‘We respect each other, so we work well together’
After working on his PhD research for around a year and a half, Robin Verstraten could confirm that the work agrees with him. As a PhD candidate in the field of Atomic Quantum Simulators, he says he has a lot of ‘relatively soft deadlines’. To meet those deadlines, energy management is one of his main priorities. Robin has characteristics of autism, so when he has to work through the evening unexpectedly, he feels the consequences the next day.
Robin explains: “It’s not a good idea for me to push beyond my limits. Last Thursday and Friday were busy days, for example, so I didn’t do much on Saturday. I know that working a lot for a third day in a row is really too much for me. I don’t have much energy or focus left.”
Robin was a ‘twin’ student of Mathematics and Physics at Utrecht University. When he was enrolled in his double Bachelor’s- and Master’s programmes, the organisation broadened its ambitions in the area of diversity. Robin noticed that there were quite a few ‘twin’ students who had characteristics of autism, which made it easier to make friends during his studies. When asked how to make things better for this group of students, Robin answers that unexpected assignments caused peak stress. He also found it more difficult to deal with unexpected appointments with little warning, for example when it was time to eat.
During his double Bachelor’s, he trained to become more flexible: “Group projects were a challenge for me as a student. Once I was grouped with another twinner and a third person, who eventually left our group. It’s tough to deal with that mutual dependence, especially when we finished part of the assignment late. To learn how to deal with it, I started developing my flexibility. In my current role as a PhD candidate, I work independently and have a lot more freedom. For example, I’m not a morning person, and I can arrange my schedule around that.”
To deal with it, I started developing my flexibility
Another area of development for Robin was personal leadership; stepping forward when an opportunity arises. “Even though I had experience giving the LaTeX course for my fellow students in A-Eskwadraat, for a long time I didn’t dare to work as a student assistant. But in my 5th year, I had some time free in my schedule that I felt I needed to fill, so I took a chance and volunteered. Together with another student assistant, I led a first-year seminar. And it went well! That experience changed my perspective. Instead of standing ‘alone in front of a group’, now I see those kinds of tasks as ‘working together with the group’. Because it’s more about the interaction you have with one another. That makes it easier for me to fulfil my teaching duties: in addition to two Bachelor’s courses, I also taught a big Master’s course and I’m now the thesis supervisor for three students.”
Robin began his PhD research during the coronavirus pandemic lockdown. So it was six months before he became acquainted with a colleague who started at the same time. “Via ‘PLaneT’ (Physics Lunch and non-expert Talks), I’ve gotten to know my colleagues in a different way. For example, I gave a presentation about Rubik’s cubes, even though I have a bit of stage fright. So now my colleagues know who I am. It’s also a great informal way to meet new colleagues. Of course, I tell them to feel free to contact me if they have questions, and I genuinely mean it, but it’s more something I’ve taught myself to do than something I’d say naturally on my own...”
Paperwork in order
“To allocate my energy, I like to keep the paperwork in order, but I try to be flexible with other people in that area. For example, I’d like to be able to have a weekly appointment with my PhD supervisor, Prof. Cristiane de Morais Smith. But sometimes she can’t arrange that for a few weeks in a row. She doesn’t value a regular schedule as much. We differ a lot in that aspect, but we know that and respect our differences, so we work well together.
MyPhD is an important system for me, because it lists what’s expected of me. But the system became active a year after I started as a PhD candidate. In retrospect, I read that your supervisor is supposed to inform you whether you can continue with your research or not after two months. That had an impact on me, but eventually I realised that it must be okay, because I hadn’t heard anything.”
I’ve noticed that I can do more working at my own pace than a lot of other people can do.
Robin believes he’ll be able to complete his PhD research within four years: “I’ve noticed that I can do more working at my own pace than a lot of other people can do. And in Open Science, it’s not about quantity: I appreciate the basic idea of having one publication per year. My research focuses on calculations with theoretical models based on physics experiments that are replicated and measured in Amsterdam. If I spend six months on a calculation and can publish something completely new, then I feel my work is a success. My work focuses on the unknown, not on the ‘hot topics’.”