From a master’s student to a Postdoctoral Researcher: How did Sara Farshchi build her research career at Lund University?
Don’t let the opportunity pass you by has been Sara’s motto ever since she got admitted to the master’s programme in Language and Linguistics at Lund University. Her resilience, eagerness to prove herself, hard work and, above all, love for linguistic research got her from her master’s studies to a PhD position and later on to a Postdoctoral Researcher position at Lund University. This is the story of how she did it.
She knew early on that she wanted to become a researcher
As a child, Sara liked to watch cartoons and movies in English but she could not understand what the characters were saying. Her parents realized that Sara was curious about the English language and they sent her to a language school because English courses taught at schools in Iran – Sara’s homeland – were not particularly effective. Sara knew early on that she liked grammar and rules that had to do with language and that this is what she wanted to study at the university level. She did her bachelor's education in English Language and Literature where she had a few basic linguistics courses. For one of those courses, Sara collected linguistic data, analyzed it and wrote a paper about it. This was the first time she did something related to research and she realized that she enjoyed making sense of data, discussing results and writing about it. This is when she knew that she wanted to continue in academia and do linguistics.
Skills developed throughout her master’s studies shaped her as a researcher
When Sara got admitted to Lund University, she found out that the linguistics she was taught at her home university differed a lot from that taught at Lund University. However, she was not entirely “molded”, which helped her adjust to the new school of thought with ease. During her master’s education Sara developed new skills that were not very familiar to her. For instance, through the Philosophy of Science course, she acquired stronger skills in analytical and critical thinking. The Methodology course familiarized her with different kinds of methods used within linguistics such as experimentation, interviews, questionnaires and corpus work, which helped her realize that experimental work was her true passion. Teamwork was also something new to her; doing research, working on projects and presenting them together with other people as well as providing feedback on other people’s work were some of the skills developed during her Master’s studies that shaped her as a researcher and as a teacher.
Her efforts were not in vain: They led her to a PhD position at Lund University
During her master’s studies, Sara helped her teachers with organization of conferences as well as with collection of experimental data in their projects. Although these experiences were rather basic, they helped Sara get her first research assistant position already during her master’s studies and they further helped her start building her CV. According to Sara, the various courses, offered by the Humanities lab, that she took during or after her master’s education played a rather big role in getting her PhD position at Lund University. Some of those courses involved basic and advanced statistics, experimental design and programming. In her statistics course she even helped another student who found the course difficult which in turn helped Sara develop teaching skills. With all this experience, she ultimately became an interesting PhD candidate.
Her work takes a lot of planning and coordination
Today, Sara is a postdoctoral researcher at Lund University, currently working on the role of negated meanings in predictive language processing. She investigates the different factors that affect the processing of negated meanings, using experimental methodologies such as eye-tracking and electroencephalography (EEG). Her daily work is a bit like what you do in your master’s thesis: you define the idea, you review literature and refine that idea, you delve into the stimuli and design the experiment, you carry out the experiment, analyze the data and then you write it up. In between, there is application for ethics approval or communicating with the responsible staff for technical support among others. Her daily work depends very much on what stage of the process she is at. At some point, she might be reading, doing the literature review and writing. At another point, she might be preparing for the stimuli by collecting examples or setting up a pilot experiment, for example. Sometimes, there is an overlap between various activities as there are days when you simply do not feel like reading articles and cannot focus. Sara’s work also involves teaching, which means that she needs to find balance, adjust her expectations and plan ahead:
“There are periods both during your PhD and in postdoctoral work when teaching is very heavy or you have to do a lot of marking and you cannot do any research. Juggling these responsibilities takes planning. This is something I learnt during my PhD and I’m still learning."
Sara’s list of transferable skills you develop in academia:
- -Analytical/critical thinking
- -Communication in oral and written form
- -Ability to simplify information and adapt your communication to new audiences
- -Providing feedback in a constructive way
- -Time management
- -Team work
- -Ability to independently carry out a project.
“Many of the skills we learn in academia can be useful outside as well. You just have to look at them in a different way."
Sara’s 7 insights about being a PhD candidate at Lund University, and 5 pieces of advice:
- Almost all PhD students end up doing something different from their initial project proposal. It’s very important to start, be flexible and to know that you will have to make changes to your ideas based on the type of results that you get and based on the external factors that can affect your work, such as the coronavirus pandemic in the current situation.
- Being a PhD candidate is exciting because you have about four years to do the kind of research you want to do but also to take the courses you want to take, to help your career later on. You have a stable salary and you don't have to worry about what comes next, not yet. You have a lot of rights as a PhD student in Sweden and colleagues at Lund University treat you as a junior colleague rather than just a student. I think PhD is the golden period in one’s academic life. Enjoy this time.
- When you are doing a PhD, it becomes your identity. It becomes very intertwined with your personal life and with who you are. That’s what makes it a bit challenging. It really defines you in a way. Not others, but you yourself feel like it is a measure of your self-worth. Considering this, it can become very heavy and difficult to handle at times. That's why you see PhD students facing mental health issues and going on sick leave.
- I know PhD students who have experienced problems with their supervisors and this aspect can become challenging if you don't communicate with your supervisor well enough.
- It can be hard to fully understand what it means to suddenly become an employee at university after being a master’s student. It involves a lot of things that you need to take care of that you were previously unaware of, for example, a lot of paperwork through various online systems and services. This can create some challenges and problems at times.
- It’s ok to make mistakes is something I learnt from one of my supervisors. PhD is the time when you can afford making mistakes.
- Attitude is very important. Problems do occur during your PhD and if you are aware of that and you are prepared for it, it makes the process easier.
As a PhD representative, Sara was part of a board which went through PhD applications and discussed them in terms of different qualities. During that time, Sara had the opportunity to observe how senior members made decisions. Based on that knowledge and experience, Sara would like to give you 5 pieces of advice on how to prepare for a research career.
- If you really want to pursue research, try to gain experience, even if it’s small tasks here and there. Try different things: Let's say you want to work with experimentation but there’s a position for corpus work. It’s still research. It's just a different methodology. It can open up new opportunities for you and you might discover something new.
- Don’t be shy. Go and ask people. It’s not like you are asking them for a favor. You are simply going to apply. It’s also nice for the employer if they have met the candidate and if they know that the candidate has shown enthusiasm through previous activities.
- The most important thing is to show how enthusiastic and serious you are about research and academia. This shows in your application as well. There are points in your CV that show that you are really interested in research. Enthusiasm can weigh a lot when it comes to evaluating your application. Work hard and build your CV in a way that is attractive for academic jobs. You can do this by doing a small project by yourself so that you can put that on your CV or by getting involved in some small project during your master’s studies such as helping a teacher with data collection. That’s what I did for instance: I used my professor’s laptop to administer the experiment to the participants. That was all but I still gained some experience when it came to dealing with participants.
Text: Katja Woxell 2022