You will think that a Ph.D. is a difficult journey. I am not here to contradict you.
And in a different country is maybe even worse, but mine, just changed my life.
The University life I had in Italy was pretty much studying studying studying and then studying some more. Social life only happened very late at night – after countless hours of studying. There was very little time for anything else, a museum on a weekend or a rare movie – again – on a late night.
My Master thesis prepared me for 12-hours workdays, failed experiments, and sleepless nights. I was ready for a Ph.D. with similar rhythms, where I would throw myself in the lab and forget about the outside world.
Little did I know, this Ph.D. was supposed to be where I’d find myself.
A Ph.D. is so much more than a Research Project
It may have been the life in a different country, or a slow adaptation to new culture and habits. Don’t forget to add to this picture my almost-null social life.
It took me around 18 months to start un-learning what I had experienced in Italy. I assimilated (very slowly) the importance of a work-life balance.
That was a game-changer: I could get out of the lab at acceptable hours and start exploring in a context where I was alone, and I could be more than just a chemist.
That made me discover who I was: a curious kid with a broad spectrum of interests.
And many of them had nothing to do with chemistry. I realized how curious I am about archaeology, art, history, and languages.
I took Arabic classes, read historical books and archaeological chemistry papers, and watched documentaries.
The person I knew was evolving into something that was more me. I realized I was not just a chemist, that does not define me, and I don’t want to be closed in that box.
I wish I had known earlier that it was as simple as listening carefully.
(Unfortunately, that is something that you cannot do while you are studying in Italy. As someone said to me recently, University is like a tunnel, where you only see the end, but you cannot take any turns.)
And while I was listening to myself, something happened. I found a way to use my chemistry knowledge and turn it into something I was passionate about: communication and outreach.
Just like that – because I had time to listen – I found myself and everything that I had set aside since I started my undergraduate degree.
Would it have been nice if I had known earlier? Yes. I would have had more time to turn it into a job. But I am so grateful to this experience for giving me the mental space to talk to myself.
The only thing I regret is taking those 18 months to understand it.