Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Decision: November 27, 2006

For those of you who don't care how I reached my decision of Guelph for my PhD over Zurich, this post will be thoroughly boring. However, such apathetic people, who presumably only come here for the ranting, don't often leave comments.

I made my decision primarily based on what I would be spending the majority of my time actually doing; that is, The Project. Other important factors were money (costs to get there, costs of living there), social setting (language, culture, existing network), likely "what if...?" questions, and degree of uncertainty (about the above factors, about The Project). But I tried very hard to keep The Project the make-or-break factor.

The Project

At the university of Guelph, I'll be working with Dr. T. Ryan Gregory, on a project paid for by a grant he got recently as part of the International Polar Year initiative. For background, the Canadian Federal government realized that we're not really doing much with our vast trackless wastes that lie North of Edmonton (as a rough approximation). Other nations with Arctic territory (Russia, USA, Norway, etc) are spending much more per-capita and achieving and learning much more in the Arctic than does Canada. Other nations, that don't even have Arctic territory, like the UK, are also highly active North of 60. Australia and other Southern nations (Chile, Argentina, S. Africa, etc) and similarly broad-spectrum countries like the UK and USA (again) are also very active around the South pole. So the Feds gave a pile of money to a granting agency, who proceeded to give it away to deserving scientists. It's a bit like trickle-down economics, except everything is really cold and supposedly based on merit*.

The Project will be an examination of genome-size distribution patterns across as many taxonomic pairs as I can get, comparing genome sizes in the low Arctic (Churchill, MB) with a temperate region (Guelph, ON; possibly the East Coast somewhere for marine organisms). I'll be focussing on invertebrate animals, since I need lots of pairwise comparisons to be able to draw any sort of interesting conclusions. That means insects, really, but I also expect to be working on arachnids, crustaceans, molluscs, annelids, and echinoderms. Other people may be working on bony things like fishes or birds.

So fieldwork will be exciting, in that I'll get to spend as much as eight weeks at the field station in Churchill, dodging Polar bears and swinging a butterfly net. I'll also have the ability to do the other half of the fieldwork, collections from the temperate zone, on short notice - I can take a day, or a weekend, to wander around Southern Ontario with a butterfly net, or a shovel and a bucket, pretty much any time during the summer. If I need to go somewhere marine for samples, it's not particularly difficult to get to somewhere like Nova Scotia or North Carolina at an appropriate season.

The Project in Zurich would have been very good, and highly interesting, as well, but I felt that genome size evolution (looking for environmental correlates of a phenotype) was more what I wanted to do than molecular evidence of sexual selection in seahorses (sexy though that might be). Fieldwork for the Zurich Project would have been one (only one) season of collecting. That collecting trip would have been awesome - SCUBA diving in Australia and New Zealand, collecting seahorses and pipefishes, for six or eight weeks. However, there's no guarantee that trip would have actually been necessary (the lab already has many seahorses from Australia), and certainly would have happened only once.

Social Setting

I have an existing "support network" in Guelph, already. Dr. Smit is a professor in the Geography department at the university, and has long been a friend of my family (my father was best man at his wedding). I stayed with him for a few nights when I visited Guelph a few weeks ago. My aunt and uncle live just outside of Guelph, and I could probably use their address as the delivery target when I ship my stuff. Carlo lives in Hamilton, which is remarkably close - the bus took about 45 minutes, and goes campus-to-campus, so I can take off at times (weekends?) to drink beer, admire the view from 10 stories up (yay steeltown) and generally goof off. Unless Julie gets fed up with such boorish behaviour. Also, I will probably be able to borrow a vehicle, likely a minivan or pick-up truck, when need arises from either Dr. Smit or my uncle; this will be particularly useful during the first few weeks when I'll need to get furniture.

I won't have to learn a new language to function day-to-day in Guelph, whereas in Zurich I would have had to learn German. I think I could learn German (it's remarkably similar to English in many ways), but why add another layer of difficulty to a PhD? I'm also pretty confident that rental agreements, shopping, and basic cultural practices will not add significantly to my stress levels in Guelph (rents seem a little high, though). The cultural differences are of course what would make living in Zurich exciting - and I think I'll miss that, but at the same time, I don't think I need to add any external excitement to my PhD.

What If...?

This decision will likely haunt me for the rest of my life - not "haunt" in the sense that the memory of a traumatic event haunts a person, more in the sense that I expect to occassionally stop, stare at the horizon, and wonder, on infrequent occassions, for the rest of my life. So, during the next three to four years I fully expect to ask myself "What if... Zurich?" questions fairly often - like any time something goes wrong**. There are probably a near-infinite number of potential questions with that structure, so I'm not going to speculate on any specific examples. However, I do think that being in Guelph and asking "What if... Zurich?" will be less emotionally painful than being in Zurich and asking "What if... Guelph?", because the problems I'm likely to encounter in each place are so different - problems in Guelph will most likely be either minor social issues (why does this coffee taste so awful?) or work related (why did the computer decide to take this week off, and crash with all my data?), whereas in Zurich I imagine the social questions would be much more significant (what am I doing in a country where I'm required to carry my passport and residence permit "B" at all times?).

