Maija Greis, PhD Student in University of Helsinki, Doctoral Programme in Food Chain and Health & Visiting student in UMass Amherst Food Science Department.
Sohvi Kangasluoma, PhD Student in University of Helsinki, Doctoral Programme in Political, Societal and Regional Change, Aleksanteri Institute & Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science (HELSUS)
We have known each other for maybe four years now, through a common friend. And we are glad we met! Maija got the idea of building this platform and asked Sohvi to come along — and here we are.
Hello, tell us a bit about yourself? Who are you and what do you do currently?
Maija: Hello! I am Maija, a second-year PhD student. I am studying food and sensory science and working with my second research project on plant-based yogurts. I am currently living in Boston, and working at UMass Amherst Food Science department as a visiting scholar. Excited about this project and glad to work with Sohvi!
Sohvi: Hello there! I am Sohvi, also a PhD student at the University of Helsinki. My research is dealing with Arctic oil and gas industry, human security and feminist theories. I was very excited when you told me about this idea of yours, about this webpage. This is cool!
How did you end up in the current position, or to research in general? Has it always been your dream?
S: For me it was perhaps a little bit of a coincidence that I ended up doing my PhD — but then also something I had kinda thought earlier, but not very seriously.
I enjoyed writing my master's thesis quite a lot, and when the topic of my thesis fit this project I heard of, I applied for it and ended up working there. And I am very glad (most of the time) that it turned out like that. But I know many people who have always wanted to be scholars, and I am definitely not one of them.
M: For me, it was quite the same, also a coincidence. Never something, I would have dreamed of. For a long time, I had this idea that doing a PhD must be either very difficult or boring. However, I got very excited about my master thesis topic and worked in the same field after graduation. I also realized that my colleagues working with very interesting topics had PhDs, which made me think that as an option too. I would say they were my role models and still are.
S: Yep I guess I also have this sort of topic-centric approach to my PhD and research, I am passionate about my topic, otherwise I am not sure if I would have ended up in academia. Even though of course it is amazing that you get to think and theorize things as your profession.
But it's interesting also to hear that in your field PhD is quite common and useful? Cos in my field (international relations) PhD is hardly ever required outside academia.
M: I noticed it while working in the industry. PhD might help if you wish to work in a professional position and work with exciting topics. However, of course, it is not something you have to have as in academia it is often a requirement.
S: And you can never educate yourself too much, ha-ha!
M: True, ha-ha. Now after my first year, I still think doing research is difficult, but it is not boring, for sure. Mostly exciting and exhausting.
We would love to know what or who inspires you?
M: I get very inspired by people who are passionate about what they do. Also, it's inspiring to learn about people who have their own way of working and are not afraid of showing it.
S: Yes I also feel that people who are passionate about what they do are often the most inspiring ones.
Also I have started to appreciate and admire this kind of softness, or kindness some people have towards others and themselves. In the working culture it's not self-evident, but I feel it makes the person even more strong and inspiring.
M: I agree.
What do you find are the biggest challenges in the research world in general?
S: Well, obviously funding is rather challenging nowadays. I have been lucky for being able to work on a project for two years (soon), but now when the grant application process has started I have come to realize the burden of it. But I guess that's a whole topic of its own!
Also, I feel I have problems with the work-freetime-division, I am that kind of person who tends to check their emails on Sunday, and with PhD it's very easy to slip into working from home at nights..and I really would not want to be that person!
And I guess that's related to the overall pressure about the number of articles and timeframe and funding etc in the current system.
M: Oh yes, rightly said Sohvi! Work-Freetime-division is challenging. I must say, I really enjoy academic freedom. You can work from home or even summer cabin or sailing boat sometimes (side note: Sohvi is currently located in north Norway and working from a sailing boat).
But the other side of the coin is that you end up working a lot. When you are excited about your work, you don't have specific working hours and third, there is always the next thing to do, you find yourself working day and night.
Sometimes or quite often, I feel that I am in a hurry and running late of something and how I should be more productive. I feel the time pressure very strongly. I would love to hear how senior researchers in academia cope with that and manage their time and life. Or do they have a life outside work? ;)
S: Yes me too! I guess you get used to it as well as get better at everything.
And I agree with the freedom part - it's quite hard to imagine living otherwise once you have gotten used to this freedom. Even though of course there are times when you have to be at the university five days a week.
But one thing I have also thought about is the imposter syndrome, which is something I quite often recognize within myself. I have also discussed this with several other PhD students. And I feel it's something mainly women have? I wonder if it will ever go away.
M: Okay, I had to google what is impostor syndrome, but I definitely have it. It’s a good question whether it goes away.
Can you identify some turning points that have influenced your career?
M: My career is still quite short, but I would say the very interesting master thesis topic has played an important part. It made me realize how doing research is not always boring but can also be very creative. Also, at some point, I came to understand that researchers are often very interesting people and the stereotype of an introvert geek alone in a dusty and dark cave was not the whole truth. :)
S: And nothing wrong with those introverts either! I think the creativity part you mentioned is very important. I think I have come to realize also only recently that actually research is a very creative process, and I have come to enjoy that quite a lot.
But yep, well my career is not very extensive yet either, but as what goes with studies, I think that as both my bachelors and masters thesis supervisors were amazingly bright and talented women, I was perhaps empowered by them (even though I hate the word empower, but I'll use it here), and that was something that made it even possible to continue to PhD studies.
