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PhD in Europe: More Than a Long Holiday?

When I told my parents I had decided to do a PhD in the Netherlands, they fell silent. After a little while they expressed their worries about my decision to leave Mexico, where I was born and had spent all my life. "Don't you think there are easier ways to go on holidays in Europe?" was my mother's only question. Eventually my parents--who both have a background in science--realised that going to Europe would be a good and unique chance to gain experience and 'grow' as a scientist.

Passion for nature

As a child I was fascinated by nature, and I believe I've always been destined to become a scientist. In 1990 I started my licenciatura--the Mexican BSc--in biochemical engineering at the Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey (ITESM), Campus Guaymas. For me this meant living in Guaymas, a paradisiacal coastal city in North Mexico, away from home for the first time. Because of its location next to the sea, the campus was a great starting point for little cruise trips--as part of my courses--to take sea-water samples, do fauna quantification, or observe marine mammals. ITESM, with the learning environment it provided and the passion teachers showed for their subject, certainly played a role in my next career step.

When I finished my BSc in 1994, I applied for an MSc in ecology at the Instituto de Ecologia of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico ( UNAM). After several admission tests and an interview, I got accepted and was awarded a scholarship from the Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología (Mexican Council of Science and Technology, CONACyT). This organisation keeps its padrón de excelencia, a list of top-level institutes, and provides them with grants for accepted students.

My MSc thesis was about the role of coliphages as indicators for bacterial and virus pollution in deep aquifers in Mexico City. I liked the research, but sometimes it was a bit too technical and far away from 'real problems' to me. My research work contrasted with the work I did at several environmental and developmental nongovernment organisations (NGOs), where everyday problems--affecting real people's lives--were faced. Working as a volunteer--and later as a hired part-timer--I found it very challenging to be involved with true faces and feelings, something I often missed in research.

Japanese scholarship

After my graduation in 1998, I applied twice for a scholarship at the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). The first time was to do a course in organic farming. I had become interested in this issue because of a similar subject I was working on for SEDEPAC, a Mexican development organization. I didn't get granted because my knowledge about organic farming was only limited, but I passed all the medical examinations (electrocardiogram, x-rays, blood test, and medical certificates) necessary to get a visa. Fortunately I got accepted some months later to a Lake Management Course for ILEC, an international NGO that works on sustainable water management. Because of some experience in water quality and my academic background in ecology, I got the scholarship and left to Japan for 3 months. I came back with a lot of dreams and fresh ideas to put into practice, but reality fell into place. Mexico was suffering from an economic crisis, so water management was not on the government's--nor any institute's--agenda.

In contrast to what I had expected, it was really hard to find a job with more responsibilities and a better salary than I had before, when I worked as a part-timer for NGOs or small academic projects. Most of the interesting jobs required a doctorate degree. Still I continued to send my CV around and tried to get in touch with research institutes and private companies. After a year of living close to unemployment, luck suddenly turned to me. So much so, that I found myself at a crossroad of three possibilities. First the Centro de Investigación en Alimentacion y Desarrollo ( CIAD)--one of the research centres I had send my CV to--had a PhD position in fishpond ecology available at the Fish Culture and Fisheries Group of Wageningen University, the Netherlands.

At the same time I was offered a well-paid job in industry to work on the restoration of affected costal areas through oil extraction operations. My third option was to continue in a permanent position at one of the NGOs, on a very interesting project. After a long thought I decided to go for the PhD position in Wageningen. I reasoned that I would never go back to a PhD position--and ditto salary--after 3 or 4 years work and career development in a 'true' job. I also thought that the other jobs would still be available for me when I would return, especially with the international experience I would gain.


I must admit, I wasn't too confident at the beginning of my PhD. If I had to do it again I certainly would do things differently. First of all, I would be more careful in selecting my research topic. There have been times when I regretted my decision, mainly because the subject I've been working on wasn't the one I had initially applied for. Thus, because the research group's experience with stable isotope-based research on food chains in fishponds--my initial topic--was not extensive, I had to rewrite my research proposal into a more suitable one. And my work wasn't part of a bigger project, which forced me to construct the theoretical and technical framework all by myself. I finally made a good proposal, but a large part turned out to be too ambitious. At that time, I did not take into account many practical laboratory issues, such as the number of trial-and-errors it takes to get an experiment running or the time needed to set up a new technique.

Sometimes I also questioned my capabilities. My PhD has been a learning process where many of the skills to learn and steps to go through were not clearly established. The time scale was hard to set, especially because I could not compare my progress to that of my colleagues: They were working on something completely different. The support and guidance of my supervisor have been vital, but unfortunately he wasn't able to give me technical support in the lab either. So it all came down to self-experience, self-discipline, and self-education.

Financial security has been a stress factor many times, as my project was not fully funded from the start. The initial funding was part of the budget of OrganicPond, a Fourth Framework International Cooperation project of the European Union. However by the time I started my PhD, OrganicPond already ran at its end, so I had to look for additional funding opportunities. I found one within Wageningen University; a so-called Sandwich Fellowship. Originally these fellowships were focused on students from African countries, but because the application guidelines had changed, I could apply as well. Unfortunately I got a scholarship for 1 year only, so I turned to CONACyT again for my last 2 years. This time they granted me a mortgage-type fellowship for studying abroad. I've always tried to avoid the latter, because it's granted under certain conditions--like returning to Mexico and working in specific institutions afterwards, or paying back the scholarship--but this time I had no choice.

The Foreign Feeling

The process of being abroad is a complete challenge in itself. I've always considered myself a very adaptable person, having moved from one place to another and worked in different environments with a variety of people. However this time I really felt like a foreigner, and walked around with a constant feeling of "I don't belong to this place and these people". Because I don't speak Dutch I've constantly seen myself as a 'permanent visitor' instead of a resident, even though everybody in the Netherlands speaks English. Actually I've found out that I might be more attached to Mexican culture and lifestyle than I thought.


After my graduation, new challenges and unanswered questions are to be faced. I have to go back to Mexico, but the lack of contacts within the scientific world there makes the return home a bit difficult. Political and financial support for science and research are growing in Mexico, but it's not enough to host trained scientists and to fulfill growing demands and expectations of research centres. It is my belief that in addition to economic advancement, development in basic and applied science should be a priority of the Mexican government. With that in mind, I hope to find a good job in Mexico. At least I can tell my mum that a PhD in Europe or any other place in the world is far from merely a long holiday.

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