Our new contributor Isabelle Kohler, assistant professor at VU Amsterdam, reflects on what it’s like to be a PhD student, both now and a decade ago.

Last month, I celebrated my 10-year PhD anniversary. I can’t believe it’s already a decade since I obtained my PhD in Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Geneva!

Fast forward to 2023: I moved to the Netherlands for a postdoc, climbed the academic ladder, and now work as an Assistant Professor in Bioanalytical Chemistry at VU Amsterdam. Ten years ago, I was a PhD student; today, I have the chance to supervise PhD students.

On one hand, when I see some of the struggles PhD students face, I feel like it wasn’t that long ago that I myself was struggling with my instrument (capillary electrophoresis combined with mass spectrometry – if you know, you know), spending long days to try gathering the data I needed, or being frustrated by my supervisor taking forever to correct my manuscript. On the other hand, the world has evolved so much over the last decade that today’s PhD students face challenges I never even had to think about.

A concrete example? I bought my first smartphone the first year of my PhD. Since my phone wasn’t an extension of my hand (yet), I wasn’t subjected to distractions during my experiments. I could quietly read papers while waiting for my peaks to appear during my electrophoretic run (or not, because CE-MS). I didn’t have the opportunity to scroll through Instagram, TikTok, Reddit and other applications that would maybe entertain me but also disrupt my focus. The only people I compared my work to were my PhD colleagues – not thousands of people on LinkedIn, showcasing their success and bragging about their awards.

At the same time, I wish I’d had access to such platform to learn more tips and tricks to navigate my PhD. I would have certainly benefited from hearing more about the academic system from insiders, or those who were at the beginning of their post-PhD career, to better shape my own next steps. I bet that I could have avoided some of the mistakes I made with earlier access to such insights.

That’s precisely why you’re reading this first edition of “Exploring Academia with Isabelle ”, a new column you will find in C2W International every other week. In this column, I’ll provide plenty of tips to help you navigate academia, maximize your productivity, maintain adequate work/life balance, understand the academic game, manage your supervisors, deal with struggles, prepare for your career after your PhD, and many other topics.

Santé to this new column and the next 10 years!


PS: did you know that I provide support to early-career scientists via NextMinds, my company, as well? Visit the website to learn more about my work and how I can help you, sign up for the newsletter, and come say hi on LinkedIn (and brag about your awards)!