Students for students

Since October 2022, Ph.D. students at RECETOX have joined forces and formed the Ph.D. Union aims to improve students’ quality of life and studies in a transparent and open way. Ph.D. students were represented during official RECETOX and faculty meetings by Ishita Virmani and Ludovic Mayer, who were the representatives for the first academic year.

11 Oct 2023 Jitka Vaňáčková

No description

Ludovic and Ishita, how is your work as representatives of PhD students going?

L: We meet regularly once a month with PhD students. In April, we had the most people at the meeting; there were 20. We talked for almost two hours about the topics we had prepared in advance. Students can also tell us their concerns, problems, and suggestions. We then have a detailed report of the meeting and discuss everything afterward, e.g., with people from the administration. Depending on the type of problem, we contact the HR department or directly contact the people concerned by the PhD students' issues. At the follow-up meeting, we consistently report on what has happened since the last meeting and what we have done to solve the problems. At the same time, we ask if any new issues have arisen. 

I: This way, all Ph.D. students have an overview of what we are doing and what is going on; we are the voice of all Ph.D. students at RECETOX. Initially, only about five people attended our meetings. Still, when we started publishing the minutes of the meetings, more and more people started getting involved and joining us, and when they saw that we were interested in what they were concerned about, they started giving us more suggestions. In addition, they gave us feedback so we could see what they thought we were doing well or poorly and how we could improve.

How do you solve the problems of PhD students?

L: We meet with Prof. Luděk Bláha, the Vice Dean for Doctoral Studies, to discuss a prepared list of topics we need to discuss with him. We don't meet regularly, but rather according to whether I have a lot of suggestions so as not to overwhelm him unnecessarily. If something is urgent, we email him that we must address something quickly. Ludek is always very open to anything we present to him. That way, he knows exactly what problems we are solving and what the students are worried about. Usually, he already knows about them, but our job is to give him feedback so he can work things out. We help him improve things.

How did you become PhD representatives?

I: We were elected in October last year. Most people weren't interested in the position because it was new, and they needed to figure out what to expect. There might be more volunteers this year because it will be different this time; everyone already knows what is expected of them. The students can see what we have done and how the work is going. They may be now thinking that they could contribute too. However, last year, many people were interested in helping us directly and being involved in the discussion. Because of that, we always had support in this endeavor.

What challenges have you faced?

I: A big challenge for us was the PhD conference that we organized. We tried to build on the critique that the students gave us last year. We try to be as open as possible to students' comments, so we constantly ask for feedback. This year we have prepared a brochure for the conference as a novelty. The booklet contained the official program, including the schedule and presentations' abstracts. We were inspired by the conference books. The second novelty was the poster evaluation and the competition for the best poster. We strive for maximum transparency and digitalization. The voting for the best poster was done via mobile phone, with the help of students with programming skills. But all these changes are very time-consuming; we have been working on them for several months. We couldn't have done it without the support of other people helping us.

L: Part of the PhD is to teach 100 hours, but it can also be in the form of mentoring a student or preparing materials for a class. So, students helped us as part of this "obligation." We met with the students regularly to keep track of their progress and to keep us informed of what stage of the "project" they were in. It's great that we all give each other feedback this way. Everyone contributed based on their strength and skills. It was a great experience for all of us, and those who will be preparing for next year's conference will have something to build on. We also see it as a beneficial career experience. It's basically training and gaining management skills. In addition, it gave us insight into how things work at a higher level, at the center management level. We are also trying to spread awareness of what we, as PhD students, can do for ourselves and also other students. Through this position, we are even gaining experience at the level of conflict resolution. Of course, these sometimes occur when we meet with a large group of people with different opinions. We have learned to listen to everyone’s opinion and constructively continue the discussion.

Have you taken any courses to help you in dealing with conflict situations?

I: It has to be said that it was nothing major, but when we saw that an unpleasant exchange of views was about to take place, we asked the students to vote by raising their hands. Based on our experience, the most important thing is to engage people. We are delighted and grateful that they are voicing their opinions and insight on different situations, which moves us in the right direction.

Could you please indicate what you have been able to resolve that you are proud of?

I: I would like to mention MUNI Mendel Doctorandus (MMD). This program started at the same time that our union was founded. This program contained many conditions that PhDs had to meet. Students had to fulfill them to continue.

L: The study was so demanding that everyone complained that it was too much. Students were under much pressure because significant demands were placed on them. We made it a point to negotiate better conditions. It was a very long process that took several months, but we cut the demands on the students in half.

I: Everyone seems happy now.

L: No one has complained this semester. We have also noticed that all required seminars, except the RECETOX seminar every Tuesday, are in person only, meaning you can’t attend them online. RECETOX seminars, however, are hybrid. That is something that students pointed out to us. That is why we went to Luděk to point out to him that we didn't think it was fair. For example, students from other departments studying in the MMD program could watch the seminars online. At the same time, many MMD students work from home, are on maternity or parental leave, for example, or are parents in general and cannot physically go to the seminar every Tuesday.

Is it really common at RECETOX that PhD students are parents? That must be very challenging, especially in combination with the lab work.