M: Fair enough, I also need to give credits to both of my master thesis supervisors! They taught me a lot, and encouraged me to continue studying. Also, when looking back, I think that having such a specific scientific question, I learned something about solving scientific problems. Which is of course fascinating.
During your career, have you ever wished you were a male instead of female? Are there still situations like that?
M: Before starting to think PhD studies as an option, I was once told that only if I had a doctoral degree I could "compete" for the same job positions with men. It sounds really bad but I can see some truth in it.
S: Yep it sounds bad, but also the University statistics about the gender balance of professors, associate professors and so forth look bad!
M: True, less than 30% of professors are women.
S: I have never had such a blunt comment, but of course these strange comments about the length of my skirt or whatever in conferences or other events. And it's awful I say of course.
And surely I have, like I imagine almost everyone has, heard these stories about the problems women face in academia about pregnancy and maternal leave, that men don't. Its quite shocking actually how even today very clear discrimination happens due to being pregnant.
But the issue I have personally been struggling with a bit is about telling about my research, and its theoretical underpinnings. I have noticed that with certain people, in academia or outside, I have just stopped saying the feminist part of my topic, since I am tired of having the conversation again and again of how feminism is only about women and its not a real science and so forth.
And every time when I on purpose don't mention it as part of my topic I feel a bit bad because I think those people especially would gain from understanding it a bit more.
M: I feel you. Sometimes I find myself avoiding some topics related to my research, which is of course not good for me or anybody else. Sharing your research ideas and hearing the feedback is often exciting yet at the same time, it can be scary.
We think doing research is sometimes stressful, disappointing and slow paced. Do you ever think so? What keeps you going?
S: I do think so, ha-ha. I guess having the bigger picture in mind, and knowing it is something important I am researching. And also personal habits like sleep and yoga (for me) are quite big factors in the overall coping. But then again, life and research should not be only about coping - it should be about living.
M: I think so too, I guess this is something you get used to. But I wish, I would stress a little bit less about my work. For me, nature, dancing, and good books are at least simple reminders that life is actually something else than just my work.
S: Yes non-academic books are so important! And when I do stress I try to think that hey it is only an article no-one will die if you don't write as much today as you thought. It doesn't really help though.
M: True, it's always nice to note that hey, I didn't die for this after all. Not sure, if it’s good for you in the long run though, he-he.
S: And also, sometimes I have a few days (or weeks) when I feel I am not really achieving or doing anything, and then happen to read one super-inspirational article that's related to my topic - which makes me inspired, I get so much energy from that!
Do you want to applaud a woman in your life? At work, home, friend or whoever?
M: Hmm, since this is a cheesy question, I will answer in such a way too. I would say my mother who always told me to follow my dreams. But of course, there are plenty of others who have helped and inspired me! The list is long.
S: Well my mom is cool too! In the work-life context, I will applaud my fellow PhD student Karoliina, who started to work around the same time as me. We are part of the same research group and share an office. She's the person in the office who I can talk to about royal gossip or dry shampoo brands, as well as bit more intellectual stuff.
What would your own fantasy research world look like? If anything was possible! How would you like to see women in research in 30 years?
S: Well as having equal opportunities for permanent positions at least! Hmm… and perhaps (not only women but everyone) the research world in general would have shaped to a bit softer place, in every way.
M: I can not disagree. Also, fairies as research assistants!
Also, A few weeks back after I got pretty upset while reading the reviewers' comments on my first paper, one of my female supervisors told me that it's okay to show your feelings and get upset. I really appreciate what she said, didn't quite expect her to say that though. I felt embarrassed about showing my feelings. Which is funny, now that I think of it. Did I answer the question? I think I didn't.
S: I am still waiting for my first review-comments, iik..but thats so lovely she said that. And I'm sure everyone at all levels of academia feels something when they get the comments for their work.
But, also in my fantasy research world, people would have secure funding and not everything was dependent on the amount you “produce”.
M: Oh yes, quite too often you hear people talking about the number of citations or even the order of co-authors in the paper and not the research topic itself. I am doing it here too now.
It would be nice to see more different ways of practicing this occupation in every way. I am not quite sure what I mean by this, though. I suppose one example could be the way of presenting your results. Perhaps we hear other examples on this platfrorm.
S: Yes I agree, I think we should be able to “spice it up” a little bit at for example conference panels. I have noticed though that for example in my field in international relations, art has become quite not perhaps common but certainly a thing within the research. Or the combination of IR and art. That's quite cool I think. So more thinking outside the conventional academic box?
M: Yes, I would like to see that happening.
S: perhaps in your next conference or experiment you can add music to one of the senses (side note, Maija does research on senses and perception)
M: Nice idea, Sohvi!
What would you like to say for young researchers and students? Encouraging, depressing, anything? Fire away, we are ready to face them!
M: I would say to talk as much as possible about your research topics and particularly about the difficult things. Find someone who gives feedback. I think it is important to have good mentors, supervisors and other students around you.
S: Yes good points there! And even before going for PhD, talk as much as you can with other PhD students to get a realistic feeling about the work, funding situation and so on. And as Maija said, talk about your stuff a lot with everyone willing or not willing to listen. And be brave to do something that has not been done before. Gather good people around. Remember it's not your whole life. These are becoming like fridge magnet advises but I think they are true, ha-ha.
M: Tacky but true. I would need those magnets on my fridge. This may also be a no-brainer but it can be difficult to find the right people around you. Good point on being brave to do something new.
S: I agree with finding people, it's not easy. Maybe this platform can work as showing that we are all normal people and kind of nice and approachable.
Be nice to each other <3