Did you know that the European MSCA programme supports research in industry and the non-academic sector? Ka Man Parkinson from the EURAXESS UK team spoke to MSCA Fellow Jordi Valls-Conesa to hear more about his experience on a non-academic PhD route with the MonPlas Consortium.
You undertook your BSc and MSc at university in Spain. How did you then learn about this non-academic PhD route and the MSCA Fellowship?
While doing my MSc thesis at an institute I learnt about non-academic approaches to PhDs, so I decided to aim for industry after my MSc. I focused on applying for a position more focused on the non-academic part as I preferred this approach.
The MSCA Fellowship position is well-known, so since I had the chance to apply for it I decided to take the opportunity.
I mainly applied for my current position because the requirements matched my studies and background in photonics and image processing and also because the topic was really interesting, in my case an environmental problem like microplastics.
You’re currently undertaking a PhD through MonPlas, a consortium of organisations, rather than at a university. Could you briefly explain how this works?
As well as working with MonPlas I am also enrolled in a Danish university (also involved with MonPlas), AAU, at Aalborg.
I am in contact with their department and I'm also participating in some courses there, which is wonderful.
To be honest, dealing with three different organisations with different structures can be challenging at times - but at the same time it opens a lot of doors for collaboration and networking.
Could you give us an elevator pitch of your research and what it’s about?
My project is focused on the classification of microplastic particles.
I am using an IR microscope to measure the particles and a machine learning algorithm that classifies every particle detected based on its polymer type.
This way, people who research in the field are able to know what they have in their samples as fast and accurately as possible.
Could you describe a typical day?
I wake up at 7:00 and have a fast breakfast with coffee to arrive at the office at 8:30.
I spend the morning with computational research and also receiving feedback and support from colleagues or my supervisor if necessary – they’re helping me with a lot of things.
At 12:00 I have the lunch break for 30 minutes. After that I sometimes go to the lab to gather microplastic data for my algorithms, but depending on the day I sometimes keep working in the office on more code or pending paperwork.
After that I usually take a walk or meet with people in the afternoon to have dinner - quite late as is usual for Spanish people - before going to sleep a couple of hours after.
Do you think that non-academic PhDs will gain traction as an alternative to predominantly university-based research, and if so, what do you think is needed to encourage this development?
I think that it's a really good alternative to university-based research - with its positive and negative parts.
I don’t think that will or should replace university-based research, but what I hope and think that will happen is that university research will have a slow shift - less prone to focus on publications and more on results.
But I think that non-academic PhDs are really useful and interesting for people that, like me, don’t like the cons of academic research too much.
"I encourage people that do not want to take the academic path to give a thought to non-academic PhDs"
What kind of impact has the global pandemic had on your work and research, and what kind of steps have you had to take in response?
I started my PhD in the middle of the pandemic, and it was difficult. I felt the biggest transition during the pandemic since I was new in Germany in summer 2020 and was difficult for me. I basically was able to go to work and stay at my apartment which was pretty tough.
But in my case has made me work more but not be as productive due to the lack of other entertainment!
Nowadays things had started to change again, and I can feel that my life is starting to stabilise again. If I have to be honest the pandemic has been pretty rough, and I think that it has been the same for a lot of researchers and, in fact, for everyone.
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