Today felt like a big day, my friends! I dropped 3,860 Swiss francs on a yearly unlimited pass for public transport and headed merrily off on the first day of the next three years. After a little wrangling with the administration, I finally settled into my new desk, a quiet little spot on the ground floor with a view onto a garden where cats seem to be constantly pacing past.
Adding to my general sense of excitement is the ABSOLUTELY INCREDIBLE 2.5 weeks in Japan that my grandparents just showed me. Japan really deserves its own post, but I’m not sure I’m ready to capture it yet (or ever). I couldn’t think of any better way to mark the end of three years of hard work, and am endlessly grateful to my grandparents for sharing with me this place that they love so much. And in what I’ve decided is the true mark of absolute post-holiday relaxation, I’m not feeling the slightest inkling of jetlag. Mind over matter is a lot easier when your mind has just been pampered by Zen gardens and peaceful temples for the last little while.
But back to today- in a way I feel like I am now embarking on phase 2 of my life in Switzerland. I’m living in a new town and working a new job in yet another new city, something not quite so different than when I first moved here three years ago. But now the challenges are different. Instead of moving to a big international city (by Swiss terms), I’m living in a quaint small town. Instead of struggling to speak basic German, I am aiming to graduate to Swiss German. Instead of struggling to find my own flat or roommates with minimal German, I am learning about how to cohabitate and live my life with a deeply Swiss person. Instead of signing up for random meetups or filling my endless friendless spare time with things like baking bread (disaster, don’t ask), I am trying to learn how to balance the circle of friends I have, a circle that is becoming increasingly widely flung as a natural consequence of academia.
I find all of these things exciting, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that also come with a tinge of anxiety. I am committing to Switzerland heavily in a way that my initial PhD jaunt didn’t involve. Also, a lot of things are just changing quickly in general. All good things! But I always do need to process change in my own way. Japan was a wonderful opportunity to catch my breath- I will always be in agreement with the European idea that holiday is essential for the soul.
This past week, 3 years and 4 months after moving to Switzerland, I defended my PhD. It was a pretty great day, I have to say. Better than any of my other graduation type days. I’m still flying high and it feels somehow cathartic to write about it.
I didn’t think I would be nervous, given the many other much more nerve wracking presentations I’ve been through. I had to count it up for an award I’m applying for, and I’ve presented on my study 20+ times over these past years, most of those to international researchers much less disposed to be kind to me than my own institute (not even counting internal presentations). In fact, I was feeling cool as a cucumber until I woke up the Wednesday before my Friday defense in the midst of a nightmare about failing and getting booted out of the building. I then had to stuff these fears away and hurry off to Basel for my orientation + a day of work there, but I devoted all of Thursday to rereading my dissertation and reviewing my slides.
Friday morning I went on a jog to let off some energy and Benno and I had lunch together. He really generously took the whole day off from work without asking me, and MAN did I end up being grateful. He was able to keep me calm and grounded. At that point there isn’t much more to do to prepare, but true to my usual form there is plenty of overthinking to do. Every university seems to do it somewhat differently, but here’s how it went at University of Zurich:
2pm-3pm: I present my work (40ish minutes) and then field public questions. Around 30-40 people came (my supervisor took a picture of the left half of the room). There was a spirited discussion. One thing I really enjoy about my study is that it is easy and compelling for many people to understand, so there is always an interesting discussion when I present. I really appreciated that my new supervisor and also two of the PhDs on my new project came to watch as well!
3-4pm Private closed questioning by my PhD committee members and any other faculty members who want to join. This was not nearly as scary as I was anticipating- they didn’t ask me tough statistics questions, but instead focused on methodological approaches. Given how much I’ve thought about the study over the years, it seemed pretty straightforward. They then sent me out of the room, which was a bit awkward given that all of my friends and acquaintances were milling about outside waiting for the apero. They then summoned me back in and told me that I passed, and with no revisions! That means I am totally done!
