It’s a small world

In January 2019 – when I was still working on my own PhD – I was selected for a travel grant to come and present my work at the annual meeting of a specific COST Action on plant-microbe-insect interactions, held in Thessaloniki. I was very honored and happy about this, as I had had only good experiences from their events. This specific COST Action played a significant role in my PhD, as I have visited several of its organized workshops, and annual meetings. Many of them have led to lasting great memories, invited talks, and collaborations. The Action no longer operates, as it was only for a fixed period, but many of the good impacts it had on me then, still remain today.

During this specific annual meeting in Greece, I had several dinners together with a group of other conference guests. Some of these people I already knew from previous meetings. Some other people were new to me. One of the people there worked for the terrestrial ecology group in Freising, but she had just landed a new position at a university in the UK. She also brought someone with her to the event, a young lady she had just selected for a PhD position with her, but that had not started yet. I can’t remember whether we had two or three dinners together that week, but at the last conference dinner, I remember her mentioning a potential position opening up that could be interesting for me. Specifically, it would be the position she had occupied for several years. We talked about it briefly, and I was pretty sure it was a bit too advanced for my CV at the time. I never gave it much further thought…

About six months later I was in my office at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology, when an email came in from the head of my department. I had just submitted my dissertation, and was expecting a child in the weeks to come. However, my contract was also about to end, and with a kid underway, a job would be welcome, maybe even necessary. The email was an advertisement for a job opportunity in – you guessed it – the terrestrial ecology group in Freising. The job description was clearly too advanced for my career phase. I remember discussing it with my department head, and he half-jokingly said that if it wasn’t a good fit he wouldn’t have sent it. But yes, it was maybe asking for a more experienced person… He added that without trying, I would never find out. A good piece of advice that I hope to use more in the future.

I wrote a letter and heard nothing. For months!

After several weeks, I had already given up on the job application, and was also past the end of my PhD contract, basically awaiting a defense date. I was enjoying the freedom, as well as the early weeks of parenthood. Because we had time, we embarked on a road trip through France to visit a friend who was defending his PhD in Toulouse. Obviously, it had to be there and then that I finally heard from the long-forgotten job application. I got invited for a Skype job interview, which I more or less out of necessity held from a French beach hotel. I thought I messed it up, but surprisingly was invited for a second in-person interview a week or so later. It sort of ruined our trip, but whatever.

At the interview, I gave my talk, as did the other candidates, and had my personal interview. After the official part, a familiar face showed up. She told me she knew me from the COST Action. I remembered her, but it took me some time to put the pieces of the puzzle together. What was she doing here? I never realized that I had in fact applied for the vacated position of her PhD supervisor, whom I had had dinners with in Thessaloniki. That was a bit of a light bulb moment. It’s quite interesting to have such a moment right after your job interview…

The next morning I received a call from the head of the terrestrial ecology group in Freising, and the rest is history.

When I started here in Freising, I had not yet defended my own PhD. Yet, on day one, I was told that as of that day I would be the daily supervisor of a PhD student. Her official supervisor took a new position in the UK, and would still be the supervisor, obviously, but the grant and the PhD candidate would remain in Freising. The candidate would need a local daily supervisor. You guessed it right, I was about to start co-supervising the PhD candidate, together with her official UK-based supervisor. Indeed, the exact two people I had had dinner with in Thessaloniki ten months earlier. Small world, eh?

The PhD candidate was already running her first major experiment when I arrived, so I sort of came at the right time. What we did not know then, was that the timing could not have been better for the project, as the upcoming pandemic made the distance between the UK and Germany even bigger than it actually is. I think I had lots to contribute to the project already, but I believe that my role became more important because of the pandemic.

Now fast-forward two years and a bit – several experiments, lots of lab work, analysis, writing and a whole lot of supervisory meetings later.

Yesterday, we submitted the first PhD manuscript. The first chapter is done!

What a milestone!

It’s been a rough ride for her, constantly navigating lockdowns in order to be able to work at external institutions, all while planning and overseeing her experimental work. But she did it without even ever complaining. The data are all in, and analyzed. She’s firmly into the writing phase. For that, this week was a huge step. The second huge step is not far behind either, as the second manuscript is also taking shape. Exciting times!

It’s quite a thing to see a PhD project grow and come to fruition, as a supervisor. Maybe because this was a first? It’s wonderful to see the personal growth and the steep learning curve. I hope I can see this many more times in the future!

Published by Robin Heinen

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

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