E027 A PhD as a Politician? Carmen Rietdijk on Politics, Coaching for PhDs, and Work-life Balance

October 25th 2020

Dr Carmen Rietdijk obtained her PhD in Neuroscience from Utrecht University in 2016. In her PhD, she investigated the expression and function of Toll-like receptors on enteric neurons, which is one of the mechanisms involved in Parkinson’s Disease. Today, she is actively involved in politics and is a representative of the Dutch Liberal Democrats party (D66) in the city council of Utrechtse Heuvelrug. She covers topics related to youth, families, education, healthcare, environment, and culture.

Next to her political career, Carmen is also a certified coach and offers one-on-one coaching to PhD candidates through her company CDr Coaching. She supports PhD candidates who struggle with issues of motivation, emotional well-being, and stress. She coaches PhD candidates at all stages of their PhD: whether they are trying to find their way in their first year, facing a lack of motivation and confidence later on, or are wrestling with the last steps towards their PhD defence. She is also active on Twitter (@CDrCoaching) where she posts about PhD-related topics and answers questions posted by PhD candidates.

She also writes a blog about how to cope with grad school.
In this episode, Carmen told us how she started her career as a politician after her PhD. How to get involved? What are the factors for success in politics? How to help PhDs to get through graduate school and successfully complete their PhD program? How do marry a career in politics and a side hustle as a coach with family life?

Carmen’s LinkedIn profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/carmenrietdijk/

Carmen’s Twitter profile: https://twitter.com/carmen_d66/

CDr coaching website: https://cdrcoaching.nl/ Ontology Of Value 1f525 Career Development Strategies E027 A PhD as a Politician? Carmen Rietdijk on Politics, Coaching for PhDs, and Work-life Balance Career Talks PhD Careers In Industry PhDs in Public Institutions

CDr coaching’s Twitter profile: https://twitter.com/CDrCoaching/

The episode was recorded on October 25th, 2020. This material represents the speaker’s personal views and not the views of their current or former employer(s).

Natalia 00:10 Hello, everyone. Welcome to yet another episode of the career talks by welcome solutions. In these meetings, we talk with professionals who took interesting avenues in their careers and made some brave career decisions. Today, I have the great pleasure to introduce Dr. Carmen Rietdijk who obtained her PhD in neuroscience from Utrecht University in 2016. In her PhD, she investigated the molecular mechanisms underlying Parkinson’s disease. Today, she is actively involved in politics and the representative of the Dutch Liberal Democratic Party also known as D 66 in the City Council of Utrecht. She covers the top topics related to youth and families education, health care, environment, and culture.

Next to her political career, Carmen is also a certified coach and offers one-to-one coaching to PhD candidates through her company CDR coaching. She supports PhD candidates who struggle with issues of motivation, emotional wellbeing, and stress. She coaches PhD candidates at all stages of their PhD, whether they are trying to find their way in their first year and facing a lot of lack of motivation and confidence later on, or are wrestling with the last steps towards their PhD defense. She also writes a blog about how to cope with grad school. Welcome, Carmen, great to have you here. I’m very happy that you accepted our invitation. Now, I would like to give the floor to you so that you can tell your story from your own perspective. Thank you so much.

Dr. Carmen 02:02 Thank you for this nice introduction. My name is Carmen. At the moment, I’m an entrepreneur, a PhD coach, and a politician in my local government. I was asked to tell you about my career path. I started with a Bachelor of Pharmacy to become a pharmacist. And after a year, I discovered that although I liked learning about drugs and how they work, I didn’t want to be a pharmacist. It was just not the kind of job that I would enjoy. You would think that maybe I could have figured it out before starting, but not. Instead of going for pharmacy, I chose to do a research track which led me to a master of neuroscience. That was my passion. I like studying the brain and how it works. I think that’s very interesting. When I finished my master’s degree, I aimed at becoming a researcher.

It felt natural to start a PhD. And I found a position at the same university where I’d studied. That was a natural fit. Some of the people are still new at the pharmacy. And I studied immune receptors on neurons in the intestines, in Parkinson’s disease patients. And the idea is that maybe in a subset of patients, Parkinson’s disease starts in the intestines years before you can see the symptoms. I studied that for six years and I did research in the lab with cells. I cultured neurons and I tried to stimulate them and measure things. And in fact, those cells didn’t want to grow at all. During that time, I also got a kid. I was out of the running for a while because pregnancy makes me sick. At some point, my research was just still not going that well. There was not much else I could do. I just tried to make those cells grow. And the funding for my project ran out. I know I’m not the first one in the Netherlands at least to run into the problem. I decided that I needed a job on the side while doing my PhD to earn a living.

During my PhD, I found out that I enjoyed teaching. I decided to accept a teaching job at a different university. I worked there for two years. In the meantime, they also wanted me to finish my PhD. I was a young mother. All those things together put me under a lot of stress. It was hard to keep up. And then on top of that, there was an issue with the medication I’m taking and it led to a breakdown. I still cannot say, you know, what part was medication, what part was distressing circumstance. 

