September 22, 2021

My journey towards a PhD at INsTRuCT

Author: Tamara Traitteur


It is the first week of my PhD, I am sitting in a lab in Antwerp (Belgium) and let my thoughts wander. Within the last two months, I have turned my whole life upside down: I applied for this PhD, I went through the application process and got the position offered, I arranged my relocation from Germany to Belgium, moved into a new apartment, and finally started my first job after five years of studying. To be honest, all of this still feels completely surreal to me – but let´s start at the beginning.

Why a PhD?

For as long as I can remember, I have always been exploring the world around me. With a grandfather who worked in R&D at a chemistry company and a grandmother who did biological research at a university, I started early to express a keen interest in an academic career. During my studies the wish to pursue a PhD became subsequently more and more distinct and that is why I applied to a Graduate School right after finishing my Master´s degree. In the middle of the application process however, I realized that my wish to pursue a PhD was solely driven by my intention of doing research. It suddenly felt like I was missing a purpose beyond “just doing research” and that “just doing research” would not be enough to carry me through a PhD that takes about three to four years and that will certainly give me hard times every now and then.

Dare to make yourself your own standard.

Some might call it a quarter life crisis. At least I did not try to find a name for this feeling, but decided to pause my search for possible positions in order to find out what I really want to do as my next step. Quite soon I realized to feel most comfortable doing project-based work and collaborating in interdisciplinary networks like it can be found in a consortium. Over time, aspects like the resulting economic impact of my work and its social relevance appeared highly important to me and completed the list. To be said, it was not easy for me to grant myself this time of reflection. Straight after graduating from high school, I started my studies and have never taken a semester off since then. Now, having no clear idea of what I wanted to do next made me feel uncomfortable, made me judge myself as lazy and clueless, and made me desperately try to justify my lack of direction to others. It was not until a friend asked me “While most people do their gap year after high school, you are doing it now – where is the difference?” that I put my mind on ease and ultimately stopped judging me and my decision of taking my time.
I am aware that not everyone who reads this finds themselves in a situation that allows to take time off. But if you can and you are recognizing yourself in my previous words, I do highly recommend spending as much time on yourself as you need in the way you prefer in order to find out what you really want.

Be bold and make a wish.

At one point, I had identified different aspects of how my next step should look like, but I had absolutely no idea of how to combine them: my fondness for exploring the world, my wish for my work having an economic impact and being of social relevance, my preference for project-related team work in interdisciplinary environments. Thus, I was systematically looking for suitable positions, but no job offer seemed to cover all these criteria.
One day, highly frustrated with my fruitless search, I was tidying up my room and found some old notes: a list of wishes I had made in quite a similar situation right before my Master Thesis. I honestly could not remember making this list or what I have wished for. But going through the list and reflecting on the individual points, I was more and more astonished that about 80% of my wishes were more or less fulfilled as I had written them down. The other 20% have come true – albeit different from what I had in mind while writing them down, but even better in the end. Sounds crazy, right? At first, I could not believe it either, but ultimately this moment convinced me to make another wish: I wished for finding a job offer that combines all aspects that are important to me, I wished for my perfect match.

Be willing to harvest its fruits.

Around one or two weeks later, I was checking, the research portal of the European commission, again as I knew I would find open PhD positions in consortia posted there, and found one vacancy that caught my interest: A PhD consisting of fundamental research as well as of the translation of the findings into industry, dealing with a socially relevant topic, and being part of a consortium of 13 labs distributed all over Europe – my perfect match

Initially I was sceptical whether it could really be as perfect as it seemed to be and if someone could really be THIS lucky. Yet, I applied and from then on everything went quite fast: I was invited for an interview and got accepted not even three weeks after having sent my initial application. To be said, this process had been highly accelerated as I was applying for taking over an ongoingly funded project – but I was ready. A short trip to Antwerp and a few visits of possible apartments later, I had also found my perfect match regarding housing (only my wish for a balcony was not fulfilled) and moved to a new city into a new apartment. I cannot recall every single detail of this relocation but there was next to nothing that did not go ideally. Over time, I even got the impression that the more confident I was to take this smooth course for granted, the more I trusted in it and the more I accepted it, the better it turned out. Again, sounds crazy, right? So, if you dare to make a wish, be prepared for getting more than you wished for and be willing to embrace everything.

And let it go.

I would lie if I said that these two months have not been exhausting. Organizing and conducting a relocation is a lot of work, costs a lot of money, and is emotionally demanding. Your matters taking a smooth course of action is certainly beneficial and saves a lot of resources. On the other hand, continuously being high on endorphins because of that is exhausting in another way. As success comes and goes naturally in life, I try not to hold onto what I have received from life, but to let go in order to create space for new. After such an exciting time, it feels good to bring myself back down to earth: to arrive in everyday life, to cope with trivial things like cooking and cleaning, and to slowly start to settle. And that is where I am now: Being in lab, familiarizing myself with the topic, finishing some bureaucratic issues and – of course – making wishes for where this exciting journey could potentially lead me.