‘Sorry’ doesn’t seem to be the hardest word.

I started writing this post during my lay over in Doha, but got interrupted by someone that was looking for someone to talk to. I tried again on the plane, but fell asleep shortly after. This time I’m writing from the beach.

After a month of holidays in The Netherlands, I’m back in Sydney. It was amazing to be back and see my partner, family and friends again after 6 long months. I desperately needed this. My start in Sydney had been everything but smooth. A lockdown right when I arrived, meant that universities were closed and I had to start my PhD from home without meeting colleagues or having any decent opportunities to make friends. On top of that, Australia’s international borders were closed. No one could enter or leave Australia without an exemption that is almost impossible to get. I felt trapped. It was hard, to say the least, and very lonely at times. Luckily, I have a kind housemate with whom I get along well. She introduced me to some of her friends and I hung out with them regularly. Later when the lockdown came to an end, I also met some great colleagues. Nonetheless, seeing my old friends again whom I’ve known for years, felt like a warm bath. Making new friends takes time and building a deep connection isn’t something that happens overnight. So it was wonderful to catch up with them, even for one night. It somehow felt like I never left. Since most of my friends live in different cities, we’re used to not hanging out on a weekly basis.

The same can be said for my family. I grew up in the south of The Netherlands but moved to Utrecht for my bachelors and masters. Since this was a 4 hour bus/train ride or 2 hour drive away, I didn’t go home very often. Especially since I had a weekend job as well. Later I moved to Wageningen, which is about as far as Utrecht. Now, I have to take a 26 hour flight to see them. A little bit longer haha. My mom and sister were waiting for me at the airport, and my sister even made one of these signs to welcome me home. So sweet! We got to spend Christmas together and also saw each other apart from Christmas.

Last but not least: going back home also meant that I got to see Paola, my partner, again. Of course, she was also there at the airport. I didn’t think I could miss someone as much as I have missed her, despite daily calls and online dates. I very much underestimated how hard this long-distance relationship thing would be. Yes, you might say that it was naive of me to think that it would be okay. My view on this probably got clouded by the excitement of starting a new job and living in Australia; a dream I’d had for years. The fact that we couldn’t plan any visits with the borders being closed, also made it even worse.

Even though each visit back home was amazing, every ‘hello’ was followed by a ‘bye’ soon after. Every visit felt too short and left me feeling happy and sad at the same time. I didn’t think about this before I flew over and I guess I underestimated how different this would feel compared to my normal visits in the Netherlands. But for at least the next few years, this is what it will be like. Something I’ll have to accept.

I’m very grateful though that borders opened and we could see each other, but going back to Sydney was hard. I hoped that going back to The Netherlands would help me get rid of the sadness and lack of energy that I’ve been experiencing these past months. It didn’t. The stress of this pandemic, changing jobs, moving country, lockdowns, the constant uncertainty about pretty much everything, all while deeply missing my partner, has left me exhausted. This past month in The Netherlands, I definitely felt better, but going back felt like I was being smacked in the face, again. Don’t get me wrong, despite the weird start I like my PhD so far and I love living in Sydney, but being separated from Paola is killing me. This emotional rollercoaster of a long-distance relationship consumes so much of my energy, and has caused the energetic, funny, and passionate Renske as you may know her, to leave the building. Again, don’t get me wrong, Paola and I are in a very good place, and this challenge has definitely made our relationship even stronger over the past months. But not being physically together, just flat out sucks. Even more for her, because while I’m discovering a new country, enjoying great weather and a beach at a 10 minute walk from home, she stayed behind in our apartment.

When I talk to people about this or read stuff on the internet, they all say the same: take this opportunity to invest in yourself. Read books, pick up a new hobby, go out more with friends, exercise, enjoy what Australia has to offer, learn to be alone etc. This all sounds wonderful and I’ve done it all, but it still leaves me feeling empty. I talked to an Australian guy on the airplane who told me about his friend from the UK. She is in a similar situation and is only ever 80% happy. I guess that’s how I feel as well. All the amazing things I was looking forward to, somehow don’t feel so great. All these things are just so much better if at the end of the day you can come home and share it with the person you love. In person, not via Skype.

Now, I’m not the type of person that sits around waiting for things to get better. Because that’s usually just not how it works. Unfortunately. This situation is impacting my mental and physical health and something needs to be done. In our culture we pride ourselves pushing through things, and this is something I’ve definitely done in the past. Not a good idea. Definitely didn’t work for me. Quitting the PhD? Nope, not an option. I like it. I just want my energy back. Ending the relationship? Definitely not an option. I love this woman to the moon and back and wouldn’t let her go for anything.