But altogether, I just couldn’t do it anymore. And I needed to recover. I was out of work for about nine months again before I was back and reintegrated into my job. The moment I was going to be back full time, they told me that I couldn’t keep my job anymore because I hadn’t been a reliable employee. That’s what happened. And again, I was out of a job. I had my PhD, but that doesn’t pay the bills. I was wondering what do I want to do? What do I enjoy doing? And I figured that I wanted to help PhDs who were going through a rough trajectory because that was my own experience.

During my PhD, I had several mentors. But none of them gave me the support that I needed at the time. I was very lonely. I didn’t collaborate with other colleagues because they use different techniques and stuff. Even though we worked on similar questions, nobody could help me out in a practical sense, either. It was hard and lonely, and I didn’t enjoy that at all. Looking back at it, I am convinced it can be easier. 

And it can be better. I decided that I wanted to coach PhD candidates who were going through a rough patch. I took a year of training and I started my company. That’s what I’m still doing. I have to say that Corona has made it a lot harder because I have been at home with my kid for months on end because the schools were closed. And that didn’t help my company. But it’s still there. And I’m still doing it. And I enjoy it. That’s good. And then the other side of my current professional life is politics which I started getting interested in during my PhD.

I was always somebody who would go vote and who follows the news in general. There is a friend of mine who was active in politics. That’s how I became a member of D 66, which is the party I’m at right now. It slowly grew. And especially when we moved into our own first home, a home that we bought, I knew that we were going to stay there. I wanted to become more active in local politics. I started by just joining some meetings and by knowing some people. It grew into the position where I am now as a councilwoman one out of 29 people who were in that position and together we make the decisions for domains. 

The nice thing about that is especially compared to academia, it’s so broad and it’s so relevant to society. It matters, the kind of decisions you make, and especially the social domain that I’m in. It matters how we interact with schools and which kind of housing we provide for them. It matters to the people who work there and the kids who go to school there. It’s different from academia where it’s a very intellectual exercise and especially fundamental research is so far removed from reality. I would like to say that this is a whole different experience. I feel it’s much more fulfilling and I’m happy with the things I’m doing right now. I think that’s the story of how I ended up here.

Natalia 10:08 Right. Thank you so much for your story. When I think about it, it seems to me that everything is more useful than academic research, you know, not only politics, but anything you can come up with that is in the outer world, in one way or another provides for like Citizen and residents, right, either as a product or as a service. Everything is more like down to earth and useful than the fundamental research that we do in academia. I get what you’re saying about this fulfilling aspect of doing politics because I have the same feeling while doing what I’m doing right now. I’m curious. You know, there are so many topics that we could touch on here because you have so many different views. You did so many different things.

Let me ask about this political aspect first. I was wondering about that. Where do politics come from? Because, you know, politics is one of these areas where you don’t go there because you graduated from five-year studies in politics. There’s nothing like it. It’s something you just become a politician in the process. First, you’re interested, then you start, you become some form of activist, you become engaged at some point, you get public trust enough to get elected, and then it’s streetwise. It’s bottom-up. You have to first get engaged and then get elected. And I’m curious how it happened to you. When you look back at your life, were there any signs at any time in your past that will tell you now, you know that I would become a politician? Or do you think that this is quite recent, and you changed, and this is the next stage in your life?

Dr. Carmen 12:27 There are different things I can answer to. The first thing that comes to mind is some friends of mine who responded like oh, we could always see you doing something like that. And sometimes you cannot see your own best qualities because you’re too close to yourself. I think two things that stood out to me now are that I’ve always been opinionated about everything. And sometimes people would say that they would be annoyed with me. That’s one aspect of my personality. 

I always have opinions about stuff. And the second thing is, I like to talk. You know, I don’t mind sharing my opinions. I don’t mind speaking to a group. I don’t mind defending my stance on something. You know, being in an argument is not like a fight but just an argument. Sometimes that’s okay to do those things that were always part of my personality. I think those stood out from a very early age. Okay, And I just care about my environment and people.

Natalia 13:50 I have a question. Since you say that you enjoy speaking and sharing opinions, how did you survive in grad school doing what you did? It’s technical what you were doing.

Dr. Carmen 14:03 That’s true. If I understand correctly, you’re asking how I ended up in grad school if this was more my personality and what I’m describing now. My mom used to tell me quite often that it was so nice that I was smart when I was a kid. You know, I did well in school and she was always of the opinion that I didn’t have to work hard for that. That was a good thing. I think she meant that just as a positive stimulation. What it did with me though, is that it also formed my identity. I saw myself as somebody smart. 

And in our society, of course, being smart is also seen as a good thing. And the higher education you get, the better it is. That’s all sort of came together to make me want to get a high degree. I didn’t even question it. It was just like I’m able to do it. I’m doing it. And I had a good friend at one point who decided to take a little bit lower education just because that would bring her to where she wanted to be in life. And that was a conscious choice for her. I just didn’t understand. I was like, why would you choose to do a lower level education if you can do more. I never questioned if it was what I wanted to do or if it was something that made me happy.