At 4pm the fun part started. The institute hosts an apero (champagne and food event) to celebrate after a PhD defense. First my two main supervisors gave 2 very very nice speeches about me (it was strange to get SO much positive feedback at once, as this is not at all the usual style of my Swiss supervisors), then I gave an impromptu speech. It was hard not to cry at this point, but I kept it together. I was also presented with the traditional hat, which your fellow PhDs decorate with symbols that represent your PhD.
A few highlights:
Swiss, US, and Thai flags: my adopted country, my home country, and my study country
A tree: I used regression trees in the main paper of my dissertation
Beach chair and umbrella: study is about Thailand
Pumpkin: this one made me laugh. two years ago I hosted a Thanksgiving celebration at my apartment with a good 15+ people. One of the dishes brought by an American friend was this traditional sweet potato casserole with marshmallows on top. My friends were so surprised by this combination that they remembered it two years later for my hat! Except they thought it was pumpkin and not sweet potato 🙂 Also I didn’t make it, haha.
Plane: both because I like to travel and my study is about travelers?
Skiing and mountain photos and paraphernalia: obvious for anyone who knows me 😛
Swiss cheese, chocolate, and prosecco: duh.
We had drinks plus snacks for a couple hours at the institute, then headed to the bar where I had reserved apero part 2 for the evening. I was so so amazed by how many of my good friends in Switzerland, from work, from running, from every other sort of place, stopped by to wish me well. Benno covered our first round of drinks and made sure I ate (I have a tendency to forget to eat when I am drinking long term like that) and was overall just the best. We celebrated until around 11pm, when I hit a wall of exhaustion and we headed home.
THANK YOU AGAIN to everyone who wished me well or congratulated me. I am so happy to have had a successful conclusion to this last chapter of my education.
I’ve had mixed feelings about the whole PhD process over the years, but I have to conclude at last that it works and I feel overwhelmingly positive about the experience. It has truly made me into a scientist. I complained sometimes about the salary, and don’t get me wrong- I am excited to have a full salary again this month. But in terms of life goals, it is so rewarding to have the luxury of asking your own questions and finding your own answers, to be given years to ask a question of the world and get the answer back. This week wraps up a period of intellectual growth and freedom to indulge my curiosity that I will always remember with gratitude.
It’s been a long hiatus. Partly because I’ve been busy finishing up all this PhD stuff and starting my new postdoc position. But also partly because I never intended for this to be an academic blog and well…see the last sentence. My “cultural ponderings” and private life doings have taken a back seat to staring at my computer willing more publications to appear under my fingertips. Here is Some Other Stuff in no particular order.
I wrote a pretty deliriously happy blog post a few months ago. I wish I could say that it has been a steady stream of upbeat doings since then, but turns out that dealing with lots of change is always a bit overwhelming, even if they are mostly good changes.
Flew off to my good friend Alex Lavers’ wedding in Sweden for a big time ladyfriends reunion just moments after sending off my dissertation into the ether. THAT FELT GOOD. Seeing a big stack of my three years’ worth of work bound into a book and stacked up impressively on my desk? ALSO FELT GOOD. But the most awesome thing of all is seeing my friends settle into new life stages and places and looking so happy doing it (we’re a little slow on the settling down front, what can I say).
I have come to the decision that finishing a PhD (as in the very end stages) is largely an exercise in persistence. I keep waiting for it to sink in that I’m at the finish line, but it kind of feels like those trick birthday candles that never go out regardless of how long you huff and puff.
Dating a Swiss guy from the countryside is a TOTALLY different experience than dating a city Swiss guy. I feel like I’ve done more acculturation in the past five months than the past three years. I have learned about shooting clubs, Carneval bands, festivals, every variety of Swiss dish I’ve never heard about, Swiss sumo wrestling, and spoken WAY more German than ever before. Yesterday we had brunch for a few hours with a couple of his friends and I had to take a nap afterwards I was so exhausted. One on one German is OK but following a conversation among a bunch of people that I am simultaneously trying to impress…woof.
