Prepared by Nicole Pamme, Adrian Goldman, Pirjo Johnson, and the ViBrANT team
In developing this white paper document, we called on our experiences with the ViBrANT MCSA-ITNs and a questionnaire to our ViBrANT ESRs towards the end of their study period. The questions from this questionnaire provided in Appendix 1.
We streamlined our recruitment processes as much as possible to follow EU guidelines whilst respecting requirements for the beneficiary institutions. All 15 ITN positions were advertised simultaneously on the ViBrANT website and applicants submitted their applications through this ViBrANT website also. In parallel, positions were also advertised on the local beneficiary websites with links to the ITN website. The positions were furthermore advertised through EURAXESS website, and social media and through emails to personal contacts of the supervisors.
A total of 95 applications were received, 48 from male and 47 from female applicants. These comprised 23 applications from candidates in European countries, 28 from India and 21 from African countries, clearly showing the popularity of these ITN positions in countries outside Europe, and 23 from elsewhere (figure 1). Applicants had been able to select first choice, second choice and third choice projects, in case they were interested in several projects. Overall, applications were received for all the 15 projects, but the interest in the various projects was not equally distributed.
Individual supervisors carried out shortlisting in liaison with the secondment hosts. We limited shortlisted candidates to two per ESR position. Supervisors had generally undergone interview training with their respective employers and we also recommended the RS video on unconscious bias (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dVp9Z5k0dEE). Following shortlisting, the ViBrANT supervisors came together in Leeds (UK) in Feb 2018 for two days, to carry out interviewing. Applicants from Europe were invited to attend in person, applicants from further away were interviewed via Skype. Interviews were carried out by three panels, interviewing candidates for five positions each.
The interview structure was agreed in advance sharing best practice among the ViBrANT supervisors. Each candidate was asked to provide and present a 5 min power point presentation about a previous research project they had carried out. This was followed by a set of questions from the panel (Appendix 2). The interview panel then ranked applicants following the criteria in Appendix 3.
Following selection of applicants, further processes were then required by the individual hosting beneficiaries. These varied from country to country and required good communication between the hosting supervisor and their administrative departments. One of the challenges encountered was around the visa requirement for a US applicant, who could not enter into the French system because she did not possess a Master’s Degree, which was the minimum requirement from the government, even though the minimum requirement for the Pasteur Institute and for an ITN is a Bachelor’s degree. The candidate eventually found an ESR position in another ITN and was based in Ireland. A couple of positions were readvertised but all ESRs were in place by month 13 (1/1/2019)
Overall, the recruitment process worked well, with the outcomes of (i) gelling the team together in the early stages of the project and (ii) having a coherent, joined up process that ensured that the positions were offered to high-quality candidates.
supervisory support structure
As part of our ViBrANT project, individual supervisory committees (ISCs) were established. These comprised of the main supervisor at the host institution as well as three further ViBrANT supervisors, often those from institutions where the ESRs would carry out secondments.
The ISCs met with the ESRs around every six months, sometimes in person during the in-person project meetings, but most often online, especially once the Covid-pandemic related restrictions set in. ESRs would fill out a proforma summarising progress in their project and any challenges encountered. During the meeting, the ESRs would often give a short presentation, followed by a scientific discussion among the team. There was also a discussion between the ESRs and the three external supervisors, with the main supervisor leaving the room, as well as a discussion just among the supervisors with the ESR leaving the room. Meeting outcomes and recommendations were summarised after the meeting on the same proforma and submitted to the project administrator.
The ESRs perceived these meetings and the ISC as largely beneficial, as evidenced through the questionnaire (figure 2). In addition to the scientific discussions, they also benefitted from the advice and perspectives offered by the supervisors from different countries and sectors. However, the ISC was an additional structure, sitting alongside monitoring processes in the hosting institutions. Therefore, for example in the UK, ESRs would have progress monitoring for their PhD studies, appraisal meetings since they were members of staff and on top of that the ISC. Efforts were made to reduce the number of redundant monitoring meetings, but ideally there would be an EU-led effort to standardise this so that training network monitoring would be considered equivalent to local monitoring.
Overall, the ISCs contributed to ensuring that all ESRs finished their studies and stayed on track, nobody dropped out.
The building of international networks for the ESRs was facilitated via project meetings and secondments as well as a range of training events (see appendix 4). The ESRs attended large scale conferences including all ESRs presenting at the FEMS Congress on Microbiology in 2019 and the World Microbe Forum in 2021. The ESRs also organised their own on-line conference, ViBrANT2021, in the last year of the project. Many of the ESRs have become active on Twitter and/or LinkedIn during the project.
This has this led to superior outcomes in the sense that the ESRs have had far more exposure and experience internationally compared to most students at the respective hosting institutions. The ESRs themselves viewed this as a positive outcome of their studies, as evidenced through responses from the questionnaire. The international mobility and outlook has also contributed positively to career paths taken by the ESRs. By the time of writing this report, several of our ESRs have found employment as PostDoctoral researchers, often in another country,
impact of the Covid-pandemic on ESR training and career perspectives
The Covid-pandemic hit around half-way through the ViBrANT project and the funder did not extend the funding for the ESRs. From that point in the project, no in person meetings could take place, thus project meetings and training events were all delivered on-line. The initial move to online delivery was challenging, for ESRs as well as tutors, but as we all got better with using online learning tools and could share experiences and best practices, and ESRs got more used to online format, the experience was much improved. Whilst this ‘worked’, the overall experience in terms of networking and learning was not as rewarding and effective, as real in person meetings and hands-on learning can be. Thus, ESRs graduating out of Covid-hit ITNs have had an overall worse experience, compared to those pre- and (presumably) post-pandemic.
