As some of our ESRs are approaching the final stages of their studies and the central training programme is complete, we thought it was a good time to ask our researchers what they thought of the MELGEN training programme. We asked everyone to complete an online questionnaire which examined some of the key aspects of the programme. Below we have summarised the results of this feedback.
SECTION A: OVERALL EXPERIENCES
We also asked the critical question as to, on a score from 1 to 10, they would be likely to recommend the MELGEN training programme to other early stage researchers looking to take on studying for a PhD.
The overall average score for this question was a very pleasing 9.08 with the majority of ESRs giving a score of 9 or 10.
We also asked our researchers for their thoughts on their MELGEN expereiences. Overall the comments were extremely positive with the vast majority of students finding the programme challenging but rewarding, and an excellent learning experience. Of course no training programme is perfect and some points were highlighted about improvements that could be made going forward. More information on these points is given in the last section.
SECTION B: THE APPLICATION PROCESS
Early stage researchers applying for one of the MELGEN positions were faced with a two-round application and selection process. Applicants were asked to select up to 3 projects from the 17 on offer and prioritise them in terms of preference. In the first round of selection applications for all students interested in particular project were reviewed by the investigator offering the project and a short list of 6-8 candidates for each post was identified. In a first round interview conducted remotely by Skype or telephone, candidates were interviewed by the investigator and, usually, one of more members from the insitutions where the post would be based (for example someone from the Human Resources department), in compliance with local hiring regulations.
Following these interviews the best two candidates for each post were invited to attend a 2-day selection event which was based at Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC). At this event we asked candidates to:
- give a short presentation of some aspect of their research so far (for example, the work they had performed as part of their undergraduate or Masters research project);
- write a short accessible summary of a research paper to demonstrate their understanding and ability to present complex information in an accessible way to a more general audience;
- and, for those looking to take on a statistical or bioinformatic project, we asked them to complete a short coding test to demonstrate that they had basic knowledge of porgramming languages used in statistical and bioinformatic research;
- finally, all candidates were given a face to face interview in front of a panel made up of investigators from various beneficaries withing the MELGEN network.
On the evening of the first day the MELGEN investigators hosted a dinner and an evening out in Leiden. This was a chance to get to know each candidate outside of the very stressfull enviroment of the selection process, and gave the candidates a chance to get to know each other.
At the end of the second day all the investigators from each beneficary sat down around a table to decide which candidate was best for each post. It wasn’t an easy task and the selection process was tough… the outcome was that we ensured that we recruited a superb set of early stage researchers to the network.
We asked the ESRs about their experiences of this selection process…
- a – The application form and submission process
- Avg: 9.25
- b – The use of Skype interview as a first round interview process
- Avg: 9.50
- c – The two-day final interview event in Leiden
- Avg: 9.25
“The initial application process was very clear in terms of the requirements for the application process. The skype interview was organised very well too. The two-day interview event organisation at Leiden was very well planned and properly executed. During the 2-day interview, not only we were interviewed but we were also provided with the opportunity to network with principal investigators of the ESR projects.”
“I think the recruitment process was quite smooth. The 2 days interview in Leiden were challenging but it is supposed to be. Something that I would like to highlight was the time and questions in the interview itself. The same time and same questions has been asked to all candidates, and I found this strategy quite fair. Only like this it’s possible to “compare” answers and knowledge.”
“My initial thoughts before the interview process were that there was potentially a lot squeezed into 2 days. Having attended it, I felt it was extremely well organized and that every aspect of the interview process was necessary to identify the most suitable candidate for each position. Regardless of the fact that I was eventually selected, I thought it was an excellent process even whilst I was in Leiden and cannot think of any ways to improve it.”
SECTION C: YOUR LOCAL HOST INSTITUTION
In MELGEN the ESRs are spread across 7 academic institutions and 6 countries. We therefore thought it was important to ask about the support the ESRs had received at their local institutions, not only in terms of academic supervision but also facilities and non-academic support.
Considering the support provided by your local host institution, please score the following out of 10:
- a – Local support (non-academic)
- Avg: 8.38
- b – Local training courses
- Avg: 8.50
- c – Local PhD supervision
- Avg: 8.38
- d – Local facilities
- Avg: 8.56
“My local host is very helpful and supportive. I found it a bit difficult at first to adjust from one host to another as there were many required documents to secure but this is part of the process. My host was very supportive during those times. Overall, my host lab is excellent!”
“Admission process to host institution was easy; all necessary information was easily accessible and in English on the website. In my host university PhD candidates must take courses and obtain credits; some of the courses were obligatory and they were overlapping with MELGEN organized courses. To go through the same material twice was, of course, very time consuming.”
“Regarding the non-academic aspects, it can be very challenging to find accommodation, since there is no structured plan to welcome new students. In my case, it was my supervisor who helped me with this, otherwise it would have been extremely hard. This is definitely something to improve, although it has to be locally.”