My new colleagues are the best. Really, they are a smart, supportive, and ambitious team, and I can’t wait to see what we will accomplish. I feel really lucky that I found such a great project and team. However, I am eager for this part time postdoc part time PhD phase to end. ASAP.
Just had a week back in Trump’s America for the first time and it was…really fun. Turns out Trump’s America is not so different on the everyday level from Obama’s America. Whew.
NYC no longer feels like home. Chicago is not really home. Switzerland feels like home. That feels a little scary sometimes. Is this going to be a lifelong move? Will I have little Kinder running around someday speaking Swiss German? What have I done?
Things not included on this list: much hiking or running or…anything in the mountains. Trust me, I plan on fixing that soon.
Even immediately before moving here, my mental image of Switzerland was populated largely by snowcapped mountains and cozy chalets tucked among snow drifts. However, I’ve been really surprised to find that at least in Zurich, winters are some of the mildest I’ve ever experienced. No shoveling or snow pileup, temperatures entirely manageable, the Alps within a short train ride for a visit to Real Winter.
The summers turned out to be the real surprise. So many days of golden sunlight and swimming and subtropical lounging! However, it gets HOT. Like hot hot. Like I’m hotter than I’ve ever been before in my life because the Swiss do not believe in air conditioning for environmental and other reasons.
A note about this- I’ve been told that air conditioning is essentially illegal in Switzerland. You have to apply for a special permit to have it, and I don’t know of any offices that have it and no one I know has an apartment with air conditioning. Some grocery stores do, but it’s more of a gentle breeze by the fish than the arctic blast that I’m used to. Largely, I think this is pretty cool. It drives most of the population to one of the infinite lakes/rivers/alpen refuges that this country is so lucky to have, and avoids the terrible cost to the environment that aircon represents. However, this whole system is really based around only a couple days of really hot temperatures per year.
This is changing fast in Switzerland in the last few years. Temperatures have been above 30 degrees c/86 degrees Fahrenheit every day for the past week, even reaching 35c/96f. Picture sitting in those temperatures in an office building packed with people and computers all day. You can mess with the blinds and leaving the lights off and having a fan going, but at some point there’s just no combating such a temperature. But there’s just no relief except for swimming- even restaurants don’t have AC!
I think Switzerland is an interesting case because it is a country that is changing fast that just literally doesn’t have the infrastructure to support a hotter climate, from public transit to office space. Beyond just being uncomfortable, heat waves are one of the most deadly natural events- the rates of deaths from many causes have a prolonged spike after a stretch of hot days. I’m curious to see how Switzerland and also less affluent countries will handle this change in climate (see recent NYTimes article for a breakdown of where we are headed: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/06/22/climate/95-degree-day-maps.html)
The flip side of this- warmer winters- has also been a problem in a country known for its skiing. I don’t recommend coming to the Alps before late January for a ski holiday, based on the last few winters, and if you want to see some of the amazing glaciers it’s better not to put your trip off too long.
For now, I’ll enjoy one more day of sweating into my computer chair and prolonged swims before some summer storms move in.
I know I haven’t done much of a job at updating lately, but it feels like life has been coming at me at such a rate that I can hardly think my thoughts, much less organize them into a coherent blog post. But since it’s these periods that are often later the most enjoyable for me to reflect back on, I thought I would jot down a few notes. Gonna do this stream of consciousness “My Summer Vacation” style, though.
Career stuff is similar to dating in that sometimes it just all falls into place and you wonder why you were torturing yourself with all those other options. I have been ruminating over where to move next for probably the last year, but suddenly it just clicked that, hey, actually I don’t want to leave. It’s OK to just do what you want instead of what Everyone Says.
Said realization makes me really, really happy.
I still reserve the right to change my mind later.
