One of the things we could do very well without is regrets.

Sometimes I find people agonising over choices they’ve made. What if I’d done something differently? Would I have gotten that job, or publication, or car, or love? They can get really upset about things they can’t change anymore anyway.

I find these kind of thoughts destructive. What I believe, is that at the time you made that decision, you made it with the knowledge available to you at that moment. And you genuinely believed it was the best option you had. In hindsight, you may think you should’ve made a different choice, but by doing so you are forgetting the limitedness of the knowledge you had back then.

I went to play paintball this Sunday. Was a lot of fun really. But at some point, I thought I could be a hero and conquer a hut on my own. As far as I could tell, there was only one person defending it who had not seen me and had his back to me. This was my moment to try for eternal glory! I scrambled from behind my cover, made a mad run towards the hut and was already starting to celebrate reaching the hut unharmed. To be mercilessly thwarted by a puddle of mud. My ankle twisted away beneath me and as a result I hit the doorway with my shin. But I still thought I made it and didn’t even feel my ankle. To be shot in the leg by a person hiding behind the hut and having to admit defeat before limping off. Defeated.

Now I feel stupid because I am going on holidays this Thursday. With an ankle twice its normal size and bruises all over. But would it really make me feel any better, to go calling myself names and regretting what I’ve done? Or is it also OK to say okay, I’ll have to live with the consequences now, which is going sight-seeing on holidays at only half-pace and scrambling over rocks on all fours? And still relish the moment where I thought I was going to be a hero? That blissful moment of ignorance, not seeing the danger in a puddle of mud and a hidden person behind a hut, that moment of thinking I can do it.

Of course, this was only a game and holidays is hardly a matter of life and death either, but I think it holds true for most decisions you make in life. Looking back at the year and a half in Oxford, I’m pretty sure I’d make a different choice if I could make it again. I would not join this lab. But that choice is past now so it doesn’t do to dwell on what if’s and regrets. Instead, I’d rather remember the elated feeling of knowing I’m coming to Oxford and try to be better informed before making future choices. Try to see that puddle of mud and hiding person before jumping in…

I am a feminist

Let’s face it: this blog title sounds a bit odd. It does to me. Aren’t feminists those people with hairy armpits and heavy boots?

Let me correct myself straight away: no, they’re not necessarily.

Being in a lab with 11 men and one other woman is to say the least interesting and for our lab meetings 3 more men are added to it from my supervisors wife’s lab. Before coming here, I’ve never really thought about women’s rights or feminism – lucky me! Boys and girls go to the same schools, can do the same sports, have similar opportunities and are equal really, or so I thought. At least in my home country, the Netherlands.

But then small thoughts started nagging. Like last conference I went to, why was clothing so much more of an issue for me than for my male companion? He just put on his same old trousers, t-shirt et voila. Ready to go. But I, who usually just grabs whatever is on top of the pile of fresh but not yet sorted laundry, spent a significant amount of time wondering whether this dress would be too sexy, this shirt too businessy, and can I actually walk on those pumps?

Or at lab meeting, where I point out that nobody but me seems to care about deliveries to the lab. My PI may think he is supporting me as he says “yeah guys, you should help her, especially with the heavy stuff”. I replied to him that I can lift heavy things just fine and don’t need help, but that people ought to take their share of responsibility. It’s not my job to sort things out for everyone, but I inevitably end up doing it if nobody else does. Afterwards, the other female came to me to say she was really happy I countered that comment because she thought it was sexist and missed the point I was trying to make. Sadly, only one of the men remarked the same. Or after going on a little trip with three of the men, after which we got the comment “you’re three boys but let the girl drive?” to which I simply replied I enjoy driving and don’t see the point he’s trying to make.

On a more personal level: there’s a woman at work not wearing bras. I must admit I didn’t even notice. But others did and felt the need to point it out. Why?? Why should it matter to others what underwear we wear? If she doesn’t want to wear a bra, fine! Why did someone point out I have a “moustache”? Yes I do have some hair living there, I know, but I really can’t be bothered to have myself tortured with hot wax every two weeks for something I don’t see, feel or hear. It doesn’t interfere with anything, so why bother, why invest time & money? I’d rather spend those resources on something enjoyable or useful.

Being on my own for a while has been good to think about these things. I got caught up in an automated life, trying to squeeze into the woman society likes, including getting rid of moustache & beard, cooking, baking, letting myself be driven by my partner, you name it! I feel like I’m slowly shaking off those shackles and get to enjoy doing whatever I want. This Sunday, I’m going to play paintball with a bunch of men and I’ll again be driving. For only one reason: I want to. I didn’t cook anything all week, because I didn’t want to. Instead, I was out there having a beer, playing board games and enjoying life.

For me, feminism means the right for every woman to determine every little detail of her life herself, just as men can. As long as there are things where I’d ask: “would a man do this too”? and the answer is “no”, we’re not there yet (with a few obvious exceptions such as questions concerning specific things like periods…). I’ll not go as far as to step onto the barricades shouting out that I’m a feminist, but I will keep pointing out sexist remarks and trying to show people it’s okay for me, a woman, to do what I want. Maybe that might inspire others to try too.

