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"I trust the experts and I’m not going to make a fuss"

We have probably all worked from home once at some point, voluntarily or out of necessity. But how do you divide your day and sort your work or study load now that we collectively depend on our home for a longer period of time? How do you stay focused, how do you keep your team together, what are the tips, tricks and pitfalls? Cursor calls a ‘fellow sufferer’ every day. Today: PhD student Ralf Mackenbach (Applied Physics).

photo Privécollectie Ralf Mackenbach

“There is a pandemic going on, I have plenty of time,” Mackenbach responds with a laugh at the start of our Skype session. We are connected to his home in Eindhoven, where he has spent the majority of his time since March 10th. His main company is his brother, who lives one floor up and who, according to the doctoral candidate, closely followed the news from China early on. “I followed it on the side, I was aware of what was going on, but not of how fast the coronavirus would come to the Netherlands. But from the moment it became relevant here, I immediately took it very seriously and followed the advice.”

Staying home is therefore simply not a point of discussion for the doctoral student. In a situation like this, I rely very much on the experts and I’m not going to make a fuss. I immediately went home when asked to do so.”

He can manage at home, the researcher says. “I have my laptop here and I turned a few books into a laptop riser. Maybe not optimal, but it works. I do work more efficiently if I can really keep ‘work’ and ‘home’ separate, but we have no choice for now. If there is a time to say, ‘I'm just working a little less now,’ it's during a pandemic." The main pitfall for Mackenbach and therefore his most important working-from-home tip for others: “If you stop at the end of the day, really close your laptop immediately. Otherwise you will soon get stuck in your work.”

Mackenbach has just finished the first three months of his PhD trajectory, within the nuclear fusion department under the supervision of Josefine Proll. “This time has mainly revolved around reading up on the topic. Now I am slowly moving towards trying to get new results; playing with the things you learned, making some toy models.” He says he mostly does “theoretical and numerical work; I really only need an internet connection for that. For people who do experimental work, working from home is a lot more difficult, I think.”

Virtual office

Every Monday he checks in to the weekly group meeting via Zoom. “That works fine. In addition, we have also set up a kind of virtual office within the group, where you can chat and hang out.” If we have to have a pandemic, then the 21st century (“in which we can keep in touch in all kinds of ways”) might be the best time to have it, Mackenbach thinks.

But, he also says: “We are all social animals; I miss the normal dynamics of my job.” And that is no different for his private life. “My brother lives above me, but I don't see anyone else at the moment. Instead, I call my friends a lot. Dinner dates, also on Mondays with our family, we now have online via skype or Whatsapp. We then chat, cook and eat. It's working."

Force majeure

The researcher does try to go out for a walk every day, "but then I choose a quiet moment." Laughing: "But it's always quiet now." He and his brother take turns shopping at the supermarket. "He's the chef this week, next week it will be my turn again." He also keeps moving by doing sit-ups, push-ups and other fitness exercises every evening.

What you can’t really change into a digital option are his frequent trips across the border. “At the beginning of March, there was actually a conference in Northern Italy that, for very obvious reasons, was canceled. Then after I was supposed to go to Lisbon with a friend from the US and at the end of May I would go to the US to visit some friends there. But that has also been postponed for a while. I will not easily experience more force majeure than now.”


How much longer will we still be in this corona crisis and subsequent social isolation according to the PhD student? “I dare not say anything about it; other people can answer that question a lot better than me. But I count on being home a lot until June 1st anyway, so we will have to persevere for a bit longer. We'll see what happens after that time.”

The latter also turns out to be Mackenbach’s future motto. Besides his career in TU/e he has been an artist from an early age. “When I finished my master’s, I did All Together Now (a musical television show on RTL4, ed.), which was a nice rewarding job and very enjoyable. However, promotion is now a priority. A year ago I never expected to do a PhD anyway, so I am not going to say what I intend to do in four years. If nice opportunities come up, I’d say: why not?”

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