Life-changing experiences: the aftermath

I recently wrote about my experience of losing an internship that was planned in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – after I arrived on-site. I ended that blog by saying that this was a life-changing experience for me. Admittedly, this was a bit of an empty statement without an appropriate follow-up. So here it is.

Upon my return to the Netherlands, having spent the six most miserable days of my life at the time – six days filled with one panick attack following up on the other. It was horrible, and I made the only right decision, to return home.

So there I was, or better said, there we were. I had canceled my student room, and had no real place to live. My wife, girlfriend at the time, lived in the same student apartment, which we had shared for years with a couple of other people. As she was planning to also come to finish her internship in KL, this meant that she also canceled hers, albeit for a couple of weeks later. This bought us about three more weeks, during which we would need to permanently empty her room and leave the house. That made for two people without a house. Heike was still undecided about her internship. She was (understandably) a bit disappointed, maybe even a bit mad, that it didn’t work out as planned. We were really not sure how to proceed from here. It was relatively quickly decided that Heike also did not want to be in KL alone. Our whole idea was about our ‘foreign adventure’ together, and about experiencing work culture in another country together. Alone this would probably have been much less enjoyable. (It certainly wasn’t for me.) Heike’s internship project was not so much tropical ecology-oriented as was mine, but rather involved toxicology-oriented laboratory work that could be done in any other lab as well. It was more about the whole package than about the project itself. (I have to admit that I was pretty happy that she did not go.)

No house, no internship. But there was another problem. My rights to receive a student loan would have soon reached the limit. To fulfill my MSc degree in terms of credits, I needed an internship of exactly five months, and I would have to complete it before the end of August. After this, the money well (which was already running into the significant sub-zero numbers after years of taking student loans) would permanently dry up. My mother has never made a proper salary in her lifetime, and I haven’t seen my father since I’m eleven. Financial support from parents was out of question. I returned from KL mid-February, and we moved out of the house by early March. This gave me a good four weeks to find an alternative internship position, and move to wherever it was going to be. Using some help from Peter de Jong, who was the MSc student adviser at Wageningen University (and a PI in the Entomology Department), I inquired with several biocontrol companies. God, I’m happy that this didn’t work out. Nope, that didn’t work out. Basically no company offered internships at such short notice. I had to find an alternative. Peter mentioned that I could try the NIOO, an institute which was on-campus. I tried two people. One was Martijn Bezemer, and the second one was Jeff Harvey. At this point it really didn’t matter to me. I just needed an internship, quick. If it had insects in it. Great. Martijn never replied, and Jeff I had to mail a couple of times to get a response (I found his work on parasitoids more interesting than Martijn’s work). Jeff and I had our first meeting on April 1st, I think. Just in time.

Jeff and I had a good click. We share the same love for natural history. He and I decided on a couple of projects that I would be workin on. All in all this was a fairly successful five-month internship, as it has led to two first author papers, and two other co-authored papers on experiments I did together with Jeff. There is still unpublished data from side-projects from those five months that is on the shelf. What was important for me, personally, is that I started this internship being at my absolute lowest. Self-esteem was gone. I was a mental wreck. Jeff didn’t care about this. Or well, I should say that he did! Our conversations, shared sense of humor, and his understanding for the situation is part of what brought me back from this bad period in my life. Maybe more importantly, Jeff had concluded that I was pretty good at this. Aside from telling everyone in the institute about it, he also decided to tell people that I would be great for PhD’s. I wasn’t so sure about that myself. My self-esteem has never been very high. I attributed the success in my internship mostly to Jeff.

And so it was that a few weeks before my internship ended, I was approached by the abovementioned Martijn Bezemer. He had heard great stories about me, and encouraged me to apply for a PhD that he had available. In my mind, I did not stand a chance, but since he invited me to apply, I decided to do so. Having experienced some application procedures myself from the other side of the table lately, I think I wrote a decent letter. At least it got me officially invited for a twenty-minute interview.

Now you must think, this guy is privileged. He basically got his PhD because he was already at the institute. You have to believe me when I say it was the opposite. Because I was already at the institute, I have been grilled and grilled and grilled until I was burnt out. The first 20-minute interview turned into an hour and forty-five minutes. My interviewers, Martijn Bezemer and Arjen Biere, seemed not to be convinced. God it took so long. Somehow I made it through to the next round. A twenty-minute presentation, followed by another short interview. The presentation I timed perfectly, so that did not take longer. The presentation was pretty horrible. In hindsight, I should have looked up more literature on the subject. The discussion after was horrible. Many people in the audience asked questions, and not a soul seemed impressed by any of the answers. The following interview, again about two hours, was not much better. Because I was already at the institute, I was summoned for a third interview, in which Martijn admitted that he was not completely convinced, but that Jeff was very positive, and that this weighed in a lot. I’m not sure what I said then, but I remember telling him that I was motivated to do the project, as long as there would be room for side-projects to work on, if the opportunity presented itself. I remember well, because I remember his odd response. “As long as you don’t want to work on elephants. We don’t work on elephants here.” Such a shame, because I had big plans… The next day I was offered the position, but it was pretty clear that not everyone (or even better, almost no one) agreed with this decision. In my first year I have heard many many whispers that people did not think I was up for the challenge. (Well. fuck them.) This was perhaps the best thing that could have happened to me. It gives me great pleasure to prove people that they are wrong about me…

What about Heike, you ask? Well, together we found a house pretty soon*. She also found a replacement internship at a very nice company, where before the end of her internship they already offered her a permanent position. This would be unthinkable in academia, but apparently these things happen in companies. Well, mostly to awesome people, of course. And Heike is very awesome.

Fast-forward to a couple of years later, and I made it through my PhD. All dissertation chapters were published when I defended (1 review and 4 data papers). Several works from many side-projects were published shortly after (and in fact are still coming out, including one accepted in New Phytologist this week!). I think it was a very successful PhD. All the people that were part of the whispers have since talked to me about how impressed they were. (Haha! Gotcha!)

The point of this post is not really to boast about how great my PhD was. (I’m not all that confident that it was, and I still attribute much of it to luck and the right colleagues.) However, this post is more about life-changing experiences, and I think this is a good example of how life changes all the time. At the end of February 2015 I was on the floor and crying. I was beaten by the world. Less than six months later, I was offered a PhD position. It is normal to go through shit sometimes. Perhaps even more important, you can often do something about this. By exposing yourself to the right people and lots of positivity, you can change most situations for the better. Within a matter of six months, the world can (and probably will) be a very different place.

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*This was the house I initially wanted to write about before I wrote the KL post. It was a pretty weird place. But fun. Now that all of this serious stuff is out of the way, I guess I can write about the house story/stories soon.

Published by Robin Heinen

Father of one but almost two | Husband | Entomologist and Ecologist | Postdoctoral Researcher @ TUM | Traveler | Coffee Addict

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