There is one thing I haven’t decided on yet though. I love swimming and usually go 3-4 times a week at a local swimming pool. I’ll be going on holidays with some of the men from the lab next week. What I can totally see happening, is that I’d like to wear a bikini on the beach instead of swimming suit but then get fed up with the upper part being unstable whenever I try to actually swim. Referring to the paragraph above: a man wouldn’t have to put up with this. Should I ‘free the nipples’, like they do? We’re going on a trip together as friends, not colleagues, so it shouldn’t matter. I’m pretty sure they would be plenty uncomfortable if I were to free the nipples, but is that my problem or theirs? I’ll probably end up not doing it, which means that despite all of the above, even for me women are still not as equal to men as I thought and there’s work to do…

When your supervisor isn’t your best friend

In an ideal world, your relationship with your PhD or postdoc supervisor is a mutually beneficial one. You spend a lot of time in the lab or office, probably more than you are getting paid for, and still enjoy it. In return for all that hard work, your advisor will introduce you to people who may help you later in your career, allow you to go to conferences to present your work, give you freedom to get involved in teaching, discuss your plans for the future with you. In short, assist you with getting ready for the next step in your career. Once you’ve made that move, you can keep working together in a friendly fashion.

Unfortunately though, the paragraph above does not apply to all supervisors. Some PIs may regard their students and postdocs as work-horses who should do as told and nothing more. They may not offer any support outside of the lab and may not appreciate any independent line of thought within the lab. The question then becomes, what do you do? Let the situation drag you down, just doing your work and start thinking about the future shortly before your contract runs out and it essentially is too late to change anything? If this sounds like a bad idea, I agree. There are certain things you can do.

Some essentials to progress in science seem to be knowing the right people, securing money and having ideas. When those aren’t thrown in your direction by the people around you, start making your own fortune! Not necessarily in order of importance:


  • Learn to approach people: start with going to local events and chatting with people you haven’t met yet. There is (to me at least) nothing scarier than approaching strangers, but this is something you’ll have to learn doing.
  • Find conferences to go to. Hopefully you’ve practised a little and are slightly more comfortable when talking to strangers. I’ve found that scientists are always very happy to talk about their work, so why not try paying attention to their seminar and asking them about it afterwards? Or start with visiting posters and having a chat about those? Try to go on your own, without any colleagues, as this forces you to meet new people.
  • When you’re visiting friends, are on holidays, or at a conference: have a look whether there are labs nearby working on for you interesting projects. Approach them – maybe you can give a talk and get some networking going?
  • Organise a local PhD or postdoc symposium, or if you are a bit further advanced in your career perhaps a topic-specific one. Invite as a keynote speaker a scientist whom you’ve always wanted to meet. Try to find people to do this together with, see if your institute would be willing to sponsor [some of] it?
  • Find local labs that can help you. Your project may slowly drift outside your supervisors expertise or touch on other topics. They’re most likely keen to collaborate, as the things you need are probably routine for them. It’s brilliant not only because it speeds up your work, but also because if your relationship with your supervisor doesn’t get better, you are now able to approach this lab to write you a letter of recommendation if necessary.


  • Apply for travel grants for conferences.
  • Find other small pots of money: your PI won’t mind you applying for these, as they are probably below their radar anyway. But again, it is something to show you can independently get funds and as added bonus have money to spend!
  • Apply for fellowships: EMBO, FEBS, Marie Curie, HFSP are global/European ones, perhaps country specific ones like Wellcome Trust, or maybe something more local.
  • If your PI is reasonable, it might be possible to become a co-applicant on a grant application. Won’t cost her anything, will give you something to put on your CV. Apparently this really is possible.


  • Go to talks whenever you can, even if the topics seem far from what you do. You never know when inspiration might hit you. I’m working on protein biochemistry, but the most memorable talk for me so far was one about viruses in bats…
  • Set up a journal club. Find people enthusiastic about science and get a weekly, or as often as you fancy, discussion going. If a different person picks the paper each week, you are bound to get out of your comfort zone every now and then. After discussing a paper, we usually ask ourselves what we would’ve done differently and what we could apply to our work. I’ve taken a few brilliant ideas away from these sessions.
  • Again, go to conferences. If necessary look out for ones that aren’t too expensive or where a travel grant might help cover the costs.
  • Find time to read. If you can’t find peace in the lab/office, find another spot. Be it the library, at home or even the park or coffee shop around the corner, find somewhere where you can let your thoughts go uninterrupted. Try to get let go of your PIs ideas for a while and ask yourself where you want to take your research.


  • If there is a (peer-)mentoring scheme, sign up for it! Often, when things are going wrong, you are left wondering why. Is it because of you? Should you’ve acted differently? It’s great to be able to talk it through with people who don’t know you or your background and confirm that it’s not you who’s acting strangely. Doesn’t change the situation, but is very reassuring. They might also be able to help you with handling certain situations. If there is no official scheme in place, try to find a mentor. Maybe a junior PI of the lab next door, or that senior PI who is always so friendly when you meet her in the corridor.
  • Teaching may become very important in the long run, even though some PIs see it as a waste of time. Try to get some done regardless. For many future jobs, teaching experience is essential. Start with demonstrating in practicals and work your way up from there. Offer to supervise students in the lab.
  • Start looking at job adverts early on. Not to find your dream job yet, but to see what’s required for them. You may find that there are some gaps in your CV, but identifying them is the first step towards addressing them!

The bottom line of this post is probably this: be pro-active! Don’t wait for opportunities to come your way, but create them. With this post I do not intend to say that people should stay no matter how horrible their PI or lab environment is. If you are unhappy in the place you’re in, finding a way to leave should be your first priority. Sticking around in a bad environment is only worth it if it’s for a definite amount of time and serves a purpose, such as finishing the project you’re working on…