An Interview with Veronika Vašíčková

This is a transcript of the highlights of Insight Episode 71.

(Recorded on 6/11/2023)

Insight Producer Luke has a conversation with PhD student, St Andrews graduate, former Insight producer and former PANDA Magazine contributor Veronika, talking about her time in St Andrews, what she’s currently up to in Germany and what her favourite physics joke is.

You can find the FULL interview over on Spotify, YouTube or Apple Podcasts by searching Insight by Physoc.

Veronika Vašíčková. Image provided by Veronika Vašíčková.

Luke: Hello, I am joined here with Veronika. Veronika was a member of Physoc and Insight back in the day but now she has left us after graduating. But thank you for coming on and I hope you enjoy the interview.

Veronika: Thank you.

Luke: So we’ll start off with asking what you have been up to since graduating St Andrews. So am I right in saying you graduated- you graduated last year. Was that with a master’s degree?”

Veronika: That’s right, so I mean, this- the end of this summer, so last academic year with a master’s degree in theoretical physics.

Luke: Nice. Well, that’s what I’m hoping to be able to do over the next 5-ish years. Hopefully that works out okay. Since graduating from St Andrews what have you been up to over the last few months?

Veronika: Well, I took a long summer to relax a little bit.

Luke: Well deserved.

Veronika: Yeah basically shake it all off. And then actually in August I started my PhD in Astroparticle physics in Germany. So, it’s with the Pierre Auger Observatory and the topic: since I’ve started, I have basically been defining my topic up until now-ish where I’ve already started working on it, now it’s November right. And yeah, it’s fun, it’s in Wuppertal in Germany. It’s an amazing group so another thing I have been doing is just hanging out with my colleagues.

Luke: Fair fair. So, you’ve moved from St Andrews to I’m not even going to try pronounce where in Germany for your PhD. Has it been a big change, is there a big difference between studying in Germany to studying in St Andrews?

Veronika: Absolutely actually. For undergrads there is a big difference between the British school system I guess and the Germany school system. One of them being I don’t know for instance that it’s quite usual to fail exams in Germany, like that’s an experience basically everyone has. But you get more tries I guess and grades are less important so I guess it weighs itself off. You basically either pass or don’t. Whereas we’re like ‘I need to get a 1st, I need to get a 2.1…’

Luke: This German system sounds great to be fair, to have less of a stress on getting that whatever number grade you need to progress. But while it has been different, have you found that St Andrews, and your time studying there has prepared you sufficiently well for moving away to Germany?

Veronika: Absolutely yeah. Well to be honest, so I originally come from the Czech Republic right then I moved to Scotland and then I moved back to Germany. So having all this international experience moving countries was helpful. Then kind of, Germany is culturally I guess much closer to the Czech Republic than I expected personally and slightly more different from than the UK than I expected. So, I guess in that it feels just normal it feels okay. But academically, definitely. It was more than well prepared. And also all the skills that just- these transferable skills, I’ll say it, the attitude of just like solving a problem even though its hard and really we are used to working hard and that’s going to be very useful whetherr you’re dealing with the horrible German bureaucracy, which is just horrible, or an actual physics problem.

Luke: What’s worse?

Veronika: I don’t know. At least the physics problems tend to be in English whereas bureaucracy is typically in German.

Luke: Yeah that’s fair enough.

Luke: We have a lot of freshers that just joined us this year at St Andrews so as an international student yourself could you give any advice to these new international students?

Veronika: It’s going to be okay, just keep repeating that to yourself until you start believing it. It’s genuinely going to be fine. I guess, you’re going to figure it out, all the initially weird things that many people who are from the UK do not realise are so so different from other countries, you’re going to figure it out. If there are some differences between what you can do and what people from the UK can do like from school, that’s fine, you can learn that, you are a smart person. And just get to know lots of other people and start integrating in. The more you do that the better you’ll find it and the quicker the transition will be and generally it will be fine.

Luke: Well said, I’m sure that going to help lot of people who just moved here for the first time. I feel as well St Andrews as place is just its own little bubble you know. It’s got its own culture outwith the Scottish culture as well. But yeah, I’m sure that going to help put a lot of people’s stresses at ease.

