Doctoral students at the University of Ljubljana Medical Faculty have to defend their thesis twice: first in front of a committee and a few months later publicly. The first defence is deemed to be “the hard one”; you really have to prove yourself because the committee may consider your work incomplete. My first defence will take place in less than 24 hours, so I am nervously sitting in the office, reviewing my thesis presentation for the nth time today and every now and then I surf the internet in order to relax a bit. I noticed on Facebook that the National Committee will decide today which three young female researchers will receive the 2013 fellowship for the For Women in Science Programme. I also applied for this fellowship, but the date the results are officially announced is still far away, so I get back to my defence and think about what else I should read so that tomorrow will be a day worth remembering. My reading is disrupted by a phone call. I answer the blocked caller ID call and because our office is quite noisy, I do not catch the name of the caller, but what I do catch is that I have been awarded one of the three fellowships of the For Women in Science Programme. It is a fellowship that aims to highlight the role of women in the world of science and for this reason I think that young mothers have a slight advantage over other candidates. Since I do not yet have any children, this conversation means everything to me because my work must be very good if they think it worthy of the award. So maybe I do not have to worry about my defence tomorrow. I hang up the phone incredibly relieved because during that conversation all the nervousness I have been feeling all week has disappeared.
To prepare for the fellowship award ceremony I have to remember the start of my career. As a third-year pharmacy student, I got to know laboratory work, which completely won me over and gave birth to my love for science. I made arrangements to start a research project and once I started working, it was such a challenge that I spent every free minute in the lab because it was my favourite leisure time activity. After graduation, I had the opportunity to work in different workplaces, but I did not see myself anywhere other than in science. Yet, even when I was completing my undergraduate dissertation, the research work occasionally left a bitter taste. I learned very soon that I could not continue my postgraduate studies at the Faculty of Pharmacy because there was no place for me there. I finished my studies on time and with grades I was proud of, but before I could experience the perks of the extra year available to Slovene graduates, these achievements turned out to be not good enough to prove myself in science. However, my zeal for research was too great to throw in the towel. I started looking for alternatives I could still live with and finally decided on the Institute of Biochemistry at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Ljubljana. I started from scratch in this alluring but to me still foreign field, where I did not even know how to hold a pipette, the most basic laboratory instrument of biochemists. But I saw a challenge in that and I worked with all my heart. Apparently I was quite successful at it as the For Women in Science Programme award shows. I dare say that the defence committee would agree with the national committee that chose me as the fellowship holder because during my first defence, they said that my results were good enough for two doctorates.
But history repeats itself. I am finishing my doctoral thesis and face an uncertain future. Unfortunately, the chance today of staying in the research field after your PhD depends primarily on luck and not the fact that you have proven to be an asset worth keeping in the scientific sphere. So this time zeal, passion and momentum alone will not be enough for me to remain committed to research. Currently, the funds earmarked for science in Slovenia are so limited that all researchers are in the same position. This is a simple fact that all doctoral students should be aware of. In this case, luck depends primarily on the research group you work in: whether there is enough money for you to be employed on the project or not. So, in Slovenia people who stay in research are not necessarily the best, but those who are in the right place at the right time. In that case, it does not matter if my work was decent or below or above average. However, I have had better luck than most of my colleagues because I am talking with my superiors about staying at the institute a month or two after my PhD, so that it would be easier for me to find a new job. After these two months, I will maybe have even better luck and get a contract for another month, maybe even for a longer period.
Despite this, due to the uncertain future that awaits me in science, I see no prospects, and without these, I cannot work well enough to be pleased with myself. Maybe it is time for me to step outside the box I have created with my work in science. My career is a very important part of my life and I realise that I need to find new challenges and I hope that I can use the knowledge I acquired with my thesis. I see opportunities for myself in the pharmaceutical industry but if I succeed, I will have to start at the beginning all over again because I have no experience. This is déjà vu, because after my graduation I also started working in an unfamiliar field. However, if I look at the whole situation from a different point of view, I could say that this was an excellent opportunity for me to prove that I can become successful in a very short time. I am therefore glad that my path has not been the easiest because the obstacles I have encountered have made me work even harder in an unknown field.
So, if my life goes in the direction that I now consider to be the right one, it seems strange that the knowledge I acquired during my PhD will not be directly applicable in my future career. But, in fact, I do not know where my life will take me. I might start looking for a way to work in research again, as I am now trying to find my way back to pharmaceutical science. After completing my PhD, I may never hold a pipette again and that might seem the best thing that ever happened to me. However, despite this seemingly unfavourable situation, which young doctors of science are currently facing, my glass remains half-full. Timidly but still with a smile on my face, I can start going down the path of the unknown because that kind of path led me to the achievements I am currently the most proud of.
Nataša Beranič, pharmacist, fellowship holder of the 2013 L’Oreal – UNESCO For Women in Science National Programme.
Translated by: Tina Goropečnik.