From a graduate student to a postdoc during COVID-19!

Having lived in Singapore for nearly 7 years including my Master’s and PhD, I felt stuck in an endless time-loop which COVID only exacerbated. Soon after defending my thesis, I began applying for postdoctoral fellowships in Europe. Although my original plan was to transition into industry, overcoming the visa restrictions in place for foreigners seemed impossible. Finding the right job is hard enough, but the added stress and uncertainty of doing so during a time rife with the enforcement of travel restrictions across the world made it all the more frustrating.

Several applications and multiple interviews later, I was offered a position in a project aimed at in vitro modeling of the renal tubulointerstitium for studying drug toxicity and viral infections at the Centre for Research in Transplantation and Immunology (CRTI), Nantes. The last few weeks in Singapore were bittersweet – the anticipation of returning home to India for a long overdue vacation with my family on one hand, and the melancholy of saying emotionally wrought goodbyes to all the memorable friendships of my graduate student life on the other. As a PhD student, staying away from family for extended periods is commonplace and the friendships you fashion and nurture have a significant influence on your mental health. I am ever so grateful that I had the chance to make so many.

Nantes is a quaint little city located near the north-western coast of France and is the capital of the Pays de la Loire region. As you can imagine, travel at the time was a real “pain in the nose” – comprised of unending PCR tests and mind-numbingly boring quarantine periods. Luckily for me, I got out just before the second COVID wave swept across India, followed by the inevitable bans – dividing countries into green, amber and red (no prizes for guessing which list India was on). France was just coming out of its own lockdown after a third wave, the number of cases receding and the number of vaccinations improving.  I arrived here in early May, greeted by the start of yet another summer – my third of the year, after India and Singapore. My boss picked me up at the station and showed me to my studio apartment, where I would join the ranks of the “COVID-traveller” in the trenches of self-isolation.

As a researcher, I could avail of the facilities provided by Euraxess and had booked my stay at the Maison des chercheurs étrangers (Housing for foreign researchers). This turned out to be extremely convenient, given how complicated it is to find housing without any knowledge of the local language. I had the chance to stay at a fully furnished studio apartment just opposite my workplace. All they needed was my job contract and voilà – my accommodation was confirmed! I can stay here up to 6 months which gives me ample time to find suitable housing for the long term. Upon arrival, the local Euraxess services centre located on the ground floor helped me with the seemingly endless administrative paperwork – from getting me an appointment for my residence permit to helping me apply for the French health insurance and so on. I realized how important it is to have every single official document in your possession when you move countries, starting with your birth certificate all the way to your degree transcripts.

It was indeed a relief to begin work as a postdoc, what with the PhD thesis out of the way and no looming deadlines lying in wait to pounce at you, a few years down the lane. Nevertheless, you are expected to be more independent, responsible, and proactive as a postdoc. You suddenly realize that you’ve been forced to make the transformation from a “student” into an “employee”. It’s time to say goodbye to all those “oh so dear” student subscriptions and discounts. No more orientation weeks, classrooms, or student clubs. Sometimes, it feels like you’ve turned older in one fell swoop, thrust without warning from the comfort zone of a graduate student program to the bottom rung of a daunting academic career ladder.

I had to transition from studying neuronal cultures to familiarizing myself with the intricacies of the nephron for the new project. The skills required were the same, but the domain had changed. The initial months of a new research project almost always involve an exhaustive literature study to acquaint yourself with the state-of-the-art. In simpler words, you must know what your peers are doing on the specific area you work in and identify a niche for yourself. Use any mode of learning to keep yourself updated, as long as it’s both comfortable and efficient. I usually begin with Wiki and YouTube videos before moving on to journal publications. The next phase is to set up your workspace, acquaint yourself with the lab layout and undergo training to use various equipment. This is usually followed by the purchasing of reagents and consumables needed for the first round of experiments. In my case, Google translate and DeepL apps came in handy whenever I found myself reading French instructions and websites. I have also signed up for French lessons – a reasonable grasp of the language would no doubt make life so much easier here.

Outside of work, I’ve really enjoyed exploring the French outdoors and do a lot of hiking beside the numerous rivers in Nantes. After spending so many years in tropical weather, it’s a relief not to be sweating the minute you step outside for a walk. I’ve also been spending more time in the kitchen as I do not have the luxury of eating at a university canteen anymore. I had the chance to travel once I received both my vaccinations – something which most of us have had to us put off for the last year and a half. In person conferences and after-work gatherings have disappeared altogether in the aftermath of the pandemic. Virtual meetings are no doubt convenient, but for researchers like me who spend a significant amount of time working in isolation, networking events are a healthy way to destress, put your feet up and talk about science. Although life as a researcher has mostly returned to normal, I really look forward to the time when all its social aspects resume in full swing.