Being a Research Trainee at Simula
During the research trainee period, the trainee and the research group will conclude whether there is a common basis on which the trainee can pursue a doctoral degree.
It is tough to start a PhD project. Most students will need time to settle in with their research topics and find out exactly what they are going to do. In addition, students that are recruited from other institutions than the University of Oslo, maybe even from another country, are facing many practical issues when coming to a new location with new people, new procedures, and a new culture. In many cases there are also factors of uncertainty: Will I fit in as a PhD student? Is this really what I want to do? Do the supervisors believe that this student is really capable of achieving a doctoral degree with the required level of quality, within reasonable time? Consequently, it is in the interest of both the budding PhD student and Simula to clarify the answers to these and related questions. The concept of a research trainee is SSRI’s mechanism for finding these answers. This mechanism is anchored in the project portfolio at Simula, meaning that each trainee will be associated with a relevant project in one of the research departments.
In summary, during the period as a research trainee you should get an understanding of: (1) the craft of research; (2) the potential impact of your research through contact with external user communities (industrial companies, hospitals, application-oriented research groups, etc.); and (3) what it really takes to achieve a doctoral degree.
Ideally, potential PhD students are first hired as research trainees. This type of position is under a contract guaranteeing up to 12 months of employment in SSRI, working in the relevant research group at Simula. Each trainee will be assigned an experienced supervisor, who will have the responsibility of suggesting the initial tasks and overseeing the trainee’s work. When hiring a new trainee in SSRI, there is a certain expectation of having the possibility of extending this relation in terms of a PhD study. However, it is impossible to accurately predict the research funding a priori, and on some occasions there might be difficulties in funding the continuation as a doctoral student. During the trainee period, it should be clarified from both sides whether one wants to pursue a PhD position. Given a positive conclusion from both parties and access to funding, the transition to a PhD position is expected to be seamless. Whether the full 12 month trainee period is needed will depend on the individual, the supervisors and the research goals. The trainee period will usually last 6 to 12 months.
In some cases, there is no need for a trainee period and the selected candidate will start directly on a PhD project. That is, the research trainee period is not mandatory, although it is part of the preferred route to a PhD degree. Typically, omission of a period as research trainee could be due to the candidate’s particular experience, or caused by restrictions in the project funding.
Introduction to the craft of research
In order to be able to answer the important questions discussed above, it is necessary for the trainee to be thoroughly exposed to the craft of research. That is, you will be part of the relevant project team, and should ideally be responsible for a variety of tasks involved in the research. The more varied the tasks are, the better foundation for a decision will you and your supervisor have.
As the trainee period progresses, and the more likely it is that the period will be followed by a PhD project, you should try to stake out the directions for your PhD work. Such planning must of course be done in close collaboration with the supervisor. In most cases, your supervisor will be represented in the team of supervisors for the following PhD project. In the course of preparing for a PhD position, you may work on an introductory part of the actual PhD project during the last months of the trainee period. For instance, such work can be a review of available literature, methods and software. Ideally, the trainee period should end with a set of building blocks that can define, and even partly fill, the first paper intended for your PhD thesis.
Modern research is rooted in teamwork and the mutual exchange of ideas and viewpoints. Therefore, it is important to be part of the research community, both nationally and internationally. Moreover, the research conducted at Simula should have the potential for applications in mind. This condition calls for an active dialogue with those who currently use, or in the future will use, the research results in the field. Depending on the specific research topics, the knowledge about the applications can be found in industry, in the public sector, or in academia.
In general, SSRI would like to expose the trainees to the professional networks of established researchers at Simula. An effective way of reaching this goal is to let trainees stay in relevant groups, whether in an industrial company, or at a university or a research institute. Established internship programs in large companies or academic student exchange programs can assist in providing the framework needed for such interaction. SSRI maintains information about relevant companies and institutions that offer mechanisms that can be utilised. However, quite often, the most effective gateway for this type of outreach is to use the supervisor’s research contacts on a case-by-case basis.
When a trainee visits an external organisation for an extended stay, longer than a week or two, it is expected that the hosting unit provides a minimum of facilities. Typically, this would include a suitable work space, access to internet, and one or more dedicated contact persons. These contacts will help you with practical issues, and introduce you to the organisation and the relevant personnel. However, it should be noted that the working conditions for PhD students and postdocs are usually much more humble in other countries than what we have in Norway, and in particular at Simula. In many cases, office space will be more restricted and of lower quality than you are used to.
It is time to make a decision: Should you be promoted from the trainee position to become a PhD student? In order to reach this conclusion, there is need to assess your qualifications in light of the trainee period and your personal motivation for pursuing a doctoral degree at Simula. The assessment will involve your supervisor, the head of department, and possibly other relevant persons. In most cases, it will be natural to summarise your work as a trainee in a presentation, in which you also outline the possible future directions for your research. This type of scientific assessment should be accompanied by dialogues with your supervisors and the administration in SSRI.
In general, as soon as all parties involved agree that a PhD degree should be the target, and the funding is available, there is no reason for delaying the formal transition from research trainee to PhD student. As a guideline, it is expected that it takes at least 6 months, but no more than 12 months to reach the conclusion and initiate the next step. SSRI will initiate discussions between 6 and 9 months after you started as a trainee in order to evaluate an early upgrade to a PhD position.
When it is clear that both the scientific and the financial requirements for a PhD position are fulfilled, SSRI will in collaboration with the trainee and the supervisors set a date for the change of the employment status. If a trainee period ends early, the resources originally allocated for the remaining months will be released for the purpose of hiring new personnel. That is, there is no automatic transfer of these resources to the PhD project. However, in case there will be later need for prolongation of the PhD period, the early transfer of status from trainee to PhD student can be voiced as a positive factor in an application for prolongation. However, it should always be remembered that one of the goals of SSRI is to keep the PhD projects on track, such that the degree is obtained within the original timeframe.
The research trainee's checklist
Specific actions (startup, during, at end).