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Vrouw in bruidsjurk met hond

The best case scenario

I am getting married exactly four weeks from typing this sentence. It is a notion that is as strange as it is obvious: we have planned for the wedding ourselves and the way calendars work, the date tends to get nearer as time passes by. Still it feels like Far Far Away Land for now. And probably it will feel like that until the day that I walk down the aisle. I know that this is how it goes; I have lived it before. It was exactly five years ago and they called that ceremony my PhD defence.

Once upon a time..

In the pre-defence period, I got lost in planning so many things that I forgot what I was actually planning. There were deadlines for diverse documents at different points in time, guest lists, invitations, and a growing dread that I was supposed to say very profound things in front of many of my dearest friends and colleagues very soon. I know, I know, saying one word suffices, it is merely a ceremony, but who wants to obtain their PhD by screaming ‘Mommy?’ or ‘Help!’? I didn’t.

In the pre-marriage period, there are also many bureaucratic hoops we need to jump through. There are deadlines for diverse documents at different points in time, guest lists, invitations, and a growing dread that we are supposed to say very profound things in front of many of our dearest friends and colleagues very soon. I know, I know, saying one word suffices, it is merely a ceremony, but who wants to start their marriage by merely squeaking ‘Yes’? I don’t. And I know I won’t.

The part where the main characters rise to the challenge

One thing I learned from my PhD defence is that tension helps me to get ready. Like an athlete who pumps up her adrenaline before the race, ready to shine, tension helps me focus and speed up my mind. I’m sure I’m not unique in this. I have seen it happen to many PhD students: the almost unbearable build-up of stress before the PhD defence, the tense faces upon entering the auditorium, the hurdle of the first question, and then… a stream of awesomeness that leaves family and friends baffled. For those among you who still have their defence ahead: chances are that you will even enjoy it. For those of you who are now shaking their heads in disbelief: it is probably even worse. Chances are that after your defence you will also become one of the dreaded disciples of the “don’t worry, you’ll enjoy it” message.

A PhD defence has so many resemblances to a wedding ceremony, that it almost feels like I’m entering my second marriage. Naturally, there are a few differences: the aisle will not be in the University’s auditorium, but in the belly of an old water tower. My paranymphs will be a bit younger and we will call them bridesmaids. The clerk will be the beadle (pedel) and will start the ceremony with a “Dearly beloved” instead of “Esteemed PhD candidate”. I will promise being faithful as a wife instead of as a Doctor. And most importantly:

 We will not end the ceremony with a time’s up (Hora finita): our time is just beginning.

… and they lived happily ever after

This is where the marriage metaphor breaks down. While your PhD years may seem like a long engagement, many of you will decide not to consummate the marriage. As many as 70%1 of the students directly leave science after the climax of their promotion. It would be quite peculiar if that number would be the same after the wedding.

For those PhD graduates who do decide to continue in science, the path becomes eerily similar to (the standard image of) married life again: you invest in the partnership(s) you have, start building your own family (research group), and will spend countless sleepless nights thinking about how to financially maintain yourself and your kin. In science, money problems are often at the root of fundamental friction, and divorce rates for scientific unions are even higher than those for actual marriages. In the Netherlands, less than 2 out of 10 of the graduated PhD students1 will uphold their union, while 2 out of 3 of the married couples will2. Still, many of us dive in.

We dive in, because we want to push the boundaries of knowledge, because we want to learn and grow, because we want to inspire and be inspired. We dive in despite the many worst case scenarios we can think of. We dive in, because we want to put our hearts and minds into the opposite: realizing the best case scenario. At least that is what I will do. In both of my marriages.

This column was written for the newsletter of the Research School of Behavioural and Cognitive Neurosciences

Picture: Courtesy by Sander Martens

Woman typing in her wedding dress

1 https://www.rathenau.nl/nl/publicatie/facts-and-figures-academic-careers-netherlands

2 https://www.cbs.nl/nl-nl/faq/specifiek/hoeveel-huwelijken-eindigen-in-een-echtscheiding-

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