What is it like to go on secondment? Some unexpected facts

The Marie Curie Initial Training Network (ITN) scheme of QUICS requires each fellow to spend some months in another institution or industrial partner. These secondments have the purpose to allow the fellow to learn specific skills and to collaborate with other members of the ITN.

TU Delft campus

I have just finished my first secondment at TU Delft, which lasted four months in total. Some of the experiences were expected: I learned a lot from Antonio Moreno, ESR7 based in Delft, and from his supervisors Marie-claire ten Veldhuis, Francois Clemens, and Jeroen Langeveld; we advanced our respective work, with the help of each other. But my secondment experience also had some unexpected professional and personal implications. Let’s see what they have been:

  • Changing accommodation for only a few months can be a nightmare. In order to cover some of the expenses , I decided to sublet my room in Bristol, home institution. The main problem in this is that the amount of things that can fit in one room is much more than the amount of things that can fit in the luggage that a person can carry. Where to put all my belongings? Well, probably it is not very professional, but I left some of my things in my Bristol’s office. This also helps with a second problem:
  • You need to protect your office desk in the home institution. Most universities have space problems and there is a continuous seek for empty desks to be filled by PhD students and guests. In order to defend my desk from possible invasions, I colonised the area with bags of clothes and pasta (yes, I am Italian) and I added intimidating signs reminding people that I would have been back soon.
  • Double supervision. You double (or triple, or more) the people you need to report to. While the meetings with the home supervisor continue via Skype, there are many more people you collaborate with in the home institution. The result is that you forget what you told to whom and who told you what. Everybody gets a bit confused, but many more good ideas come out.
  • Collaboration takes way more time than personal work. Science, especially engineering, is about solving problems. When you work on your own research and you face a problem, you gather the information you need, figure out the possible solutions, decide which one to pick, and move on. When you collaborate with more people you need to organise meetings to take each decision. If ideas are divergent this process can take a long time. The advantage, though, is that brain storming and confrontation help taking better and sounder decisions.
Whiteboards become an essential tool to analyse problems and take decisions during meetings.  In this case, a division of tasks between me, Francesca (F) and Antonio (A) puts very ambitious targets in the following three days.
  • You become friend with your colleagues. In QUICS ITN we are lucky because we are a nice group of friends, besides being colleagues. However, working everyday with your host colleagues can have two effects: either you reinforce your friendship or you start hating each other. Fortunately, Antonio and I opted for the first solution :-).
  • Cultural adaptation. The amount of time you need to get used to local culture, language, food, and habits is more or less the time of the secondment. This means that when you finally start understanding what the cashier asks you at the super-market and you start appreciating Dutch bitterballen*, it is time to go back.
QUICS enjoying Rotterdam night life.  In this picture Antonio, Francesca and Alexandre are on the terrace of the NHOW bar.
  • It is incredible how many things can happen in four months and how many things you can do. In my time, living in Rotterdam and working in Delft, I managed to:
    • Join and complete a beginner climbing course (yes, indoor, the Netherlands are too flat to go climbing outdoor).
    • Join and complete a bachata course, and start a second one.
    • Learn a bit how to dance kizomba, joining a six hours intense workshop.
    • Go to the “3 October Festival” in Leiden.
    • Go to the International Film Festival of Rotterdam.
    • Spend a fantastic New Year’s Eve party in Rotterdam, but missing the best firework show of all the Netherlands arriving too late.
    • Buy one bike, use it a lot, and get it stolen (in the meanwhile my bike in Bristol got stolen too, with a total count of two bikes stolen in four months).
    • Buy enough new clothes to fill two additional suitcases, a nightmare during the travel back to Bristol.
    • Make an incredible amount of new friends. Especially joining the Expats Meetups in Rotterdam, where many internationals working in the city meet for some drinks and to meet new friends.
    • Making experiences that are not possible where you come from (no, Dutch food is not an amazing experience, I am referring more to the possibility of travelling to the main Dutch cities at any time of the day and night, visit Belgium, France, and Germany, to the possibility of cycling everywhere without fearing the cars, to the joys and pains of learning a new language, and so on).
    • And yes, we also worked a lot, submitting a paper, producing good bases for future papers, getting two posters accepted for EGU 2016, participating in two QUICS training events, and in two outreach events.

*Bitterballen are fried balls of Dutch food. When you ask a Dutch person what exactly is inside, you get the answer “Better not to ask” 100% of the times. I stopped asking and I did not dare to Google it.

Exploring Rotterdam

Author: Francesca Cecinati

What is it like to go on secondment? Some unexpected facts