Natalia 15:49 That’s such a good point. I have to add something here that I think I’m not sure maybe this is a partially cultural thing. But I went through all my undergrad education in Poland. And I think we still have the thinking that the harder study is the more prestigious. I chose prestigious studies at the University of Warsaw and this interfaculty track because it was the most prestigious amount among prestigious and it was also hard because we had more duties than other students and I can feel that if you’re this level of being smart, then this is like reinforcement loop and you try to stand up to the expectations and prove this by choosing the hardest studies. This can put you on the wrong track. And I agree with you.

Before I went to grad school, before I ended up as a PhD student in neuroscience, I also did a very short study in economics. And I did the young MBA program which was like a very short version of an MBA. It was not a full version but I enjoyed it. I scored very well in the exams. It was very easy for me. I never really thought about this as a potential career path for me because it was so easy. And I felt this is not noble enough, this is not hard enough, and this is not challenging, so why would I do this? This is just this’s too pleasant. It can be a hobby that was exactly my thinking. 

I understand your point of view. I was thinking the same but I changed. Okay, great. One of the reasons why we do these career talks is to give an overview of the potential careers after a PhD. I think your career track is very unusual and very interesting. And I think many people who will watch this interview later might ask themselves. How do you get to politics? What are the pros and cons of this job? How would you compare? What are the perks? And what are the potential downsides? And what would you advise to people who would like to get into politics after their PhD?

Dr. Carmen 18:26 Okay, I’ll start with the last question, like, how can you start because the thing is, especially local politicians, but politicians in general, you can approach them, you know, part of their job is to represent people. They are usually very approachable and friendly and interested in hearing stories of people and also interested in answering questions that you may have. 

If you just want to get in touch with politicians for whatever reason, then usually you can find their email address or phone number or their social media account, and you can reach out. I would advise people who are interested in that to do that. Find somebody who seems to be of a political party that you may be affiliated with and just contact them. That’s usually the best way to start because you have to start somewhere.

Once you know somebody, they can help you to figure out who you should talk to next, or what kind of meeting you could attend, for instance, to get a bit of a feeling of what are you enjoy being there doing something? And there are all kinds of things you can do. You can be a politician like I am but some political parties also have other positions, you know, whether it’s campaigning, or whether it is keeping the money of the party. 

There are all kinds of things you could be doing. The important first step is to reach out. If I look back at my own story of how I got involved, as I said, I had a politically active friend and I had a bit of a small interest in politics to start with. Since he was my friend, he has the similar kinds of norms and values that I have. He was with a party that I usually voted for. Just by talking to him in a very informal way, I realized that I would like to be a member of this party. And then when I did that, I realized that that was not so scary to do.

He could also give me a bit of advice, like what sort of activities were going on and how I could join those. At first, I became active on a national level in a theme group about higher education and science which made a lot of sense at the time because I was a PhD. I did that for a while. And I would meet with a few other people of the party who are interested in those topics from all over the country. But then, those meetings were usually late at night. I got pregnant and I can tell you, the pregnancies aren’t going well with late nights. I stopped that for a while. And then, after my baby was born, we moved and as I said, we bought a house. Instead of going back to the national level, I decided to become more active locally. I get the perks of this job that I have as a Councilwoman.

One of the nice things is that since it’s local, you can visit the people and the organizations and the places that you make decisions about. If some people are protesting something or if some people have some questions or if my party differs in opinion from the opinion of another party, then you can go and talk to the people involved. And you can just take your bike or even walk there, or sometimes you even know the people that you’re talking about personally. I liked that. And when you do something that people appreciate, then you also see the impact you’re having in your own environment.

Do you see that? For instance, as I said, school buildings are one of the topics that we deal with in Romania. And that’s in my domain. There was a school that got a whole new building and they’re so happy with that. It was a building that lived up to their expectations. There was a lot of discussion about that, like how to finance it, and what should and shouldn’t happen. But in the end, you know, everybody’s happy with the result. And that’s good to see. Another thing is that’s flexible in the sense that during the day, a lot of people have day jobs. You can do it next to another job if you want. You can visit people or organizations. You know, some people are so busy with the rest of their lives that they don’t do that a lot. It’s flexible. There’s no model that you have to follow. You can be the politician that you want to be.

What is not flexible, though, is that in the evenings, you have a lot of meetings with the city council. That’s less flexible. You’re supposed to be there. Sometimes, it takes a long time. Recently, we were there from 7:30 to midnight and it’s all because of Corona, we’re sitting behind the screen. And then there was not a single topic in my domain. Let me tell you, that was a long whole night. And you’re supposed to be there and to be present and to know what’s going on. That’s maybe the downside of it. 

Sometimes, it can be boring in that sense. But then the good thing is that I can share the topics with some of the other people at my party, so I don’t have to do all the topics on my own because that’s too much work. Another downside is that it’s not an actual job. You get paid but it’s a stipend. It’s not a salary. You don’t necessarily build up a pension. You don’t get sick days and stuff like that. You can put as many or as few hours as you want. If you put a lot of hours in and you enjoy it, then your hourly wage is really low because it’s not paid as a full-time job.

