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Dyslectic's lessons: A Marie-Curie ITN Funded CHESS Experience

As a dyslectic, many times you may hear that you are stupid, you are not going to manage it in higher education, or that you are even going to drop out of school. So what are you doing with all these useful comments?

You go for a Ph.D.

Getting a Ph.D. is challenging not only for dyslectics. Here I would like to share with you some lessons I learned in the past couple of years working with a Marie-Curie ITN funding in Connected Health Early stage researchers Support System (CHESS).

1. Dare to try.

To start a Ph.D. is a hard decision. Many will tell you that it is a lot of hard work and psychological burden. Most of them would have taken 4-10 years to complete it. This is even if they worked after hours and neglect their personal life.

Marie-Curie funding, however, lasts for three years. It is a fund for researchers to start their carriers but most of the Fellows decide to start a Ph.D. and try to finish it within this short time. In my case, my supervisors were clear: “You have 3 years funding, we may find funding for a couple of months after, but no more than that”. As dyslectic, usually you are entitled to extra time in academia; here I had less time than the average. I started thinking if it was even worth to try. My thinking was: the thesis is article based, so even if I do not manage to finish it, I would have some articles published, in addition to new connections, and a good salary. I dared to try, and two and a half years later; I write the final part of the thesis. In the end, if you never try you will never know.

2. Take mobility to the extreme.

My bags Before a trip at Toripakka bus stop, Oulu, Finland
Before a trip at Toripakka bus stop, Oulu, Finland

The Marie-Curie ITN requires fellows to move at least once (the fellows have to work in a country that they did not live the last three years for more than a year). Sometimes the secondment – a placement in another institute/company than your own – can be in a different town or even country. Moreover, the training in the network can take place in any of the countries involved in the consortium (in case of CHESS: France, Ireland, Greece, Finland, UK, Netherlands, and Spain). Finally, all the connections you do may lead to more traveling. This constant moving can be psychologically tiresome as you leave your family behind (e.g. your parents, friends, partner, kids etc.)

My secondment happened to be in a different country on the other side of Europe (from Oulu, Finland to Seville, Spain), keeping me away from my partner for three months. Even though that felt tough for my personal life, I realised that I had a big opportunity career wise! The budget was enough to allow me traveling literally everywhere for education, networking, and carrier development. I could not let this opportunity get away from me. As difficult as it was for me to leave my partner back at home, I had to take advantage of it. Even if I ended up traveling almost once per month from 3 days to 3 weeks it never got easier. Every time I had to leave him, I felt sadness, fear, and joy. Every time I went back, I felt sadness and happiness. I was happy to go to meet new places and people, gain knowledge and experience; but I was sad to leave him and scared of the new and unknown. I was always counting the days to go back but also being sad to leave the great people I met.

Dealing with this mixture of feelings is hard, however, when there is the will there is a way. To cope with the difficulty of the situation, I had daily Skype calls with my partner, his support, and the soundtrack of the Swedish series Pippi långstrump (Pippi Longstocking). In Swedish, this song presents Pippi as a strong, independent, creative girl who always dares to do whatever she wanted regardless of the difficulty and others opinion.

3. To Read or Not to Read?

A digital drawing I made for a completion hosted by the Greek part of European Dyslexia Association. The picture represents my love to text to speech and how I learn to know myself more after watching on youtube "Don't call me stupid"
A digital drawing I made for a completion hosted by the Greek part of European Dyslexia Association

Most research is done in English, many freeware have text to speech e.g. adobe acrobat reader. I text to speech (through a speech synthesis software that reads out loud text) even my own text, to be sure I did not write anything wrong. Sometimes, my partner helps, or my supervisors take a second look on my papers. Due to the active traveling and networking I end up receiving many e-mails, I do not text to speech them all, as the time is limited. The co-operators, colleagues, and supervisors who know my condition accept some faulty words. Those who do not know me may receive occasionally a mail requesting information on recruiting tools the university provides for an excrement (wanted to say experiment) I need to conduct.

This creates funny stories to tell and make some people smile the moment they read them. So do not be harsh with your spelling/reading abilities and use technology. MS Word and Google docs are tools that help on syntax and grammar as well as Grammarly online tool. Open office has a free text to speech add-on and Adobe reader has a build in the text to speech feature. If text to speech is not your cup of tea, try 3asyR or any other tool that suits you.

4. Communicate & Network.

Picture from the MCAA conference next to my poster
MCAA Conference, a good place to network.

Some dyslectics have focus and memory problems; they also make connections hard to follow by others. This is my profile. How to tackle these when you meet constantly new people, participate in long discussions, and present your research to different audience? Just go for it.

Even though you may think that your dyslexia is responsible for your short-term memory problems, you will soon realise that other people face similar memory problems regardless if they are dyslectics. Focus and memory differs from person to person and it is something you can train as you use it. I still do not remember all the names of people I meet repetitively, either their research. Just ask them to repeat, some keywords will trigger your memory. A trick to learn to stay focused when describing your research is to present it often and repeatedly. This will make your presentation focused and in a level, everyone can understand. Moreover, it will help you understand your subject. So start presenting your plan or research from the first day (even if you do not yet feel comfortable with it), accept feedback, and apply it to the next presentation.

Now, regarding the way you make connections others do not see at first, is actually a plus. Most people ask when they do not understand. Just slow down and explain what you mean step-by-step. You will be impressed on how much people value your way of thought. Many people out there will be interested in your thinking and your research. Some of them may be able to contribute. Communication and networking will help you reach out.

5. Share & Accept.

Academics are well known for having mental health issues: stress, anxiety, Impostor Syndrome, depression and so on. You are not alone. Even though as a dyslectic, you may think that anxiety and stress is something you had all your life, now you are in an environment where you can share. Almost everyone is feeling this way! Deadlines, paper rejections, harsh critique, public presentations etc., all academics have to face these situations eventually. Stress and anxiety is the most common reaction. Accepting these situations and sharing them with others may help.

Many dyslectics who were told that they would drop out of school, may think that they cheated their way in academia. This may result to keep for themselves any thoughts, opinions, or even feel guilt. This is the Impostor Syndrome and most highly educated people have it. They think they are not as clever as others are and they doubt themselves constantly.This should not let your confidence down. You are an expert in your own research. Regardless if other people work on the same field, most possibly, no one will have your understanding on your specific subject.

Accepting and sharing stressful situations with people you trust may help you understand yourself better and find solutions. Accepting that you are stressed or doubtful about yourself is the first step to understand yourself, sharing it may give you a better perception of who you are and what you can do to become better.

The table of a writing retreat working on the last part of the thesis. This trip helped also on the team-building and sharing experiences and feelings relevant to our PhD life.
The table of a writing retreat working on the last part of the thesis. This trip helped also on the team-building and sharing experiences and feelings relevant to our PhD life.

The truth is that I had more than these five lessons during the past years because of the PhD experience. It was hard trying to pick only five, but these are the most valuable for me. Starting your Marie-curie ITN funded career; you may have many and various valuable lessons for you.


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