Fall Preview: An American Astronomer in Amsterdam

This post is primarily supposed to be a statement that I will be moving to Amsterdam in September to start an Astronomy PhD, but because I can’t just make a statement when there’s a good story to be had I will instead begin in Beijing, China about two months ago.

You see, I don’t think it’s terribly controversial to say that applying to graduate school sucks- you send out at least ten applications in the hopes that two or three max may write you back, and the waiting parts are not entirely proactive. In the American system you only hear whether you get in or you don’t, and in the European system at least you get to do an interview which either allows you to charm your future colleagues or feel all the worse for getting so close before your rejection. Repeat this process for a few months.

So with that, while in Beijing in early April I was in a mood that, shall we say, was not entirely optimistic about the future. I was going to do some application follow-ups at a coffee shop that afternoon, but the hostel owner suggested a morning sightseeing expedition to a lama (Tibetan) Buddhist temple nearby which was noteworthy for having the biggest Buddha in the world carved entirely out of a single tree. What was really noteworthy about the Buddha, though, was all the locals agreed that everyone gets one wish that was guaranteed to come true, the only caveat being you had to return sometime in your life to thank him. “So no wishes under one hundred dollars!” warned the owner.

As I said earlier my mood was at a point where covering all my bases seemed like a decent idea, so I lit some incense and asked the giant wooden Buddha not for any specifics, but just to find me someplace in the fall that would make me happy. And while I am not in any way religious I must say I can understand how people would be- I heard from the University of Amsterdam within hours of that visit, and I was rather calm during the entire shortlisting process because, well, the giant Buddha in Beijing ensured it would work out.

In related news, I now have to visit Beijing again someday to thank a giant wooden Buddha in a Tibetan temple for getting me into graduate school in astronomy. And people always wonder how I get myself into these situations…
Story aside, it is now time to return to my original statement- beginning in September I will spend about the next four years of my life working towards an Astronomy PhD at the University of Amsterdam. Woo-hoo! The way PhDs work in the Netherlands is you are not as much a student so much as a junior employee hired to work on a specific project (meaning things like no real coursework and a salary unphathomable to American students), and in my case this is working on a radio astronomy array called LOFAR in the Netherlands with a project focusing on transient, ie not constant, signals in the sky. More on this later once I’m there and actually working on it!
Beyond the project, this is a travel blog of sorts so I should say a few words about the city itself. I’d never actually visited the Netherlands at all before last week somehow and just can’t believe I missed it for so long. Lovely historic architecture with bicycles and water and flowers everywhere… I was smitten, and doubly smitten when it hit that I was actually going to live there. (It still hasn’t sunk in fully.) It is in the running for the most international too- not only does everyone speak English there are bookstores and libraries chock-full of books I can read, a fact this geek is thankful for even if I have a Kindle and will devote time to learning Dutch. On my day where I wasn’t meeting with lovely people from the university I rented a bike to do as the Dutch do and see the city and it soon became apparent that beyond their own trendy cafes the Dutch prefer to import their cuisine from other countries- there were eateries from Italy, Indonesia, Argentina, Thailand, Ethiopia, Ireland, Japan, America, Greece, Brazil, Morocco…
I mean I’m sure there are things I will someday theoretically complain about- I am not excited about the brief wintertime daylight, and it appears complaining about tourists standing in cycleways is a Dutch national pastime- but all in all I’d say the Buddha in Beijing did his job. I don’t doubt I can be very happy in Amsterdam!

So what am I doing from here between now and September? Well first of all I am on a bit of a European leapfrogging circuit I will talk about more later (but am currently typing this over a nice pint in Cork, Ireland) and back to the United States next week for my last long stretch in the country for a bit. I’m flying to Pittsburgh because my parents are selling my childhood home there and I’m recruited to help pack it, then certainly a good dose of New Hampshire, and I’m certain there will be some days in places like Cleveland and Washington D.C. in various doses- one thing that will be strange about the Netherlands is how small a country it will be…
So let us live for life and the best it brings until the twilight shadows fall,
My heat grows brave and the world, my friends, is a good world after all.

5 responses to “Fall Preview: An American Astronomer in Amsterdam

  1. Ugye, mondtam, hogy fog tetszeni!
    Sok sikert a munkádhoz!

  2. Akhil Ravidas

    Nice post! *like*

  3. So where is Yvette? Welcome back home! (I hope, no matter where you will be, you will always consider Pittsburgh your Hometown!) And keep writing your posts!

  4. Pingback: 2011: A Year in Review | Where is Yvette?

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