Life at Stanford: A Foreign Perspective

Roughly half a year ago I started my postdoctoral research position at Stanford. Before I arrived here, I had imagined many things about life at Stanford that appeared very true: a pretty campus, amazing weather, friendly people, and a research environment that is both diligent and laid-back. Now, when starting to ponder the less obvious things I have learned and experienced at Stanford, more and more starts to look different from what I was used to at my university back in the Netherlands. Differences that I believe both sides can use to their advantage. Here is an overview of the things that struck me:

Stanford Pride

The American university system has a lot of variety and I am still struggling to understand all the (sometimes subtle) differences between community colleges, liberal arts colleges, UC’s, and the Ivy League. On the one hand I really like this diversity. The Netherlands has mostly public universities funded with tax money, making them roughly similar in quality and giving them pretty steady and reasonable world rankings. Nothing truly outstanding, the Dutch like to focus on the underprivileged rather than the privileged to give everyone a fair chance. This focus makes it possible for everyone to study, but it is less rewarding to stand out. Good students thus find themselves going through university at steady pace while not really being challenged.

On the other hand though, I feel that the abundance in US university types can make life unnecessarily complex. Choosing a university in the Netherlands is often more about the specific study and the city than about the name of the university. Also, when you have the right high school diploma you will be accepted everywhere without any hassle - except when applying for specific studies that can only take a maximum amount of students. Tuition fees are equal (and cheap) for every public university, making the choice even easier. As a consequence, Dutch students take less pride in the university that they went to, as it will barely make a difference when you apply for a job. Coming from this egalitarian system, it is overwhelming to see with how much pride Stanford students wear their Stanford clothing and other merchandise and how often former students are coming back to relive their Stanford days.

Honestly, if I would’ve gone to high school in the US, I think I would’ve gone crazy having to choose a university. The options are so immense that it is hard to know whether you have even considered all options. I truly respect you guys for having been able to make the decision and for having a variety of academic schools that I expect surely serve every single soul in the world. However, at the same time it makes me wonder whether this variety is truly necessary and, on a different note, whether this should lead tuition fees to skyrocket as much as they do now…

Biking

I love biking so I am very happy I can do my daily commute from Mountain View to Stanford by bike. However, the rules on the road and at Stanford needed some getting used to. For example, who ever came up with the “first come first served” rule clearly didn’t think about how that would ever work with a combination of cars, bikes, and pedestrians. To me this rule seems totally chaotic and inefficient, especially because many car drivers seem to think a bike is nothing more than a pedestrian on wheels and keep waving you to cross first.

I soon became the proud owner of a traffic ticket that sent me straight to bike class. Just like many other well-respected bicyclists on campus that do not see the need to stop for stop signs when there is no other traffic around. Here I learned that a large percentage of Stanford students and employees who live outside of Stanford bike to campus - the same percentage as in the Netherlands - something the folks running the bike class were visible proud of. Also, I noticed that the Stanford police really care about bike safety, handing out free flickering lights and helmets. You wouldn’t find this kind of care in the Netherlands where bikes are deliberately bought second-hand to avoid theft, flickering lights are forbidden by law, and helmets are out of the question. 

 Source: http://www.amusingplanet.com/2013/01/amsterdam-city-of-bicycles.html, Photo Credits:  Photo credits:   Sergey Dolya  ,   Petr_Kuznets  ,   Zyalt

Source: http://www.amusingplanet.com/2013/01/amsterdam-city-of-bicycles.html, Photo Credits: Photo credits: Sergey DolyaPetr_KuznetsZyalt

Dutch people do however get daily practice from very early age, view biking as an absolute necessity rather than an occasional sports activity, and enjoy bike paths practically everywhere. Also, the traffic rules are such that bicyclists are practically invincible. When a car hits a bicyclist, it’s by default the car driver’s fault. The general traffic rules are also different. At an equal crossing, traffic coming from the right always has the right of way, so you can proceed without stopping when nothing is approaching from the right. Next to that, many bike paths are separated from the car road and often have separate bicycle traffic lights. Besides making bicyclists slightly cocky, this also makes biking the single best option to take part in traffic within cities. If only it wouldn’t rain so much…

The Graduate System

Believe it or not, but in the Netherlands, being a graduate student is considered a true job. You apply for a specific PhD project that is often funded through a grant from your PI, you get paid a decent salary, and pay your share of taxes. A PhD project typically lasts four years and consists of research and teaching, no classes. Those classes you have taken already during your master, without which you cannot apply for a PhD project. Because master programs that prepare for a research career most often take two years, a joint Dutch master and PhD phase could be considered roughly similar to the US graduate school system.

