If you go back and read the whole PhD and then what series (starting from here), you can find plenty of hints on how important doing a PhD abroad has been for my personal growth.
Don’t get me wrong: it was extremely difficult, I felt lonely, anxious and always blue. I cried a lot, I suffered from panic attacks and possibly a light form of depression. But I learned stuff about myself that I couldn’t have otherwise. I found my strength and my resilience, but I also found my passions.
When I left Italy, I only knew one way of studying, preparing for finals, doing research and staying in the lab: until a burnout. And since it took me 7 years to get my BSc and MSc (in Italy you have a lot of flexibility over the finals schedule and the thesis time), it had really sunk in.
I would study 10/12 hours per day, sometimes spending months preparing one final, always crying for days before the exam. I could never see the end and, when I finally did, I embarked in a thesis project that lasted around 15 months and literally sucked the life out of me. I was always grumpy and angry; it became really difficult to stay around me. I was miserable.
This is how I left for my PhD. But, out of total luck, I ended up in a country, a university, a department and a group that valued my time and myself more than I had ever done in the past.
They could not know where I was coming from, but they did teach me the importance of having interests outside of the lab. They talked to me for the first time about work-life balance (ah? what’s that weird combination of words you’re usin’?), and got me to move out of my comfort zone, into things I would have never dreamed about before.
Ah? What are you saying? I could be doing stuff with my free time? Like, I will have some free time?
This new way of living academia, took 2 years to properly sink in, but then I decided I would no longer forget who I was in name of my research.
Let me be honest here: I had no idea of what to do with all this freedom. I even thought about taking another degree (in archaeology) while PhD-ing (luckily I remembered I would have had a thesis to write soon). Nevertheless, I took time to look around, to try some stuff that stuck and some stuff that didn’t.
As I wrote in an old post, ” 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 learned that I love talking about science, I love helping kids discover that chemistry (and science in general) can be fun, and I love learning new stuff every day. I also learned that I am passionate about my country and I would like to use my skills purposely.
So, at the beginning of my third year I moved on the path that would lead me where I am now: I joined chembites and Physics Word pool of volunteers, finding an interest in scicomm. I joined the UK STEM ambassadors, and found my passion for outreach. I even organised my own booth at a science fair, with easy but fun chemistry (and physical chemistry) games.
And we did have fun!
All of this together brought me to my current job, something I could not even dream about 2 years ago, and definitely something I could never imagine 5 years ago.
Did you know I have also taken Arabic classes? Not so sure why (probably it had to do with the archaeology thing), but I loved learning about this ancient language and culture.
So, among all of the reasons I am grateful I did a PhD abroad, this is definitely the strongest. I could finally break free from the “scientist box” and be whoever I wanted to be. In my own way.