Structure of the doctoral program for PhD students

The 3-4 year PhD training will be structured into three phases, and each phase will be accompanied by one meeting with the TAC. Whenever possible, training modules will be attended by both PhD and medical doctorate students, with the exception of group-specific career advancement modules. This will support interprofessional education but also reflects the different career paths of the two groups. The training will complement the research work of the students.

Phase I. The first 100 days: becoming a PhD student researcher (months 1-3)

The first TAC meeting will be scheduled shortly after enrollment in the program (month 1). The student will present the important background literature to the TAC members and will guide through and discuss the first experimental steps of the research project. In regard to training, the TAC members will counsel the student on their individual needs and will define a tailored and personalized training plan. Students can pick elements lacking in their education so far or what they need for their specific research project. The training plan will be approved by the curriculum committee (see page 47). This concept takes into consideration the diverse education background of the participants as well as the overarching research topic that combines projects ranging from basic science to translational research. The main goal is to ensure that all students have the same level of skills and knowledge after this period so that they benefit equally from the next phase of training. A course in “good scientific practice (GSP)” is mandatory for all participants. We designed an online GSP course that is offered in an inverted classroom concept. The course was conceptualized according to the DFG Code of Conduct: "Guidelines for Safeguarding Good Research Practice". An “animal care and handling” course is also mandatory for students who work with experimental animals in their project. We can rely on an already established portfolio of online modules (see App-Store). While some of the modules can be completed by the students independent of time and location, others are organized in a hybrid-teaching concept combined with an on-site meeting, in the sense of blended learning. The students can test their knowledge gain via online questionnaires and tests. The theoretical modules will be flanked by method courses categorized into basic and advanced levels.

To address the specific organ border research topic of the consortium, we will focus on creating awareness of the necessity of interdisciplinarity to address systems medicine-related research questions as raised in the proposed projects. This will be done by offering a weekly seminar and by inviting guest speakers working in this field. The weekly seminar meetings will address “brain-heart” and “heart-brain” diseases and will be continued throughout the entire time of the PhD work and will serve as a central group-oriented training module.

At the same time, students will learn the essential techniques that apply to their specific projects, and will perform the first experiments in their home-labs. They will be guided in phrasing a hypothesis, planning, recording and analyzing the experimental data. Whenever possible and suitable to the research project, they will learn to record their data in the ELN RSpace. We have already established RSpace as lab notebook; besides recording daily experiments, it facilitates sharing of data with collaborating groups and securing large data sets in collaboration with the Gesellschaft für wissenschaftliche DatenverarbeitungGöttingen (GWDG) in an organized manner and in accordance with the DFG regulations. For data management, students will be supported by the eRA and a student assistant whose task will be to bridge the interaction between the RTG with the Göttingen campus structures (see also data management, page 34).

Phase II. During the PhD work: researcher development training (months 3-30)

PhD students will continue to pursue their research projects and will gather data as well as detailed and comprehensive knowledge in their specific topics. Students are expected to obtain the majority of their data, which serve as a basis for their PhD thesis, in this phase. They will become experts for their specific research question. To help them mature into science professionals, we will ensure that the PhD candidates develop much more than specific scientific or scholarly expertise. The students will develop transferable skills such as critical and analytical thinking, communication skills, information management, project management skills and leadership qualities, not to mention work-relevant behaviors and attitudes such as perseverance, independence, resourcefulness and personal responsibility. To this end, we will offer aside the method courses indicated above, additional teaching modules.

In addition to these teaching modules, we will organize annual fellow symposia dedicated to early career investigators and aimed at fostering interactions. The TAC will guide this phase of the PhD work in addition to informal counseling through an official meeting around month 15 of the PhD. Students will give an oral presentation on their progress in the research project. The TAC members will provide expert feedback and offer support via the scientific network within the consortium, the campus or informal international networks. This support may be related to scientific questions, short lab rotations to learn a new technique, access to research equipment, etc. In regard to training, the TAC will identify together with the student any training needs for specific knowledge or hands-on skills. For this, the student can rely on advanced online modules either within the consortium or within Campus-wide programs including the GGNB, the Clinician Scientist programs, and others. This updated individual training plan will be approved by the curriculum committee.   

Phase III. Final phase as a PhD student: how to finish and move on successfully (months 31-36/48)

PhD students have much to offer the university and non-university workplace, based on their superior critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Still, they often struggle at the end of their PhD when it comes time to make career decisions. Employment challenges after graduate school may be partially due to an inability to explain or translate these skills into the broader workforce: a skills awareness gap. Therefore, the program will dedicate the third TAC meeting (month 30) not only to recording the scientific progress but especially to career planning topics. The student will present the progress of the PhD project and receive expert scientific feedback. Additionally, the student will be asked to present plans for finishing the PhD (including a strategy for publishing the research data) and to talk about future career plans. The consortium’s goal is to produce successful alumni for the academic university and non-university market. Since academic university supervisors from the Life and Medical Sciences naturally cannot give firsthand insight into the non-university work environment and are often biased towards a university career, we will include industrial partners in workshops. These will be recruited from the SNIC (SüdNiedersachsen Innovations Campus; Lower Saxony Innovations Campus), the Life Science Valley or from the pool of the PhD alumni networks in Göttingen. The Innovations Campus is a unique network that links science, business and municipal business support services. Its goal is to accelerate innovation dynamics between companies (mainly small and medium enterprises) and participating universities and research institutions. SNIC members provide university graduates with knowledge relating to innovation processes and how to start up their own businesses. This knowledge transfer aims at strengthening entrepreneurial dynamics.

The third TAC meeting will also be used to decide on scheduling the final phase of the PhD. For some of the PhD students, a 3 years program may be long enough to complete a competitive research project. But particularly for high-performing students who aim at an esteemed first-author publication, 3 years are unrealistic considering the time needed for obtaining data as well as for the publishing process, including the usual manuscript revision phases. If forced to finish the PhD thesis after three years, these high-performers often spend their first postdoc year bringing their PhD projects to a successful publication. This is counterproductive for a successful postdoc career, which ideally would start as a supervisor-independent career phase and might often include establishing oneself at a place different from the PhD lab. To prevent a one-size-fits-all solution, the decision as to a 3, 3.5 or 4 year PhD duration will be made at the third TAC meeting. The decision and schedule of the remaining PhD time (6, 12 or 18 months) will be well recorded and justified. The decision has to be approved by the curriculum committee. The final phase of the PhD will be accompanied by courses including topics on career decisions.

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