Meet Dr. Sibyl Anthierens, a primary care sociologist passionate about qualitative research and converting people to become antibiotic guardians!

What do you like about your job?

Where do I start? I am passionate about my job! I never thought there was a researcher hidden inside me when I was a kid or even when I was a student. But now, I absolutely love my job, I am passionate about qualitative research and I love working with people and listening to their stories. I’m not just a sociologist, or just a researcher, or just an action-person – I’m trying to link all of those together in my work. I like to do research with a societal impact, although this is not always immediately valued in ‘academic outputs’.

I enjoy learning and gaining knowledge. To share that knowledge and enthusiasm with others and apply it to solving problems is rewarding and meaningful, personally as well as professionally.

We tackle bigger and smaller problems, and in our own way, we are trying to make the world a better place. Sometimes, it doesn’t work. What matters most to me is that at least we are trying. Each little push to improve our world into a better and healthier place is worth the effort. That is one of the reasons why I am a fervent antibiotic guardian and I am still intrigued and determined to find ways to change the beliefs and behaviours of health care professionals and the general public towards antibiotic prescriptions and intake. It is also my mission to look for new ways to do research and to ‘convert’ the traditional positivist scientists into acknowledging the importance of qualitative research, numbers and figures are important but analyzing the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of phenomenons and putting things in context and explaining the context is just equally as important.

Research introduces you to ‘special people’ from around the globe. Researchers, on the whole, are nice, fun people. I’ve often felt very privileged to work with ‘famous’ professors. Not that their fame itself is that special to me – but because they tell me interesting stuff and I can learn from them. They can fill my brain with fresh ideas and enthuse me to tackle my research problems with new energy. But it’s not only the senior professors who fill me with enthusiasm- many devoted colleagues or students will pour their heart and soul into their work, and will make you see certain topics in a new light. Research introduces you to such interesting people. I have made research friends around the world.

Another very important characteristic of the job to me is that research is and collaborative and a team sport. Each project builds upon ideas that came before from other teams or from your own team or from another discipline. Most projects only make a small contribution to progress, adding a tiny amount to the sum of all knowledge. That means that researchers have to engage: they have to engage with other people’s ideas, and with the world around them. Mostly, it is a team sport with collaboration across disciplines which makes it even more interesting. It is a shame that the group effort is often undervalued in academia.

During your career, have you been specifically mentored or supported by someone?

I have met many people on my journey so far who have mentored and supported me.  But I particularly admire Professor Kerenza Hood (Cardiff University, UK), she is a colleague and friend that I met several years ago in my first European project, called GRACE. Her passion towards science and dedication towards improving society really motivates me. She inspires me to be a good scientist, to work hard and not to forget humour, humility, integrity, and grace. She is always available for a good chat and to get you back on track if necessary.

What is a typical day like for you?

Every day can be different. I am flexible and I have the freedom to set my own working schedule and to work from home. This freedom also has a downside, as work and private life are not that easy to divide. I may not work a typical 9 to 5 job that others do. Just because I leave my office, it doesn’t mean that my work is over for the day. Instead, my work travels with me, and I often think about my research at home whilst I eat my dinner, or while I drive my car, or during the weekends. It is often at those times that I get new ideas.

What are the hardest parts related to this work?

However much I love my job, it is not all glitz and glamour. It’s never finished. Every study not only provides insights, it poses new questions and there is always room for improvement. We have to juggle several deadlines at the same time. There aren’t always clear boundaries to our job description and we have to do field research, writing proposals, attend numerous meetings, supervise students, teach, …. Having said that, this diversity is what makes the job so interesting.

Like many women, I am often deeply conflicted between my academic dreams and a growing need to find a work-life balance. I have been on numerous temporary contracts, it is a very competitive environment and it is hard when you don’t receive the right grants or don’t get your articles published in the ‘right’ journals. I think in academia we’re far too focused on visible outcomes: the great job, the high-impact journal article, the stellar scientific reputation…we forget that the path people follow to reach those outcomes is just as important or the impact that we have on society which is less tangible.

In your opinion, did you ever have the impression that it would be easier/harder if you were male?

I think our career paths are still fairly different compared to those of men and that it is more difficult as a female academic to reach the senior positions. Things are changing but very slowly. I often feel when there are promotion rounds that they are comparing apples with pears. Employers often do not take into account that you are working part time, or that you have been out for some time during maternity leave, your list of publications should be the same. As a junior researcher, I would have appreciated a career coach or mentor who could have helped me prioritize what was important to my own career path; obviously, this could be equally as important to all junior researchers. I have a tendency to always say yes, particularly when it comes to helping others, but unfortunately, this does not always advance my own career.

Did you ever doubt your abilities as a scientist? Why? How did you handle these situations/feelings?

My education and experience to date has been a long and winding road and at times I was often faced with ‘imposter syndrome’. I often had the feeling that at some point somebody would suddenly ‘point out’ that I am not really an academic and would state that I do not belong here. At a certain point, I l left university because of that and took on another job. After some months it became clear to me that doing research was not just a job that I did, but that it was a way of life and a part of my identity and so I returned to my job with more confidence. The ‘imposter syndrome’ is still something that pops up once in a while; luckily I am surrounded by good colleagues that tell me otherwise. Working on my strengths and weaknesses is a continuous journey, and I remind myself frequently to look at what is most important to me and the people around me.


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