Ten days ago, you would have found me sitting here in Davos moaning.
Something like: “But I don’t want to go to the Netherlands! It’s so flat! And all we’re going to do is drink for a week! Why do I have to leave this Swiss mountain paradise? Maybe I’ll pretend that I’m sick….”
It was time for the yearly Summer School in my masters program. The program itself is disparate – with five partner universities and students rarely spending two semesters in a row in the same place, we sometimes lose track of each other. Summer School seeks to remedy this sad side-effect of an otherwise unbeatable situation by bringing together the new students, the graduating students, and the cohort in between. That’s me. For a week, everyone meets at one of the universities for lectures, excursions, and thesis defenses.
My memories of the last edition, held in Montpellier, France, are hazy. Was it fun? Yes. But I was jet-lagged, my luggage was lost and only returned the last night of the program, and I was trying to put my best, most sciencey self forward so I could impress people. As a new student your first week of school, with two older cohorts and all the professors, is a bit nerve-wracking.
So as much as I wanted to see my friends, the prospects of a week like that seemed pretty dire compared to the Alps.
Here’s a reminder of what Switzerland is like, seen through the four days before I left. Thursday:
Nevertheless, I got on a plane to Amsterdam. After taking a train into the city, I met up with my dear friends Daniel and Inga and all of a sudden – bam! I could not be more happy to be in the Netherlands! I realized immediately that this was going to be an amazing week and that I would absolutely not regret coming.
We wandered around Amsterdam and I was amazed at all the canals, the markets, the narrow three-story buildings lining the waterfronts. We drank beer at a picturesque old wooden two-story bar that was listing to one side, about to fall into a canal; we ate piles of Chinese food at a greasy restaurant, and then got waffles. Somewhere along the way we picked up Min Ya, then found an amazing distillery. The chatty, comedic gay bartender who would ask you what types of flavors you liked, and then pick you out a glass of something that he thought would suit you. It always did.
Finally, we got on the 10 o’clock train and tried to stay awake all the way to our final destination, Groningen, a university city far in the north of the country. Checking into the hostel at 1 a.m., we assumed that everyone would be asleep – especially since we were arriving a day early and most people weren’t there yet. But as we walked up to the desk, we ran into Flora and Maryam, two graduating students. They were just grabbing dinner. Despite being exhausted, we sat down with them in the lounge and chatted for two more hours.
It was so great to see my schoolmates again! I filled with a warm, tired glow before passing out in the tiny hostel bed.
The next day, more of our cohort arrived. While the new students were off getting introduced to the program, we reveled in seeing each other again. We got coffee where Nikki works as a barista; Daniel, Min Ya and I tried the local specialty of raw herring rolled in raw onions; we all played pool, where Lore showed her prowess as a mathematician by understanding physics much better than all of us, and then went bowling, where everyone got a strike except for me.
Coming from Switzerland, I had the added bonus of feeling like I was queen of the world. For the first time in six weeks, I felt like I could go out to dinner. Everything was so cheap! I could order a million beers! I could choose whatever I wanted from the restaurant menu! Not only did the city offer infinitely more options and more to do than here in Davos, but I could afford to sample the options. This was the lap of luxury.
This happiness at social and financial freedom continued all week. In our eagerness to spend time together, we accepted every activity, every new idea. Not once did I go to bed before three in the morning. Once, tipsy, we were drawn to the fair downtown and strapped ourselves into a ride that ricocheted us back and forth on a giant pendulum, tumbling and spinning us upside down in the process. Another night we saw that the locals’ favorite bar had a good brand of Mezcal, so we drank the whole thing and told them to order four more for the next night. We played endless rounds of the game Jungle Speed.
But by Wednesday, we had more to do. School started. We listened to lectures – good ones and bad ones, featuring results or just professors imploring us to go forth, be fearless, and do a new kind of science. We listened to the new students introduce themselves one at a time, listing far more research projects and travel experience than we had had.
That was the first moment I got the feeling that I had better try harder: shit, these new kids are good. Get in the game, Chelsea.
Thursday was a pleasant excursion to a national park, and then Friday the graduating students defended their theses. They had been drinking and partying just as much, in fact almost always more, than we had all week. But they showed up to the presentations and told us about amazing projects. Many had traveled to cool places, but others had simply done lab work where they discovered something – actually discovered something. That’s pretty amazing for a six-month masters project.
While the older cohort had, for two years, been having a good time, they also had not been wasting their time. Many already had impressive PhD opportunities lined up. As I thought of trying to apply for a PhD while still finishing this program, shudders ran down my spine. How did they do it?
My friends and I found ourselves often turning to each other and muttering, “maybe this is a prestigious program after all.” Our three-month projects in Montpellier had been on the whole unimpressive, and we assumed that was how things would continue. But this gave us a new view: there was real science going on here, good science, and we had better avail ourselves of the opportunity.
(Or at least that’s how I felt. I can’t speak for the others.)
This could not have come at a better time. Davos is the perfect place for me in many ways, and I am living the dream with all of the mountains and hiking around me. I’m making the most of finally living back in a community where, like me, everyone is crazy about the outdoors – I’m the normal one, not the recipient of side-eye when I describe my weekend to my friends.
But my project is not going perfectly. Things weren’t set up quite right, which is a combination of my fault and my supervisor’s fault, and it’s creating a big headache for the analysis phase that is drawing ever closer. Fieldwork is all well and good, but soon I will have to buckle down and do some statistics. And how to do them? I’m about to walk into a nightmare.
Listening to the older students, though, it became clear that many of them also experienced significant (p < 0.05) difficulties with their projects. And yet they would say: if you like your project, then stick with it, push through, keep working. You can find a way to do it. And they did. They had results, they learned things.
It was a clear message for me that I need to put some time into finding away around my problems, and that my project still has a lot of potential to have some interesting and relevant findings. Will it be exactly what I imagined in my first interview? No. Definitely not. But that’s no excuse to half-ass things.
As I traveled back to Davos, I was exhausted. Usually my body protests after one night of staying out late and drinking. This had been a whole week. I struggled to stay awake; I lost my voice the next day, developed a sore throat and cough and fever.
But I had a newfound motivation when I walked back into the SLF lab. I am going to do this project right. I’m going to do my homework so I know how it fits in to what we know, and what we don’t know. I’ve already made a major decision about what kind of model to use for analysis. I had been paralyzed at the decision-making step, because I had no impetus to get moving – but now, one has been provided.
Summer School was a jump start. Sometimes you need to see a different set of people, listen to new ideas, hear about diverse experiences. We get stuck in our own heads and our own labs, but that isn’t always productive.
So, no more moaning. Long live the Netherlands!