My 1st year of PhD

Barbara Topolovec (ESR5)

“1095 days of adventure begins”.

This is what my sister told me when I took that plane and flew away to another country. And as I’m writing this, I realize that it happened one year ago—one year. You may know that moment when you meet an old acquaintance after a long time you haven’t seen each other, and there is that question: “Hey, what’s new?” and usually the answer is “Nothing much.”. This time, when someone asks me that question, I have a little bit more than just “nothing much” to say.

I am a person who likes to be prepared. After I found out what my project would be, I decided to do a little research. Found a few articles and researched several topics related to my dissertation. And about Girona, the soon to be my city, I discovered it while walking through the streets, from a distance, using Google. But when I landed in Barcelona and arrived in Girona something hit me. It was like that all the people, and everything around me was different and that I didn’t belong there. It took me some time to adapt to a new situation, a different city, and a new culture. Although, when comparing today, Croatia and Spain, they are not that different. Still, it felt like I landed on another planet. Shortly, the work started, and finally, I was on familiar turf – the laboratory, and everything seemed to be easier.

Getting to know a very diverse group of people working on the same goal (clean water) was a fascinating part, and it still is. When I arrived at ICRA, the institute where I am working, I realized how I was not fully aware of the diversity not just of the people, but also of the technology and topics related to wastewater treatment. To be able to learn so much more not only from the book but from my colleagues as well.

Learning a new language is always challenging. Try to think on one, talk in second, and understand people speaking on the third. Now, after one year, it is easier, but I can find myself overwhelmed from time to time. And don’t think that you will learn only one language. You will know how to say “cheers” at least on 5 different languages.

The best part of this adventure is what is going on after the job is finished—experiencing the city and everything that offers with colleagues and new friends from work. And I need to tell you – the food is great! Although now I know that the food is excellent, in the first month nothing had tasted like food, except for the paella which was made by my colleague. Come to think of it, that was the “switch on” when I started to love their food. The wine, on the other hand, was delicious from the beginning.

And suddenly, while I was embracing my work and new life, it hit all of us. One of the biggest challenges and the one you would’ve least expected. The global pandemic of COVID-19, which in the case of Spain, meant complete lockdown. My work changed drastically since involved not just going to the institute, but also traveling. Home seemed to be farther away than ever. But even in those days, I had a chance to learn a lot. A lot about myself. Those changes: new city, new environment, different situations, and every problem you face, they change you, and you grow. In this one year, I have grown more than in a few years back home. And many of your problems start to look pretty small.

And one thing I have learned: everything is easier when you have your colleagues, your “PhD crew” no matter how different you are. In the end, you learned that we are all similar.

And the adventure continues…

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