So here’s what I’m going to do:

1) Accept that it’s okay to feel this way. I’m a sensitive person and for that reason maybe react stronger to these changes than most other people. That’s okay. If some days I’m less productive than I know I could be, so be it. If sometimes I’m more quiet or less fun to be around, sorry for that, but that’s how it is. Good thing that people in Sydney don’t know the ‘normal’ me.

2) Try to get over this horrible jetlag asap and pick up my normal daily routine again. Going for a walk in the morning, surfing/swimming after work, cooking healthy lunches and dinner. Right now I’m hungry at the weirdest times and awake most of the night. A fucking disaster. This will probably take a couple more days.

3) Make a plan to get some valuable output from my PhD while also maximizing the time I can spend with Paola. On a very positive note: her visa got approved and she will come to visit me in Sydney in a month! You may wonder why I’m still so sad right now, a month isn’t that long. Especially compared to the 6 months we just spent apart. I know, I keep telling myself the same. I’m just done with the goodbyes. Life is better with her. And I just can not and don’t want to miss her any longer. Luckily she is willing to move across the world to be with me and also work out a plan to be together. Yes, she’s amazing. And now that she’s almost in the final year of her PhD, most that is left for her to do is writing. And that can be done from anywhere. For me it is a bit different, but the rough plan I made so far should give me the possibility to spend some time working in The Netherlands as well. Covid has taught me that working remotely definitely can work.

If all this works out than we shouldn’t be spending more than a month apart again. Of course, you never know what the future holds, but I want to at least try to control what I can control. By the time she graduates next year this will hopefully all be over. She can come to Sydney on my student visa and find a job here. After that? Who knows. One thing I know for sure: if we move for a job, we move together. This never again. For Elton John, ‘sorry’ seems to be the hardest word. For me it’s definitely ‘bye’.

A warm welcome with embarrassing pictures at Schiphol Airport. Maartje, my sister on the left and Paola on the right.
Bowling with my sister, her boyfriend and Paola.
Gourmetten for Christmas. Something very Dutch.
A visit to our friend Jon in Gouda!
My cats! Oh, how I missed them too!
Me and Paola during a nice walk.

To PhD or not to PhD (part 2) – my story and some words of advice

A while ago, I wrote about the path that led me to this PhD, but I didn’t quite finish the story yet. Like I wrote, I ended up writing an email with my expression of interest in the PhD position that was advertised on Twitter. I remember that hitting the ‘send’ button already felt like a huge thing to me. But I didn’t have much time to think about it, as I got a positive email back from Paul the next working day. He seemed keen on working with me and wanted to Zoom to discuss things further together with Ziggy. And so we did.

We met via Zoom at 7am (time differences are great). I was super nervous and didn’t sleep at all that night. I guess the reason for that was that, I don’t know why, I somehow knew this was going to happen. That I was going to do a PhD and I would do that at the other side of the world. I was kind of fooling myself by pretending that this didn’t make me super enthusiastic. I might have been fooling myself, but I definitely wasn’t fooling my girlfriend. She saw this coming from miles away. She was also the one that convinced me to write that email. I couldn’t have gotten any better support from a partner than the way she supports me. So, mom, blame her for me being so far away now 😉

Anyway, Paul, Ziggy and I met and the meeting went great. Both Paul and Ziggy seemed like really nice people and the conversation went pretty smooth. They also seemed open to my ideas and input and were very much open to discuss the direction in which I wanted to go. As this PhD was not funded, we also talked about the scholarship for which I had to apply, if I wished to proceed with this PhD. The deadline was in 5 weeks, and the clock was ticking.

When we ended the meeting, I was flooded with all kinds of emotions: happiness, fear, confusion and excitement. Everything sort of fell into place, and at the same time, didn’t make sense at all. To make the final decision I made a list for myself and wrote down what would make or break this PhD. I know there are already a thousand lists like these out there, but I wanted to share my take on it anyway. These are, in my opinion, the things that everyone should consider when they are thinking about starting a PhD:

1. The topic

This is an obvious one. If you are going to work on a subject for the next 3-4 years, you better like it. For me, it was also very important that the project would contribute more to the world than ‘just’ knowledge. I’m the type of person that needs to know why I’m doing something. I want to do meaningful work related to a topic I truly care about, otherwise I lose my interest. This is actually something I’ve seen happening around me quite often. PhD students start off super enthusiastic, but when stress starts to build-up, they forget why they wanted to do this in the first place. That inner motivation is something that keeps you going when the going gets tough.

