By Montserrat Castillo Carrizales, a PhD candidate at Kings College London researching drug delivery. She’s worked in the pharmaceutical industry, and has long standing interests in science communication and art. You can find her on LinkedIn , the web and on medium.
Your funding is over and right at the end of the PhD, you need all your energy to be spent on those last experiments and most of your writing. But you also need to take care of yourself, a task that is harder and harder to achieve.
A time comes when you are tired of cooking (because even the campus canteen is too expensive for your savings), of cycling on rainy and cold days, and of getting a nervous breakdown every time you check your account’s balance.
So it sounds like a heavenly way out to go back to the safety of your economically stable parents to write your thesis. I booked the tickets and it felt like such a relief. It had felt as though I was falling free but suddenly I could see from high above a puffy pink cotton sugar pillow, waiting to break my fall. After falling I’d eat it and get an unhealthy sugar rush with it’s fake happiness. A kind of rush you avoid as a ‘responsible’ grown up. It’s a happiness of temporary security, one that you did not attain by yourself.
It’s been 2 months and 5 days since I came back and I have even had the privilege of getting sick, being taken to one or two specialists, being cooked for, and patiently waiting to be healthy again without worrying if I’ll be able to afford to eat anything other than beans on toast, potatoes, or pasta.
I sleep on a comfortable bed in a quiet room. A club membership was paid for me so I could work out, take a sauna, relax, play tennis… I’ve been running and doing other cardio exercises at least 3 or 4 times a week. I am careful of not interfering with the house’s sleeping and eating times. Food tastes very good: tomatoes are red, pineapples are sweet, and avocados are perfect. I am allowed to borrow a car but I feel guilty of polluting the planet if the trip is all by myself, so I don’t take it often. The bike I used to ride to go everywhere 5 or 6 years ago is no longer my means of transportation, due to local safety conditions.
I am supposed to write almost all day, without getting distracted by everyday chores like going to the store to buy food, cooking, doing the wash up, doing my laundry, going to the bank, etc.
The problem is: I am here for a limited time and I have to go back this weekend (without any funding left) to my student life to finish this 4-year PhD no matter what.
So here’s the truth: I have not finished my thesis. It wasn’t realistic to think that in these months I would write it all with revisions and formatting.
Between the family time that I enjoyed during Christmas or New Year’s, I also spent many hours every day sending job applications, reading about successful science communicators, searching for potential funding bodies, and opening LinkedIn to find vacancies shared by my recently added contacts.
On one level, I’m not living here. My mind and my worries are somewhere else.
It’s sad to think about it because if I am honest, I’m confused and tired to the point of not knowing what my passion is anymore, or what exactly my next step will be. People tell you that you are doing well and you have nothing to worry about. That you are very prepared for whatever comes in your future. I don’t even want to look at the statistics that include international students.
After coming back to a life of commodities (to some extent), I don’t recall feeling this afraid in my life. If I don’t get a job soon, coming back home for good means that I will have to adapt to live a life of social expectations that I’ve been ignoring for years, of not speaking up my mind to avoid conflict because some of my views are controversial here, of precarious health insurance that includes no notions of mental health, and of giving up a precious thing called freedom of movement within my very own city due to risks of disappearing or worse. People have accepted their fate: you never know when the next unfortunate event will happen to someone you know, or even yourself.
It’s as if everything around your life is put into perspective. Survive first, and then try to live.
I’ve sent around 160 job applications since November/December.
I hope I get the next interview very soon. Anywhere.
Well, anywhere that I feel safe walking by myself on the streets.
At the end of the day, I want to feel useful to our society and if this usefulness includes my contribution to science, it would be more than amazing. But I also want to continue improving the life I lived during my postgraduate studies. I want to continue improving my quality of life.
It has been a life of opportunities. Unfortunately, opportunities don’t mean the same everywhere. What can you do with potential career opportunities if you fear for your life every day? What projects can you plan when news of violence is so common? Forget about a postdoc that includes some fieldwork! Forget about having to visit one research institute some days and another two the next. You would be mad to drive across the country by yourself. Why would you even detour from your home-work-supermarket-home route? Do you want to …ehm finish the sentence yourself.
No, I am not exaggerating: what’s the relevance of science when on your way out of the supermarket an armed civilian gets in his huge vehicle with its number plate removed and the police are nowhere to be seen. How could I react to a potential attack? ?
Coming back home made me realise that it’s a life of freedom that I don’t want to give up. As Nina Simone once said, “I’ll tell you what freedom is to me: no fear. I mean really, no fear!”
By Kroon, Ron / Anefo –  Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989, Nummer toegang 2.24.01.03 Bestanddeelnummer 918-5601, CC BY 4.0, Link