“Is this a PhD or a kind of tour in Europe?”
“Do you have time to do research as well? or you only travel and teach at schools and kindergartens?”
“Ah, you guys and your luxury PhD!”
These are typical comments and questions that we, as Marie Curie (MC) fellows often hear from friends and colleagues. So, I thought that might be relevant to write about advantages and challenges of this experience. This can give an overall idea about the situation for students who are interested in this fellowship and want to know more.
Being a Marie Curie fellow in an ITN network, has numerous advantages as well as some challenges. I will try to list some of them briefly according to “my personal experience” in a sincere and honest way.
Among many advantages that MC fellowship has, I can mention:
Reputation and Being Prestigious
A Marie Curie fellowship is one of the most prestigious fellowships in Europe and perhaps one of the best in the world. The majority of academic people know about it and it can be considered as a valuable asset in the future if you want to stay in academia, or even if you want to start working outside the academic world. (No need to mention that it is highly competitive to get selected).
The project has various partners (universities, institutes, companies, etc.) all over Europe and even outside Europe. In case of the QUICS project, 9 partners and 7 associate partners which are located in 9 countries! This is truly a unique experience as a PhD student to be involved in a serious project in such an environment!
Each MC fellow has the requirement of following so called “secondments” in the location of other project partners. For instance, I have 9 months of secondments which should be followed at TU Delft (NL), University of Sheffield (UK), University of Laval (Canada) and RTC4Water (Luxembourg). Hence, there is a great possibility to exchange knowledge and learn more on your topic from other project partners. This mobility will definitely nurture your other life skills as well apart from academic life.
Lovely Training Budget!
A generous budget is allocated to each fellow to spend on their training and research as well as transfer of knowledge. We, Marie Curie fellows, love it! It gives the fellow a great opportunity to attend lots of courses, summer schools, trainings, conferences, and so on. As far as I know, this is not comparable with any other PhD grant. This gives you a unique opportunity to develop your discipline-related skills as well as soft skills and also to expand your professional network!
In an ITN project, it is all about networking and collaboration possibilities. You have the possibility to meet experts in your field during various project meetings, while attending conferences and training events, or when you go to do your secondments with project partners. You may also have multiple supervisors from different universities and institutes, which is in fact another advantage in this regard.
Public Outreach Events
As a MC fellow, you are required to convey the general knowledge about your research to the non-academic audience as well. This normally includes some outreach events for public audience such as school students and pupils, technicians at companies and so on. Although it is really challenging to organize these activities in a tailor-made manner, they are really fun at the end! It is a skill to simplify your message to be easily understandable for public.
I think collaboration is one of the main keys to be more successful in research. With collaboration you can expand your knowledge, learn from others, and think outside the box. In the QUICS project there is a great collaboration opportunity at individual as well as institutional levels. For instance, at the moment I am collaborating with two other QUICS fellows to write a conference paper and hopefully a journal paper in future.
PhD topics are normally very detailed and they are defined to solve specific and tiny problems in this complex world. You may be lucky to find another specific and similar research topic or a job title to continue your career after graduation; however, what would make you a more suitable candidate for a wider range of careers is your ‘soft skills’. For example: communication skills, teamwork and collaboration, adaptability, project and time management, critical thinking and so on. Personally, I do not assert that currently I am great in these skills, but I am sure that the Marie Curie fellowship is helping me a lot in this regard. Most importantly, we develop our soft skills via ‘learning by doing’. Besides, there are plenty of courses during our training events and also in our universities and institutes.
During the first year of my PhD, averagely, I had almost one work-related travel each month. This is really distracting when it comes to research. Add to this all the travel planning and the bureaucratic procedures (especially if you are working at LIST :D). On one hand, they are good for your skills development and changing the monotonous working environment, but on the other hand they can easily distract you from the current step and you would forget totally what you were doing before!
Project Management and Time Management
As a MC fellow, you would be connected to multiple locations and entities, each of which brings different responsibilities. For my case, they are:
- QUICS as the main project; which requires different tasks e.g. public and academic dissemination, deliverables for work packages, following the secondments, attending training events and various presentations, and even writing on the QUICS blog! 🙂
- LIST as my host institution; which has its own requirements including: minimum working hours, filling weekly clarity forms, attending group meetings and department meetings, travel requests and travel expense requests, dealing with HR or IT departments, extending the working contract and so forth.
- TU Delft as my registered university has also different requirements including: separate registration process, 45 credits to be passed, writing another detailed research proposal for the Go/NoGo evaluation, yearly evaluations afterwards, minimum publications to be eligible for graduation and so on.
To be honest, sometimes, I realize I am spending a considerable part of my time or a whole day only to do bureaucratic tasks. Dealing with all of the above mentioned responsibilities requires proper project management and time management skills that the MC fellow needs to develop over time.
First of all, you need to define what your objectives are and what is the “optimum time” to go for a secondment. Then you need to plan and organize it:
- Find another accommodation which is normally very difficult for short stays.
- Apply for visa (if you need to) and plan your trips.
- Adapt to the new work environment.
- Do in parallel the responsibilities for your host institute.
- Write a secondment report after finishing.
Having double, triple or even more supervision is another challenge. It is clear that having more than one supervisor is beneficial in terms of sharing the knowledge, experience and new ideas. But sometimes it can be a challenge too. For instance, receiving the feedback from all of them would take a considerable amount of time; sometimes, ideas can be contradictory; besides you need to keep in touch with all to avoid miscommunication.
Uncertainty in Visa Applications!
I really “dislike” this part and almost everyone in QUICS project knows why…
Imagine if you have to wait for about 6-7 months to get a visa to start your PhD in Luxembourg. Although, this way you will understand very well the meaning of “uncertainty” 😀
I do not want to go into political discussions here, but just a hint to those nationalities who are treated more strictly for entry visas: ”Apply very well in advance”.
Based on my experience after living in several countries and spending “n” hours in the embassies, there is no rule about granting visas. The uncertainty bound is too wide. Here are some more examples for your information:
- I missed participation in UDM 2015 conference in Canada because I did not receive the visa on time. Although I applied for it more than one month in advance. The visa, was approved one week after the conference! 😦
- Sometimes it can be surprising too. I received my UK visa after 6 days of applying for it. 🙂
- If there is one single country that I can enter without visa, it is Turkey. Therefore, I was planning to do an academic outreach event at Middle East Technical University (METU) in Ankara. Everything was going on as it was planned. Until, some days before the travel I was informed that there was a terrorist attack in Ankara. So I had to cancel everything. And guess what, the bomb was exactly in front of the hotel that I had reserved! 😮 This is one of those moments that you are not sure if you were unlucky or lucky!
These were totally personal experiences, but I hope I have conveyed the main message.
All in all, Marie Curie PhD is a unique one. Although there are some challenges on the way, but it will definitely help you to develop your skills as a researcher as well as a project manager. Go for it if you have got the chance! 😉