2. Your supervisors

These are the people you will be dealing with on a daily basis. They will teach you what they know, give you feedback, introduce you to relevant people and hopefully, support you whenever you need it. A lot of people want that famous professor as a supervisor. And while that may be beneficial on the one hand as they know a lot, have great contacts, and probably plenty of money for research, they might also not have that much time for you. These people are often super busy, and besides you, supervise 10 other PhD students with whom you have to share the limited time that is available for supervision. This doesn’t have to be the case for everyone though. I preferred to have supervisors that are somewhat in the middle: not the 60-year-old fully established professor, but someone that still gets their hands dirty sometimes, knows the field well, has good contacts and has a nice but not too big group of students. Most importantly, there has to be a click. In the end, you will work with people, not with names.

A good idea is to contact some previous students and ask them about their experience. How are they on a day-to-day basis? What is their supervision style? What’s their availability? I ended up writing an email to one former and one current PhD student, and they gave me some great insight.

3. The location

Now this is something that often ends up somewhere at the bottom of the list, but I think it shouldn’t be. Yes, the topic and your supervisors are very important, but you only spend about 8 hours a day working (hopefully), and the rest of the time you can be out doing things you like. Living somewhere that doesn’t match your personality at all, is a recipe for disaster. I, for example, can not handle cold, rainy and dark days at all. And yes, being from The Netherlands that is kind of a problem, and it is the absolute limit of what I can handle. Moving to Scandinavia would thus be an absolutely terrible idea. Secondly, I really hate being in a place without much nature around. Big cities can be nice for a day or two, but being surrounded by concrete for too long will eventually drive me mad. One thing that does wonders for my mind is the ocean. The sound of the wind and the waves, the sun on my face and the whole beach vibe that goes along with it, is something that always makes me happy.

My dream was therefore to go to Australia: the beautiful nature, crazy animals, friendly people and good weather all mixed together, makes it the perfect place for me. I ended up going to Sydney, and even though it is a huge city, I live in a small coastal suburb where I can escape from the hustle and bustle of CBD life.

4. Your partner, family and friends

This one could actually go with the previous point. If you want to do a PhD and you have a partner, life is a little but more difficult. Unless you find a great PhD near the place you live, you probably end up either having a long-distance relationship, or bringing your partner along with you. The last option is of course the most ideal, but not always possible. If you have to move away from home and your partner can not come with you, think about whether this would work for both of you. If you’re only a few hours apart, you can visit each other quite regularly. In my case, I live a 30+ hour flight away from my girlfriend, so visiting every month is out of the question. Plus, the 8-10 hour time difference makes things even more complicated. Luckily, the plan is for her to come here eventually, so now we just have to bite through the sour apple (as we say in The Netherlands). The same goes for family and friends of course. If you live far away you will inevitably miss some important moments. Can you handle that?

5. Are you ready for it?

This question is also often overlooked. You may like the idea of doing a PhD, but are you ready for it? It’s a big commitment and a big step up from doing a bachelor’s or master’s. And even though if may feel as a logical step after your bachelor’s or master’s, I really discourage to dive head first into a PhD straight after. Take up a different job, do some teaching, try out a job outside academia and get some experience. Grow as a person, put aside some savings and do the things you didn’t have time or money for when you were studying. This advice of course doesn’t apply to everyone, some people might be very much ready. Still, a bit more experience never hurts and definitely makes up for a few ‘lost’ years. I was lucky to get a research assistant position, which gave me the perfect insight into life in academia while working on my skills. I got to work with amazing scientists that taught me a lot of things. I also worked on my time-management skills, got a decent salary, and picked up some hobbies I didn’t make time for when I was studying. I also worked on myself as a person: went to therapy, started meditation, and figured out a work-life balance that works for me. I truly feel that this will make me approach this PhD in a much healthier way than if I had started right after my master’s.

6. Does this PhD match your future career aspirations?

You definitely will learn a lot of things during any PhD, but sometimes a certain job requires certain skills. If your dream job is an office job, it would be good to start a PhD with a lot of focus on for example data analysis, modelling or bioinformatics. If sitting behind your computer all day drives you mad, you might want to pick up some valuable field skills. In marine biology, scuba diving and boating are highly sought-after skills. If your heart starts beating faster every time you see a pipet, then a project that involves a lot of lab work would be your thing. Do you like teaching? Ask your supervisors if there are any opportunities for assisting during courses or maybe mentoring a student. Think about what it is you like to do most, and what kind of skills you need for that. Finding a project that prepares you for that, will make your life easier once you finish.

