Interview Heleen van der Meer

Heleen van der Meer, a 3rd and final year PhD student at the Groningen Research Institute of Pharmacy, expects to complete her study in May 2018. About one year ago she was looking for a bigger challenge and decided to take part in organizing the PhD Day 2017, a career/educational event for PhD students, as a head of Sponsorship team. Realizing that she has short period of time to complete her PhD, Heleen was selective while choosing activities to participate in. Rather than playing small roles in many organizations simultaneously, she preferred to dedicate her whole heart to one organization and push it beyond the limits.

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Q: What did you gain from participating in these activities?

Heleen: First of all, it made me happy. I had fun working with other people from different backgrounds – an aspect that is missing in my research, which I mostly perform alone. Doing these activities served as a positive distraction from my routine work, making me feel refreshed when coming back to my research. Though I really like my PhD, sometimes the work is a bit monotonous. The organization of the PhD Day allowed me to use other skills that I like to use, such as interpersonal and organizational skills, and it helped me develop them. As a goal-driven person, I really like working on a process that leads towards something big in the end; especially, when it is creating something new and useful to others. Another benefit was that I got to know how it is like to be a team leader – which, I must admit, I found a bit scary in the beginning, for example when team members were relying on me in ‘what to do next’. Besides, taking part in these activities helped broadening my network in particular when I had to talk to industries. I learned, not just about job opportunities, but also how different companies are set up, how they work. My perspective has been widened when I went outside my own circle and exposed myself to unfamiliar organizations. In conclusion, I feel that doing my research together with other activities helps me develop different skills at the same time, and all these skills improve each other.

Q: What were your main challenges while participating in these activities and how did you overcome them?

Heleen: Contacting people outside our own familiar organization was not always easy. Sometimes we put in a lot of effort to reach a person, but received no response. That was frustrating. When facing such a challenge, I tried to review what we were doing, thought about how we could improve, and asked for advice from others, especially (experienced) people outside my own circle. Besides, I think it was important that we kept believing in ourselves and did not give up – never give up. Another challenge was communication, which I believe is always an issue when working in a large organization. Sometimes you tried hard, but you got nothing in return or even got negative feedback, which could be discouraging. It’s impossible to please everyone, but we have to learn to understand and respect each other. I tried to handle this problem by talking directly to the other party. Often, a phone call was better than an email and sometimes meeting up for a drink was the best way to resolve the issue. I would not only rely on one-dimensional communication.

Q: How do you view your future after your PhD study?

Heleen: Well, I am a pharmacist with a special interest in drug utilization research. In my next job I want to keep thinking about the proper use of medications, most preferably in an environment where I can work with people, organize projects or teams and give advice. At the moment I am figuring out whether it is pharmacy practice, policy or the academic world that would suit me best.

To my impression, Heleen is clear in what she wants, very determined, and resilient. I believe these characteristics will help leading her to a successful and fulfilling career.

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