For the latest edition of our Staff Profile series, we spoke to Dr Ceyda Oksel about postdoc life, and her views on how we can create a better working culture for early career researchers in the Department.
What is your role in the Department?
I’m a Postdoctoral Research Associate, working as part of a multidisciplinary research team consisting of data scientists, statisticians, clinicians and geneticists. My research focuses on implementing machine learning models to develop personalised asthma management strategies and tools, through understanding the underlying pathological mechanisms and the genetic and environmental factors that cause or contribute to asthma.
I’m a Departmental representative for postdocs and an active member of the postdoc reps committee. I work together with Imperial’s Postdoc and Fellows Development Centre (PFDC) on facilitating communication between postdocs across the College, highlighting the opportunities and resources that are available to them. I’m also a Staff Supporter, providing confidential assistance on a range of issues from queries about career advice or flexible working, to concerns about the behaviour of a colleague. Additionally, I’m a personal tutor for a group of Year 1 students, and provide scientific mentoring and support to high school students undertaking British Science Association CREST Awards.
Outside Imperial, I’m involved in a range of charity work and activities, and currently volunteering as a mentor for the Social Mobility Foundation (SMF) scheme, which aims to help high-achieving young people from low-income backgrounds to progress into Higher Education and employment.
When did you first join the Department, and where were you working before?
I joined Imperial in 2017, following 6 years in Leeds. Before joining Imperial, I was a Research Fellow at the University of Leeds, where I completed my EU Commission-funded PhD and MSc degree. While undertaking my postgraduate degrees, I was hosted by several institutions as a visiting researcher including the US Army Corps of Engineers (Boston, USA), the National Physical Laboratory (London, UK), the EU Commission’s Joint Research Centre (Ispra, Italy) and the South China University of Technology (Guangzhou, China).
Can you tell us about the work that you’re currently doing around improving working culture and opportunities for postdocs in the Department?
As a postdoc rep in the Department of Medicine, my main role is to facilitate communication between postdocs, the Department and the PFDC. Together with other reps, we are trying to create a supportive environment where postdocs can voice their opinions and concerns, explore career paths, review options and resolve problems. To facilitate social integration of postdoctoral staff and encourage networking, I organise department-funded meet-up events for postdocs, such as coffee mornings, wine and cheese socials, and visits to other institutions.
What do you think are the key problems faced by postdocs, and how can they be overcome?
Being a postdoc is not a career in itself, but a stepping stone to a career in academia or elsewhere; the main issue is the uncertainty that comes with this. Being on a short-term contract or in temporary work causes so much stress, and this can affect a postdoc’s work and personal life. As postdoc funding tends to come from short-term research grants, generally allocated for a specific period or project, it may not be possible to offer someone a permanent contract. However, converting short-term contracts to open-ended ones after meeting certain criteria may help to prevent instances of successive fixed-term contracts, and the insecurity that this brings.
Imperial is unique in that it has a development team and centre just for postdocs, which can provide tailored support for the career development of postdoctoral researchers across the College. On a Departmental level, this can be further improved by ensuring transparency and consistency in job titles and increasing official recognition of postdocs for involvement in various responsibilities, including teaching and supervision. The latter has been partly addressed by the College, in that the valuable contribution that postdocs make towards PhD supervision is now formally recognised with the title of Assistant Supervisor.
What do you find to be the most challenging part of your role?
Academia has become increasingly competitive, with more and more pressure being put on academics to juggle their various roles and projects effectively. Being an early-career academic in today’s cut-throat world of grants and competitive funding environment is a little more than daunting, and probably way more difficult than any other time over the past decades. The most difficult aspect of my role is related to the increasing competitiveness of academic positions – working hard and being good at what you do may no longer be enough. I feel like there are other things I need to succeed in today’s academic environment: being in the right place at the right time, selling research projects to funding bodies and most importantly, luck.
What do you find to be the most rewarding part of your role?
It fits well with my inquisitive nature. Being able to create knowledge and share it with others is the most professionally rewarding thing I can imagine. I also like the personal development aspect of being a postdoc. It gives you the opportunity to enhance your research skills as well as transferable skills, and take on further responsibilities such as teaching, supervision and grant writing.
Your favourite thing about working in the Department of Medicine?
It’s most definitely the diverse nature of the Department and the work that it undertakes! It gives me an opportunity to work with and learn from a varied group of scientists and clinicians who all have different backgrounds, areas of expertise, and experiences.
What are your biggest hobbies/passions outside of work?
I just love being outdoors – it is a great way to de-stress, away from my computer! I have a perpetual desire to experience new cultures and landscapes, so I try to travel as much as I can!
If the Department could do one thing to improve its organisational culture, what do you think that should be?
It should be improving the community spirit within the College and fostering internal collaboration, rather than internal competition.
Find out more about Imperial’s Postdoc and Fellows Development Centre, and the support it can provide: http://www.imperial.ac.uk/postdoc-fellows-development-centre/