Category Archives: Careers

Moving to Berlin and the Next Step of our Adventure

Six months ago we packed up everything into a rental car with the plan on traveling for an undefined period of time. Now, we are settling into our new, albeit somewhat temporary home, at a wonderful friend’s apartment in Berlin. We cut our trip to Morocco short in order to fly back to Germany so that M could start a brand new job on February 2nd. In our typical style, we flew into an airport near Dusseldorf, rented a car and drove halfway across Germany to M’s parents to pack up some belongings before continuing the rest of the way across Germany to Berlin. M drove, as I don’t drive in snow, nor am I terribly skilled at driving manual transmission vehicles, and I especially don’t do the combination of the two. Don’t believe me? I’m sure my parents would be happy to tell you about that time they thought I should get some experience driving in snow, two hours away from home on a mountain road. I managed to pop not one, but two tires…luckily M grew up driving on snowy country roads and we arrived in Berlin without incident.

So how did we get to this point, where we are making a new start in a new city? The short version is that we haven’t just been traveling these past few months. Instead we have juggled visiting friends and family with applying and interviewing for jobs. M recently received a few offers and has chosen one that he couldn’t possibly be more excited about. Unfortunately we have become used to academic job timelines where interviewing happens months after applying and actually starting jobs takes even longer. As a result we weren’t prepared when he received his contract asking him to start within a week and a half – a full 11 days prior to when we were scheduled to leave Morocco. Through some scrambling we switched around flights and called countless people to help us get organized for our move, proving that these things can be accomplished from anywhere in the world.

Luckily we didn’t have to scramble for a place to live as we moved into one of M’s friends apartments. However, the friend was out of town during our first week, which made settling in a rather humorous affair. We were fairly convinced this friend only had two bowls, as we couldn’t find more anywhere in the kitchen. Well, we were wrong and found a few giant stacks of bowls hidden under a bunch of candles… It took me an entire 5 minutes to figure out how to use the strangest contraption of a can opener that I have ever seen (and considering I have no problem opening cans with a pocketknife that is saying something…). It also took me a rather long time to figure out how to turn on the microwave. For the record, you don’t. You simply turn and keep turning the switch as it adds time to the clock and once you stop turning it eventually starts all on its own. In addition, I have learned how to open the front door to the building. This involves me body checking it with all my weight and force and having the heavy piece of crap very slowly inch open under all of my pressure. Home sweet home… it may take us a while to fully settle in.

The infamous door...

The infamous door…

While we are in Berlin, I have started an intensive language course to finally learn German. While I have been making some progress through the use of Duolingo and talking with M, I hope that this will help me advance much more quickly. I took a similar type of course six years ago when I moved to France without speaking any French. I’m already in better shape than during that adventure in language learning, as I can already order beer in German. I proved it at an “American” bar where we were able to watch the Super Bowl. The bar was filled with Germans wearing random NFL sports attire. I’m not sure they understood that the Dolphins, the Eagles, the Packers and the Jets (to name a few) were not, in fact, part of the very disappointing game.

As for the blog, we plan to continue to post our travel stories from the past six months as well as write new stories about our travels throughout Europe. Hopefully I can convince M to post something about the ups and downs of his job search in the near future. I’ve decided to take a break from the Picture of the Day series as I’ve been spending a significant amount of time studying German and adjusting to our new surroundings. After six months of culture shocks, you would think that adjusting would be easy…

A rant about graduate school, why vacations are important, and why I’m traveling

“How are your classes?”

“What will you do during your summer vacation?”

“When will you graduate?”

These are only some of the questions that plague PhD students as we move through the many years of our graduate programs. The answers that we no longer take classes, that summer vacations don’t exist and that we have no idea when we might graduate, are never satisfactory to the good-meaning inquirer. We usually don’t even bother telling them that we didn’t take a vacation since starting graduate school, and if we did that we spent several hours a day of that “vacation” working. Nor do we mention that we spend long days in lab only to take more work home with us and that there is a pervasive fear that all of this won’t be enough to graduate. Ever!.

The stress of these questions intensifies as you near graduation and start writing up your thesis. That’s when the questions become “What are you going to do after graduation?” My answer to this was always the same. “I’m going to travel!” This answer is inevitably met with a variety of reactions, ranging from envy to comments about how you will ruin your career if you don’t immediately get a job and start using your education.

Why travel?

I have always loved to travel. As such, I’ve frequently used my vacations (back when I had them!) to explore new places. During summers in undergrad, I typically worked at a lab somewhere around the country. I turned moving to these random states into road trips with friends, culminating in the fact that I’ve driven across the United States upwards of half a dozen times.

