A Postgrad Journey That Spans Four Countries

I am a young Hungarian researcher who seems to have always been looking for unusual ways of progressing, although in reality that was just by following my own path. Now, you may be wondering what exactly do I mean by that, and I have several examples to tell you about. But let me start at the beginning of my journey into science and the international world it has opened for me.

I have always been very curious to learn more, not just about science but also about other cultures and people. I remember, back as a student starting out with two majors, biology and English language and literature, at the University of Szeged in Hungary in 1993, how keen I became to study anthropology for my master’s in biology in a foreign country.

First taste of international collaboration

To make this happen, I started applying for grants but didn’t strike lucky for nearly 2 years. I felt I was in a weak position because I didn’t have any senior academic supporting my application, and neither did I have any experience in successful grant writing. But practice may have been paying off as, just when I was thinking about giving up my dream, I happened to get a Tempus grant (a former student mobility programme designed for Central and Eastern European countries) to go to the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) for the second semester of the academic year 1997-98. In that period, the university didn’t offer a specific course in biological anthropology, but instead I got the opportunity to work with the research team of the department of prehistory and anthropology at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels. This was my first taste of international collaboration and living abroad.

My next “research and life stop” was the department of biological anthropology at the French Université de la Méditerranée in Marseille, in October 1998. This opportunity to experience life and studying in another country was offered to me by a brilliant Hungarian young researcher whom I got to know as an undergraduate student, doing my diploma work at the same department where he was doing research (department of anthropology, University of Szeged, Hungary). Dr. György Pálfi was personally coordinating a French-Hungarian exchange programme in Marseille and Szeged, frequently travelling between the two countries, and I gladly became a “guinea pig” in the trial phase of his vision. The interuniversity cooperation was signed in 1997 and was designed for teaching staff and student mobility in the framework of the EU Socrates/Erasmus programme.

Dr. Pálfi introduced me to France and to world-class research in the field of paleopathology. This was my first real exposure to what would become my research interest in the skeletal traces of infectious diseases, particularly the study of tuberculosis in ancient populations. He was an excellent researcher, teacher, and mentor, and also became a very good friend. I also tremendously benefited from the experience professionally, having given my first presentations at international conferences, got the opportunity to exchange ideas with various researchers and participate in research programs such as the excavation of medieval cemeteries and 18th century plague pits, and write my first articles.

I spent the first year in France (in a supplementary diploma, an Attestion d’Université) which served as a test and preparation for starting the “pre-doctoral programme” in 1999, and another 1-year training with a Diplome d’Etudes Approfondies, still in the framework of the French-Hungarian exchange programme between the two departments of anthropology in Marseille and Szeged. In the meantime other opportunities were on their way too. For example, I got the chance to extend my research experience at the Institute of Pathology in Munich in the framework of a German-Hungarian DAAD project ( Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, or German Academic Exchange Service). There, I got to study tuberculosis not only on the level of macroscopic bone changes as before, but also look at the molecular level and search for the pathogen’s DNA. My relatively frequent but short (usually 2 weeks) stays in Munich opened the way to a new approach, the multidisciplinary study of tuberculosis in past populations.

Opening and closing new life chapters

As everything was coming together and I had such collaborative opportunities plus an excellent research environment both in Marseille and Szeged, in 2000 I decided to apply for the French Government’s grant ( Bourse du Gouvernement Français, BGF) for doctoral studies in French-Hungarian co-tutelle, and set out on the traces of tuberculosis. My doctorate programme was therefore a shared training and research experience in the framework of an interuniversity agreement. In practical terms, this meant shuttling between the two countries, labs, and supervisors for relatively short stays of 2 to 6 months alternating in each country. The idea was to generate a dynamic research environment full of challenges, while promoting harmonisation between the administrative requirements of the two countries and universities, and even between the differing expectations of my supervisors! The ideals were great but, to be honest, I found that travelling from one country to the other was like opening and closing a new chapter in my life each time. This gypsy lifestyle was often very tiring, and my private life was especially suffering from the intensity of these changes.

At the end of last year, I defended my Ph.D. thesis in biological anthropology in Marseille. Unfortunately, I am still going through the mill of university administration in both France and Hungary in order to get my Ph.D. recognised. The defence was in French, Hungarian, and English, but I wrote my Ph.D. thesis in English, which was the common language of my international jury. However, the French administration requires a French-version dissertation to be officially included in the doctoral register and issue a certificate on my degree. While in Hungary I cannot get my degree either until I present the French certificate of my defence beside the thesis paper (in whatever languages) and other official documents. Or I have to defend my thesis again, this time in Szeged. So the vicious circle started once again.

Despite these obstacles, I feel privileged for having had the opportunity to experience so many various ways of doing science and meeting so many different and dear people, learning another foreign language, and becoming a more open person, acquiring a collaborative spirit and empathy for others. All the professional and even personal hardships were definitely worth it. You will read in my other Next Wave article how these experiences have given me the confidence and assertiveness to also succeed outside the lab in an international organisation for the promotion of young scientists.

The GrantDoctor: Soft Skills and Transition Awards

Science Policy’s Frontline