But you can fill your whole week with it if you want. Sometimes, I refer to it as a paid hobby. You know, you have to enjoy doing it and want to spend your time that way. It’s also not always nice for my relationship if I’m honest because sometimes, I’m away, or at the computer, in this case, like four nights in a row, and then I’m in bed after 11. And my husband’s already asleep. You know, that’s not ideal. But then, on the other hand, during the day, I have a lot of time with my kid. Nothing is perfect. 

And I think if I come back to how did I become a councilwoman, when we bought a house, this house where I’m sitting right now, what I did to get started here is that I just looked at the website of the party, but then the local website, in this case, it has consistently tracked the home folder. And then there’s contact information there. There’s always contact information about people you can reach out to. And I simply send an email. I said, Hey, I’m Carmen, I’m a member of the party, I would like to know what’s going on locally, maybe I can do something, I would like to meet you guys. Can I come and drink a cup of coffee sometime? And I went to several different meetings of different active groups to see what kind of activity I would like to be doing. It became pretty clear very soon that I wanted to become an actual politician. 

Because like I said, I’m opinionated. And I like to talk. That seemed to be a good fit. And from there, it just grew, you know, I took two years to just be on the sidelines and just supporting the politicians of that moment. But then the elections come around and some people stopped. They wanted to do something else. In the end, I got a seat which was nice and which is also a downside because every four years, you could lose your seat.

Natalia 26:55 That’s something I would like to ask you because you mentioned that you are paid not as a salary, but as a fellowship. And is this for this reason that it’s a fixed term? How many are right between elections? Every four years, you are validated by your community and you might lose your job. That’s like a binary thing. So it’s yes or no, right?

Dr. Carmen 27:26 That’s sort of true. If I tell you the story about how I got my seat, you’ll see it’s not entirely black and white. When the elections were coming up, there was some stuff going on at home. I told the people who have D 66 that I didn’t want to be high on the list of the elections. For people who are not familiar with the Dutch elections, I’ll just quickly explain. If you go to the voting booth, then you get a list. And every party has like a whole column of names, ranging from one to 40, or whatever. And you can vote for one of all those people. I didn’t want to be high D ranked for the 66. Because I knew that at the time, it would be hard to combine that with my home life. 

I didn’t have a very high position but I would still be on the list which was a good thing at the time. It turned out that I got a lot of votes. If you get a lot of votes, then you move up the list. And I moved up the list so far that I got a seat which was not in my planning but it happened. And I was super happy and sort of honored that people voted for me. But I had to turn it down anyway because I just couldn’t combine it. As I said, you know, the evenings and even weekends that you spend on this, you need support at home, especially when you have children but even if you don’t, your partner needs to be okay with that. I turned down the seat. I gave it to somebody else. But I kept first to claim any available seat later on.

A few months later, somebody in our party had to move away from politics for personal reasons. The seat became available and I could do it. And I hold that seat for now. It’s yes or no. You have a seat or you don’t but then things can change over time. As far as the four years are concerned, that’s democracy. People vote for the party that they like. And on a local level, it’s interesting that people usually vote based on the national party. While there can be a bit of a difference, you know, that sometimes certain parties are more conservative or more liberal or more green than their national party is. It’s good to look at that. 

But most people don’t have the time. You know, they don’t follow local politics. I get that. Depending on what happens in national politics, you gain or lose votes. You can also debtors parties who quit or parties who start. Then you have to divide the same amount of seats over fewer or more parties which also increases or decreases your own chance of having a seat. It’s a gamble. But that’s democracy. I think that’s good. Because we wouldn’t want to have the same people in charge for decades.

Natalia 30:43 It sounds extremely scary that you might potentially lose your job, for instance, because one person at the top that represent your party in the government says something stupid and the ratings fall to the ground, and then all of a sudden, you lose a few points in the polls, and then all of a sudden, half of you have to go the next in the next elections like there are so many factors that are independent of you. The political climate changes because the party is growing or something like that. I can imagine that it must be extremely stressful. I have a question about the Dutch people in politics because I’ve been here for almost a decade, but it always bugs me. To what extent do you think that society is into politics?

Because when I came here first, that was the most shocking thing for me that some people when I ask them, what about the political views, they don’t have any. And in Poland, that would be unthinkable. We are black and white. There are two sides to the political scene at the moment and everyone is on one side or the other. It’s like, there is no middle ground. We are very polarized in that sense. And for me, that was very unusual that some people are not into politics. Maybe that might be because it’s like a first-world country where living standards are high. This maybe is a property of first world societies that there is less interesting politics. But I’m curious, what is your opinion here?

Dr. Carmen 32:44 I recognize what you say. A lot of people are not that interested in politics. You know, definitely not everybody votes. I always felt the obligation because I feel it’s a right that you have, but especially as a woman, it’s a right that was gained for you, like 100 years ago, so use it. But I felt strongly about that, especially when I was like, in my early 20s, I wouldn’t know what I was voting about. For instance, one time there was this new party coming on the Party for the Animals. 