Luke: For people that are coming to the end of their undergraduate degree, what is the process from going from that to applying and then hopefully landing a PhD course?

Veronika: I mean it starts with googling. I literally came across my PhD when I google neutrino PhDs. And half of them were like expired and just not really relevant any more but they were still online so I just sorted through that. For me, I saw my PhD the last day. It was Sunday and the deadline was next Monday noon. I didn’t have my references I didn’t have anything. But the thing is don’t worry about it if something like that happens, just email the professor. I did that, I was thinking that they’ll tell me to just apply next year but they actually said it was going to be fine and to send the references later and it was alright. So yeah, google it, I’d say be open minded because I’m definitely not doing neutrinos in the end. And yeah, especially if you want to go abroad it is a good idea to start early to start in the first semester even though the deadline is going to be much, much later because then you might or might not have to sort your own funding but once you find the PhD adverts online then you will get stuff from there. If you are on mailing lists from some groups, for example from summer internships, you will receive emails from them. But if just you want to stay in St Andrews or want to stay in some particular research area you can go to a lecturer and ask. Either them or maybe a colleague of theirs knows of a PhD for you.

Luke: I think it was where you were saying about the fact you sent you application the day before it was due, I think every listener to this podcast can relate to that, to sending in anything the day before it was due. There have been many a time where I’ve, I hate to say, sent something in the day it was due.

Luke: So, with doing the whole undergraduate thing and being in St Andrews as long as you have, you’ve enjoyed multiple Physoc event, multiple class tests and exams, but you’ve also had a lot of the traditions: May dip or raisin or the Pier walk. Do you have a favourite one of those, a favourite tradition that St Andrews has?

Veronika: Favourite one… oh my. So, I mean I do like raisin although like sometimes I have seen it getting a bit too extreme, like really scared people that had no idea so maybe I won’t say that. But I will say May dip. May dip is so freezing cold, so freezing cold, I love it.

Luke: As being a student of Physics, what is your favourite place in the universe outwith Earth?

Veronika: Ahh, that’s a good one. My favourite place in the universe outwith Earth, I guess the insides of neutron stars because I just really want to know what’s in there. Like genuinely I just want to know how it works.

Luke: I’ve been doing something, where at the end of interviews I ask, can you give me a physics joke?

Veronika: It’s a long one though, can I say a long one?

Luke: We’ve got time.

Veronika: So basically, there’s a farmer who has cows and he needs them to give more milk. So he hires an agrotechnician.

Veronika: He hires someone and they’re like: ‘For £200,000 and in 10 years you can have a 5% increase in the amount of milk your cows give you’. The farmer says ‘Okay, okay’ and hires a molecular biologist. And they say: ‘If you give me £2 million and 3 years, I will be able to increase your cows’ milk production by 50%’. And the farmer is like ‘Okay good enough, but let’s try a third person’. So, for the third time he hires a physicist and the physicist comes back in 2 days and he’s like: ‘So if you give me about £100 and 3 days, we can increase the milk production by 300%. And the farmer is like ‘Wow! How?’. And the physicist is like ‘Okay, let’s assume the cow is a perfect sphere in vacuum.’

Luke: Before you leave us, I know you gave some words of advice for international students but can you give us a small thing you would have liked to hear that would have helped you out when you were a sub-honours student to just getting through that first couple of years of university?

Veronika: I guess I would say not to listen to the stuff about how honours is hard and horrible and 5th year will kill you and this year is like bad, this teacher is like bad, and this lecturer is like bad. I would not listen to that because honestly, it’s semester by semester, person by person, subject by subject, lecturer by lecturer. I say just don’t listen to that. Obviously, you need to work hard, but you also need to enjoy, do your best to pull it together as good as you can but also don’t put yourself under too much pressure to do everything. And engage, that’s another thing. Like don’t shut off only studying because then you’ll burnout so do engage in Physoc for example, wink wink. And yeah enjoy, it’s going to all pay off in the end.


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