Secondment opportunities were heavily impacted by the pandemic as well. Some initially planned secondments had to be abandoned; some were replaced with ‘in country’ secondments if partners were based in the same country; and some were shifted to on-line/remote experiences. Again, this led to an overall poorer experience and learning compared to ITN graduates pre- and post-pandemic.
ESRs feedback questionnaire
Please fill in the following questions under your experience within the ViBrANT program. In your assessment, please omit any aspect which might be COVID-related or hosting institution issues.
SECTION I Evaluate the following question using:
1=Very poor 2=Poor 3=OK 4=Good 5= Very good
- Please provide your opinion towards your individual project activities and goals
- Personal and professional training. Please rate your development within the ViBrANT training program
- Please provide your opinion about ViBrANT’s program as an intersectoral and interdisciplinary network training.
- Please provide your opion on regarding the guidance and supervision during your project
- How did you like the outreach activities? (e.g. school visits, public lectures, publicity via website, social media)
SECTION II Please use this space to let us know your opinion towards:
- Do you consider ViBrANT training programme has been useful in comparison to other PhD students from your university/institution that were not on ITNs? Yes or no, please elaborate.
- ViBrANT Research future perspectives. How do you feel the research carried out in your project can extend further?
- What did you enjoy the most during your time with ViBrANT?
- Is there something you were disappointed with?
- How do you consider the outreach activities can be improved? Suggest some ideas.
Questions for ViBrANT ESR interviews
- Their presentation (5 minutes)
- Why are you interested in science and research?
- Describe a research project that you have undertaken
- What was the aim?
- What did you learn?
- What did enjoy?
- What did you not enjoy?
- Tell us about a paper you recently read. Why did you find it interesting?
- What do you know about how an ITN works?
Does that make it more or less appealing than a regular PhD?
- What interests you in this PhD?
- What skills do you think you bring to the PhD?
- What do you think are the most challenging aspects of a PhD?
- Do you like to analyse data and write, or do you prefer to do experiments?
- How do you like working? In a group? Individually? Why?
- Where do you hope that a PhD qualification will take you?
What do you think you will be doing 5 years after your PhD?
- Tell us about the longest document you have ever written.
What was it, and what was easy and what was difficult?
[want to know whether they do or do not like writing and why?]
- Scientific questions
[1 or 2 questions designed by supervisor team to probe if the candidates can apply knowledge to solve a problem relevant to the project]
- What do you know about safety aspects working with pathogens?
- Do you have anything you want to ask us?
|SCORING – ViBrANT INTERVIEWS|
- Please write down some notes during the interview
on the provided printouts in your folders.
- Please also give a score for each interview question.
Write this in the comments box next to your notes.
- Add up the scores for each candidate at the end of the interview,
make a note of this and use these as a guide for the ranking of candidates.
|0||Fails to meet criteria.
Fails to give a sensible answer to the question.
|1||Demonstrates limited achievement.
Gives an answer that demonstrates limited understanding.
|2||Demonstrates basic achievement.
Gives an answer that demonstrates basic understanding.
|3||Demonstrates partial achievement.
Gives an answer that demonstrates partial understanding.
|4||Demonstrates large achievement.
Gives an answer that demonstrates largely understanding.
|5||Demonstrates full achievement.
Gives an answer that demonstrates full understanding.
VIBRANT skills training events
K1 Kick-off meeting (2 days) 2018, Frankfurt
Presentations by PI on project organisation, reporting and financial aspects.
Short presentations by all ESRs on project goals and objectives.
W1 Workshop 1: Scientific Integrity & Ethics (2days) 2018, Frankfurt
Students will receive training in recording and reporting data. Discussion groups will consider conflicts of interest, diversity and how to achieve it, the peer review process & funding in science. Half a day on effective poster presentations.
W2 Workshop 2: Public Engagement and Outreach/Digital Native (1 day)
Communicating science to the public is an important part of Vibrant.
C1 FEMS-2019, Glasgow, UK
Attendance at FEMS-2019, covers all strands of research on microbes, with world-leading speakers.
W3 Workshop 3: Bench to Market: Starting a spin-off company (2 days), 2019, UK
Eluceda and Elisha will give insights into how to set up a small spin startup company.
W4 Workshop 4: Effective presentation and writing (2 days), 2019, UK
Effective research writing : MS Word for theses and long documents; powerpoint techniques; digital life and researching people via the web.
S1 Summer School 1: Techniques in structural biology (3 days), 2019, UK
A three-day workshop providing ESRs with the latest advances in structural biology research. Topics covered will be x-ray crystallography, cryo-EM, NMR and XFEL. International visitor (David Stuart).
W5 Workshop 5: Proteomics (2 days), 17-18 Nov, delivered by Lund (online)
2-day workshop covering the latest developments in MS and proteomics.
W6 Workshop 6: Diagnostic development (2 days), webinar, 15- 16 July 2020
Overview of diagnostic development from classic approaches to lab-on-a-chip, including training on how to build such devices.
S2 Summer School 2: Translating academic work to commercial products (2 days), 14-15 June 2021 (virtual)
Led by bioMérieux team
W7 Workshop 7: Career planning & IP (2 days), 16-17 June 2021, Institut Pasteur (Virtual)
IP rights; career planning; know yourself; interview techniques and mock interviews; alternative career plans
C2 Conference on host-pathogen adhesion (2 days), 15-16 JULY 2021 and ViBRANT symposium as part of world Microbe Forum 2021 (23 June 2021)
Disseminates our results to other academics and to industry, networking, especially for graduating ESRs to meet other major researchers, both from academia and industry. As part of their training ESRs will form a committee to organise a small (100 people) cross-disciplinary conference and organize a symposium session as part of the World Microbe Forum 2021.