And on a side note, I feel strongly about animal rights. I felt that the topics concerning animals were not discussed enough in politics. I voted for the Party for the Animals without reading their election program or anything because I wanted them to shake up the discussion about these issues. I wouldn’t do that now anymore. But now, I know a lot more about what goes on in politics. The issue here is that you need to take time to familiarize yourself with the issues and to follow the different discussions and the opinions of different parties to figure out who you agree with the most. Not everybody does that. And I get that. There’s a lot of stuff that you need to do in your daily life. I think the second thing is that I hear a lot of Dutch people say is that you know, I like that party to most but there are still things I disagree with.

A party is like a group of people. I’ll never have the party unless I am my one-person party which is not going to work because nobody’s gonna vote for me except me. You cannot find the perfect party for you. You’ll always have to accept that there are certain things that you disagree with. For instance, D 66 is very strongly opinionated about having an elected mayor. That’s one of the things they’ve been saying since the party started in 1966. And it’s an important thing for them but I disagree. 

Now, some people don’t understand like, how can you be part of the D 66 and still not want elected mayor. But I agree on so many other levels. There’s no other party that I agree with more, that I think it’s still the best fit. I think that’s also a problem with the Dutch people that they’re looking for a party that fits every single aspect of what they like. And the third thing I wanted to mention when you said that maybe this is like a first world country where the living standards are very high.

One thing I know is that we have so many parties here in the national government that always have to make a coalition with different like 234 parties. I think two parties haven’t been seen in a long time which means you always end up somewhere in the middle. Because the extremes are not going to have enough votes to have the majority. And in fact, it’s known that companies like to base themselves on the net in the Netherlands for debt because it’s always been like this. 

They know it’s going to be a stable environment for them. It’s not going to swim from left to right, and whatever. That’s why some people are also not that interested because they feel that on average, it averages out. It doesn’t matter. Some people are upset that they vote for a party and they want that policy to be instated. But then that party is in a coalition with different parties. And they let go of the part of the policy that was important. People get upset. They say that I voted for you. Why don’t you do what you said you would? That’s why it doesn’t run here. That’s a part of it.

Natalia 36:59 I thought that companies like to be based in the Netherlands because it’s a tax haven but also because of the politics. I would like to avoid talking about my political views. Because every time I’m talking about my political views, my religious beliefs, or my sexual orientation, I fall into trouble. I will not touch on this topic. But I would like to ask you that soon we’ll switch to another subject. But I would still like to ask you about, some dirty truths about politics.

I think politics is a type of dirty scene where people are career-oriented. And I think a lot of young people don’t consider politics as a potential career path. And I would like to debunk this myth. If you could tell us a little bit more about how you see this. And if you experienced that, you will meet a lot of career-oriented people, and in your view, what are the features of a successful politician? Those people who get to the very top positions in the government, what do you think are their characteristics? What makes them successful?

Dr. Carmen 38:35 Okay. When you talk about dirty politics, I think it depends, you know, you can find anything, just like in companies. Some companies have a very mild culture. Some are very harsh. In politics, it’s a bit the same. I usually say that. I’m in politics here because I enjoy the atmosphere. We have a very nice group of people at D 66. But our collaboration with all the other parties is very friendly which doesn’t mean we always agree on everything. And sometimes yes, we can disagree. But it’s never personal. After a meeting, even if you had a harsh discussion, you always go and can have a drink with somebody and say, okay, you know, that’s just the content. But on a personal level, we’re fine. I know that in some other places, some other domains, that’s different. 

People don’t like each other. Some parties are sort of enemies. I don’t like that. But it happens. That just depends on your situation, I guess. And when you’re looking at the people who become successful, one thing I’ve noticed is that having a network is important, at least speaking for the D 66 I can imagine that it’s true and for other parties as well, because there will always be people who want to go up. If more people want to do that, then there are seats to divide. How do you stand out? And I think one thing is having a network at the party. Sometimes, some people were new to politics and immediately rise to the top because they have like a professional background that fits with a certain topic that they will be dealing with, for instance, for agriculture, the current national politician of D 66 is a farmer.

He just brought his own experience and his point of view and that was good. But I think for most people, it takes time. There are different routes but they all involve getting to know people and getting to develop yourself as well, as a politician, I guess, developing your views. Then at some point, if there is a good slot that fits your expertise at that moment, you may have a chance. But that also depends on like the group, the total group they’re looking for. 

As a politician, you’re not working alone. You’re usually working with other people representing the same party. The total mix of people matters because you want to cover all the topics. You want to have different personalities in there and you want the group to function well. Sometimes, it has nothing to do with yourself or your qualities or knowledge. It has everything to do with whether there’s a spot that fits you at that moment. 

But networking, I think is usually a good thing. You have to do that. You should attend meetings to know people if you want to become a successful politician. If you’re opinionated and you’d like to share your opinion, that helps as well. If you’re well articulated, you can express yourself properly. You’ve been trained that there are things like media training. There are things like a debate course to develop those kinds of skills. That’s also something to work on if you want to do this professionally.

Natalia 42:33 Is politics a way of living for the future? Or do you think this is more like a stage in your career?

