my name is natalia. I am a Phd candidate at the radboud university nijmegen medical centre, nijmegen, the netherlands. in daily life, i do research in computational psychiatry. in free time, i go dancing, hiking, investing and blogging.

The source of disease

During my PhD studies I learned a lot: about neuroscience, about people, about academia in general. I met great individuals and visited wonderful places. I visited over 20 countries, I had many clever students, my life was fast and I had no boring days at all. But I also experienced the dark sides of academia: fear, stress, pressure and anxiety. 

The point is: as a scientist, you are doomed to live in a shadow of deadlines, short contracts, and mutual dependencies as you are by definition bound to a dynamic web of people, some of whom might behave differently than expected. And as opposite to industry, in academia, you need to prove yourself in multiple different roles every day: as a researcher, a teacher, a fund-raiser, a philosopher, a physical worker, a salesman, a graphic designer, a writer, a motivational speaker, a negotiator etc. The collateral stress is inevitable whenever you are a good or a bad worker. Namely, if you are bad at what you are doing, you will experience stress instantly simply because you know you don’t handle the duties. If you are a good worker on the other hand, people around you will start throwing more and more responsibilities at you - projects, grant proposals, students - and one day, you will become overwhelmed no matter how good you are at what you are doing.

In my case, the PhD project was particularly challenging for two main reasons. Firstly, I was given a task to solve a research problem unsolved in fMRI research for the last fifteen years. Secondly, I started a PhD for the second time already, therefore I knew that I must finish this one, no matter what, or otherwise I couldn’t do research in mainstream academia anymore. And my supervisor did not agree for any compromises. 

And if you ask your family and friends about what to do with yourself in such conditions, they will all tell you: go for a walk, meditate, go to spa, relax, go to a therapy, grow flowers, stare at the blue sky, listen to your favourite music. And of course, all of this works to a certain extent. However, after a while I realised that all these activities are superficial and do not solve the true problem. It resembled trying to improve your looks by using cosmetics to your skin, while you are still filling your stomach with junk food. You just cannot overcome the fear of being broke and jobless by listening to music, because it is a natural fear of death, and every organism in a natural environment is vulnerable to this. In a sense, relaxing means taking a step back, and concentrating on licking your wounds rather than on the development, and on solving the true problems.

Therefore, I decided to take a risk. I stepped out of my comfort zone, and started looking for active ways of reducing the job-related stress. I soon figured out that a private investor - while playing according to very simple rules of sanity - is able to trade on the stock exchange with a great success. I also figured out that an expat is able to buy real estate properties in the Netherlands, and that it pays off to sublet rooms in your house because the total amount you get per month is actually much higher than the mortgage rate. Starting in the middle of my first year on the PhD and spending time on the investments in my free time only, in less than three years I managed to get to a passive income of about 5,000EUR per month average (although it differs a lot from month to month). Today, when my salary is a minority of my monthly income, I am more motivated to pursue my research than ever before. Having a stable, monthly injection of cash didn’t make my any lazy, rather the opposite: I am more effective now as I stopped having sleepless nights, and stressing about my future in academia. I also developed investment strategies that take me 1-5min per day, therefore my research is not affected by my investment activities.

But I still see a lot of tension among my colleagues and friends. These are the brightest and the best educated people in the society, yet they have to face this eternal stress. Eternal competition, short contracts and notorious lack of positions cause tension that, I believe, cannot be overcome by licking wounds, but by eliminating the source of the problem: taking your destiny in your own hands and creating your own passive income.

The future of experimentalists and data scientists in neuroscience