A Tale of Four Cities

The number of PhD projects on offer in the UK is bewildering enough, so why did I want to add to the confusion by checking out the possibilities in another country, too? Well, I've found that because they carry fewer of the responsibilities and commitments that come as you get older, your PhD years can be a great period to experience life in another country.

In the last 3 years, my PhD work has landed me principally in the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, with occasional stints in Paris. My current stopover is Barcelona though, and let's not forget the sporadic briefings with a professor at Manchester University, one of my numerous supervisors. For fear of portraying myself as some kind of international jetsetter, I should stress that the reality is more like playing an enormous pan-European game of Twister. Keeping some kind of life going in more than one country at once has made me feel quite overstretched at times, but overall, I'm having a lot of fun. It can be extremely refreshing to be in a new environment; the social conventions of your own country get left behind, leaving you free to do things your own way.

It's not just standards in daily life that can be different. What you are expected to accomplish during your PhD is certainly not the same in every country. Dutch students often need 4 or 5 years to finish their theses because of the number of peer-reviewed papers they are required to publish. The same holds true at a number of French universities. [Editor's Note: See the Eurodoc Exchange for more about the differing structures of PhD training across Europe.] Meanwhile, the strict time limits imposed by most UK universities aren't the same in Germany, which means the work can often be more extensive than an average British PhD project is. Furthermore, German students usually have a pretty good idea about the research world before they start a PhD. The "diploma thesis" project that they do during the final year of their first degree entails at least 6 months of work, and it is essential in order to graduate with a "Magister" (master's) qualification.

There's no way you can register for a PhD in Germany without a diploma thesis, which is where my additional supervisor in Manchester fits into the picture. My British Bachelor of Science just wasn't sufficient for me to sign up with the local University of Heidelberg, so I was very glad that my project supervisor in EMBL could stump up the registration fees for my old university in Manchester.

My route to Heidelberg was through the EMBL PhD programme. Short-listed applicants are invited to Heidelberg for a selection week, an exhausting few days of interviews with every group leader in the two departments that most interest you. The week is intense, but this system does have the advantage that you know whether or not you have been selected before you fly back home. The candidates who don't get selected usually have their names passed on to ex-EMBL group leaders. Having served their EMBL years, these group leaders run excellent labs all over Europe and are happy to use the EMBL selection procedure to pick up some good students. EMBL or Heidelberg might not turn out to be your cup of tea, but after interviewing there, who knows which part of the world might make you an offer?

When I came to decide on my PhD project, I was rather seduced by the fact that it would be partially supervised by a collaborator in Paris. (Well, who wouldn't be?) There was travel money available, and when the cosy, small-town air of Heidelberg got the better of me, I was free to jump on a train and take my pipettes elsewhere. The only problem when you have two project supervisors, particularly when one is in Germany and the other in France, is that it's easy for both of them to assume that the other is doing the supervising. Add to that a student who is quite happy to have the freedom to try out whatever she likes, and it's not too surprising that my project didn't advance in all the right directions.

These were facts I had to face up to when, tragically, a year and a half into the project, my supervisor at EMBL died. My situation was thrown into confusion and in the end, I chose to start a new project with a new supervisor. The next surprise came when she had to take up a position in Barcelona earlier than planned. Having learned. that supervision by e-mail doesn't really work, the obvious choice was to move to Barcelona, too. Fortunately, all those concerned were supportive of my decision, and my new project supervisor has assured me of an extra year of funding.

EMBL is a very international place. The working language is English, which makes life easier if your German isn't up to much, and being one of many foreigners, it's not difficult to feel you fit in. Shifting to Spain made me realise what moving to a foreign country is usually like! People just weren't talking the kind of Spanish I'd learned at school; in fact, you're more likely to hear Catalan around my new workplace.

German efficiency has had to be traded in for a kind a creative orderliness, but the guaranteed sunshine means it hasn't been a bad swap. Even a trip to the supermarket can provide a lot of comedy mileage, which came as a welcome diversion during my first days of getting used to the place. I challenge you not to chuckle when stacking your shopping trolley with Bimbo bread and Bonka coffee. That said, I'm not yet reaching for the Colon washing detergent, even if it does come with bleach. (My late boss was always amused to find a Finnish toilet paper going by the name of Embo--something to bear in mind, should they ever turn you down for a postdoc fellowship.)

Admittedly, there are easier ways to see a bit of Europe, without the practical and personal upheaval that comes when you move your life from place to place. However, thanks to the many different people I've come into contact with, and the quality of life I have, I certainly don't regret how this prolonged InterRail trip is working out.

My advice to anyone planning to head off to a new country is to not to lose touch with friends and colleagues back home--they may well feel that the distance is greater than you do. If you have to register with a UK university, keep good contact with your academic supervisor there, too. He or she can provide a valuable outsider's opinion on your project and is the best one to judge when you should start writing up your thesis. Incidentally, if you have trouble getting together the registration fee, bear in mind that the Open University can award PhDs, and their fees are a fraction of the amount asked by most other UK universities ask. Good luck!

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