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My Academic Journey (so far)

On Thursday the 17th of January, at precisely 15:00 my third graduation ceremony will start. In this case, I will be awarded an MA in Social Science Research, as part of my PhD (1+3). This will be my second Postgraduate degree, following my MSc in Behavioural and Economic Science. Both are from Warwick.

Now in times of celebration (although I cannot say I particularly care about this graduation), I like to reflect, as pretentious as that may sound. I have been in tertiary education for 5,5 years now. I will continue to be in it for another 2,5 as I should by that time finish my PhD. Given that I am willing to give over a quarter of my (current) life to academia, it might be time to see how it has affected me. 

I started my "journey" when realising that not a single topic in high school interested me, apart from just being there and observing and interacting with people. It is unsurprising that, being only interested in behaviour, I wanted to do psychology. However, as University Open days and talks went by, psychology as a study on its own did not seem enough. Something was missing. I always claimed I would never look into economics, as my dad was an economist, and of course at the ripe age of 15, everything you dad does is lame. So economics was super lame by default. Until you realise yourself that you are an incredibly disciplined person, except when it comes to money. That realisation hits hard. So I side-eyed the field of economics. It didn't seem to bad when looking at managing finances through the eye of psychology. However, really specialised, interdisciplinary fields do not tend to be taught in undergraduate degrees, and I wasn't exactly going to study "the basics" for 3 or 4 years. I knew I wouldn't last that long not doing what I wanted. By sheer luck (no joke), a friend of mine went to a talk given by a University College Maastricht (UCM), on their program. She sold it to me as an interdisciplinary undergraduate which might be interesting. UCM sold itself to me as a "choose your own adventure" degree. In which only 4 out of 24 courses were mandatory and the other 20 were up to you. Where you could combine psychology with economics, or biology with psychology, or politics and history. At the end of the talk they mentioned the impending deadline, and that only about  10% (currently even lower) of applicants were successful. I was hooked. I wanted to do nothing else. 

I applied almost immediately after that talk. My references, motivation statement, grades, proof of English capabilities, all were collected and created instantly. I had no patience (this is not my most positive trait...). I had my interview somewhere halfway through November, 2012. It was about half an hour. I was stressed, the questions were too difficult, I felt clueless and useless. I was being interviewed by what turned out to be two professors in Philosophy, who were (still are) infinitely smarter than I was (and am). As soon as my mom had picked me up and I was in the safety of her car, I balled my eyes out. I felt I had absolutely tanked that interview, and I had no back-up plan. What was a 17 year old to do?

Just before Christmas 2012 I had gotten the e-mail congratulating me on my successful interview. This made me end up at UCM in the fall of 2013. Barely any lectures, two tutorials per course per week, three courses per term. Unprepared for a tutorial (which had a maximum of 14 people)? Hope you don't get kicked out because you fail to contribute sufficiently. The workload was easily double that of any undergraduate program. The professors were engaged, seemed to know everything and endlessly stimulated discussion, as most modules were discussion-based. I managed to combine psychology with economics, statistics and game theory. I was ecstatic and have always remained happy about having done my undergraduate there. 

But not all was rainbows and sunshine. The Netherlands is quite notorious for one thing: wanting things to fit seamlessly. When applying for postgraduate degrees in Economic Psychology (Tilburg) I was told I did not have enough modules reflecting what I had learned in psychology. When applying for Behavioural Economics (Rotterdam), the same response was given with regards to my modules in economics. I was stuck. I remember going to the office of Teun Dekker, at that time, interim-dean of UCM (and one of the philosophers from my admission interview) and being quite unsure as to how to proceed. His first question was: do you want to stay in the Netherlands? I told him that as they seemingly did not want me, I'd be happy to go anywhere. Teun told me to look into the UK. UCM had always had several ties to the London School of Economics (LSE), so going there would be no issue. I told him I would do some more research and let him know. 

