söndag 8 september 2013

An update after a long absence

It's been almost six months since the last time I wrote any blog. Just like you suspected, loads of things have happened in-between, so the lack of update from my side is rather a symptom of laziness than eventlessness.

My last entry was on March 31st this year. Second week in April, me and my significant other flew to China on vacation. It was more of a vacation for her, since I was unemployed and enjoyed de facto holiday almost everyday. We went to her hometown, a city in southern China known for its entrepreneurial spirit and significant role in business sectors. I must say that over the past 6 years, I have taken many things for granted. I never even thought China would be so different than how I remembered it. The differences also go both ways, the good and the bad. Sometimes it was amusing, like when you see an elderly person making himself instant noodles in a metallic tea cup using the plane's tea water, when it turned out the takeoff was postponed. But when you see another senior standing up, digging through luggage in the overhead locker seconds before the touchdown despite the crewmen's insistence, that was just outrageous.

There was one week between my last entry and the trip to China. To put it short, the problem I encountered, as recited in my last entry, was due to liabilities with a job (PhD) offer. Always playing safe, I talked to two more PIs to make sure I won't suddenly find myself stranded in case everybody retracts their offers. With the SCIENCE paper in my portfolio and other materials to complement, I managed to get myself two meetings with two PIs in one week. Both guys expressed strong interest in adding me to their roster, and we decided to arrange interview sessions after my trip. Other than these two guys, one more invitation to interview came along the first hour I landed in Beijing. It felt absolutely fantastic to be on the choosing end again. Securing my position also secured my vacation, otherwise I might very well end up spending three weeks away in constant anxiety.

I have to say in academia, going for many job interview helps a lot. It gets you familiar with the people. Especially in Switzerland where scientific communities are not densely populated, collaboration between groups and even universities in different cities are common. Researchers sometimes work with e.g. one group in Bern and another in Zurich. Considering it only takes 1 hour to travel between most two cities in Switzerland, scientific collaboration is possible, and very commonplace (conversely, lack of collaboration within Swiss scientific community usually implies underlying problems of the group). Interviews can provide you with valuable "unpublished information" about the group. This is about understanding their research better than from reading papers and knowing how they relate to other groups and external players, e.g. companies. Even if you can only accept one job offer in the end, what you learned from the interviewers may offer insights for future collaborations. Nevertheless, I wouldn't advice anyone to apply to 100 groups within the Swiss border. Words get around quickly, it leaves an impression of being extremely unfocused. Besides, every PhD interview takes about one day and it is tiresome. If you want to find offers within a reasonable time frame, you simply have to go for your 1st tier choices, which usually aren't that many anyway.

Other than science, I have seen political factors at work. I'm going to mention a few. I applied to two PIs within one department, one received a prestigious research grant and was aggressively expanding. The other guy was more laid back, or passive. I strongly suspect the "aggressive" PI made a deal with his "passive" friend, since he decided to let go of me. What's more, during one interview, a Nobel Prize laureate who founded the department came to hear my presentation. The founding father/laureate even came to congratulate me afterwards. Without proof, I can only speculate that my interviewer invited the laureate to impress me. If so, then it was a flattering and surprising move to woo me. To other young, aspiring scientists out there (well not necessarily younger than me), I can only stress the importance of politics even in science. It matters who you work for. After all, wherever there is people, there is "Jiang Hu".

In the end, I picked one offer in ETH Zurich. It's true that my first PhD experience left me a not-so-slight grudge against the ETH system. My girlfriend encouraged me however, she said that given my qualifications, I could even aim higher (than ETH) if I wanted. Considering the pros and cons with each offer, I picked one that would make me happiest. A rainy day in May, I received an envelope with ETH logo on it. I quickly tore it up, it contained a card and a letter. The first line said "welcome back". From that moment on, I knew for sure I was back into the ETH system. The 2nd chance was for us both. Due to somebody who gave me terrible recommendations, the deal I got started with a probational period of 6 months. This time, I will make it work!

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