“Stop comparing! Stand out!”

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On Saturday 23 September 2017 I went to the National PhD Day, this time in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. And the theme was “Dare to stand out!”

It was a fantastic day, lots of inspiration, motivation and stuff to think about. I will highlight some parts that made me think or motivate.

“Position PhD candidates becomes worse”

First, the ‘Promovendi Netwerk Nederland’ (PNN) (PhD Candidate Network Netherlands) presented the results of the yearly conditions of employment of PhD candidates, based on investigating the vacancies at Academic Transfer. The results can be read here (in Dutch).

Next, Prof. Mike Jetten had a great speech about “The ‘magic’ mix for an outstanding career in science”. He showed a very interesting slide that will give you a thought:

Especially the first figure was striking, but – unfortunately – not surprising. Only 12 % of the female PhD candidates find an academic career appealing after 4 years. And of course he gave some reasons, such as a lack of role models for female academics and a confidence gap between man and female. He gave an example later on, that female academics apply for the tenure track position when they meet 100% of the criteria, or better 120% of the criteria, while he knew many male candidates that only met 50% of the Tenure Track criteria but were so extremely confident that they were the best candidate ever. Since more than 50% of the people present at the aula were female, he continued by saying:

“Stop comparing! YOU are UNIQUE! And set feasible goals that suit YOU and nobody else”.

Clear message I would say.

He closed his presentation with a slide “10 pieces of advice for a successful & rewarding career in academia”:

And last but not least he stated:

“You are in the driving seat, no one else”.

And the opening speeches continued by another great presentation by Prof. Maartje van der Woude, with also a fantastic anecdote about prejudices of females in academia. It made people laugh, but on the other hand it is telling. Just as this picture in one of the rooms of the workshops later that day:

(hide and seek: can you find any females here?)

But let’s not being cynical, Prof. Maartje van der Woude had a great presentation full of humour. Her title made me already smile “Sharing your true colors instead of being 50 shades of grey”.  And guess what she referred to, later on, with these 50 shades of grey when she discussed the traditional opening ceremonies of the academic years with all professors….

Her main message was to cherish your passion. Don’t let academic culture take it away! Stay true to yourself.

And how you do that, she presented 6 insights from her own career:

And talking about insight no. 5 she presented this great picture:

Also many book titles passed that were interesting to read. One of them I am certainly going to look for, which is called “The Slow Professor: challenging the culture of speed in academia”. Or have you already read it by any chance?

After these very motivational key note speeches we went for lunch and for  – optional – speed dates with career coaches. And after that there were 3 rounds of workshops.

I joined a workshop “How to stand out during your defense” by Caro Struijke. Before the workshop she already gave some homework to do, to think about some challenging questions. And of course we had to practice a bit with that. But most of all she gave many ideas, suggestions and even questions you can prepare for to go for a great defense. We had only 45 minutes, but these were absolutely well spend. Although still it sounds so easy, she gave very practical tips and ideas how to reframe your defense in your show, your story, your selling of your thesis.

Subsequently, in round two, I really enjoyed a workshop from Drs. Lea Zuyderhoudt, Trainer scientific writing and Dr.ir. Gijs Meeusen, founder of Artesc, entitled “The secret of writing great sentences – Dare to steal prose writers skills”. And this was fun and useful. They made us look at great sentences from scientific writing and prose writing and look at differences. But they also challenged us to write a sentence by listening to your ‘content voice’ in your head and block the ‘inner critical and negative voices’. Additionally, they stated, every sentence had a rhythm. For example, compare it with walking. You lift your feed, and by tapping on the ground you make an emphasis. In the same way as walking, each sentence had a rhythm: emphasis is made in a certain rhythm.

“Great text has great rhythm!”

Last but not least I attended a workshop “Do you dare to live to your capabilities?” by Chiat Cheong, Qia Consultancy & Training and Ralph Rousseau, academic and musician. We were welcomed by live music from Ralph Rousseau himself. And in the workshop (and also for this workshop we had to prepare a bit) the emphasis was on your inner motivation. What really drives you. Not necessary content wise, but mainly thinking about a future career. For example we were challenged to visualize our future job.

Ralph gave the perfect story about an old man living in a small village. That man was looking at children playing around and he loved to watch them, really enjoyed the play. After some time, because the old man enjoyed it so much, he gave each kid a coin, because, he said, I love to see you playing. And the kids continued to play. The next day, the old man, again, gave the kids coins. But not 1, but 2 coins each. Because he loved them playing. The day after, he gave them 3 coins each. And it went on for a week. After that week he stopped giving coins to the kids. So what happened? The kids stopped playing….So, what’s the moral of this story? Payment deteriorates passion. The kids loved to play, already before they got paid for it, but after the rewarding stopped, they also stopped playing. He argued, based on motivational theory, that this is completely wrong in our current society. People get bonus after bonus to be rewarded for your work or to stimulate hard work. But both of the workshop leaders pointed to the intrinsic motivation of YOU that is what counts most. Do something because you love to do it, that is far more rewarding and should be on top of any financial reward. And they challenged us about thinking what destroys and what stimulates our intrinsic motivation. They also added, don’t forget that academics are trained to analyze, learn fast and these are extremely valuable skills in any future job. These skills are not self-evident and applicable for lots of people. So it’s not only content that differentiates you, but also lots of specific skills.

So, you are unique with all your capabilities. No one academic is similar and we shouldn’t be squeezed in one academic – cultural – funnel: Dare to stand out. And that starts already early on in academia!

All in all, I would definitely recommend to visit a National PhD day in the future!