Dr. Carmen 42:44 I could see myself continuing in politics because I enjoy it. And as long as I enjoy it, I don’t know if I would turn away from it. But then, there are things like elections that can change the situation. And I might do something else. It doesn’t pay all the bills, though. One thing that I’m looking at right now is to find a day job to pay the bills. Because like I said, it’s hard to make money with the company during Corona. I enjoy doing it. 

But it’s just not a feasible direction right now. I’m trying to figure out what I want to do. Because as I described before, during my PhD and everything, I just did that because I thought I had to be the smart one that was my identity. And then I did the coaching thing because of my experience during my PhD. It’s all been a bit reactive. I’m just thinking that there are other jobs out there that I don’t know about, that I could do, that I would enjoy doing. I’m thinking about that. I don’t know where that’s gonna take me. We’ll see.

Natalia 44:09 Okay, great. Sure, it’s gonna be something interesting. But now let’s talk a little bit about your coaching company. My first question is, what is your approach to coaching since I guess, there are different schools of coaching and the same as with therapy, you know, there are different schools to how to approach the therapy. When you work with D 66, what is your approach? What do you pay attention to? What are the more important points of your coaching technique if that’s not the secret?

Dr. Carmen 44:50 No, I don’t think that I have any secret techniques. I think If I would have to sum it up, the most important thing is that a coachee has to be able to take control of the situation. I’m there to create a safe space. I’m there to provide useful exercises. I’m there to encourage them to provide a mirror and feedback but I cannot do the actual work for them. I expect a coachee to be motivated. 

To be able to do that, you have to take charge. If their situation is such that this is too much to ask of them, then I refer them to other help. Because I think it’s only fair, you know, there are limits to what I can do. And if you need other professional help, then I refer them to that.

Natalia 45:56 I feel for you. I think that this is an often problem that PhD stay. And I had that to work through. I had also had hard times during my PhD but I didn’t search for help until it was too late. I think many PhD candidates just get the concept that they are in trouble when they are already burnt out. And they just wait for way too long. At some point, you’re already in the state of mind when you have this learned helplessness. You cannot do much more. And you are already in this passive mode when you cannot proactively search for solutions.

Can I know what you mean? Because I think this is a mistake many PhDs make. I guess that these are the hardest cases that you can encounter because I get it. I mean, if you will find yourself in a difficult spot in your PhD, you have to maneuver yourself out of it. It’s more like a strategic game on this point. And it’s hard to do it without energy. That’s for sure. Okay, so could you maybe tell us a little bit more about the company? Because I know that you’re not doing this alone. You also have some collaborators. And if you could tell us a little bit more about what your company is doing and also about your course.

Dr. Carmen 47:40 I started this company to give individual coaching to PhD candidates. That’s still something I enjoyed doing. However, individual coaching, especially for maybe eight sessions, it’s expensive for most PhDs and it’s not always certain or obvious what you’ll get out of it. That’s sometimes a big step to take immediately. I’ve also started to offer other things like a sort of mini-coaching of just two sessions, and also workshops and presentations for organizations that work with PhDs which is an interesting way of reaching PhDs and helping a group of PhDs at the same time. And building on that, I work together with a person from the next scientist to create an online course where it’s an actual full coaching program. But since we just filmed it once and we put the exercises and the movies online, it’s a lot cheaper to do it. It’s called unstuck your PhD. 

And it’s aimed at PhDs who are in this PhD dip, who are unmotivated, who have issues with their continuing PhD, who may be wondering, why am I doing this? Or should I continue this or not? Or will just don’t know how to pick themselves up again, and how to get your project back on track. This whole training on stuck your PhD is aimed at getting them back to a moment where they have planning. That’s realistic that they can follow to finish your PhD or at least, depending on where you are in your PhD at least get it back on track.

But the course is created in such a way that it’s also possible to conclude that your PhD is just not what you want to be doing and you want to do something else. And then you make a plan for that. In the end, you discover what is bothering you, why this is bothering you, and what you want. From all those questions and the answers you get for yourself, you work towards how to get to the point where you want to be. And like I said since it’s an online course, I mean, now it’s, of course, perfect. People can do it at their own pace. That’s convenient for them. It’s just a lot more affordable. 

That makes it interesting. It’s possible to do the course together with coaching. Then you can discuss your exercises with me online. But that’s not necessary. It’s a standalone course. That’s been quite popular. It seems that the money is an issue because PhDs just don’t always make that much money depending on where they are in the world. And this unstructured PhD has resonated internationally with a lot of different people from a lot of different countries participating.

Natalia 51:24 Great. If I understand correctly, this course is already on offer, right? And it’s available online. We will link the course in the description of this movie. Please take a look below to find the link to the course. That’s a very good idea. And I have a question regarding what you just said. Because as a PhD student, if you search for help during your PhD and you have those doubts, shall I continue my PhD? 