I have a Zurich streetmap I got for about CHF 3.00 in the Hauptbahnhoff Tourist Info in Zurich that I intend to pin to my wall in my new place in Guelph, for wondering purposes.


Any signficant move, in distance and career, has a large degree of associated uncertainty. This level of uncertainty is much lower moving to Guelph than moving to Zurich. There's the obvious effect of the shorter distance, combined with the fact that I'll be staying within the country I am a citizen of. In the worst-case scenario - bail from my PhD and figure out what the hell to do next - I know that I can at least get a McJob in Guelph while I drink heavily and try to pull things together. That's the worst-case bailout situation, which I will obviously endeavor to avoid in any case, but if having a "plan B" is important (it is), then having a "plan K" is also useful. And, of course, there's always option 6.

There are also multiple other layers of uncertainty that I'm already encountering. I've begun looking into rental apartments in Guelph, using the University of Guelph's on-line off-campus housing search engine, which is very similar to similar programs I've used at the University of Victoria and Simon Fraser University. I don't know if a similar program exists at the University of Zurich; now I won't have to find out (or read apartment ads in German). Similarly, I know that the retail environment in Guelph will be similar to that in Burnaby, with, for example, second-hand stores around where I now I can buy a bunch of stuff that I won't have to ship. I suspect such places exist in Zurich, but finding them would be more difficult and take more time. I have already made some minor decisions based on knowing what will await me in Guelph - like I know I'm not going to be taking much of my kitchen with me, as I know I can buy things like plates and cutlery at either a dollar store or a second hand store for less than the cost of shipping.

So those are the main factors I considered in making the decision to go to Guelph rather than Zurich. It was a very difficult decision, because either choice would have been good - it's not like I was considering one good option and one bad one. Right now, I'm happy that I chose correctly - but I'm not sure I followed Patrik's advice to always choose the path that will lead to the best story. I may have done so: telling people in Guelph that I could have gone to Switzerland will probably be a cool microstory*** all by itself.

Dr. Tony Wilson of the University of Zurich told me he stumbled upon this blog a few weeks ago while looking for my recently-published paper in Zebrafish, so perhaps he will read this, making me writing about this decision somehow more meaningful, perhaps.

* Yeah, right. "Merit" as a variable probably accounts for less than 40% of observed variance.
** I'm doing science. So "something goes wrong" will probably occur on at least a daily basis.
*** A microstory is basically a cool one-liner. But who am I kidding? We all know that I'll inflate any concise one-liner microstory into 30 minutes of rambling, loud-volume silliness at the first opportunity.


Carlo said...

Honestly, I think that I probably would have done the same thing in your case. When you first told me about the project in Zurich, I thought it sounded pretty damned cool, and also involved moving to Europe (which several people I know have enjoyed very much).

However, in thinking about it, the sky wasn't quite so rosy. For instance, QTL-mapping is pretty boring stuff and the project itself (I read your proposal remember?) seemed to be one of these, work real hard for 3 years then publish 3-4 papers, kinds of jobs. As Dr. Morton here at Mac told me, these aren't necessarily good Ph.D. projects, because you tend to learn a single technique and just use it ad nauseum.

I'm also not sure of how the situation is in Switzerland, but I'm lead to believe that Ph.D.s in many European countries are pretty high-stress affairs. There's low funding, very strict time limits and minimum publishing achievement goals among other things.

From Wilfried's description of the French Ph.D. system (or the description that a guy at a conference last summer gave me about Sweden) it's pretty hectic. Most graduates have little to non-existent social lives and struggle mightily to achieve all of the goals that are required of them. People have also told me that supervisor-student relationships can be quite poor (there's a lot more space-sharing at many European institutions, creating friction).

All this being said, similar problems could arise in Canada (look at me!) but as you've said, you're not in as much trouble if you've gotta overcome obstacles here as you would be there.

And most people I know who spent significant time in Europe were just there drinking and whoring around... something that would be relatively non-existent in a Ph.D.

Oh yeah, and now you can buy a PS2... Get ready for the Geektastic-Weezmacht!

Carlo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carlo said...

Sorry, now it will also be easier to write Brummell and Artieri, 2008!

TheBrummell said...

That's got to be pretty close to a record reaction-time around here, particularly for a long post.

Thanks for the comments.

And most people I know who spent significant time in Europe were just there drinking and whoring around... something that would be relatively non-existent in a Ph.D.

I agree completely. While drinking and partying for 3-4 years in Europe would probably be very awesome, the probability of it actually happening to a foreign PhD student seems low. Again, there's lots of uncertainty around that.

Oh yeah, and now you can buy a PS2... Get ready for the Geektastic-Weezmacht!

Yes, with the release of the PS3, I expect the price of a second-hand PS2 to drop, any day now... Perhaps by February or March I'll be in a position to spend some quality time with Sony. Also, what the hell is "Geektastic-Weezmacht"??

There are several other things I didn't talk about, like the differences between the two professors, and the difficulty in evaluating the potential effects of those personality and professional differences.