SECTION D: THE MELGEN MANAGEMENT TEAM
The day-to-day managment of the MELGEN network falls to the Principal Co-ordinator, Prof. Julia Newton Bishop, and the Project Manager, Dr Juliette Randerson-Moor – both based at the University of Leeds. Their role is provide a central point of contact for both the ESRs and the prinicpal investogators at each of the host institutions. They are responsible for ensuring the project milestones and deliverables set by the funding body are met. They are also tasked with helping to mediate or advise on any isssues arising between ESRs and their host institution, PhD supervisors, or other MELGEN network members.
Considering the support provided by the management team of the MELGEN training network, please score the following out of 10
- Support from the Principal Coordinator
- Avg: 9.50
- Support from the Project Manager
- Avg: 9.50
- Information and support provided for completion of deliverables and other required reports.
- Avg: 9.13
- Avg: 9.13
- Information and support provided in response to personal queries
- Avg: 9.13
“MELGEN was a very well managed and coordinated project. The program coordinator was always accessible and had a devoted interest towards the career development of ESRs. The project manager always aimed to provide the best training courses to the ESR’s and henceforth generated well-structured training course schedule. Being from a non-EU country, my visa related paperwork was carefully looked after whenever there was plan to travel to other partnering institution for a training event.”
“The management team of MELGEN was always very supportive in terms of personal and scientific aspects. I could talk to them any time, and they listened carefully and tried to solve my problems.”
“All personal questions I had were answered. I liked that whenever an event approached (conference, report due date etc.), we were informed well in advance and also reminded about it sometime later. Information regarding GenoMEL meetings or MELGEN trainings was also provided early and with clear description of program, so it was known what to anticipate, how and what to prepare.”
SECTION E: THE NETWORK TRAINING EVENTS
The key difference between European Training Networks funded by Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions and Horizon2020, and PhD programmes run within individual institutions is a networked programme of scientific and complementary skills training to ensure students have access to all the skills needed for successful career progression. These residential network training events also give the ESRs change to meet face-to-face and exchange experiences and thoughts on all aspects of their research projects – scientific and personal. We asked the ESRs to score each of the modules in this training programme to establish what was most valuable and what could be improved upon.
As we had anticipated, the introducory course which was a 10-day course hosted by Leiden University Medical Centre and our commercial partner GenomeScan in Leiden, Netherlands in January 2016 was very well received with the majority of ESRs finding all the modules valuable. This course in particular was designed to ensure all the ESRs, had a solid baseline knowledge of the disease, and the current technologies and analysis methodology used to study aspects of the disease.
The second residential course, hosted by the University of Leeds was designed to give ESRs the skills needed to manage their projects, to understand the ethical considerations and the importance of data collection and protection and the skills to be able to communicate their science to different audiences in person, via scientific posters and using social and digital media. As we expected some ESRs found aspects of this course less useful than others, with those already active on Twitter and Facebook finding the digital module less useful overall.
The third course, held in Camogli, Italy as part of the 2017 Annual Scientific Meeting of the GenoMEL, BioGenoMEL and MELGEN consortia, focused on further development of bioinformatic and statistical skills with particular emphasis on gene expression and next generation sequencing (NGS) data which was common to the projects of a number of the ESRs.
The second complemetary skills course hosted by the University of Leeds included modules designed to further some of the practical skills such as improving posters and presentations, while overall these were still reported to be valuable to many, this was not universal, with some feeling it was a waste of time, particularly as these courses were available from local hosting institutions. Also included was a second session on digital media training and a day workshop on the subject of the issues around identifying and taking biomarkers through to clinical use. The oworkshop was open to other researchers based at the University of Leeds and was well received generally. The remaining modules on the course were focused on skills needed for writing up research for publications and the final dissertation/thesis and these were genrally found to be useful, in particular a session giving practical advice on the ‘writing-up’ process.
The final complementary skills course also delivered by the University of Leeds taking the ESRs beyond their projects in post-doctoral careers with emphasis on applying for grant funding and job applications and interview technique. We also held an open workshop for other researchers in Leeds covering writing up research for publication in high-impact journals, career development in academia and dealing with science journalists and the media. This was well received by ESRs and other attending researchers however it was commented that it would have been valuable to have a specific session dedicated to possible careers which covered routes into, for example, industry, science journalism, science writing, and teaching, as well as more traditional academic routes.
Of course, there is more to the network training events than just learning new skills: it is also an opportunity to get together, talk and put the world to rights. All the ESRs felt the change to socialise and meet as a group throughout the three years of the training was a valuable experience with many seeing it as a support network to deal with the stresses of doing a PhD and a chance to collaborate and gain experience from outside their immediate field of study.