#079: Presenting the team: Nika and Alice Stories

In this episode two member of PhD Career Stories team, Alice and Nika, talk about their experience during PhD, earned skills and their career after PhD. They also talk about how they joined PhD Career Stories podcast. 

Alice is currently working in the healthcare organization in Sweden and She believes her PhD skills like “science communication” helped her to get to her job. 

Alice also shares what she has learned during coaching seasons by Tina Persson:

“It helped me not to be stuck at some point and think a bit forward to see that one experience doesn’t build all your personality…”. 

Nika is going to start her new career path as postdoc at Columbia University in New York City. She believes one of the major skills that she learned during her PhD is scheduling meetings from all over the world with a time difference.

In this episode you can also listen to Alice and Nika ‘s tips regarding job interview as both have gone through many job interviews before getting their dream jobs.

Transcript

Nika: So hi everyone today it’s Alice and Nika speaking. We will be talking about how we joined PhD Career podcast and bit about our past and future. So we’re both on the PhD Career podcast team, we both completed PhD and currently live in Sweden.

And I will ask Alice a question. 

So hi, Alice how do you joined PhD career podcast stories?

Alice: Hi, so I joined PhD career stories I think it was almost 2 years ago or 1.5 years ago. It was after some coaching sessions with Tina, where she suggested me to join the team. So I said yes, but i wanted to join because I was interested in the team working and also I think it was a good source of inspiration this podcast, to make a transition from academia to something else. And what about you Nika?

Nika: Yes I also got caught in by personal connections, I think that is what the team is really good about.

So I know Michele who you have heard a lot in the podcast and we know each other through a friend in Stockholm, they asked me to write some blog about a PhD career podcast for Karolinska institute where I was writing blogs, when it was launching so I did that and then slowly they called me more and more to do other things and I joined the team about also 1 and a half years, 2 years ago, and I totally agree, the teamwork and source of inspiration is the best for this project.

Yes so you said that you were at the time, in a time of transition, or looking for a source of inspiration, so could you tell me a bit more about where you were in life at that point?

Alice: So I finished my PhD in 2015, I was pregnant with my second kid, 8 months pregnant when I did my defense.

Nika: That’s so impressive!

Alice: Well I think , I had help from the hormones to be calm and without a lot of stress. My kid was born one month after my defense.

Then I was on maternity leave, so I had 2 kids at home, and it was a bit hard to think about myself working at this time, I was considering to leave academia because I wanted to work more in organization and not in the.., I don’t know, I had this feeling from the PhD where you work on your own, on your own subject.

Nika: Its very isolated i guess?

Alice: Yeah and competitive I would say, but not in a nice way.

Then I was a bit lost I didn’t know what to do. We had this possibility to do some coaching with the university we could get some help for the transition. There I met Tina whom gave me some tips. Some coaching sessions.

Nika: That’s really good!  I have never done coaching in my life. How did that change you? what did you learn from the coaching session? How did it help you?

Alice : It helps me I think not to be stuck at some point and think a bit forward to see that one experience doesn’t build all your personality or and it’s not because you are stuck in the subject that you have to stay there and I think I realized also at this point that I like to work in a team and not by myself. It was the main thing I got out of these sessions I would say and that was important.

Nika: I never done a coaching session but I would say that was one of the things that is the most difficult during the PhD for me. One thing I did not expect when I was starting the PhD was how little of a teamwork that will be and how much really on my own I will have to work all the time.

I always thought for me it was partly because I wasn’t working in the lab and I did not have a stable research group so I always had this idea that perhaps in other PhD it is slightly different and I still have this believe that teamwork even in academia is possible, call me an idealist but I still believe it.

That has been one big take from me too that I like working with people and I enjoy functional teamwork but absolutely hate inefficient meetings.

Alice:  You realized that during your PhD?

Nika: I think I wanna say during my PhD because I had too much time on my own with very little help or suggestions or guidance and I like working on my own too I do like the freedom and I think there is, sometimes I feel that’s right conflicting because I do enjoy working in my pyjamas at home writing my research articles and just diving in but then I also enjoy being around people and interacting and I was just missing the second part in my PhD.