Going over this list myself made it clear to me that despite some difficulties regarding the distance, this PhD suited me. And to make a long story short: I wrote a proposal for the scholarship, got the scholarship and a few months later I was on a plane to Sydney! Now time will tell whether this list proves to be useful. I will come back to this in a couple of years 😉

Bin chickens

I love Australian birds: there are so many different and very beautiful birds. The most iconic one probably being the kookaburra; famous for its crazy laughing sound. Here in Sydney there’s a bird that’s particularly well-known, and equally unpopular. Unlike the colourful, elegant birds such as the superb fairy wrens, the rainbow lorikeet or the sulfur-crested cockatoo which can often be found on postcards or t-shirts, this bird can be found all the way down the pecking order. You can see them all over the city, often scavenging for scraps to eat. They are like the pigeons found in big cities in Europe. It’s the Australian white ibis, commonly known as the ‘bin chicken’.

An Australian white ibis sitting on a bin down my street.

I get where the nickname comes from, but I find it painful to hear and I don’t like to call it this way. Something inside me feels sorry for this bird. It is a strange sight to see them sitting on top of a bin, so I decided to look into the reason behind this behaviour. As it turns out, this bird is another victim of habitat destruction and climate change induced droughts. Apparently, a generation ago these birds were a rare sight in cities, but from the 1980’s they started breeding in Sydney. As a result of these changes to their natural habitat, these water-dependant birds moved from inland wetlands to the coast. Now there are an estimated 10,000 Australian white ibis calling Sydney their home, while the population in their natural ranges has dramatically declined.

The typical features of ibis make them well-adapted to city life. Their large bodies make them too big to be preyed upon by cats. Their beak has a sensory tip, which they normally push into to mud in search of invertebrates such as mussels and crayfish. In the city, it’s a perfect tool to open take-away food containers that are now overflowing in every bin as a result of the covid lockdown.

Not all birds can adapt to city life like this. Humans are fucking up the planet, and it has a negative impact on a lot of plants and animals. Ibis may consider themselves one of the lucky ones, as they have been able to move into new habitat, change their behaviour and thrive in this new environment. So instead of looking at an ibis and seeing it as this filthy, garbage-digging bird, I would like everyone in Sydney to realise what kind of conservation message they actually bring. Ibis are only here because their home is no longer suitable for their needs, all as a result of human actions. In the meantime, I will keep calling them the Australian white ibis.

To PhD or not to PhD

My friends and family might say I’m obsessed, but I simply say that I love Australia (although they may be right…). Ever since I lived in Adelaide for my master thesis for over half a year, I have been wanting to go back. There’s simply no other place like Australia. So, when I was waiting to hear whether I would get a permanent position at NIOO-KNAW, I also started looking for other jobs; Down Under.

My initial plan was to find a research assistant position. I liked working as a research assistant, and not to brag, but I think I was pretty good at what I did. So, I applied to some positions, all without even making it to the interview stage. One of the biggest hurdles when trying to get a job in Australia is the visa… Unless you already have a visa, it’s really hard to find a job, because this often means that the employer has to sponsor you for a visa with working rights. I will never know, as I never received a reply to my job rejection response emails, but I like to think that this a big reason as to why all my applications were unsuccessful.

One day, I was scrolling on Twitter when a Tweet caught my eye:

Marine plants (!), environmental stress (!!), plant-soil feedbacks (!!!), in AUSTRALIA?! How amazing!! This perfectly combines my expertise and interests! But wait, what? A PhD position?! That was not the plan.

The thought of doing a PhD had crossed my mind before. But during my time at the NIOO, I had seen so many people struggle and get burned out because of their PhD. That’s something I definitely didn’t want. And being pretty perfectionistic, I knew I would be capable of falling into the trap of working too hard, and too much for too long. I mean, I had done it before during my Masters. Let’s just say that when people start asking you whether you are okay, because your face is as pale as a polar bear and the bags under your eyes are about to touch the floor, you know something is off.

I decided not to apply, but the Tweet kept popping up in my mind at random moments: “Is a PhD something for me? Should I do this? The project does sound pretty perfect… But leaving everything I have behind to move to the other side of the world?”. I was super excited and scared as fuck at the same time. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to write an email and see from there. The project sounded super cool, but good supervisors are also key to making your PhD a nice experience. I wanted to meet my potential supervisors first. A couple of weeks later, after having some long internal discussions, I decided to update my CV and send an email with my application.

Here we go!

