Reassuringly calm, empty, and ordered; without the usual hustle and bustle inherent to a European transport hub. Ordinarily, Brussels Airport would never have felt so delightful. But in current times, empty airports and a lack of bustle are a constant reminder that nothing is normal, and despite my usual delectation in having an entire row to myself in the aircraft, the journey to Stavanger from Brussels to start a new position as a PhD research fellow in the POLISS project did feel a bit of strange one.

But I certainly wasn’t the only one in making a somewhat rare and slightly anxious plane journey recently. POLISS – a collaboration between seven European universities’ examining the development and application of the EU’s Smart Specialisation policy – has now welcomed 14 PhDs to the network, hailing from across and outwith the European continent. Whilst most of us have managed to make it safe and sound to our new countries and are starting our PhDs in situ, there are others starting from further afield; awaiting a break in the European travel restrictions to make the somewhat bumpy journey over.

Photo: Paul Mocan/Unsplash

Uncertainty and excitement are the order of the day. Starting a PhD is a nerve-wracking enough experience, and in a foreign country, doubly so. But even in normal times, crossing countries to start a new job brings with it the anxieties of not knowing the working culture, the administrative requirements, or what the social scene might be like. Add into that, starting at times of rolling lockdowns, increased self-isolation, little chance for meeting others (and for those of us arriving in the UK, remembering the ‘B’ word!), then it’s no surprise that the usual nervousness surrounding such a move might be magnified somewhat.

And whilst some of us were travelling from within Europe, others had to plot a course from as far afield as China, Indonesia, and Argentina; navigating quickly-changing rules, abrupt travel cancellations, the odd repatriation flight and somewhat fluid testing, entry and quarantine regulations. And this of course not to mention the complexity of arranging visas and other documentation from embassies in a state of shutdown.

Going with the flow and being prepared to make contingency plans on the spot are now our well-employed transversal skills, as has been settling anew amidst a multitude of differing national and local rules. Quarantine and isolation are a necessary and common fact of life for the international arrival in 2020: in Hungary (at least before the borders closed), proof of two negative test results meant quarantine could be avoided, rental contracts signed, and registration in Pécs commenced. For one of us arriving in the Netherlands, life in Utrecht could only begin after a ten-day compulsory quarantine (not too bad considering the previous five months of self-isolation and strict lockdown in Buenos-Aires).

Norway still requires all foreign visitors not-yet resident to complete a stay in a quarantine hotel; something which the university, thankfully, organised. For me, after having finished up a demanding job barely three days’ before, ten days in a hotel was almost somewhat welcome. Being Norway, Stavanger Airport is remarkably scenic, has a 2.3km white sandy beach at the runway’s end, and, as I hail from Aberdeen originally, the constant to-ing and fro-ing of helicopters from the North Sea and Scottish accents in the lobby offered a degree of comforting familiarity.

Following quarantine, it was time to embark on the more ‘usual’ administrative processes of changing country! But taking care of administration also allows a little time for exploration. With London, Valencia, Lausanne, Milan, Utrecht, Stavanger, Pécs and Vienna all party to the POLISS project, despite the restrictions on daily life, starting a Marie-Skłodowska Curie (MSCA) fellowship certainly offers the opportunity of exploring some of Europe’s oldest (and newest) seats of learning . Many of us have taken the opportunity to explore the environs to the extent 2020 will allow, whether that’s wandering the streets of the old city of Pécs, with its fourteenth-century university and multiple Turkish, Russian and Roman cultural monuments, taking advantage of Dutch geography to cycle the fabulous city of Utrecht, or a brief escape to the hills of Ryfylke; a short distance from Norway’s energy capital, Stavanger.

However, whilst most things went relatively smoothly, the odd mishaps happen – toothache, bank fraud, living for weeks out of suitcases and contracting COVID to name a few. As the majority of the partner universities are hosting two fellows from the POLISS network, having someone from the same PhD network close by can make the minefield a little easier to navigate, both from a social and academic perspective.

In all cases, the support and welcome from our host institutions have been absolutely invaluable. Having somebody there to help with the administration, to track down officials and help to understand local registration rules in time of lockdown has been so appreciated. Having friendly and welcoming colleagues in our departments, too, feels even more important than ever these days – and the invitation to the occasional socially-distant welcoming party, whether by Zoom or in an airy public park, has been eagerly accepted!

So, after a sumptuous feast of administrative procedures, it’s time to start. On the one hand, as much of Europe descends into a second lockdown, for many of us this means working from home. On the other, our PhD life is not just papers and research, but also about meeting the differing doctoral study requirements of each of our universities, and of the POLISS project itself. This can be quite the balancing act between deliverables required by the project, compulsory PhD courses and delving into our own research. However, despite the often-cumbersome digital platforms, meeting new colleagues online has been a great way to get to the project moving and begin to build the POLISS research network.

To be starting a new position at all in 2020, given the personal and economic disruption which so many are facing globally, nonetheless feels like a privilege, and to be part of such an exciting project such as POLISS and the wider Marie-Skłodowska Curie researcher network even more so. Hopefully, we can all go through this early step of PhD life comfortably and with great joy. My colleagues and I are immensely proud to be part of the POLISS network, and look forwards to three great (hopefully less socially-distant) years ahead!

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