Ph.D. Journeys Abroad – And so the Adventure Has Begun …

Ph.D. Journeys Abroad – And so the Adventure Has Begun …

Author: Sveva Colombo

Hypothesizing, elaborating, awaiting results, redesigning, and restarting my projects are the things I have done and still do daily in the latest period of my life. The laboratory is now my second home.


Falling in Love with Chemistry and Synthesis

When I was 18, I fell in love with chemistry in the laboratory of my school, and I decided that chemistry would be my field of study at university. The opportunity to “discover” and understand certain phenomena that occur in nature was the first reason that encouraged me to enroll in the faculty of chemistry. Then, after an internship at the university, I realized that the synthesis part attracted me a lot. Being able to contribute productively to society by developing new drugs gives me the feeling that I am helping others. This is why I decided to focus my Master’s thesis on synthesizing new drug molecules, which could have anticancer properties.

Thanks to the Ph.D. students I met at my university in Italy, I had no doubts about my future: After graduation, I wanted to obtain a Ph.D. in chemistry abroad, experience other cultures, learn new techniques and different ways of working in the laboratory, and above all, open my horizons and test myself.


Going to Germany

This led me to attend a Ph.D. program in Germany as part of the Marie Sklodowska Curie European Training Network (ETN)/Innovative Training Network (ITN) “Magicbullet::Reloaded”. This European project connects 15 universities and pharmaceutical companies in different European countries, where 15 Ph.D. students have the opportunity to do research in the field of active substances that can target cancer cells selectively. The consortium brings together interdisciplinary knowledge between chemistry, biochemistry, and biology. This leads to a fruitful and continuous exchange of ideas between the various components of the project. Here, I was given the opportunity to synthesize drug conjugates that are used for targeted delivery as an anti-tumor therapy.

Magicbullet::Reloaded and Germany allowed me to realize my “marriage” of aspirations: The Ph.D. project is very relevant to my training and my interests, and I have the opportunity to not only get in touch with universities, but also to experience what it means to work in a company in another European country. I hope to be able to reach the goal of this project in a satisfactory manner, which is the improvement of the patient’s treatment path and avoiding collateral damage, in particular, the pain stemming from chemotherapy.


Facing Challenges with Resilience

It was my first move out from my hometown. In a foreign country, I had to face many challenges: finding a house, dealing with bureaucratic aspects, learning the language, and adapting to different customs and the climate (how many times did I miss the Italian food and sun …).

Everything can be solved, but you need resilience. I still remember embarrassing moments in the first days, such as interactions with the housekeeper, who spoke only German, and the town hall employee who did not accept my residence request because the form I had filled was incorrect. The phrase “Englisch nicht gut”, indicating that many people do not speak English in this city and that I should have learned German, is still in my mind.

Luckily, in the first days of work, I was finally able to meet my colleagues, and what a joy when I found out I could speak English with them. They helped me during the first few days. Even if English is not my mother tongue, I am more comfortable with it, and speaking it regularly at work and with other international students is personal enrichment. Besides this support at work, my German teacher gave me some useful advice. She taught me to give myself the time to learn and repeat. You cannot be perfect on the first try. Even though I can speak English at work, knowing the language of the host country is very important to develop personal relationships.


Experiencing Positive Change

I believe that a long stay at a foreign university also strongly affects one’s character. It is a trigger to overcome shyness, but also personal pride: We ask for help, we expose doubts, we accept and provide suggestions, and we team up, since “no one is saved alone”. Therefore, I would recommend any Ph.D. student to do a period abroad. It changes you positively and radically.

Experimenting in the chemical field also means running into failures: It happens that the reaction does not work, so you feel frustrated, and you feel you are not good enough for the job. Colleagues who know how to work in a team can help you to “clear the clouds” and encourage healthy reflection. Actually, in our laboratory, when things do not work out, we say, “This is chemistry, welcome to our world,” and you stop feeling inadequate. Only by trying and trying again, looking for new synthetic strategies, sharing advice and ideas with others, and not giving up, you will get the satisfaction of obtaining the long-desired compound whose synthesis is a large part of the Ph.D. work.


Dealing with Loneliness

Another difficulty to consider when living abroad, especially if you are alone, is homesickness. When things in the lab do not always go as planned, you go home for a lonely dinner and—constantly rethinking what went wrong—nostalgia sometimes takes over. I do not know if the cause is my “Italianness”, but I love sharing time (especially lunch and dinner) with my family, my friends, and my boyfriend … Maybe for this reason some evenings were really difficult, especially during the lockdown.

In the early days of my move, I was so excited about the change, that everything seemed great. Then the second wave of the pandemic returned, and everything felt more and more lonesome. I know that compared to many people I was lucky because, in the end, there is not an ocean between Italy and Germany. Still, with travel restrictions, not being able to spend holidays with family, not being able to hug your boyfriend for six months… it requires a lot of commitment. Living a long-distance relationship is not that simple, especially missing all the birthdays or the feeling of emptiness at the repeated “goodbyes”. Luckily, new technologies helped a lot—in some ways, video calls nullified distances.

You become resilient: New habits are created, and time schedules are adapted to allow seeing each other. Thanks to this, we learn to appreciate hugs and those moments that were previously taken for granted. Yet, at the same time, born and strengthened abroad, friendships can overcome the sense of loneliness: different—or sometimes similar—experiences that interlace, and from which comfort, sharing, laughter, and lightness arise.


Pursuing Your Goals and Achieving Your Dreams

It has been two years since I started my Ph.D. and I believe I have grown not only professionally, but also personally. Living in another country is a very formative experience. Now, I am more independent and creative in the laboratory, trying to find, when necessary, alternative solutions for my research project.

In everyday life, I can speak more fluently, and I am not shy any longer. Looking back, it seems impossible to me to have arrived here, to have fulfilled all the wishes of my twenty-year-old self. There were bad times and moments of discouragement, but what I like to think is that I overcame them because what matters is the commitment to pursuing your goals and the willpower not to surrender at the first hurdle on the road. This is one of the tips I was given, before leaving, and which I think can also be useful for all those who want to start an adventure of this kind.

Sometimes my mother told me, “If you could go back in time, I imagine that, despite everything, you would make this choice again,” and it is true: Maybe my life brought me to this point and I lost other possibilities along the way, but what I reached here and now is what I always wanted to achieve.

Ph.D. Journeys Abroad – Be Kind to Yourself

A look at problems during a Ph.D. abroad and the importance of realistic expectations (will be published in November 2022)

Ph.D. Journeys Abroad – Creating a Second Home

Experiences with overcoming loneliness during a Ph.D. abroad and finding one’s community (will be published in December 2022)

Ph.D. Journeys Abroad – Overcoming Impostor Syndrome: Why Did I Feel Like It Was Just Me?

Stories of feeling out-of place during a Ph.D. abroad, overcoming doubts, and finding connection on social media (will be published in January 2023)

Ph.D. Journeys Abroad – The Challenges of Starting a New Life Far from Home

How finding one’s strength and accepting help can help to overcome the pressures, doubts, and stresses a Ph.D. abroad brings with it (will be published in February 2023)



  1. Nibha sinha

    I am a chem faculty in a school at higher secondary level..wish to pursue PhD. abroad … how do I begin with a scholarship


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