I am on a train in Germany, returning home after a week-long workshop. I am looking forward to seeing my two-year-old daughter and my husband, and to getting back to the university lab where I work.
I close my eyes and reflect on my life. What has brought me to where I am now? This was never my plan.
Go back in time to a moment in the summer of 2009. I am wearing a black academic gown and reaching out to receive a rolled diploma from the president of the University of Jordan. All I am thinking about is that I will never come back here again—not as a student, for sure. I had just got a job offer from a great tech company in Amman. I was thinking, I will never submit another assignment, prepare for an exam, or attend a lecture that I do not care about. I was done with the education system. Many graduate students from the college of engineering shared my view—the work was exhausting and it could drain you. Although I enjoyed my years at the university, I was glad they had come to an end. I was now ready to resume my social life and begin a professional one.
A few months later, I met a person who became my husband and life partner. He was fed up with the routine work of company jobs and eager to travel abroad to get his master’s degree. While our plans didn’t match, we were both seeking change. We were ready to leave our comfort zones and open up to new ways of thinking. Traveling abroad seemed like the best way to meet new opportunities, to grow and start contributing to the world at large.
Before I could travel, I had to make a decision: I could either start looking for a job abroad, or I could, like my husband, apply to a university to get a master’s degree. I was anxious about going back to the classroom, but I knew it would be very hard to find my “dream job” abroad with a mere bachelor’s degree. People travel from all over the world to Europe and the United States to win their dream jobs, and I realized that the competition would be fierce. If I didn’t want to be restricted by a small number of job options, I needed to get more experience under my belt. So with a heavy heart I chose my second option, only to discover later that this might have been the best decision I ever made.
I submitted applications to universities around the world. I had two criteria for choosing the university: it must be a world-class institution (I wasn’t leaving my country for the second best), and it must be one that accepts both me and my husband. The second criterion turned out to be a tough one. But four months later, on a hot summer day in May 2010, we both received identical emails from Germany. They read, “RWTH Aachen University is delighted to inform you that you have been accepted in the Software Systems Engineering program… The semester starts in October, and the language school will start in June.”
In the following couple of weeks, I wrapped up my work at my company in Amman and bid my colleagues farewell. I bought a white dress and booked a wedding hall. I packed all my belongings at the doorstep of my parents’ home. And I bought a one-way plane ticket to Frankfurt, Germany.
Today I know this was the best unplanned decision. Studying in a world-class university was nothing like what I had experienced before. I was learning about cutting-edge technology, sometimes from the inventors themselves. I was taught how to do research and explore unanswered questions. It was thrilling to work on a problem that no one had solved. I learned the scientific method, a 400-year-old set of techniques for investigating new phenomena and acquiring knowledge. Simply put, to apply the scientific method you start by choosing a research question, then you clarify the unknowns, investigate how others have tried to solve it, propose new hypotheses to how it could be approached and, finally, test the validity of your ideas.
Once again I was in a black academic gown. I reached out to receive a rolled diploma announcing that I had successfully fulfilled the requirements of a master’s degree in computer science. This time, I was thinking about the offer that I had just received from my professor of a full-time research assistant position and a Ph.D. candidacy. The Ph.D. program in a German university is among the longer ones: it takes five or six years. The candidate is simultaneously a full-time employee of the university with teaching duties, and a full-time Ph.D. candidate with the expectation that he or she will conduct research. A Ph.D. candidate has to decide on a research topic that no one has approached before, and learn how to manage his or her 40-hour week in fulfilling two full-time roles. Once a Ph.D. candidate survives these five years, his or her pool of options in academia and the industry expand. With all this in mind, for the second time, I veered away from my original plan—to finish college and begin a profession. I accepted the professor’s offer.
Today, in March 2017, three years after I became a Ph.D. candidate, I realize that planning the future is a good way to know where you want to go, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to map the way. We can never have all the data to make bulletproof plans. I have learned that I should leave margins in my plans for spontaneity, serendipity, and unexpected diversions. I never thought I would still be at university so many years after my first graduation. But it appears to be the place where I thrive and have the most impact. I am happy where I am now, and I already have my eyes set on the next milestone. It might not look exactly like what I imagine now, and the road to it will probably not be the one I think it will be. But I am ready to pivot. I am excited to see where life takes me. All one really need is to be prepared to do their best wherever they land, and not lag behind waiting long stretches of time for a specific chance that they believe is the one meant for them. Passions and missions are not found and hunted for, they are realized in the course of hard work.
Nur Al-huda Hamdan is a Palestinian researcher currently pursuing a Ph.D. in computer science at RWTH Aachen University, Germany.