Starting a PhD overseas : Introduction and purpose of the blog

I will follow Julia’s advice and not start my essay with a cliché, but instead, say I am also glad I was chosen for this PhD. During my third year of being an undergraduate I realized that I had, much to my shock at the time, started to enjoy doing research and found myself staying long hours in the lab. After this my desire to continue this new found passion for experimental research continued and I wanted to develop it further. However, when the pandemic started I was unsure whether or not I would be selected for any PhD position I applied for and assumed the most productive thing I would have done that year was to learn how to fish (for those interested I am still a shoddy fisherman).

Much to my surprise, after speaking to my now supervisor Liv Hornekær, I was invited to come to Aarhus to visit InterCat and learn about what they do. I met the team I now work with and helped people recreate the conditions of interstellar space in the Ultra High Vacuum (UHV) chambers. It was brilliant to be back working in a physics laboratory after so much time away and I really enjoyed my time there. I even got to spend some down time getting to know the city, I ate a meal with Rijutha and Gabi, and went to Frederik’s PhD defense among other things. This was a world away from the second wave struck UK I had left. During this I was offered the PhD position but after a month I had to return to the UK which ended up trapping me on the wrong side of the North Sea.

So after getting the PhD position to come to Aarhus to research if carbonaceous grains act as a catalyst for complex organic molecules in the interstellar medium, I was stuck in the UK. This was very difficult to comprehend and I felt cut adrift. However, like Julia said, “we have to be creative”, and so instead of sitting around continuing to try and learn to fish, I have tried to be productive. Julia and I have been attending InterCat meetings and seminars which has been a good way to begin to feel part of the group. Along with this I have started a few different courses, such as a student colloquium, where I will in the next few weeks present a seminar about the history of the interstellar medium. This involved researching into the interstellar medium and its history from the ancient Greeks who believed there was a sphere around the world with ‘fixed stars’ to the modern research we do at InterCat.

The title page of Alfred’s student colloquium

Another element of doing a PhD remotely is to make this blog discussing what the journey from home country to place of research during a pandemic has entailed. We aim to talk about our shared experiences to show you what it is like to undertake a doctorate under the current conditions. For any students who read this and are considering starting a PhD I hope reading about what the experienced has been like for us will help you decide what to do and know what to expect. For me, I wanted to do this to be a part of a team and contribute despite being in a different country.

Posted by Alfred Hopkinson in Alfie&Julia, 0 comments

Starting a PhD from overseas: an introduction

Image by Robert Fawcett in fineartamerica

The first piece of advice you will receive when planning to apply for a graduate degree is to never start your essays with cliché childhood reminiscences about your love for science and academia—however truthful they might be. Thankfully, I have already been accepted into a PhD program, and so I reserve the right to this little indulgence: since I can remember, natural sciences have always been my passion, and research has always been my purpose. Over the years, this very precocious—and, honestly, a little unsettling—certitude about what I wanted my whole career to be resulted in an accumulation of long hours imagining what my life would look like at each step of this journey. However, not even in my most dystopian Orwellian reveries could I have imagined that my PhD would start during the worst global-health crisis of the last century, and that I would just have to deal with it.

I applied for and was offered a position to work as a PhD candidate at Leiden University, as a member of the Laboratory for Astrophysics and as a part of Intercat. For my doctorate, I will be exploring the formation of complex organic molecules in space through laboratory experiments on interstellar ice analogues. Consequently, most of my time during the next four years will be spent either thinking about or conducting experiments on SURFRESIDE3, a really sophisticated setup that requires specialised training and, naturally, in-person handling of the machinery. Still in Brazil, I find myself unable to travel to the Netherlands due to the pandemic situation, and therefore I am faced with the challenge of trying to become acquainted with the setup without being able to actually handle it.

“Augean task” would be an understatement. There are no guidelines as to how to start any PhD from over 9000 km away, let alone a lab-oriented one. Besides an extensive reading list comprising most—if not every—work previously done with SURFRESIDE3, there is not really an obvious way to take profit of this restless waiting stage. We have to be creative. Last week, my daily supervisor took me on a virtual tour of the setup, using his laptop camera to guide me through the experiments he was conducting. It was surprisingly fruitful to be “present” while the first Reflection-Absorption Infrared spectra were obtained from the ice, which fuelled me with excitement for the rest of the week. After the meeting, I felt reassured that I was on the right track.

This pandemic is a burden that will forever remain in the memories of those who survive it. Being situated in one of the worst hotspots of Coronavirus in the world, and under the authority of less-than-ideal political figures that refuse to acknowledge reality, languish and apathy regrettably beckon. Still, small pleasurable moments such as my virtual rendezvous with SURFRESIDE3 are the breath of fresh air that can encourage us to keep looking forward. As Leo Tolstoy once said, life does not stop, and we indeed need to live. So we keep on living, and doing our best to navigate this pandemic while trying to get to the other side of the Atlantic—occasionally writing blog posts in the meantime.

Posted by Julia Santos in Alfie&Julia, 2 comments