Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour
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Peta Baxter

Date of news: 22 November 2021

meWhat's your name, nationality, current function, and department?
My name is Peta Baxter,) I am a fourth-year PhD candidate at the DCC (I will actually be done on December 20th, so this Life of is a last hurrah!).

What is the topic of your PhD project and how does your work look like in practice?
In my PhD I investigated the role of similarity in second language word learning. Specifically, I developed a multiple-choice learning method in which orthographically and semantically similar words are carefully compared, or contrasted, to see how this affects learning (spoiler alert: positively). In practice, I set up behavioral experiments in which participants learned words in a second language with this method, and then tested what they had learned immediately after learning as well as a week later. I did this with adults in the lab, but also with children at several primary schools. I strongly believe that in order to improve second language word learning, there needs to be a back and forth between cognitive science and education, where both inform and enhance one another. I was also lucky to have some really cool findings!

What did you want to be when you were younger?
The first career I ever considered was becoming a clown. Then I realized opportunities were rather limited, so I thought about alternative options such as nurse, surgeon, lawyer, or journalist. In the end I was encouraged to “do what I am good at”, and to go into languages, which is how I ended up doing my undergrad in translation (which I did not enjoy). I really wish children and young adults were taught that it is alright to try something that might be (slightly) out of reach, as motivation can work wonders for learning.

What has your career path been so far and how did you come to your current position?
As I hinted above, my career path was not straightforward. I went into a bachelor that was not for me, but quitting was never an option so I finished it. After my bachelor I wanted to pursue a master in the Netherlands. However, I was told my bachelor didn’t meet the requirements to do so, that I would have to do a premaster and that even then I would have to first complete a one-year master before being able to apply for a research master. Luckily, some of the professors during the premaster and the first half-year of the master thought I had potential in research, and wrote letters to the faculty to allow me to transfer into the research master. Doing a PhD was the obvious next step. In my final year I applied for an NWO grant and got to the interviews, but didn’t get it. Just a few days later I saw the vacancy for my current position and thought “this is it”!

What aspect of your job do you excel at?
I love the project management aspect of my job. The fact that I am very decisive, I work efficiently and am quite pragmatic has allowed me to stay on track during these four years. I also think I excel at maintaining work-life balance, with a focus on life.

What aspect of your job is or has been a challenge for you?
I often find it quite lonely. I have also found out that I am very results-oriented, which makes it difficult for me to keep my focus on a single project for over year. Fine-tuning a paper for months on end definitely does not make me happy.

What is your favorite book and why?
I am such a Harry Potter fan, I’ll admit it.

What is an important life lesson you have learned in the past?
I’ll stick to what the PhD has taught me, and that is that things will fail, you will make mistakes, but there is always a solution. In the first couple of years I would panic at the slightest bump in the road – I mean it, properly panic. Now, when something happens, I just think “ah well, we’ll sort it out”.

What is the most important advice you want to share with Donders PhD candidates?
People who know me know that career perspectives is a topic I hold dear, and one that is very relevant for me at the moment. If I can give only one piece of advice, it is to take the time to reflect upon what it is you like about your job. Then, when the time comes, consider whether academia is the right path for you. For many people it is – and then pursue it full heartedly. But I also think there is a risk of doing a postdoc because it is the “next logical step”. However, many, if not all, of your skills are transferable to other sectors. Whatever it is you do after the PhD, make sure it is an informed decision, and not just a conformed one.

What are you looking forward to in life?
I can’t wait to have handed in my dissertation in a few weeks and go traveling, if the circumstances allow it! After that, I am really looking forward to starting my new job, a new challenge.

Is there a project or anything you're involved with that you'd like to promote?
I’d like to encourage every PhD, but especially the ones who just started, to attend the events organized by the PhD reps. I have made some really close friends during these four years, and the social events definitely played a role in that. The job can be lonely, but having friends who understand what you’re going through because they are going through the same will make everything so much better!