Between finishing my undergraduate degree and starting my graduate program I had about 3 months off. Two of those months I spent traveling around Central America and the rest of the time consisted of driving (once again) across the United States and getting my apartment set up before graduate school started. I believe that those three months of traveling were incredibly vital to my success in graduate school because, once I started graduate school I was eager to put in the long hours necessary to succeed.

Much more relaxing than the lab!

Furthermore, the research supports this theory! We, as human beings, need breaks from work. Sure, we can work longer hours for short periods of time, but ultimately we need to refuel at some point in the future. Graduate school, and especially the end of a PhD in STEM, often requires the type of hours that are associated with burning people out to the point of decreased productivity. Don’t believe me? Let me give you a brief explanation of what defending a PhD thesis means, followed by a rundown of my last six-months before I left graduate school.

By defending, you are saying that you have now become the expert in the area in which you studied, and that you have added to the collective human knowledge by producing new knowledge. Generally you give an hour long presentation that discusses the bulk of the work that you have done over the last four or more years. That talk is often open to the public, although often only the people within your department will show up because the content can be a bit difficult to follow even with a similar technical background. After your talk, the public is given a chance to ask you questions. When the general public is done, the rest of your defense is private between you and your committee. My committee consisted of four professors, all of which I had worked closely with at some point during my graduate career. This is rare, as many students only work closely with their adviser and perhaps one other faculty member, which I assume would make defending even more difficult. This group of people (generally 3-5 professors, but it depends on the program) have read your dissertation and are prepared to grill you on all the finer points about it. This grilling generally lasts about an hour, but can last as long as they feel is necessary. After they are done, they kick you out of the room to discuss whether or not you’ve met the requirements and whether they will sign off on your degree. They have three choices, pass without any revisions, pass with revisions, or fail. The most common is that you pass (you rarely make it as far as your defense if you’re not going to pass) with revisions. These revisions can be anything from a few grammar notes to taking new data and adding chapters onto your dissertation. The time that you wait outside the room as they are discussing is one of those when it seems that everything slows down. I remember standing there and one of my lab members walking by and he asked how it went and all I could do was shrug. Thankfully I passed, although with some revisions. Generally, this is the point when you celebrate. However, in my case, one of my collaborators had flown in from Australia (for a conference, not just my defense!) and so my adviser, he and I used the opportunity to have a meeting about our work. At this point, while I had been under tremendous stress for the last two hours, I sat down and continued discussing work for another hour. It was an intense day.

However, that one intense day is only the final step in a series of intense weeks. As you approach the finish line and shift from running experiments (or working out theory or writing code) to writing up what you have done, your free time typically dissolves completely. If you aren’t writing, you’re thinking about writing. If you’re not thinking about writing, you’re thinking about how you should be writing, or putting together your defense presentation, or making figures or, or, or… The list is never ending. Added to this hectic writing schedule, is the fact that you are leaving the lab soon. This typically freaks out the younger lab members that you might supervise as well as your adviser who sees your knowledge leave with you. All of a sudden, they are under pressure to master techniques you can teach them before you are gone. In my case, I was also a teaching assistant for a lab class during the final months, ensuring my complete loss of sanity and adding further to my sleep debt.

With that in mind, you would think that after you give your defense you would feel elated. I felt anything but elated and while the only thing I wanted to do was to sleep, I had to keep pushing. Within the following month of my defense I gave three additional hour-long public talks to a wider audience, necessitating greatly changing the content of my thesis talk. During this time I also had to finish revising my thesis and submit all of the appropriate paperwork for graduation. I also put together my teaching and research statements and applied to a faculty position. Then, I spent the next two months finishing up a few experiments for a paper, training students to take over some aspects of my work, submitting two papers and preparing for and attending a conference. I had planned to write a research proposal for funding my post-doc, but that fell through the cracks, along with any resemblance of a social life or exercising.

When we drove away from campus in July 31st, I was done. All I wanted to do was sleep. It was in this state that most people thought I should start working my first professional job. What kind of impression could you possibly give a company or a new supervisor in such a worn down state?! To me, the answer to travel and recuperate first, and worry about a job later on was obvious. In addition, this trip was something that I had been saving up for and looking forward to for years! It kept me going when things were tough. Traveling for an extended period of time after my graduation is both my reward and recovery from the last few, very intense, years.

Liquidating and Packing EVERYTHING

In the last two weeks we have sold all of our furniture, all kitchen appliances, a significant portion of our dishes, glasses, pots, pans and bowls, our car (in 6 hours from posting to being handed cash!) and packed up almost the entirety of our apartment. Come July 31st, everything we own must find a space in the SUV we have rented to carry our gear and us up the western coast of the United States. While I’m displeased to be driving a monstrosity of an SUV up the coast, I’m grateful for the $1000+ saved by not renting a U-haul or similarly sized truck!

