Maija Taka: I want to plan the route in advance

Maija Taka, Academic Coordinator at the School of Engineering, explains in the ‘Walk in my shoes’ interview how – because of her geographical research background – she always carries a map with her, with a specific route in mind. In the interview, she shares her feelings, especially about doctoral studies.
Maija Taka

Can you share a story about your work?

I started at Aalto five years earlier in a different building and in a different role, but now I have been an academic coordinator at the School of Engineering since the beginning of 2022. There was hardly anyone on campus at the time, and I sat alone in my room. I never learned to work remotely.

Luckily, however, technology manager Panu Sainio was on campus, and he knows everything about our school. Discussions with him were an important part of the orientation, and he was enthusiastic about the same things.

Since the end of the pandemic, more people with the same inspiring attitude have returned to campus. The long-term experience of these more informal mentors at Aalto is, I think, the richness and fuel for us, the new Aalto employees.

If I would work remotely, my work would become one-sided. There wouldn’t be an opportunity for random encounters, inspiration, spark, or encouragement. On campus, work becomes three-dimensional. I can knock on the door, take the same lift, or see people in the coffee room.

What's it like to walk in Maija Taka's shoes?

I have a background in geographical research, and I always have to have a map or a route. I'm not a drifter. I need to know where I'm going and why, at what pace and with whom. I run like Forrest Gump and try to get as many people as possible excited, involved and benefit from what I do, along the way. That's where the meaning of the work comes from for me.

If I would work remotely, my work would become one-sided. On campus, work becomes three-dimensional.

Maija Taka

What inspires you about meeting people?

I'm particularly inspired by being exposed to the unexpected. I organise events where our PhD students can get to know each other. It can be speed dating, for example, where the students can talk in pairs or small groups for a few minutes about, for example, why the topic of their dissertation is important for our society, or what they want to learn themselves. Everyone can take something from the encounters. It's just a surface scrape, though, but for some it's also their first chance to get to know the colleagues.

When do you feel ease at work? And when do you feel uncomfortable?

I feel ease whenever I can start something new. For example, I am now finding out the needs of our doctoral students, supervisors, and employers.

I feel uncomfortable when I must grasp the realities. There is not enough time for everything, and not everyone is always enthusiastic about everything. For example, I find it challenging to find Finnish researchers who would attend the events that I organise. They must have the feeling that they are already part of the community. But international researchers would also like to get to know Finns.

On the other hand, I have learned to tolerate the fact that not everyone will ever participate. I concentrate on those who are dedicated. I believe in cultural change, that with time things will start to spread.

A doctoral student must be resilient, but on the other hand, resilience only grows with experience.

Maija Taka

Tell us about your thoughts on dissertation and its supervision?

I teach a course for professors and supervisors in doctoral education on supervising doctoral students. Before each session of the course, participants write a reflective essay on how they have been supervised in the past, how they feel like as a supervisor, and what good practices and tips they have in their work. I feel privileged when I get to read through all the answers and learn from their experience.

There are a lot of uncertainties and failures during the dissertation process. A doctoral student must be resilient, but on the other hand, resilience only grows with experience. At the same time, campus is full of dissertation experience. Senior researchers understand that if an article is not accepted for publication, it's not the end of the world. A young PhD student, on the other hand, may take it personally, and feel inadequate. Senior colleagues on the other hand, may say sleep on it, let's look at the comments together. It’s valuable support for young doctoral students.

We now have PhD students who – due to the pandemic – have been working from home half of the dissertation time. There are talented international researchers who have never integrated into our community. They've never learned the routine of coming to campus, and they don't have a community that could draw them to campus like a magnet. I am really saddened by how much they miss out on seeing and learning because they are doing their PhD as a correspondence course from home.

In doctoral education, I would like to emphasise continuous learning and that it should be fun, meaningful, and rewarding. Dissertations take at least four years to complete, and it's a real shame if we only celebrate published articles.

Maija Taka ja Kerttu

Aalto supports experimenting in a way that I feel safe and supported even if I falter or fail.

Maija Taka

What would you like to strengthen and develop at Aalto?

At the School of Engineering, for example, we could be a community village like Käpylä, where everyone helps each other: someone can cut branches, another can rake and a third can paint windowsills. I wish we could be even more enthusiastic about helping each other.

Aalto supports experimenting in a way that I feel safe and supported even if I falter or fail. I'm not pushed onto weak ice, but instead, someone picks me up and holds my hand.

We are on one campus, but how can we do even better at bringing people together and breaking down silos across disciplines? For example, the Department of Built Environment has internal money for postdoctoral researchers who act as agents to bridge the gap between at least two research groups.

Those PhD students who have themselves received help and support in the early stages of their career want to pass it on and help others. In the Water and Development Research Group, for example, PhD students welcome new international colleagues with open arms, and support them from the very beginning.

Team Rynkeby, kuva: Ella Maisonlahti.
Kuva: Ella Maisonlahti

Do you do anything in particular in your free time that gives you a work-life balance?

Last autumn I joined a charity cycling team, Team Rynkeby. We will be cycling together from Helsinki to Paris in July. I'm also eager to build puzzles. Sometimes at work I feel like I can't get anything concrete done and everything moves super slowly. Then I pick berries or build puzzles.

I have a 9-year-old dog, a French bulldog called Kerttu. She doesn't do much sport, but with her we are very good at just snuggling up and reading a book. If I'm sometimes cycling really fast on my road bike, with Kerttu we just enjoy the peace.

Interview and text: Tiina Aulanko-Jokirinne

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Walk in my shoes

Inspired by the saying that you should walk a mile in someone’s shoes to understand them, the ‘Walk in my shoes’ series aims to share some of the experiences, thoughts, perspectives and challenges faced by another Aaltonian.

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