L: Yes, there are several; I can think of four names off the top of my head. And it was from impulse from them. They asked if we could help them to address this situation. The combination of parenthood and PhD studies is already very challenging. They told us it would benefit them if more seminars were online.

I: We are working on making the CEITEC PI seminar in hybrid form. I know that this is a change that Ludek is also pushing for.

L: Luděk is very helpful, and it is a pleasure to work with him. Unfortunately, we can't say that about everyone, but he tries to help us. He is our biggest supporter. He is genuinely interested in the suggestions we bring to him and actively tries to find solutions. But of course, we have to brainstorm together.

What other suggestions have you dealt with?

L: We have been trying to improve communication between the people in the administration who were in charge of moving for the renovation of the pavilion. The atmosphere between the researchers and the center's management was very tense. People needed more basic information about where and how to move. They complained, but no one listened; the situation was challenging. So, our job was to mediate communication. We did this at the "housekeeping" seminar, reminding them that it was necessary to inform everyone about the changes, including the Ph.D. students, not just the supervisors because there was often no information transfer. We lacked information, e.g., where the instruments would be moved to, so we could not plan experiments properly. In this case, there was not much we could do, but we could at least explain the problem from the side of the 68 Ph.D. students and mediate communication, and we are happy about that.

I: We have a communication channel; this ensures that even if students do not attend our meeting, they still get all the relevant information.

Do you also meet with students in person? Do you have anything like "office hours"?

I: That was never necessary. We write to each other via Microsoft Teams or by email.

L: Our doors are always open physically or digitally via Teams or emails.

If you knew at the beginning how much time you would spend helping other students, would you do it again?

L: Yes.

I: Yes. When I was doing my master’s at Newcastle University, I was the secretary of the student committee. I really enjoyed it, and it was a great experience at the same time. I heard about the problems that students face, and I realized that any change requires a lot of effort. It's always a very long-term job because everyone has a different perspective.

The beginning is always challenging.

L: Exactly.

I: But for the students who will be doing this position after us, it will hopefully be a little easier again.

Can you be re-elected to these positions?

L: I think people need to be rotated. Everyone has a different perspective, and it's beneficial to have change. But I'll always be around so they can turn to me for help. The election will be in October, and I think it's great when there is a turnover and people come in with different visions and opinions and bring something new.

Do you have any advice for the students?

I: In June, there were elections for the Academic Senate, and we urged students that if they want to change, they need to become members of the Senate. We are very pleased that several students were elected and that there was a higher attendance than in previous elections. So, my advice is to be active in general.

L: We have a lot of advice and are happy to pass it on to them personally.

Do you have some other ideas for the future?

L: We are considering compensatory exercises in cooperation with the Faculty of Sports Studies. We want to work with a physiotherapist to help relieve overworked muscles from sedentary office work. We also would like to organize some special seminars focused on specific topics. We would bring experts to discuss mental health and science communication.

I: We would also like to set up a Journal Club. At RECETOX, people have very different knowledge backgrounds because we have experts from various fields meeting here. Therefore, creating a concept of how to make the club beneficial and exciting for as many people as possible is challenging.

L: One of our big ideas would be to figure out how to set up a system for the student to give feedback on their supervision. As far as we know, the University is also very interested in this, but something concrete has yet to happen. So, we will tackle that topic in the future.

Please explain the difference between a Journal Club and a usual PhD Union meeting.

I: The meetings with students that we have regularly are about explaining what we do as representatives of Ph.D. students and talking about current RECETOX issues. Simply, it's a general meeting. Whereas the Journal Club would be academic. We would discuss, for example, newly published papers.

L: Some students have shown much interest in the Journal Club, so we're trying to figure out how to structure the whole thing.

Is there any other topic you are working on that you would like to mention?

L: Yes, at RECETOX, there is a so-called "EVAC," where we are evaluated during the Ph.D. conference by Ludek Blaha and Jana Klánová. But, as students, we don't have the opportunity to assess our supervisors and methods of supervision. Nobody asks us for feedback. We know that in other countries, there is a two-way evaluation with the help of an external member, and we would like to introduce something like this here. At CEITEC, for example, it works in that way. So this is the next big thing we would like to implement. But at the moment, it's just an idea. We need to figure out a way for students to safely argue why their current supervision needs are not met without suffering consequences.

Do you know that there are some student who are unhappy with their assessment?

L: There are too many, unfortunately….

I: But all students would appreciate the opportunity to evaluate their supervisors.

L: That's why we opened up this topic; we extensively discussed with students that they would welcome it. Of course, everyone can already give their opinion, but that's the end. Usually, everything stays the same. This new system should allow constructive communication during dissatisfaction and improve student conditions. For example, we are communicating with the rector's office to determine how this could be done in practice. We know it will be challenging, but we want to make it happen.

So you've done a lot of hard work, and there's much more to come.

L: Absolutely, and like we said, we would be happy and ready to help whoever is taking over the position next.

Thank you for the interview.

Ishita Virmani
Ludovic Mayer

More articles

All articles

You are running an old browser version. We recommend updating your browser to its latest version.

More info