Transitions Part One: From Predoc to Postdoc

S tijn studied physics in Utrecht before he moved on to Nijmegen University where he got his PhD in cognitive science in 1998. He spent more than a year of his PhD in the United States at the University of Pennsylvania and Ohio State University. He then started looking for a research position in an academic or industrial environment on either side of the Atlantic. Today Stijn lives in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and has found a surprising solution to his longing for academic freedom.

In our series "Transitions", Stijn tells us about the lessons he learned about himself and how they helped him to take decisions for his future career. Today, Stijn shares his experiences as a Dutch PhD student in the U.S.

A few years into my PhD project at the University of Nijmegen, one of my advisors accepted a job in the United States. This turn of events could potentially have harmed my project, but it turned out to be a golden opportunity. Of the 5 years of research for my PhD, I ended up spending more than 1 year in the U.S., a few months at the University of Pennsylvania and the rest at Ohio State University in Columbus. My research is on human vision and this allowed me to tap into a truly international pool of observers for my experiments.

Other people in the departments where my advisor had his lab were somewhat confused about my status. I could not be called a graduate student because I was not enrolled in any of their programmes. Also, I was technically not even a graduate student in my home country. In the Netherlands you prepare for a PhD as a junior researcher; it is a job with a salary, benefits, and paid vacations. I could obviously not be labeled as a postdoc since I did not have my PhD yet. So I ended up referring to myself as a predoc.

It was a thrilling and enriching experience. There is no way around the fact that in the present era the United States is the scientific center of the world. Not that the best science is necessarily done there, but the prerequisites for a successful scientific culture are abundantly present: lots of money and a good communication infrastructure. No wonder the best minds flock to the U.S., making the scientific atmosphere even more vibrant and global.

For me one of the thrills was the intense interaction between scientists. Almost everyone was involved and committed. I saw little of the complacency that I had witnessed in senior scientists at home once they had reached a comfortable position. Meetings in the U.S. are more informal and interactive than I was used to in my country. Although distances are much larger in the U.S. compared to the Netherlands, scientists seem to visit each other constantly to give talks and discuss their work. It was all very inspiring!

The relative abundance of money for science did not directly affect me. I partly financed my visits with travel grants from the NWO (the Dutch equivalent of the U.S. National Science Foundation) and contributions from my institute at the University of Nijmegen. I paid the rest out of my own pocket and occasionally my advisor would take care of some remaining bills. My salary continued to be paid in the months that I was abroad. Although there is no comparison with multinational companies that even give people a raise when they are willing to work in another country, I was able to work everything out financially.

At the start of my fifth year it was time to think about the next step. Having had a taste of scientific life in the U.S. I certainly wanted more. After many discussions with colleagues I contacted three carefully selected principal investigators who were heading labs that I fancied joining. One of them never responded, although he later mentioned to my advisor that he had received my letter--apparently a simple e-mail response was too much to ask. But the other two did respond, and both offered me a postdoc. Together with an offer from an industrial lab in Japan I now had three job offers in hand! But no PhD.

It was time to shift into a higher gear and get the remaining work done. That last year, I played the role of a predoc one more time and spent the Fall quarter at Ohio State University. Having finished all my experiments, I returned to the Netherlands and started working on my dissertation full time. I used to write at home in the mornings, go to the lab around noon, type up the new parts, have dinner with some colleagues, work late, go home, and get some sleep. Repeat this 120 times and you get an idea of those last months. Early in May 1998 my PhD mission was accomplished. I cleared out my office and apartment and I was ready for the transition to become a postdoc at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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