Or shall I maybe look for something else and just forget about it, then they will tell you that you have to continue, especially if you’re close to the end of your contracts. They have their best interest in telling you to continue. In the Netherlands, because of the system, this is beneficial for the faculty if you continue. But what is your standpoint? Because from what you said, I presume that you can also think that sometimes in some situations it’s justified to break your PhD and just go do something else? Could you share your opinion on this on this topic?

Dr. Carmen 52:52 I mean, there’s a conflict of interest there. If you’re speaking of a situation where the PhD candidate in question is struggling with a PhD to a point where they do not want to continue, that’s a very valid standpoint to have. And if the professor wants the person to continue because they will receive money when a PhD is finished, then that is a clear conflict of interest. 

And maybe the professor will want to provide help or support or whatever, but in the end, they just want you to graduate. And PhD candidate, on the other hand, may not want to do that because of whatever reason. It doesn’t even matter what the reason is. You’re not bound to this PhD. You’re not defined by your PhD. And they cannot force you. I mean, just imagine any other job where you would like want to leave and your boss is telling you Well, I don’t know if you can leave No, I mean, come on. You’re not a slave. You can leave when you want to leave. It’s too scary to leave sometimes, especially if you’re near the end, like you said, you’re almost there.

Most people will want to finish because then all their effort has not been in vain. But even that, if it’s too hard, you deserve help and you deserve a break. You shouldn’t be pushed to continue if you’re struggling that much. When I look at professors, supporters, and coaches, they have their own PhDs as supervisors. I think there’s a world that could be gained in good coaching skills and good supervision skills. 

And it’s not always the professor who was to blame. Because if you look at how the professorship is being tailored, you’re hired because they have good publications. They’re being rewarded for having good publications and bringing in funds. They’re being judged on that. They are in competition with each other over that. They’re not being like celebrated for their great teaching abilities and are not paid more because their PhDs are so happy with their coaching. And they help their PhDs through a hard time. 

Now, if they’re not naturally good at supervising PhDs, or if the conflict between the professor and a PhD is not naturally there, then it’s not that strange that they don’t have the skills to cope with the situation properly. I think most of them would want to be good supervisors and they genuinely care about the well-being of their PhDs but they just don’t have the time to invest in that.

They should get that time. It should be required to take proper training. They should be rewarded for doing well. Their supervising skills should be part of their annual evaluation. This brings me back to my political work because even though I’m a local politician, I do have an influence nationally in my party as well. And I’m now taking some action to get professors to that level, to get them that space, and to get them that recognition. Because they’re also in a very tight spot. 

Sometimes they’re also overworked, they’re also struggling in some areas. I don’t think that they’re all bad eggs. Although I also have to say that some people inside the walls of academia are a bit socially awkward but that won’t be a surprise to anyone who has been in science. That’s also a fact of life. But none of that is any reason to push yourself beyond your own boundaries. You have to guard your own boundaries. You have to guard your own mental and physical health and your own well-being. Because if you don’t do it, nobody else is going to do it for you.

Natalia 57:14 When you go to industry, no one will care. Sometimes, it’s okay to express the way you feel, for instance, on academic Twitter, you can express your frustration from work. And this’s the way you met with acceptance from the community and a lot of support. But in the industry, if you say something that might put your employer in a bad light and something about your everyday frustration at work, then you’re out. There’s much less understanding of your feelings especially related to your workplace. You have to have a good command over

your mental health and it’s your responsibility to take charge of it. The sooner you learn, the better it’s because out of academia, it won’t be tolerated that you are walking around depressed. It was going to be seen as your weakness as an employee. My question would be, if you could maybe share one piece of advice that you think is especially important for all those PhD candidates that struggle with at work, for whatever reasons, they indeed are in doubt if they should continue, or they feel they need help. Just one piece of advice that might help them get better today.

Dr. Carmen 59:00 I don’t know about getting better today. Although one thing is, you know, talking to somebody can be scary. But it’s usually a good first step for somebody you trust. It doesn’t have to be somebody at work could be but it could also be somebody in your private life. Just share your frustrations, anxieties, tiredness, or whatever is bothering you. Because once you share it, you’re not carrying the burden alone. 

You know, somebody else knows about it. And that’s an important first step. That’s always something good to do. But I think another piece of advice I would like to give is that I thought about before we started this webinar. If you can get to the point where you’re struggling and wondering if you want to leave your PhD and that’s one thing I recognized in a lot of academics, whether they’re in academia or industry or whatever, it’s very intellectual. It’s tempting to always be in your head. And think about things and reason about things and derive a logical conclusion. But emotions feelings and your well-being is not logical thing. It’s not a rational process.

Rationalizing your feelings is a big pitfall for a lot of academics. To avoid that a little bit, it’s important to get out of your head when you have spare time. And whatever works for you is good. Some people like to exercise to get back into their bodies and connect with their bodies. You can do any kind of exercise you want, whether it’s just walking, or whether it’s like something like martial arts or climbing or mountain biking, anything that you’re interested in, you could choose for that. Another thing that could work is meditation or something like it praying or whatever is your cup of tea, just to connect with your inner life, not with your body. It’s too easy to skip that. Forget about it and rationalize it away. You can do that with some breathing exercises or some yoga if you want. Those are also things that you can do.

