The comfort zone is the psychological state in which you feel in control of the environment and everything is familiar. This zone includes the habits, the routines, the knowledge and the behaviors you are used to. Outside this zone, there is the unexplored or panic zone, formed by activities that produce panic and anxiety. Between these two zones, there is the learning zone, formed by the skills and abilities that are out of reach of the secure environment. Here is where growth and development take place.
Then, why will you even want to step out of this calm state and get into stress and fear? Well, staying inside this psychological state leads to a motionless calm in which monotony invades your present and future life. While going out will make you gain new skills and knowledge that will stretch both your learning and your comfort zones.
During my studies, I decided to do several internships and study a full year abroad. I believed this might be the best way to learn about new cultures, new "ways of doing" and to push myself personally and professionally. Every time I moved, I have passed through the four culture shock phases: honeymoon, frustration, adjustment and acceptance. At the beginning, the new adventure is exciting and the new city unexplored. Then several misunderstandings and getting lost in a wide variety of forms lead me to frustration. However, learning and adapt the new culture is key to accept and get used to the new environment. Looking back to all of these phases I realized how much I have learned about managing emotions and fears, and, at the end, becoming an adult. I became more comfortable doing actions that were very scary for me (meeting new people) and I developed new skills that I am still learning (writing in English properly).
Stepping out is sometimes very hard, but, in the end, all the bad times become funny moments of misunderstanding and a happy rewarding feeling that you have overcome them!
My psychological state before (left) and after (right) living abroad during my studies. Seems like a very little increase, but for me it is definitely a lot! There are still so many things I have to keep learning!
I particularly realized that living abroad gives you the chance to choose between the habits of different cultures. I find this especially interesting as it helped me open my mind and understand that there is not a good nor a bad one way of doing things, but many different. If you stay in your comfort zone you will never know what is outside and you will keep having the same habits just by inertia, not by actually choosing them. By choosing your habits you can personalize your life by adapting it to what best suits you. For example, while I was in the UK I got the habit of drinking tea in the afternoon and now that I am in France, I really enjoy having cheese and a glass of wine on Friday nights. Yes, living abroad gives you a chance to select the best parts of each culture!
In a more professional perspective, stepping out of your comfort zone is key to improve skills highly necessary in the scientific world (talking with people from different labs and different work cultures, learning how to explain your experiments to people with different background…). Moreover, I realized how different cultures impact in the academia and work space and this helped me to adapt to different universities, lecturers and laboratories.
I guess all these experiences helped me decide to continue in sciences, go for a PhD abroad and starting to learn many new things (including a new language (although is taking ages)). And yes, although sometimes it is scary and stressful, you can always come back to your comfort zone and get renewed energies to fight again!
At the same time, for me working in sciences is like walking continuously above the limit between your comfort zone and the learning zone. From here you will have to jump to a place that is still unknown to humanity. Sometimes you will get lost, and you will have to come back for all your past abilities to build up a stronger bridge to jump towards the limit of human knowledge.
And yes, it is as exciting as it sounds!
About the blog
Being a PhD student in a European training network is a life-changing adventure. Moving to a new country, carrying out a research project, facing scientific (and cultural) challenges, travelling around Europe and beyond… Those 3 years certainly do bring their part of new - sometimes frightening - but always enriching experiences.