This post is part of a series on what goes into getting a PhD around the world. In this post, Sara Reverte discusses getting a PhD in Spain
Where are you getting your PhD?
I am working in the Centre for Ecological Research and Forestry Applications (CREAF) in Barcelona. This is a public research centre focused on Terrestrial Ecology located in the campus of the Autonomous University of Barcelona. CREAF is a big and thrilling research centre, with many people working on different topics from river basins to altitudinal distributions of mountain insects. The different groups are well interconnected and collaborate frequently, and this mixture between research groups helps everyone learning about several disciplines far apart from their own specific research project and placing their study field into the broader network of ecology. I am in my fourth year, and I’m going to defend at the beginning of 2020.
Tell us about your research.
My project focuses on plant-pollinator relationships. These interactions are key for the functioning of terrestrial ecosystems because most of the plant species around the world need an animal vector to conduct the pollen transfer between individuals. From the other side, many insect species rely on floral resources in their diet. However, not all pollinators are equally important and not all plants are nutritionally the same. The identity of the species is important, and so the spatial distribution of the plant species will promote variation on the pollinator community. In my PhD project, I first study the spatial variation at the landscape scale on both plant and pollinator communities. I want to highlight the intrinsic variation in species communities across space within a continuous landscape and to visualize the degree of dependence of the pollinator community from the distribution of the plant community across space. Second, I want to highlight the effects of the variation in species communities across space on ecosystem functioning. Considering that the pollinator community is highly variable across space, I study the effects of the spatial variation on flower visitors on the pollination and plant reproduction on the dominant plant species in the study area, Rosemary and Thyme.
How long does a typical PhD take where you are located?
In Spain, most of the people can do a PhD with government scholarships. Depend on the funding source, the length of the scholarship and the salary varies. The most important scholarships come from the Ministry of Sciences, Innovation and Universities, Regional government or the Universities themselves. The scholarships are either three or four years long. Researchers try to limit the PhD project in order to fit it in the period imposed by the funding, but this is not always accomplished and many people finish months or even years after the funding ends. More and more Universities are considering the length of the PhD an important issue and impose an external limit to five years to complete the PhD project.
Aside from research, what else are you expected to do as part of your PhD?
In some cases, you are expected to teach undergraduate students. The teaching load depends on the University/research centre or the PhD scholarship. There is a limit on the number of hours that you can spend on teaching duties. Those duties can either be giving seminars, field trips or evaluating some works. In any case, the PhD student position has to be the assistant of a professor, the student can never be the only or principal professor or a student group.
In some cases, you are also expected to work as a field/lab tech for your group. Many PhD students are performing experiments that are not part of their PhD project but are asked to help with them.
Tell us about the process of completing your degree. How “important” or “weighted” is your defense for your graduation?
The common process in Spain, at least for people working in Biology-related fields, is a formal defense in from of a three-people committee. Those three experts are proposed by the candidate, they need to be working on something related to your field, but they cannot be anyone that participated directly on the completion of your project. They received prior to the defense day the thesis book, and they have already read and judged it by the day of the defense. The defense is usually public, and colleagues, family and friends are invited. The oral exposition is around 45 minutes where you have time to situate the general context, explain your methods and results and the general conclusions. The exposition is followed by questions, comments and suggestions by the three members of the committee. This part usually has a friendly and relaxed atmosphere without losing professionalism and scientific rigor. It is usually considered that if you are going to defend your PhD, you are already approved, because your supervisors considered that the product was good enough and allowed you to defend your thesis. Formally, the importance of the defense may not be very high because there have been several previous quality controls before that day, but this is an important milestone for the student.
What are some challenges with getting your PhD in Spain?
There are many social and financial issues that makes one think twice before starting a PhD in Spain. From the social point of view, pursuing a PhD in Spain is not considered working. All your family and friends keep asking you when are you going to find a real job. You need to face constantly how your work is highly undervalued. This vision of the PhD process couples with those from the government. In most of the scholarships, salaries are close to the minimum wage. Earlier this year student organizations negotiated with the government some improvements of the work conditions and salaries of the PhD students in the country. However, this salary increases is not enough to change the fact that most students face precariousness on their life. With the typical PhD salary, one cannot afford to rent a flat, in some cases even owing a car, and cannot even consider having children. You are forced to share a house and to get used to live with a small budget. At least this is true for most students pursuing their PhD where most of the Universities and research centers are located, in the bigger cities. There are comparative grievances on the cost of living and University fees between territories, but the amount given by the government is fixed no matter where you live. If this was not enough, it is also too common that the length of the PhD process is not coupled with the length of the scholarships. In those cases, students have to keep working long after the funding ends and they need to subsist though their unemployment benefits and their own savings.
Eventually the students become doctors and are forced to leave academia temporally or permanently, many times against their will. And last but not least, there are not sufficient sources of funding to attend courses and conferences. Many scholarships do not come with specific budgets for them, and the students depend on the budget of the research project in which they are associated. In addition to the low salaries, it is too often seen that the students have to pay for courses and conferences by themselves and it is considered normal.
What do you like about your PhD/PhD process?
I love that it is a very intense period of your life where you are constantly growing, intellectually and emotionally. This work can be tedious, but never boring. You are always questioning what you know and challenging yourself to learn more, to see things from a different angle. It makes you develop your critical spirit and train your patience; both extremely useful attributes in all aspects of your life.
During my PhD, I had the chance to live abroad during several periods, which have been by far the most enriching experiences I had at the personal level. I could also travel to several places for courses and conferences that let me discover new ideas and people.
There are other PhD students in my group who I could learn from, and get involved in their projects. Helping one of them, I discovered my interest in applied research, which I never thought. It turned out that my future steps will involve pollination in agricultural systems.
How do you do your PhD (study site, methods etc)?
My project required a field survey on a Mediterranean scrubland. We selected 40 plots evenly distributed across space in the Garraf Natural Park in which we performed flower visitor surveys. We also collected the stigmas of freshly open flowers the same day and their fruits and seeds three weeks later in order to obtain an estimate of the effect of the pollinator community to the ecosystem functions pollen deposition and plant reproduction. After the field season, I spent some months in the lab identifying the collected pollinator specimens to the species level, preparing slides with the stigmas to count and identify the pollen grains under an optic microscope, opening the dry capsules to count the number of seeds, and weighting the seeds.
Once the lab work finished, it took me several weeks to digitalize all the field data and to obtain final clean datasets to work with. For most of the last three years, I have been analyzing data and writing the manuscripts.
Why did you want to get a PhD, what are you hoping to do with it, and what did you not realise going in?
Since I was a kid, I could see myself as a scientist. I consider myself a naturalist interested in the diversity and functioning of life. I was just following the stream of the scientific path, I wanted to work with something related to flowers and its evolution and I found my PhD project a good chance to do it. I was also fascinated with the idea of becoming a doctor, idealizing them as extremely intelligent people and not plain humans. During my time in academia, I realized that this image is clearly promoted by the strong separation existing between science and society in Spain. Doctors are regular people with regular lives. They are not more intelligent, but there is something special about them: they are people that keep asking questions, and most importantly, do not believe anything without proofs. What I love about my PhD is that I have no time to get bored; my mind is always challenged.
At the end of the day, I am pursuing my PhD to improve my chances of having a good job in academia. A PhD is a necessary step to take if you want to become a researcher. I cannot see myself working on something else apart from research. Working day by day in revealing the secrets of nature is just priceless.