Next to the graduate level, a big difference between the Dutch and US systems is the presence of lab managers that take care of administration in the lab next to helping out with research-related issues, and (often unpaid) research assistants. Dutch universities generally have very little RA positions and lab managers are virtually non-existent. Students can gain research experience through short student assistant positions (often paid) and research internships (for credit) during their studies. I think particularly the lab manager position - a paid longer-term job that truly lets you experience life in a research lab - is a very nice way to decide whether doing research fits you. Allowing these types of positions would truly enhance the Dutch university system as they provide a good way to better prepare students for a PhD project. 

The Postdoc

Postdocs find themselves in an odd situation. Twirling somewhere in between student and faculty member, it is the time to set out your path towards becoming a self-supporting scientist. Here that means you do research and perhaps a little teaching and mentoring. In the Netherlands the focus is generally a bit more towards the mentoring part, whereas I have the feeling that here it is more on the research part. This can differ between labs though, but it has been my observation that Dutch postdocs more often find themselves acting as a sort of intermediary between the PI and the graduate students in the lab. Hereby they gain precious mentoring experience that is helpful when applying for faculty positions.

Because being a postdoc sometimes feels like the quintessence of the quarter-life crisis, it is a relief that Stanford has resources to help this often-neglected group. Although not everything is perfect yet – postdocs are often not that interesting to the university because of their temporary appointments - the Stanford Postdoctoral Association and the Office of Postdoctoral affairs are always there for you. They help you in your first days and regularly organize a range of information sessions, lunch meetings, and courses. Especially as an international postdoc this makes you feel less lost and more appreciated! I haven’t experienced true postdoc life in the Netherlands, but judging people’s opinions postdoc mentoring is less well organized than here at Stanford.

 Source: http://phdcomics.com/comics.php?f=1596

Source: http://phdcomics.com/comics.php?f=1596

Careers outside of academia

Before I came here I could name but a few options to revert to in case my academic career would turn out differently from what I expected it to be. Most of these options however were not anywhere near my ideal job, which was a bit concerning. Now that I have had the pleasure to enjoy Silicon Valley’s vibes, I know there is more out there for the large share of scientists who will not end up as professors. The opportunities that both Stanford and the surrounding environment bring about definitely add to the Stanford experience.

Companies in such an innovative environment as Silicon Valley know how to value the skills of researchers, skills that go far beyond executing experiments and analyzing data. We all know that, but Dutch companies often think that having a PhD makes you overqualified, expensive, and less flexible. Knowing that research skills can be valued in multiple ways and having the possibility to meet so many people who made the step to a career outside of academia is both inspiring and soothing at the same time: there isn’t just one way up the steep academic pyramid, there’s multiple ways up multiple pyramids!

Awesome

I am not sure whether this one is very apparent when you’re born here, but you guys use the word “awesome” for pretty much anything. Now I get that being here is pretty nice, but sometimes even the little pains in life are considered “awesome”, something that is a little puzzling when you are not used to this overpoweringly positive attitude. To me, things range from “awful” to “awesome”, where “awesome” will only relate to the best things in life. Things that make you want to shout out loud and jump in the air, like getting a paper accepted in a good journal or having a grant accepted that will allow you to work at Stanford. Now, that truly was awesome!

I honestly try, but for me it is counterintuitive to use words like “awesome” on a regular basis. I am used to being clear and straightforward, telling people exactly what I think. I get the feeling this assertiveness sometimes makes people around me think that I do not like anything at all. This is not true. If I do not use a superlative to describe the dinner I had last night that does not mean that I didn’t like it, it just means it is not the best I have ever had - and believe me, those few are hard to beat.

If you consider this when interacting with foreign people – I assume that this holds for pretty much anyone that did not grow up in the US – you will notice that they enjoy things better than you expect, but often express themselves in a different way. I do still learn from and enjoy my moments of awe, but tend to weigh them more carefully. Perhaps that’s partly why I wrote this blog post: to still be able to share these moments with you, albeit in a more Dutchie-suited way!

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