In October 2021, I embarked on the journey of pursuing a PhD as an early-stage researcher (ESR) in the ALLODD consortium at the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson (Belgium). As I suddenly find myself six months into this track, I would like to reflect on my experiences so far as a PhD student in industry, life in Belgium, and on being part of the consortium!
Pursuing a PhD degree in the modern day and age often goes paired with moving to a new country, and this was no different for me. After my graduate studies in Leiden (the Netherlands) and some project work at Uppsala University (Sweden) and the Technical University of Munich (Germany), I moved to Belgium to start the PhD at Janssen. That’s quite a few countries in the past few years I’ve lived in, and in fact there’s only more to come with several secondments planned for the PhD! Moving to a new country can always present some challenges, and, in my experience, the most impactful one is language. Living in a country where you cannot communicate easily in either English and/or the native language can quickly make you feel isolated from the community. Do not underestimate this. But, being a native Dutch speaker, this was no issue for me in Belgium. In fact, I have never been able to settle so quickly in a new country. Finding great housing options without exorbitant rent was never so easy, and the culture here is truly epicurean.
One of my first experiences with this culture of enjoying good food and drinks was an event organized by the PhD & Postdoc community at Janssen: the “Bierolade”. This is an amalgamation of the Dutch words for beer (bier) and chocolate (chocolade), and, as the name suggests, it involved a sitology expert teaching us the wonders of combining the taste of different beer styles with their perfectly complementing types of chocolate. A delightful experience that I would recommend anyone to try! My favorite combination was a bitter beer together with Sicilian pistachio chocolate, but I am sure there are still some fantastic other combinations to discover.
Returning to the equally wondrous world of doctoral studies, a common topic of discussion I hear among students in the pharmaceutical sciences is the question of whether to stay in academia or to pursue a position in industry, and how different industry and academia really are. While it is certainly too soon for me to fully analyze the differences between the two at this point, I would like to make this a recurring theme in future blogposts in the hopes that it might help anyone on this matter. For now, an interesting aspect I found in this regard is that I was encouraged to read, read, and read for the first few months of the PhD. Naturally, I cannot say if this is different from starting as a PhD in academia, and I am sure it will also depend on the supervisor(s), but I must say it is truly empowering to deeply study the ins and outs of current approaches and insights in the field before setting up your own experiments and methodologies.
It does, however, bring an interesting psychological aspect to the table as well, as not performing experiments for months might make you question whether you are “doing enough” to progress your PhD. In this respect, it is important to realize the implications of the alternative. That is, rushing to choose and setup a methodology without properly understanding its pros and cons will likely lead to scientifically unfounded decisions that you may not be able to justify down the road. However, by then you would be so deep into the chosen methodology that you would not want to abandon it all and start again. Or you do start again, but then you lose the gain of speed you decided to favor earlier. As such, I heartily recommend any starting PhD not to worry about producing results early on and instead focus on getting a good grasp on the current state of the field.
This subject of mental fitness actually provides a perfect segue into the last topic I would like to address in this blogpost: the first ALLODD meeting. Just this month, almost all students and professors in the consortium met in Vienna to get to know each other and enjoy several workshops. The highlight of this trip for me, besides meeting my wonderful colleagues of course, was a workshop on work-life balance. During this training, the instructor shared a powerful lesson that I will cherish for the rest of my PhD. Namely, they proposed the idea of seeing bad thoughts as bees. For instance, if there is an upcoming presentation or, say, you are writing a blog for the whole world to see and judge, you might find yourself questioning whether your work is “good enough” to share. If you interact with this thought too much, it could invoke a fear of how much you will embarrass yourself, and you might become stressed about the whole situation. So, let’s visualize this doubtful thought as a bee or a wasp. Indeed, if a bee is flying close to you, the best thing to do is to just ignore it, and it will be sure to fly away. Choosing to interact with it, however, and trying to hit or shoo it away will only result in the bee constantly coming back and possibly hurting you.
As an avid fan of the Beatles and annoying puns, I could not resist also taking this final lesson as the basis for the title of this blogpost. I hope you enjoyed the first of many more posts to come on my journey in the ALLODD consortium. And remember, if the title is too much on your mind, just don’t interact with it, and it will be sure to fly away!