Here we go, my first blogpost, ever. The idea of creating this website started a long time ago. I had big plans to get this thing running before my move to Sydney and then write about my experiences from the start. Of course, that didn’t happen. The move, COVID, Sydney lockdown and several other factors took up more time and mental space than I thought. But now that I finally seem to enter calmer waters, I managed to write this post!

So many things have happened over the past months that I barely know where to begin. But let’s go back to how this journey to Sydney started… Right after my masters I started working as a research assistant at The Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW). It was here that I first learned how to do science during one of my master theses, and the NIOO quickly sort of became my second family. Working here was definitely high on my “jobs-I-want” list. How I ended up getting this position is a quite a funny story.

During my masters I worked part-time at Lidl to scrape together some money to pay the bills. In the week that I handed in my final master thesis, right before Christmas, I was sitting at the check-out counter and a familiar face popped by to buy some cat threats. It was Femke! One of the research assistants from NIOO. She came to Lidl just to tell me that she heard that Martijn Bezemer was looking for a research assistant for his VICI project. She knew how much I love the NIOO and she felt like I would be a great fit for the job. The position wasn’t exactly in my field. I studied Behavioural Ecology and knew nothing about plants, let alone the soil or the interactions between them. The project sounded interesting though, so I decided to send Martijn an email. I was invited for an interview; we had a great talk and a few days later I got an email saying that I got the position! I was super excited! Later I heard that a lot of people vouched for me, for which I’m eternally grateful (if you’re reading this: THANK YOU!).

Then there I was, freshly graduated, working on a topic I knew nothing about. But there wasn’t much time to think about that, because I was immediately put to work. Jon needed a lot of help weighing plant litter samples and cutting them into tiny pieces for analyses and later use in the second phase of his experiment. I spent hours and hours weighing and cutting, but I loved it. I remember my mom asking me whether I really needed a master’s degree for this type of work. Jon also made me feel at ease straight away. We had long talks and got to know each other pretty fast. The rest of the group was amazing as well. All super nice and clever scientists. The best thing was that they always treated me as a fellow scientist, not ‘just’ the assistant.

I expanded my theoretical knowledge about the concept of plant-soil interactions, and also expanded my practical skill set (I was a research assistant after all). I barely held a pipette before I started this job, and here I was, doing DNA extractions, preparing libraries, doing chemical extractions in the lab and analysing the extracts on very expensive, fancy machines. The group also became closer and closer and I made friends that I’m sure I’ll stay in contact with. Unfortunately, as always in academia, there’s a time of coming and going and slowly people were finishing their contracts and moving for positions elsewhere. Martijn even moved to Leiden University, which left only me and Emilia at the NIOO.

Luckily my contract got extended and I stayed at NIOO, but this time I worked for the whole Terrestrial Department. This was quite a change again, and I have to admit, I missed that great vibe and flow we had with the VICI team. Nevertheless, I was involved in some really cool projects and had a lot of fun along the way. But then the time came that my contract was about to end, again. But this time it was different. In The Netherlands it’s a rule that after three consecutive temporary contracts you need to receive a permanent contract or leave and come back after 6 months to start another temporary contract. These permanent positions are really hard to get as there are only so many ‘spots’ available. So, unless someone leaves, you basically have no chance. Eventually I ended up getting this permanent contract, but it was not the way I had hoped. In that same period that my contract was about to end, one of my dear colleagues got terminally ill. He had already been sick for over a year, but of course we were all hoping he would get better. But he didn’t… After battling his sickness for months, he passed away. This eventually led to me getting his position. It was a bittersweet feeling. Feelings of guilt somehow washed over me even though I had nothing to do with his passing. In these moments I tried to remember something he told me a few months before he passed away.

On one of his good days, he joined for the annual harvest of our long-term field experiment. It was right after the height of the pandemic and it was the first activity that we did with the whole department. For those couple of hours, everything seemed normal. As if there was no COVID, no sick colleagues. I remember how great it felt. Then he and I got to talk and he told me how he loved the projects I was working on. In other circumstances he would’ve worked on those projects himself, but with him being sick, I took over some of his work. He said: “It hurts not being able to do this myself, but I’m really happy that out of all people you are the one doing my job. This makes me feel a lot better”. So every time I felt bad about working on HIS contract, it were these words that I remembered. Obviously, the fact that I got this permanent position also made me really happy. This constant job insecurity can be really stressful at times. Life was good now. “But why on Earth did you give up this position then?”, you may ask. Well, that’s a different story which I will leave for another post.

Having fun scanning a lot of roots at NIOO-KNAW.