Alice: To get some stimulation from others, so when did you finish your PhD?

Nika: I’ve finished about 2 months ago (in April 2019) so everything is still very new and very fresh. I’m in the post PhD sleeping time, I feel like I have turned into a sleeping monster, I sleep about like 10 to 12:00 hours a day. 

But yeah it’s very fresh but I’m really happy that it’s a completed now.

Alice: Congratulations!

Nika : Thank you!

Alice: What’s your plan now?

Nika: So my plan is somewhat unexpectedly to actually stay in academia for now.

I was not sure about this choice at some point during my PhD. I was always looking for you know other things I could do. I’ve been pretty proactive about it and it was one of the reasons so I had been on this podcast to also get inspiration about what people do, what other jobs I could see myself doing, how good I get there, I took a course on innovation and entrepreneurship, I went to some meetings outside of the university.

There’s a Stockholm city foundation and they do breakfast seminars, they give you a list of companies, I would check the companies and then sometimes I would Google them to see which companies I like so I definitely feel like I have been doing a lot of prep to leave academia and then I didn’t.

I went through a lot of this thinking, I have been thinking about what’s important to me and what is that I like and I realized that despite me not having good PhD experience I still liked a lot of things about my research and I’m very passionate about the work and it was the work environment I didn’t like and as I said I didn’t  just give up on the hope that the work environment can be different so that’s why I’m staying for now.

Did you ever regret leaving or never? 

Alice : No because I think you can always jump from one side to another that’s actually what I did during my studies. I started with a quite technical education then when I was in a really technicality environment I thought: No, I want to study more and I went back to really academic system.

I went back and forth between both so no I think you will always have chances to go from one direction or another I don’t think it’s written in a stone. 

Nika: Yeah and I think that is the flexible mindset that keeps coming out a lot on the podcast you know staying flexible, open to change but also to take different opportunities and not thinking if I do this nothing else is possible or I stay fixed in one little box. We’re always evolving and I guess I that’s a little bit how I felt because a lot of people where since I was doing so much prep to leave academia people put me in a box I’m leaving academia so now when I decided not to and I accepted a PostDoc position everybody is surprised and tried to hold me accountable to the box I said I might stay in 2 years back.

I have to fight a bit and say no I am changing my box for now I’m going into that box and I’m perfectly happy with my decision so don’t judge me and don’t hold me accountable to everything I say.

Did you meet some resistance after you left or you know some negative experiences of people would say oh it’s the lesser choice for leaving academia or was it a smooth transition in that sense?

Alice: I think it was not smooth because it took a lot of time and had to think a lot but no I don’t think I got critics or judgment or anyway it’s my problem, not anyone else.

Well about yourself you always wonder why you went so deep in your studies and if you could have done something else or shorter but I think  in general I just like to study, I just like to be at school or at the university.

I don’t know, not really I would say, what about you?

Nika:  Yeah well I don’t regret any choices I made, a little bit like you have switched my areas you know if I look back I would have not expected to end up where I am. When I started, I always thought I’ll be a medical doctor. My grandpa is a medical doctor, my mom is a medical doctor and I thought I’ll be a medical doctor I started towards that.

Then another opportunity came and I left Czech Republic and I went to Italy for the last two years of highschool and I still took all the subjects to be a medical doctor but suddenly my life has shifted and so many new doors opened and I never imagined I still hold on to this I’ll be a medical doctor, yes for a little bit and then I started university.

I went to university in the United States and there, they have something called libreal art so you don’t choose your subject area they actually force you to explore.

So during the first year you need to take different courses and only by the end of first or half of the second year you declare what you study. So I still declared I’m gonna study biology possibly medicine and then I end up studying anthropology.

In my first year I took 3D design, an introduction to scientific programming and I took biology and I took chemistry and I loved it all and I was just like, oh my god I want to be an architect, I wanna be field biologist, I want to be a programmer and I want to be a medical doctor I think I’m in trouble!

