.
Because I’m a sort of a solopreneur or freelancer – I’m working on my own mostly. And there’s pros and cons to that. Whenever you’re exploring careers, think of your personality and what you think works best for you. In my case, what I really like about the freelance life is: I manage my own time, I choose the projects I work on and, in my particular case, I can really be very available for my children. The cons. Well the cons are the highs and lows in contracts. When you’re a freelancer, sometimes there are lulls sometimes there’s an avalanche, and you need to learn to deal with that and to plan and manage that accordingly. The other con is client turnover: some clients come and go some stick around… Again, it’s something that just happens and that you need to be ready to deal with.
So this is what I do now mostly.
But the latest thing that I have done as a project was to start Papa PhD – so to start the podcast. And on the podcast, I showcase people who have carved their own career path after their PhD, master’s or postdoc, and have them share their academic path, the winning habits or strategies that helped them throughout, and how they nurtured specific sets of interests that they ended up pivoting into or merging into their academic career. And this is my objective: bringing new people and new stories every week… So far, I’ve had 35 guests who have come from neuroscience, education, some are still doing their PhD, cancer research, area studies. So a lot of different domains and profiles. And they work now in biotech startups, some are some are researchers who do a lot of outreach, some do consulting, some are in global health, pharma… So I’m really trying to showcase the most diverse group of people possible to share with you that almost anything is possible after your degree in terms of developing your career. It really depends on your personality, your values, your interests. Coming out of the degree, you own a set of skills that will allow you to lead any project you set your mind to. That’s the message I want to share with you every week.
And this is it. This is my journey, this is where I am today. I’m doing this all this work in Linguistic Services and now I have this new passion which is bringing people on the show who have different careers, different career paths, different insights, different lessons that they learned in their journey. And this year, I’m going to bring a different type of episode also, which I’m now working hard to prepare, which is going to themed episodes – episodes with specialists in which we’re going to talk about specific aspects of the graduate school experience, be it, mental health, skills development, nutrition, extracurricular life… I’m really working hard to bring you guests that are going to be able to share advice focusing on specific questions. I’m still working on setting this up, but I’ll keep you posted!
I had mentioned I was going to share a resource with you at the end of the episode, a toolkit based on the lessons my PhD and the Papa PhD interviews taught me. So here it is: if you’re thinking of starting a PhD, or if you’re in a PhD right now, or finishing and thinking about what comes next and you need some pointers, follow the link in the show notes, and download “Tools for Your PhD Journey – Strategies to Keep Balance Within and Without”. I’ll be happy to share this with every one of you hoping that it’ll help you in your journey. And before the end of the episode, I really want to thank you for being a listener. It’s really, really, really appreciated. Seeing all the downloads and seeing that people around the world are listening, you can’t imagine how happy it makes me and how good it makes me feel about having started this project. So thank you very much.
If you want to help the podcast, there are two simple things you can do: number one share an episode that you really like with a friend or with a colleague. That’s a great way to help and to spread the word. Number two, if you are on an app that allows rating or commenting, do that – leave a star rating and leave a comment. That will help people out there find the podcast and join the adventure. And it also gives me a chance to open a dialogue with all of you, which I’d really enjoy. So thank you again, happy listening, and see you next week!
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