Sometimes I was really in doubt about this whole PhD process- it can be a giant exhausting morass when you’re wading through the middle of it, and certainly nothing like any of the linear schooling periods I have gone through before (I discovered this comic this week that I think is a great summary of what a PhD really means: http://matt.might.net/articles/phd-school-in-pictures/). But the postdoc interviewing process has made me realize that I am a totally different person than I was three years ago when I first started. I’m comfortable taking leadership roles and offering my “expert” opinion and defending my analyses to statisticians. This might not sound revolutionary, but suddenly the idea of leading my own research team with my own ideas feels not sooo far off, something I’ve always found tremendously exciting.
Getting older coincides with knowing yourself better and recently I’ve found that it has been affecting a lot of my decision making (in a positive way, let’s hope). For example, for probably the first two years I lived in Europe I travelled like a crazy person to any spot I was invited to. Now I know better what I like and what just isn’t worth the hassle and the extra carbon footprint.
In fact, I’m pretty proud of myself that as far as I remember I have avoided any and all recreational flights for all of 2017- all of my holidays have either been via train or tacked onto a flight I would have had to take for work regardless.
However, I can’t really can’t act like this was some selfless resolution. I’ve really had to buckle down to finish this whole PhD thing and would have turned down a lot of trips regardless. Looming deadlines have a funny way of curtailing holiday plans.
I desperately want to take an extended period of time off after completing my PhD and before embarking on a new adventure, but it might be hard to finagle. So I’m reminding myself that having a great job trumps exotic vacations any day 🙂
I’m just a little bit scared of the new position. I’m going to be learning a whole lot.
That’s it, a little sneak peek into my running brain as I’m taking a break from writing up my latest manuscript at 7pm on a Monday. Wish me luck, there’s a whole lot to do in the next few months!
Last night there was an earthquake in Switzerland! Random, petite, and only the second one of my life.
Besides earthquakes, my thoughts have been swirling a bit lately around uncertainty and how we humans deal with it. Uncertainty is particularly rife in academia, for better or worse my current endeavor. You become incredibly specialized and invest years in your education, betting that 1) your area of science will continue to be funded, a gamble that depends on a whole host of factors ranging from the political and economic climate to media coverage, and 2) that there will magically be a senior position in a good university open when you finally finish all of that onerous training. The path to professorship in my field looks something like bachelors>masters>PhD>postdoc>second postdoc>assistant professor>full professor(with tenure??). Less than one half of 1% of those PhD students make it to the professor level, and even fewer of those lucky PhD students are women (another topic for another day).
An added complexity here is that normally there are only a handful of universities doing really top level research in your area of expertise, so you must be willing to move almost anywhere to nab that perfect professor job. And even before that, geographical mobility is rewarded on the grant level (to get top level postdoc grants in Switzerland you MUST leave Switzerland).
That, of course, leaves me in my current position. I’m finishing up my PhD this year, which is both exciting! and means I am right smack dab in the middle of all that uncertainty again. My preferred method of coping is premature nostalgia. I found myself sitting at my desk last week, messing around in R with some really cool geospatial analyses, and thinking I LOVE MY JOB HOW CAN I LEAVE. I love my job- I mess around dreaming up and answering cool scientific questions and then writing it up for publication. When I get stuck I have no end of brilliant colleagues to bug for help, and they are always willing to help me because 1) they are incredibly intellectually curious, and 2) they are also my very good friends and friends help friends. When I want a coffee break or am not feeling excited by my work there is always someone who wants to take a walk with me through the lovely streets of Zurich to grab a needed afternoon dose of chocolate, and I almost always have time for social life and sports.
Maybe I would also have this if I left research and became a consultant or worked for a pharma company, to be fair. There’s no guarantee either way. And if I did go that route, I would at least be able to choose my geographical location and in some ways my future much more securely (I’m pretty sure pharma will be around for a while). But…when I talk to other researchers about our projects, that’s when my heart beats a little faster.
I think that ultimately this year of uncertainty will be much more fun than in the past- one perk of getting older is that both my confidence in my own abilities and those actual abilities are exponentially higher than say right after university. But in some ways, I think my decision this year will be a big one: whether I want to keep choosing the path of adventure, or choose the “safer” route.