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April 10, 2020

Lena headshot

A chat with Lena Karvovskaya, PhD

Community Manager RDM at Vrije Universiteit (VU) Amsterdam

Can you tell us something about your career and background?
My background is in theoretical linguistics, the study of languages. In 2017, I defended my dissertation at Leiden University. Before coming to the Netherlands, I studied linguistics in Berlin and worked as a research assistant in various projects. Now, I work at the library of VU Amsterdam in the area of research data management. My role is to support researchers in their work by creating the infrastructure they need.

What’s like working in academia?
Academia is a work that is very closely connected with one’s identity. It’s almost like being a monk. Actually many things in academia are ritualized. For example, the process of defending a PHD is very ritualized in the Netherlands (Google for some photos).

A completed PhD is a necessary and minimal requirement for an academic career. ​After that, you will probably spend a few years on temporary research projects. Then if the odds are in your favour (assuming you worked hard, published many papers and also demonstrated that you can teach) you might get a permanent position at some university.

Academic work involves lots of travelling: you need to present your work at conferences. Linguistics is a relatively small field. Sometimes it feels as if we are one global, transnational family. Imagine: you are going to a city in a country you’ve never visited before, but you know that there are a couple of your former linguist colleagues there. They’ll be happy to hang around with you and might even offer you to stay in their houses.

Working in academia is very nice because you are surrounded by smart people. The downside is that you have to struggle for resources. In most fields, there are not so many positions available. This means that not everyone who wants to be in academia can actually stay there. Temporary academic jobs might require moving abroad. The journey might look like this: studies in Germany, a PhD in the Netherlands, the first temporary project in Switzerland, the second in Israel, finally settling in the Netherlands for a permanent position.

Academia

Women in academia, what are some of the challenges and opportunities?
In my experience, at the beginning, academia presents itself as a very welcoming and safe environment for nerdy girls. You are valued for being smart; you are allowed to have your quirks. Your popularity does not depend on your look that much. By contrast to the corporate world, nobody expects you to wear “business” clothes, to decorate yourself with makeup and always to look put together. (Unfortunately, I also observed an opposite. Attractive and feminine women were sometimes misjudged as not being serious “about this cute girl, is she really a logician?”)

The problems begin when the academic life cycle stops aligning with the life cycle of most women. Moving your country of residence multiple times is intense when you have relatives to care for, partners with demanding jobs and eventually children. The older we get, the higher is the possibility that we are bound to a particular place by some obligations.

You recently changed career. How did it go?
Indeed, I used to be paid for doing research, but now I am paid for more administrative kind of work. I guess I was fortunate to be at the right place at the right time. I simultaneously finished my PhD and became a mother. All of a sudden I had little time for soul-searching and for reading exciting papers. I needed to find work that would pay my bills; daycare in the Netherlands is expensive. I knew about the developing field of research data management from a linguist friend of mine. I got an idea that it is something I might enjoy doing. I started to look for jobs in this area, and found one relatively fast.

Lena in Delft

What do you enjoy most about your current role?
My role combines everything I like about academia, minus the negative parts. Since the days when I worked as a student assistant, I knew that I enjoy being around researchers. My current role allows me to continue working with researchers. Also, many of my colleagues are either former researchers or have this “researcher”-like, curious and eager, personality type. They genuinely enjoy doing what they do.

I like to be part of larger projects and to contribute to the development of knowledge and understanding. My job helps me keep learning, as I need to keep up with the new developments in science and technology.

What are 3 tips you’d like to share with women who are planning a career change?

  1. Try to figure out what it is that you really enjoy doing. Self-reflection is very important, as you can’t fake what you don’t have;
  2. Talk to people who do the work you aspire to do or find interesting; it will help you to understand what the work is about;
  3. That’s academia-specific, but I want to put it here. Be aware that outside of academia, CVs and motivation letters look differently. People reading them are less focused on the content of what you write than your supervisor. There are many resources on how to turn an academic CV into a non-academic one; use them! I was supported by a coach who went through a similar transition in her career. I rewrote my CV and application letter following her advice and that turned to be successful.

Child walking

What is one wish you have for your child?
Dear Victor, the world is changing fast, and I have no idea what will be good or important by the time you grow up. Curiosity, sincere interest and desire to learn is something that helps us stay active players in the game of life and to enjoy this game. I love you.