And the third thing that could work is to go into nature. Just don’t stay indoors all day. Don’t stare at a screen like this all the time. But make sure you get fresh air and preferably in a green environment. You know, some people live in cities and they don’t have the luxury of going into nature. I hope that even in those situations, people can try and do that every now and then. 

But for those who are close to a forest or a beach or grassland or anything, just go there and take a walk, take a bike ride, breathe the fresh air, look into the distance, enjoy the sun or the rain, or whatever the day is bringing. That’s something that can also bring you back to yourself and get you out of your head. Those are three things I could advise exercise, meditate, and go to nature. If you do that regularly, it will help you stay grounded a little bit more and hopefully prevent excessive stress, and maybe make you aware of stress before it overflows you.

Natalia 1:02:49 I have some questions about the fact that you did all the things including PhD, and then starting a political career and starting a company while at the same time being a young mother. I have to confess that when I was in academia as a PhD student, I never felt an impostor syndrome. Impostor syndrome is quite common in academia. 

But I never really thought worse in any way than other students just because everyone has a different project. But once I started the company, sometimes I feel this is the first time when I feel complex. That’s exactly because of people like you who are so good at multitasking. They are perfectly capable of merging and marrying two different careers with family life. And my question is, how do you do this? Do you have some specific schedule or practice that you use to be able to juggle all these different activities? Do you have some secrets to share?

Dr. Carmen 1:04:19 I will start with bursting your bubble a little. I mentioned that at some point, I don’t know if it was a burnout. But I was crushed because of all the different things I was doing in my professional and private life. I don’t think there’s a secret in that sense. But I did learn something from that moment. I learned that it’s important to prioritize my own health. It’s too easy to get caught up doing things for other people, whether it’s colleagues, whether it’s my children, whatever it is, it’s always nice to be helpful and to have a good relationship with people. 

I have to prioritize myself because if I’m not healthy, then I’m not going to be able to do any of those other things. My daughter is older now. That’s easier because she’s not a baby anymore. And my two jobs as an entrepreneur and as a politician are very flexible. I decide how much time I put in, which is in a way harder than being an employee somewhere because as an employee, you have very clear expectations and you have very clear hours and you don’t decide how much you need to do.

What you also do, there is an end when it’s five o’clock. When the clock goes out, you go home and that’s it. While here I am on a Sunday night in this webinar with you. And the same goes for. There was an interesting meeting during the weekend or an evening where I would be free, otherwise, I will want to join. That makes it harder because I’m doing that out of genuine interest. And then it’s important to guard my own boundaries and be aware of my own limitations. It’s important to take a break when I need a break and not feel guilty when I’m not productive 100% of the time, for instance. When you’re talking about impostor syndrome, there is still a part of me that genuinely thinks that I got my PhD by accident. And I know that when I say it out loud, it sounds crazy. But it’s just as I said, feelings are not rational.

I guess there’s part of me that still doesn’t believe that my thesis was good enough. I definitely recognize those feelings. If I look at how you approach your company, I also look up to that you’re very structured, and you seem to have a clear goal that you’re working towards. Combining all these different things, sometimes I feel that I make very little progress in every single one of them. While you seem to be very focused on one topic and making more progress. That’s the reason maybe. I don’t know if juggling different things is always a good thing. But it keeps things interesting. It’s nice to have those different kinds of stimulation.

Natalia 1:07:48 Someone has to produce new things. It’s good that you took that responsibility for all of us. Okay. I still think that probably you just undermine your achievements here and it must be very difficult what you’re doing. Okay, so thank you for all this advice. Let me ask you, what shall we wish for the future for you, your company, and your political party.

Dr. Carmen 1:08:37 I would wish myself the most is to be content and to enjoy what life brings. That goes beyond my professional life as well. If my professional life can contribute to me feeling happy, and feeling useful, I think that that would be good. It would be a good way.

Natalia 1:09:14 Okay. Thank you, everyone, for joining us today. I would like to cordially thank Carmen for joining us and for sharing all these insights. Thank you so much, Carmen, for being with us.

Dr. Carmen 1:09:30 Thank you, Natalia. It was very nice. It was my pleasure to be here.

Natalia 1:09:35 I want to make one little announcement today. The second edition of my book, what is out there for me, the landscape of prosperity career tracks is coming out. If you didn’t check it out yet, maybe this is a good occasion because the second edition is much thicker than the first one. I added 60 or 70 pages of information. I think it’s a lot of information and a lot of quality for the price. Check it out. Thank you again for your attention. And I hope that we gave you food for thought today about your political careers, perhaps. It’s worth checking out if you also like discussing and have a lot of ideas for how to improve our society. And thank you again for your attention.

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Please cite as:

Bielczyk, N. (2020, October 25th). E027 A PhD as a Politician? Carmen Rietdijk on Politics, Coaching for PhDs, and Work-life Balance? Retrieved from https://ontologyofvalue.com/career-development-strategies-e027-a-politician-as-a-phd-carmen-rietdijk-on-politics-coaching-for-phds-and-work-life-balance/

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