A Day in the Life of a Dutch PhD Student in the USA

Wednesday morning, August 28. “Are you there yet? I’m waiting for you at the parking lot. Oh, and I brought cash.” 10 minutes later, I took off. On my new (but probably second/third/fourth hand) bike. 14 hours after arrival in Palo Alto, hometown of Stanford University. Time for my first coffee.

My days start exactly the same as back home: with some good old oatmeal – never change a winning team, right? The only difference is that I now get them from a family package (1.8 kg), with a family package almond milk (1.89 l). A little later, I leave my one-million-dollar residence. Okay, of which 12 square meters are mine, for the apparently “decent” price of 1250 dollar per month. Silicon Valley... Oh well. At least we have a lemon tree in the garden. Maybe I should start selling lemonade on the corner (kidding: massive shout out to the Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds for not having to sell lemonade– or my soul).

So there I go, off to campus. My Dutch roots must be extremely obvious. Yup, there we have one of these rare species again, without a bike helmet, but with hand signals. Who trespasses law every day by speeding. But come on, a maximum of 10 miles an hour? That’s just unfair. Fortunately, I have not been assigned to the bike course that Stanford offers instead of receiving a fine. After some 15 minutes biking through Palo Alto, which I can best describe as one big CenterParcs, I arrive at campus. Oh, add a few seconds for every squirrel I need to dodge.

My office is at Stanford’s main building – a beautiful old (well, as old as American buildings can be) building, surrounded by palm trees, Rodin sculptures (no joke) and fruit trees. Including an avocado tree for which I am just too short. Oh, and continuous groups of tourists of course, taking pictures of every corner. But hey, been there done that. For the first time ever, I own my own office. Coming from a 16-person office with flex desks, you can imagine that took a little while to get used to. Fortunately, the brief walk to the kettle gets me out of my office every once in a while. Wait, did I say kettle? I meant coffee-machine-that-functions-as-a-kettle-as-long-as-you-don’t-put-coffee-cups-in. Definitely puts some interesting flavor to my Moroccan mint, I can tell you that.

Just like the office situation, PhD life at Stanford is somewhat different than what we are used to. Instead of first having to earn a Master’s degree, you can – if you are the lucky one being offered a position – immediately start “graduate school” after the undergraduate program. Comparable with our Master’s program you take many courses during the first years, although these courses are often aimed at writing publishable papers. While our program is thus primarily focused on writing a dissertation, with usually a pre-determined set of co-authors (your supervisors), here it’s much more about being part of different projects, collaborations, taking courses – and then finally: writing a dissertation.

12 o’clock. Lunch time (no worries, some work has been done in between). Those from ASCoR’s 8th floor will realize this is a massive change for me, being used to 12.30 sharp. But then again, as lunch takes places in one of the 30+ cafes on campus, and considering the waiting line of approximately 15 minutes, I can promise you that my lunch still takes place around 12.30.

After work, the usual. Although, I cannot remember having had American football on my calendar before. After a few games I think I finally start to understand it. I think. Although the trick just seems to be cheering and yelling when others do too. Doing some sports myself – discovering the machine that dries your bathing suit suddenly clarified these insanely high tuition fees. Drinks with fellow PhDs. What’s better than closing the day with a beautiful Californian produced wine? Well, a beer, apparently, as part of Californian’s wine regions have been burned last year in the wildfire. Never thought that climate change would turn me into a beer drinker after all.

* For those who cannot wait to throw a “not everything is climate change!!” at me, I’ve got you covered: https://www.pnas.org/content/113/42/11770.abstract

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