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Michael van der Kooij – Senior Postdoc

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On March 28th, NGC hosted a discussion on how to prepare a manuscript. Michael van der Kooij, a senior post-doc in AG Mueller was one of the speakers and gave us very helpful information. In this interview, he is sharing his career path and his research vision with us.  

What got you interested in science?
It was Biology that sparked my interest in science. To make a decision, I used a book that contained all the subjects taught in Netherlands and I crossed out everything I did not want to study. In the end, Biology was still standing and I like the fact that this field is so broad. Biology also made a lot of sense since I have always been fascinated by the animal world and kept many different pets at home. However, it took some time before I actively thought of a career in research.

You have worked in the Netherlands, Switzerland and Germany. Which system did you like the most and why?
This is difficult to determine; they have their differences, but I experienced them at different stages of my career. During my PhD in the Netherlands, I received excellent supervision and importantly, PhD students needed to have papers to be able to finish their PhD. The commitment of the supervisors to attain these requirements is something I feel very strongly about. During my first post-doc in Switzerland, I was in the lab of Carmen Sandi at EPFL, an expert in stress-related research and learnt a lot during this period. For example, how does one address the right research questions? The decision to move to Germany for my second post-doc was made after much deliberation and in hindsight, it was definitely the right choice. I am now working on a project that combines stress and metabolism research, a project I envisaged prior to coming here. The move enabled me to become much more independent scientifically.

What advice would you give to early career researchers who want to pursue a life in academia?
You should carefully consider why you want to continue in academia; in the end you should be very enthusiastic about your research and also take into account that a lot of associated (e.g. administrative) duties are probably not as exciting. Also, I think it makes sense to remain realistic. Most of us have a natural optimistic side, but we need to be aware of what is missing to reach the goal and think whether that is actually attainable. I recommend setting intermediate goals and updating them regularly. For example, I personally feel that my CV is relatively strong in terms of publications but that I am missing grants. Hence, this is something I am aiming to remedy.

What would you retrospectively change in your scientific path?
Now, I realize that one might benefit from having a career path that tells a more or less straightforward story. With a streamlined CV it may be less tough to obtain grants, for example. Also, I never thought I would be good enough to do a PhD. Thus, I was surprised and flattered to be accepted in a PhD program at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and did not look further for a position elsewhere. I would probably advice someone in that position to at least look around a bit more than I had done. During my PhD, I worked on neonatal brain damage; a topic not so closely related to the stress-related research that I shifted to later on. Altogether, my papers are spread over multiple fields, which has both pros and cons.

If you were able to, what general things would you change concerning research?
I would probably change the way research is valued. Some recent studies show that PhD students and post-docs run a high risk of developing depression or other types of mental disorders. I honestly think most researchers essentially love their work, but it may be very difficult to cope with the pressures associated with being in academia nowadays: productivity in terms of papers, grants, having to move countries, temporary contracts and small chances of obtaining a permanent research position etc. Additionally, the focus on number of papers with high impact factors, rather than the actual research as a criterion for hiring scientists is a gaping problem that has often been addressed, but without much effect.

Sometimes, it appears as if researchers are supposed to follow a predetermined path and if one does not fit, you are out. For example,  in the Netherlands, one needs to typically do a PhD, then spend 2-3 years abroad and publish a high impact paper (e.g. Nature Neuroscience or similar), which allows you to get a grant to return to the Netherlands and is a big bonus in order to apply for the next grant. However, if you miss out on this one shot for the ground-breaking paper when abroad, you may miss out on all the following steps and there does not appear to be anything that can be done about it.

Seeing the lack of tenured positions in academia these days, I wonder whether it may be better to limit the number of PhD students admitted. I feel that sometimes PhD students are simply acquired as cheap labor while appropriate training during their PhD trajectory is lacking. In order to avoid researchers struggling at this academic bottle neck, and to allow PIs to sufficiently train their PhD students (with clear endpoints, such as published papers), less may be more.

Written by Isabelle Arnoux; Edited by Radhika Menon.

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