Within the same week, with the unwavering support and continuous companionship of my (still) best friend Amy, I sifted through the many behavioural economics programs there are in the world, specifically those in the UK. I ended up starting the application process of several universities, but only completing the one for Warwick. I was told my application was successful not a month later. Then it finally hit me: I'm moving countries.

Integrating into a new country is not easy. Luckily, there were hardly any cultural difficulties, as I only crossed a sea, and there was no language barrier (most Dutch speak fluent English). Most of my friends in the MSc year, however, remained foreigners who were as lost as I was in the beginning. Migration aside, the MSc was amazing. Again, high workload, small groups, really invested professors. I won't dive into too much detail, as I have already written the MSc BES review. 

The Warwick environment, especially the business school (WBS) puts a lot of emphasis on employability and career options. So a month after the MSc had started, I was already applying to consultancy firms such as Bain, McKinsey, PWC, etc. I was doing assessments centres next to my readings. And doing most of my assignments on the train to the interviews for graduate schemes. I hated all of it. The vibe, the people, the approach, the standardised tests. I quickly realised this was not for me. In UCM I turned to Teun, a goofball with an endless collection of knowledge and great public speaking abilities. I found my goofball in Warwick as well: Neil Stewart. Lost and clueless once again, I e-mailed him to hope he had time to help me out. And he did help me out. He told me to do some deep introspection in what interests me, if I had ever considered research, and as such a PhD. I met him again a week later giving him answers to all these questions. Neil offered to help me out as I started figuring out how to apply to a PhD.

The initial idea was to come back home. I wanted to do my PhD in the Netherlands, trying to get back into Rotterdam, specifically the Tinbergen Institute. Although I had sorted out a supervisor there, had skyped him multiple times and we were forming concrete research plans, somewhere something kept nagging me. I did not feel remotely secure in either the topic nor the supervisor. It is unsurprising then that I continued my application to WBS as well. I told Neil about my ideas and development, he offered to take me on as his PhD. I also managed to convince Andrea Isoni to become my supervisor as well and had both of them help me through the process of PhD and funding application. By January 2017 I had my WBS PhD with full funding. The Rotterdam application fell through as they preferred hiring someone from their own institute compared to me. It was something I had almost expected to happen, it just never felt right.  In March the Economic and Social Research Council told me that on the basis of my proposal they would fund my tuition fees. I was through the roof and far over the moon. I was set for the next 4 years. 

There was, however, one slight oversight. The application I did with Neil for the ESRC funding was supposed to be for 3,5 years. What I ended up getting was a 1+3. This meant another degree, an MA. You would think this would be something I had realised early on, say in March. I figured it out at the end of September, the starting date being the 2nd of October. I have reviewed how I felt about the specific parts of the MA in my first year PhD review. Ultimately, I rolled with the punches and got where I am now. No complaints. 

So that is my (academic) life up until now. We will see what the remaining 2,5 years of the PhD bring. When I finally get to that stage. You might be surprised as to what a mess this journey has been. A continuum of me being lost, asking one person to help me out, and fully focussing on that one suggestion they give me and just being lucky never having needed a back up plan. I don't expect the future to be similar as I enter the field of postdocs and hopefully professorships. I'll let you know how I fare! The next article will focus on time management, specifically when in a PhD, as this is quite an unstructured process. So stay tuned if you want less of a reflection, and more of a "Oh god I really f-cked up this time" type article!

2 Kommentare

Merle van den Akker
Merle van den Akker
15. Jan. 2019

@jd congratulations to your son! I do think I will write one, or potentially even more, article(s) about the differences between education, universities, teaching methods etc. in the Netherlands vs. the UK. If you or your son have any specific questions don't hesitate to reach out!

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Congratulations, Merle. Thats quite some journey. Interested in what you have to say about Universities in the Netherlands as my son is just about to apply to do a Masters in Amsterdam this October in the maths / philosophy / logic arena. I'll pass on your observations! J

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