Assistant professor at VU Amsterdam
Read Sandra's story
When I first started my PhD studies I was not quite sure where the studies and research would take me. In fact, they took me to various different places and I first worked as an innovator in the international office, heading the PhD recruitment section. During this time, I realised that I am a changemaker, and thrive on impact. I also realised I miss academia and rather than being a spectator, I wanted to actively participate in university teaching, research and shape its future path. I decided to continue my career away from university governance and step into academic shoes creating impact in teaching, research and society. At the division of Science, Business and Innovation of my university we are encouraged to do just that. To create impact through teaching and foster students with entrepreneurial mindsets, to delve into research at the cross-section of tech and science based innovation and engage with societal actors in these roles.
The difficulties on this path were and are many. In fact, getting back to academia after being away from it for two years was not easy. I managed to stay engaged with my academic colleagues during all this time, but I also really enjoyed working at the international office and took advantage of all the new things I could learn from that position.
I think that working outside academia and especially at the international office helped me become a better academic and scientist. I learnt for instance how universities work internally, and how to strategise for purpose, but more importantly I learnt how to be a team player, work on hard deadlines, use time wisely and communicate to varied audiences. This has simply complemented my academic facet with competences that are well suited to be a part of an exciting, developing and innovative academic division I am currently working at.
I am very happy in my current role precisely because I am working at a division which matches my interests and who I am as a person. Research plays a key role in my career, and in my teaching. I do research which interests me, drives me, and that I like to do, being also well aligned with the division where I work. Examples are how to strategise for scaling up, or developing a tech based startup, what to consider in science to business transitions and actively think about the market and business dynamics in exploring opportunities for scientific research to make a valuable societal and financial impact. I study and explore these topics in varied industries from the sustainable energy sector, to the higher education sector and the life science field. Such research actively informs my teaching.
I think the most important thing is self reflection. You have to take time to think what it is that you want to do in the next 5-10 years and really actively decide what your professional goal is. This goal should be aligned with who you are as a person and what drives you. What’s the point of getting up in the morning and doing a job you despise…You need to feel motivated, driven at your place of work- receiving motivation also from your colleagues , your boss and support from peers. So my advice is if an academic career is what you want and if your career goal is to become a full professor, university president, rector, then make sure you are sure about it, make sure you are in it, make sure the department you are applying to gives you good vibes (be picky), as otherwise it will be an untrodden path to take.
I really enjoyed my research, but I wasn’t quite sure if I wanted to stay in academia. During the final stretch of my PhD, I considered options in academia, industry, and consulting. I wanted to keep my options open and not pin myself down to one single choice – I learned this lesson during my Master’s studies. I had just started my Master’s in 2008 in the USA when the economic crisis hit and the prospects for finding a PhD position melted away before my eyes. I changed plans quickly and applied for a PhD position in the Netherlands. I think my experience during the 2008 crisis has always stayed with me, and taught me to keep my options broad and pivot when necessary.
The main obstacle I faced was to find a place where both my husband and I would be able to find jobs. I did my PhD in the Netherlands and my husband was working in the USA, where he had obtained his PhD. It was time to find a country where both of us would be able to find positions. At the same time, I wanted to continue some of my research in the Netherlands. We ended up getting both faculty positions in Ecuador and I also took on a part-time post-doc in the Netherlands. At that time, video conferencing software was not as good as it is now, and working at distance was very uncommon. It took some effort to convince the organization that I would be able to make a contribution to the research at distance.
I would say that the main contributing factor to getting my position as assistant professor was the ongoing research projects that I had, for which I had obtained the funding. However, getting this part-time position (at distance) would not have been possible without the strong support of my colleagues and supervisors. I think good relationships with our colleagues are more important than our publication record, and other metrics that may be used to evaluate us as researchers.
As an assistant professor, I combine various tasks: supervision of MSc thesis students and PhD candidates, research (being in the lab and analyzing data), managing the projects, writing grant proposals, writing papers, and service commitments. I’ve grown over the years from a post-doc who was carrying out tasks for my supervisors to someone who now guides PhD candidates in their research. Research still plays an important role in my job, and I still enjoy playing around with data and theory very much. It’s easy to let meetings and responsibilities take over my days, so I need to actively block out time on my calendar for research, writing, reading, and thinking.
I have two pieces of advice that others can take away from my story: be flexible and keep your options open (also geographically), and invest time in your relationship with your colleagues and building a network.
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