PhD in Vienna (Part II)

PhD in Vienna (Part II)

by Mamduh Zabidi

Part I of Mamduh’s experience is available here.

Crowds throng to the Rathaus (the Town Hall) during the Christmas Market

Crowds throng to the Rathaus (the Town Hall) during the Christmas Market

Currently, I am pursuing my doctorate degree at the Institute of Molecular Pathology (IMP), Vienna, which is owned by the pharmaceutical giant Böhringer Ingelheim. IMP is a part of a larger campus consisting three other institutes: the Gregor Mendel Institute (GMI), Institute of Molecular Biotechnology (IMBA) and the Max F. Perutz Laboratories (MFPL). Collectively these institutes are often called the Vienna Biocenter (VBC).

Scientists at the VBC hail from different parts of the world, creating a highly diverse environment. In particular for doctorate students, out of around 200 applicants who apply on-line in each selection, about 40 of them are invited to the interview week in Vienna. In the first round of interview, applicants are first required to present a paper (given beforehand) in front of a panel of four faculty members, and then their research experience.

During this first round of interview, the applicants are thoroughly assessed in terms of their scientific knowledge and reasoning, as well as motivation. Oddly enough, I personally had the feeling that this style is somewhat similar to American Idol, minus the crowd and live telecast of course: you are in front of four judges to showcase your worth.

Rathaus-Vienna

Ice-skating in front of the Rathaus (the Town Hall) is a popular winter attraction in Vienna.

After passing the first round, the applicants are allowed to talk to the scientific groups. This step allows the applicant and the group members to get to know each other and to discuss potential projects. As hiring doctorate students involves an especially huge commitment from group leaders, this step is crucial to ensure the hiring of competent personnel with the right skills, motivation and enthusiasm, as well as the chemistry with the current group.

Possessing the right skills at the start of PhD might not be an absolute prerequisite provided that you make up for it in other areas. Despite having learnt only C/C++, with no formal bioinformatics background and limited research experiences, I was fortunate enough to secure a PhD studentship in Bioinformatics at the VBC.

The contract for PhD students runs for an initial period of one year. During the first nine months, the students are expected to write PhD proposals (somewhat equivalent to international grant application format) with the help of their mentors. This stage helps the students in understanding the bigger of picture of their projects, the steps and techniques involved, and the literature behind their work.

In addition, the students will be evaluated during the first PhD committee meeting. The meeting is to determine whether the projects are viable doctorate projects, whether the students are making satisfactory progress, and to identify any arising problems. On successful evaluation, their contracts will be extended for another two years. From then on, the students are required to hold similar meetings each year.

Doctorate students at IMP are not required to attend any classes; hence they can fully concentrate their time and energy on their research. German classes, however, are offered free-of-charge for anyone interested. Perhaps unsurprisingly, attendance to journal clubs and lab meetings are mandatory. In addition, students are required to attend weekly students’ seminar, where every student presents their work each year to the whole institute.

By ensuring a constant turnover, a continuous stream of fresh ideas and people are assured, thus preventing staleness and maintaining competitiveness

Students at IMP are allowed to pursue their PhD for up to four years, before which they are required to defend their projects. On graduation, they can only stay on for a maximum of one year as a postdoc. Despite an apparent uncanniness, this restriction has its own merit: By ensuring a constant turnover, a continuous stream of fresh ideas and people are assured, thus preventing staleness and maintaining competitiveness.

It is not unusual for doctorate students here to graduate with 1-2 decent publications to their name. Typically, graduating doctorate students receive postdoc offers from high-profile labs from Europe or the United States (US).

Schönnbrunn Palace, a top tourist destination in Vienna. It is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site since 1996. Photo: Thiranja Babarenda Gamage Photography

Schönnbrunn Palace, a top tourist destination in Vienna. It is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site since 1996. Photo: Thiranja Babarenda Gamage Photography

This is a great place to pursue competitive science. The scientific research groups are supported by excellent support facility groups, for example in imaging, sequencing, bioinformatics, and mass spectrometry. Europeans, especially the Germans and Austrians, make up a huge percentage of scientists at IMP. However, in general the students originate from highly diverse background, representing more than 30 nationalities from different continents.Unfortunately the weather here could turn nasty, even though it rarely gets below -10°C, unlike in Midwestern and Northeastern parts of the US. During the winter, the sky frequently gets gloomy for days on end.

Most of the time, English is sufficient to get by in the city, but I personally recommend putting some effort in learning German. The public transportation is excellent and the city is far from overpopulated. The living cost here is also much cheaper compared to other major European cities.

The city is also fairly diverse, not just because of tourists who flock here all-year round, but also the city residents themselves who come from different parts of the world. Muslims, especially from Turkey and Arab countries, are a significant minority here; hence to find halal food is not a major problem.

In the next section, I will offer my own personal thoughts and ruminations on the aspects that we could improve on sciences in our own mother soil.

About the Author

Mamduh Zabidi lived in the United States for his Bachelor’s degree, during which he studied neurons in the slimy Aplysia slug. He worked for several years at CARIF, during which time he also finished his Masters at University of Malaya. Along the way he has hiked hills and mountains, waded through snow and mud, and chased after animals (only photogenic ones) for photos. When not coding in front of the computer, he reads non-fiction books, watches German-dubbed version of Hollywood movies (even though barely understands them), and tortures Viennese people with his broken German. Find out more about Mamduh by visiting his Scientific Malaysian profile at http://www.scientificmalaysian.com/members/mamduh

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