So I switch to anthropology and I loved anthropology but 4 years later I realized I don’t wanna be a pure anthropologist that’s not the work I want to do so I combined it back with health and started studying public health and epidemiology and health inequalities and it was a path I could have never imagined but yeah I also just love being in school but also this aspect of exploring and switching.

I would not change how I ended up in my PhD or whatever studying, I really loved it.

Alice: I think it was the same with me even though it sometimes felt a bit lonely on the projects I think I had good collaborate not in my lab directly but outside the lab and it was a good experience in general. 

Nika : So how does your PhD relates in any way to your current work?

Alice : So and now I’m working in the healthcare organization here in Sweden, in the hospital and healthcare and I’m working in collaboration with the laboratory which analyse all the sample they extract from patient and I think I got there because of this ability PhDs have to express ourselves and communicate between different lab and different person. As PhD we trained a lot to present our work to different kind of person, to professor but also to students we talk about our research with our family and I think it gives us some good skills to talk about what we do in a different way and I think that’s what’s helped me now for this job.

Nika: What was your PhD in because now you said that you work with all of the laboratory data but did you work in a lab during your PhD or you know did you work with data, do you yeah see some skills there that you also gain?

Alice: So about technical skills, my PhD is in Chemistry and physics and all analytical instruments that I studied a lot.

Yes there is this aspect about the technical knowledge for the instruments but also as a PhD we have to extract data and to make our own program, to analyze the data and so I think also this aspect was interesting, all the informatique related to the instruments.

Nika : Do you do a lot of programming in your current work or?

Alice: No, Not that much a bit but not that much.

What’s your next step in your career?

Nika : Yes so my next step is actually another huge jump, I’m jumping back across the ocean and I’m moving to New York City to start a postdoctoral fellowship at Columbia University and I’ll be building on both what I have done in my masters and my PhD.

My masters program was focused on health inequalities and that’s really what I loved and that’s my heart matter and then my PhD yeah looks more on cognition and dementia in elderly population so now I’ll be combining it and I’ll be looking at socio-economic and ethnic inequalities in that cognitive aging.

I’m thrilled even if I am somewhat scared in the middle of arranging visa and yesterday I gave notice in my apartment in Stockholm so changes are happening.

Alice:  How did you do to get to this job did you do a lot of interviews?

Nika:  yes so I did 10 interviews to get this position and there was a lot. I did 5 interviews at the same time for different position as I’ve been interviewing while writing my thesis I managed to get this position 2 weeks before defending. The perfect timing that help my stress level a lot.

I’ve been thinking about doing a PhD in taking all these courses and I wasn’t sure if I want to stay in academia so I decided I’m staying only under certain conditions. So I made a list of things that were important to me and one of them was more teamwork and more lab. I really wanted to make sure that the work environment would be more collaborative and that it would be more stable research group I could be interacting with and I also wanted to know the principal investigator before. 

So that limits a lot of the positions you can apply for but I managed to find a few, actually 2 that I applied for.

Alice : That’s a good start.

Nika:  It was a good start! They came up at the same time and they were very much on the topics I’m studying epidemiology, dementia, inequalities and some methodological issues.

I met the professors at a conference during the summer I had a really good experience with them so I applied for both and have been interviews for both soI’ve been interviewed in January and February. That’s been a really good experience I could see myself grow a lot from the first interview to the fifteenth interview.

At some point I felt my answers also became more rehearsed but some of the interviews are very strange like one of them the postDoc said: “Well you’ve been going through a lot interviews you. I’m not going to interview you, let’s test what do you want me to ask!” 

So suddenly it turned around so you have to be very flexible about what you’re answering and saying and ready to also ask them questions but what I loved about my current position is that they wanted me to talk to every single person in the lab to make sure I would fit the team. For me to get to know the team and talk to the people who work for the bosses, to be able to assess the working environment. Just that they even considered that and that the way they were inviting me to an interview, the way they phrased the email made me feel like: “Yeah this might be a work place I want to work”

Because they’re really putting a lot into selecting the people but also they want to make sure that it is the right fit for both sides, not only for them.

