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PhD candidates deserve special attention: their new confidential counsellor Annemarie Meijer explains why

She studied biology in Leiden and never left. Now, as Professor of Immunobiology, Annemarie Meijer has taken on the role of the new confidential counsell for for PhD candidates. It's a role that suits her perfectly: she has extensive experience in the research world and has guided dozens of PhD candidates. In an interview, she shares how she aims to support young researchers in both their research and mental well-being. ‘PhD candidates are the backbone of research at our faculty.’

Do you remember how your PhD period was?

Laughing: ‘You don’t forget your PhD period! It was a special time, both in terms of research and personally. I also met my partner during that time, also a PhD candidate. We are still together.’

‘There were setbacks in the research, but overall, I really enjoyed it. I did a lot of lab work; I loved being in the lab. The results from the hard work, everything you learn, writing articles, attending conferences… it was a beautiful period. This was also because I had a supervisor who gave me a lot of freedom to find my own path.’

That sounds positive, but you also mentioned setbacks. What challenges an PhD candidates face?

‘Yes, everyone faces setbacks. During the process, you often have to adjust your plans. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. PhD candidates can feel significant pressure. “Will I finish on time? What comes next?”’

Is that the reason for having a specific confidential counsellor for PhD candidates?

‘Yes, because they encounter specific challenges. PhD candidates deserve special attention. They truly form the backbone of university research, especially in our faculty. They conduct the majority of the research. How someone experiences such a trajectory ultimately has a significant impact on their future. Therefore, as a university, we also have the obligation to ensure that you receive the best possible support when facing obstacles.

You have already mentored many PhD candidates. What makes it so enjoyable?

‘It gives me a lot of satisfaction to help young researchers become independent. The tremendous development they undergo during this period is unparalleled in any other group. When you start, you are just out of student life, and you leave as a researcher. At the beginning, you sometimes have no idea what you’re getting into and what world you’ve entered.’

‘The day someone earns their doctoral degree, is a highlight of the year.’

‘Additionally, I find it beautiful to see that PhD candidates are so passionate about their research and thrilled with every interesting result. I also always try to encourage them to steer their research in their own direction. It’s exciting to see how people come up with their own ideas at some point. The day someone defends their dissertation and earns their doctoral degree is a highlight of the year for me.’

You have experience both as a researcher and a promotor. How will that help you in this new role?

‘I know better than anyone what problems people can face during the PhD process. It’s challenging to provide advice if you’re not familiar with all the details. For example, understanding the different relationships between the supervisor and the PhD candidate or co-supervisor and PhD candidate. Also, understanding how financing works, because that can be a problem for grant-funded PhD candidates if they're not finished on time. Or, how do you deal with cultural differences in PhD candidates from other countries? The research world operates differently in each country, so I think experience and knowledge of that are important as well.’

What kind of issues can PhD candidates approach you with?

‘With all the problems that somehow hinder their PhD trajectory (see box). It’s nice to have someone to turn to outside of your daily work environment, where the conversations are informal and confidential. If you don’t feel comfortable discussing something with your supervisor or colleague, or if you’re struggling with various options, I can help. Together, we can explore the options, weigh the pros and cons, and take a step forward. In exceptional cases, only upon explicit request from the person themselves, I may accompany them to a difficult conversation or take other action. However, a confidential counsellor never takes such actions on their own.’

Need advice? The confidential counsellor can help.

For example, with:

  • Problems with supervision:
    • You perceive the supervision as inadequate.
    • The availability of supervision is not satisfactory.
    • There is insufficient support from the department.
  • Communication problems or unacceptable behaviour: with support, within the team, or with colleagues.
  • Concerns about the PhD trajectory:
    • The trajectory is at risk of extending or has extended, and there are concerns about the consequences.
    • Uncertainty about the (outcome of) financing in case of project extension.
    • The work-life balance is under too much pressure.
    • Differences of opinion about the requirements for a dissertation.

What do you hope to achieve for our PhD candidates?

‘On one hand, I am there for direct support: helping PhD candidates find a breakthrough when they’re stuck. On the other hand, with all the knowledge and experience I gain, I want to contribute to optimising the PhD trajectories for all PhD candidates.’

‘For example, at the IBL, we have ensured that PhD candidates can have annual discussions with a committee of internal and external colleagues about their progress and receive practical advice. External trainers also provide our PhD candidates with an introductory course on various aspects of the PhD trajectory, including interaction with the supervisor. This way, we try to create more of a community among our PhD candidates. We not only create moments to discuss problems but, more importantly, also a supportive atmosphere to feel comfortable to do so.’

Need advice?

Learn more about about the confidential counsellor for PhD candidates can do for you

Cofindential counsellors for PhD candidates

About Annemarie Meijer

Annemarie Meijer studied Biology and earned her Ph.D. in 1993 in Leiden. She continued her entire career path here: from postdoc to associate professor, and in 2015, she became a Professor of Immunobiology. Meijer investigates the interactions between pathogenic bacteria and their hosts, focusing on bacteria that can survive inside our immune cells, such as the bacteria that cause tuberculosis. Meijer has extensive experience with Marie Sklodowska-Curie training networks for PhD candidates and has been responsible for monitoring PhD trajectories at the IBL since 2021. Since January 1, 2024, Meijer has been the new confidante for PhD candidates.

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