During your PhD you will do lots of things that will seem useless. Time after, you will reach heights, that when looking back, you will realize that were reached thanks to a chain of useless actions. It’s what Steve Jobs called “connecting the dots”. You can only do it looking back. You have to trust that in some time, your present actions will have some meaning.
Connecting the dots in my PhD, from present situation to the origin
I have not finished yet my PhD at Leiden University, but my CV states that I have been a visiting scholar at the best mathematics department in the world, the mathematics department in UCLA. It sounds good to me (if only my math teacher at high school could read this).
A co-promotor of my PhD was helping to organize a long series of workshops in UCLA. Surprisingly, the attendees of these workshops received the status of visiting scholars, since they hoped to foster collaborations between visitors and resident scientists at UCLA.
Time before, my co-promotor mentioned that he had been asked to assist with the organization of a weird conference in USA. After checking the decryption of the program, I realized that it did not only match my research topics, but they helped economically the visiting scientists. Immediately, I arranged the proper recommendation letters and applied to the workshops.
In The Netherlands you have a promotor for your PhD, usually the professor of your group. Occasionally, you can have a co-promotor. Well, since I was starting to work on some algorithms I had the faintest idea about, I contacted via email one of the experts. Just to ask a couple of questions (I was not scared of approaching the big shot). He not only answered the questions, he wanted to start a collaboration and to become a co-promotor, which meant that I would eventually become also a PhD graduate at his university. A double PhD, fuck yeah.
Previously I had decided to start my PhD in The Netherlands. In fact, I had an offer from the University of Cambridge, which is steadily top 5 in the world, not bad at all. It would have looked so nice in my cv, PhD in Cambridge. But I chose Leiden instead of Cambridge. And no regrets. The project in Leiden gave me a hard on, the on in Cambridge didn’t. And I will end up having a nice cv, anyway.
At that moment it felt stupid
At that moment it felt stupid, unrealistic, and whatever you want to call it. Are you crazy giving up on Cambridge? Why is this guy gonna spend time on you? You always sucked at maths, what are you gonna do in that workshop?
I agree. But somehow at that moment it felt right to follow those paths, and so it still feels nowadays.