Alice: That sounds like a good atmosphere!

Nika: yes I hope so we’ll see how it is once I moved there but I’m very optimistic!

Alice: To do the interview, how did you prepare yourself or did you have some help from I don’t know!? 

Nika:  No I did not have help from anyone to prepare. I just looked at a lot of websites. 

Things you should ask and things you should say about.

Basically what I did for every interview I researched the person, I would look at their background, what did they do before they ended up at the institution, some of their research projects so I could ask them questions and then I had a stable set of questions that were of interest to me.

So one of them was work something because I know the US is very different to Sweden and how does that look for you and in the lab.

Some questions about the mentors for the employees and then some questions about the expectations from the employers to me, so what your expectations would be, how is it structured, are they regular meetings, what sort of support would you be able to provide, I had a list of questions for every single person.

I took notes on everything but I think in the end it is a bit of a hard matter, in deciding,  at least for me.

I always do some preparation and then I was all the time comparing these 2 jobs that I was interviewing for at the same time.

Like A has these pluses and minuses and B as these pluses and minuses and  thinking very strategically about it but in the moment I got an offer I was like I know I want it!

I knew that one of them no matter the balance of the pluses or minuses was the right choice for me at this moment in my life and that ultimately was I think a combination of all of my notes taking in interviewing but also you know emotional searching in some sense.

Did you have to do a lot of interviews and the long process to get your job and were you interviews in Swedish?

 Alice: My interview was in Swedish it was the biggest challenge I think. For this one I just had one interview. I also prepared myself quite well so I went through the advertisement and find an argument for each quality they were asking and so on  and what I’d like to do, especially when it’s in Swedish which is not quite my strongest language I prepare 1 sentence by heart so it helped me to launch me, to start.

Nika : That’s sounds like a really good tips!

Alice: Just like one not all the things I write but just the first ones which helped me to have a smooth start. It went well, it was just natural.

Nika: There are all the in person right?

Alice: Yes in person, I first met the boss of the department and then I met 2 of my colleagues. After the interview I was really happy I could hold an interview in Swedish for 2:00 hours even if I didn’t get the job I was just proud of myself!

Nika: All of my interviews were online either over the phone or Skype and sometimes with the 9 hour time difference. I feel like one of my major skills has been and this is definitely something I got from my PhD: scheduling meetings from all over the world and figured you got a time difference.

Then every person wanted to do it on a different platform and there definitely were moments where microphones weren’t working so you are in an interview but you cannot still hear the other person or there is the frustration rising because there’s a bad internet connection.

I had to be able to improvise a lot so this is my tips to everyone whom are heading to do a lot of online interviews make sure you also exchange your phone number, that you know how to call international phone lines so sometimes don’t assume that they know what they’re doing they had a secretary to set up a call for us but the call line was only for within the United States.

Some of my phone calls where with videos and some were just a voice and it was also really hard because with only voice you cannot judge the other person or where the person is pausing so if the person is like me and talks a lot you might not be able to say very much under interview.

So just some strategies for things like that where you can perhaps say they’re interesting and then you try to explain some of your knowledge in a very polite way but it doesn’t seem like they are interacting. 

That some lessons I have learned during my interviews 

well I think this is it about us!

Do you have any questions or something that you would like to share with the listeners of the PhD career stories podcast.

What is one of your favorite things to do, activities to do during your free time. Or something that does not relate to your job that we don’t know about you.

Alice: I do quite a lot of things outside the job. But I like all things related to music so I play some instruments, I’m singing as well and I’d like to do some physical activity as well. What about you, Nika?

Nika:  So outside of work I like a lot outdoor activities so I paddle kayak, I hike, I do a bit of climbing. I just love being outdoors and in nature!

So just always remember you are not just your job or your PhD no matter what.

I hope you got to know us Alice and me Nika a little bit better and we are saying goodbye!

Alice: Goodbye.

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