Biking through my PhD

Overcoming my initial struggles after leaving China to start my PhD has been like riding a bike.
A woman with a bicycle on a bridge over a canal, with houses on either side.

Shuxuan Zheng with her bicycle in Utrecht, the Netherlands.Credit: Hendrik de Buhr

Having flown halfway around the world, I finally arrived in the Netherlands to start work on my PhD at the medical microbiology department of University Medical Center Utrecht.

I was delighted to think of all the things I would see and experience in this new and different world. That was until I saw the one thing that absolutely terrified me — a bicycle.

I had never learnt to ride a bike. Growing up in Qingdao, a hilly, seaside city in China without cycle paths, biking was dangerous. The local laws discourage it for safety reasons. Now, my Dutch neighbour was telling me I had to learn. She sold me a second-hand bike and pointed me to the car park. I upgraded my insurance and started practising.

It took me a week to learn and a month to feel comfortable cycling. Now, after half a year, I am starting to enjoy it. For me, a helpful trick for dealing with Dutch traffic was to make a lot of noise as I rode: squawks, loud laughs, “look out”, “watch it”, and so on. This frightened other cyclists into keeping away from me, and prevented the crashes that had seemed inevitable when I started.

Now I’ve got used to it, cycling has become a symbol of my growth, freedom and successful adjustment to PhD life in the Netherlands. This pattern, of a time of struggle followed by fun, was repeated with other aspects of my life in Utrecht. There were more ‘bikes’ that I needed to learn how to ride. One of them was time management.

During my seven years of training in veterinary medicine in China, I got used to the ‘Chinese’ schedule. We came to work at 8 a.m. and left at around 10 p.m., often working at the weekend. There wasn’t much time left for a social life or hobbies, so you made your job your hobby, and your co-workers provided your social life. But in Utrecht, people come to work at 9 a.m. and leave at 6 p.m. — and as for working at the weekend, forget it. How do they get all their work done?

I initially assumed that nobody was working very hard, because of their shorter hours. But after a few months, I realized I was the one not working hard: just because I stayed at work later did not mean I worked harder. In fact, the other PhD students were all completely focused on their work during that eight-hour working period and were super organized, whereas I was taking endless ‘breaks’. In reality, I was Facebooking, Instagramming and messing around when I could have been focusing on my studies.

All this time, I’d been struggling with my inefficient and poorly planned working hours, so I finally resolved to ‘learn to ride the bike’ again and adjusted my routine. After a few months, I found that my revised plan of action was much more efficient: I am now more engaged and productive, and I get to have a life after work for the first time.

Something else happened when I started my PhD — and, like a downhill stretch on a bicycle, it was very welcome. I had gone to an international boarding school when I was six, and I spent most of my childhood in a relaxed and casual environment that gave me the freedom to explore without fear. I enjoyed this time of ‘wildness’. But later in life, it became a problem for me — because I was unprepared for the constraints, as I saw them, of formal interactions in the Chinese workplace.

All that changed on the day I met Robert Jan Lebbink and Emmanuel Wiertz, my PhD supervisors. In the Netherlands, respect is based on your work, not on unnecessarily formal ‘civility’. I know that I can just wander into their offices and ask a casual question without worrying about causing offence. This shift has been transformational for me and has made me much more comfortable at work.

Even though most of the changes I have faced were forced on me as a result of my move, I am thankful that they happened. I’m looking forward to the next cycling challenge I encounter.

Nature 572, 554 (2019)

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