The process of selling and giving away most of our household was less painful than expected. Already before we started to advertise our moving sale we were able to sell some of the big pieces like the couch, the dining table and the bed to acquaintances that approached us about it. Once the rest of our things were posted for sale online the 80/20 rule came to life. 80% of the things were claimed within a couple of hours and sold within two days. Another 15% were sold more slowly over the course of the week and the remaining 5% will go to goodwill.

Another interesting discovery that I made during this sale is that it’s possible to tell with a high accuracy from the initial email or phone contact if somebody is really going to buy something or not. People who are really interested in the part move the interaction forward quickly, sound more enthusiastic and have more realistic price expectations. Paying attention to this really pays off when multiple people are interested in a part. Showing it first to the one who seems serious about it saves time and hassle.

We had contemplated keeping and storing our furniture, but with the uncertainty of which continent we will settle down in, and when, we eventually came to the conclusion that everything must go.

We also ran the numbers on renting a storage unit and shipping our household. The finances of this obviously highly depend on the type and value of furniture you own, the storage location and the shipping distance. Our furniture and future furniture aspirations led to the conclusion that starting over at our next home will be the way to go.

Selling our household has also taken the edge off of our pre-trip costs, as we have already spent over $1000 in plane tickets and travel related medical expenses alone!

While moving and packing is certainly stressful, it provides some much-needed motivation to sit down and decide what is important to hold on to. I moved here with everything I owned stuffed into a 1995 Ford Taurus sedan. M moved here with everything in two bags he carried on the plane. It’s absolutely astounding how much stuff two people can accumulate in a period of 4 years! Much of it, like furniture, help make a house a comfortable living environment (as I type this, sitting on our hand-crafted bed of thermarests, blankets and pillows, I can certainly tell you how much more comfortable chairs, beds and couches are!) However, we also tend to accumulate a lot of waste: extra food, bought on sale, which never gets used; an excessive amount of clothing; household decorations. All of this stuff is inevitably given away, or otherwise disposed of.

Of course, we’ve held onto a number of things, such as souvenirs from prior travels, a ridiculously large set of high-quality Pyrex cookware and a full set of camping gear, which will be stored in a family members house until we find ourselves a long-term home. These accumulated belongings explain the outrageously large fuel gobbling machine we have rented to transport them! However, as much as sorting through and selling our belongings makes us wistful for a minimalist lifestyle, we also realize how far we are from such an ideal. Regardless, by the time this posts online, we will frantically be filling every nook and cranny of our rental car. We’re looking forward to finally starting the adventure we’ve worked towards over the last couple of years!

UPDATE: Fully Packed!

Fully packed SUV

The Curse of the Ambitious Adventurer (aka The Interview)

Less than 40 hours after we had decided on the blog title “Ambitious Adventurers” M got the email. He was invited for an interview a little over a month into our planned trip. What an affirmation of our chosen, though not-yet-purchased, domain name! While breaking up M’s trip for the interview would be a logistical challenge, our main goal was to travel while maintaining our careers. We didn’t endure a decade of higher education to completely abandon our degrees! We also don’t believe our lives should be dominated by work.

Ambitious Adventurers is about our journey pursuing fulfilling experiences while maintaining a professional career. Unfortunately, we have encountered the attitude that we must be slackers, unwilling or unmotivated to work hard when we publicly disclosing our months-long journey. Hopefully our journey will show that having a career and traveling more than two weeks per year is achievable!

This blog will allow our friends, families and strangers to vicariously follow our travels and struggles while we maintain these ideals. It will also serve as a platform to share our amateur photography of the beautiful places we will be visiting.

Long’s Peak. M climbed to the top. J climbed to the notch on a separate occasion, and turned back as the thunderclouds rolled in.

Long’s Peak. M climbed to the top. J climbed to the notch on a separate occasion, and turned back as the thunderclouds rolled in.

The rough travel plan is currently to drive up the west coast of the United States for two weeks, starting the evening of July 31st, 2014. Then we will fly to Southeast Asia, for a 3+ month vacation, starting in Thailand. About a month into the Southeast Asia jaunt, M will take off for a week to fly to his interview, after which we will rejoin and continue exploring Southeast Asia. We hope to return stateside in time for a family Thanksgiving. Afterwards we will travel to visit friends in family in the US and well as in Germany. From there, our plans start to get vague but will assuredly involve excellent adventuring.

August 2014 West Coast USA, Thailand
September 2014 Southeast Asia, M’s Interview in Europe
October 2014 Southeast Asia
November 2014 Southeast Asia, USA
December 2014 USA, Germany