We first met David De Vocht in 2019, when he’d just started his master’s programme in Photonics. We chatted in de run up to the BEST competition which is held every year across Europe. Time has passed, and David has meanwhile graduated from VUB but he’s stayed in academic circles. He started his PhD at TU Eindhoven in the Netherlands, which will keep him occupied over the next four years. Looking ahead is tricky, because a lot can happen over the course of four years, but his dream is – at some point – to create or support a start-up.

“My studies at VUB would show up as a very positive trend-graph. I had my own room and discovered a lot of freedom with that. As the years progressed, I got busier and busier. Not just with studies but also outside classes. I joined several student organisations (Beerculture, BEST, etc) but I also started to help with outreach programmes to promote STEM studies with children in schools, and I’m also a composer, so life got hectic and busy. I had some tough moments during my studies, but with support from friends and family I managed it all. My motto is definitely ‘work hard, but also play hard’!"

You studied engineering and then continued with a Master’s in Photonics. Would you recommend VUB for those studies?

“Absolutely! I’m from Antwerp and had the choice of three engineering-universities in Flanders, and I’m glad I chose VUB. I really loved that campus-feeling you get, with the athletics track, lots of greenery, and everything together in one place. I also very much appreciated that there was always time for every student and their questions, whereas at other universities I noticed long rows of students who wanted to ask their questions. What I particularly loved about the Master’s in Photonics was the international nature of the programme; my class mates came from all over the world. And when I tell people abroad about the Master in Photonics, they’re amazed at how specialised it can be. You really learn to appreciate photonics to its fullest extent, and also I got to discover two other universities over the course of my master’s programme: the University of Ghent and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) while I was on an exchange.” [continue reading below photo]

What has stayed with you the most from your time at VUB?

“I worked as a student, designing workshops for kids. I helped out on the Day of Science in 2017 by supporting a group of students and volunteers from Boeing, working on a project ‘shooting off rockets’. It was a big hit, and I appeared on tv afterwards. As a follow-up event I got the chance to present in a science show for some 400 schoolkids. I’d also want to highlight my international experiences while I was at VUB. I got to visit Huawei in China, did an internship with a Chinese car lights manufacturer, attended a conference in the US, and did an exchange in Switzerland.“

How are you experiencing these very strange corona-times, especially as in the Netherlands things are handled differently than in Belgium?

“I was a bit worried about starting my PhD in lockdown, but luckily in September things were still a bit flexible, similar to July in Belgium. It allowed me to make friends who’ve been helping me move furniture, e.g. my new IKEA gadgets and comfortable sofa. Then suddenly things got stricter, though it is relaxing again now I think. The first three months have really been about getting to know my project and working on design. I first managed to go to the office one or two days a week, but since the end of October I’ve been working from home full-time.”

Are you noticing any differences between the Netherlands and Belgium?

“People are more direct here, and they are very good at selling their products in the Netherlands [laughs]. But, they are also fun to chat to and very open. What is also nice is that Eindhoven is quite international, which is a nice continuation after my time at VUB.”

What is your advice to students starting their first year, or those who will start their studies in 2021? Any tips?

“Really give your all during that first year. It is what my dad told me, and it’s true: give it your all, and you’ll get through that first year. Also, definitely go and ask your professor any questions you have. By discussing things with them you get a better understanding of how well you get the topic in question. Talk to those around you and mix it up a bit. After a few months, I got to know half of those in my year. However, I still kept a small group of people with whom I grew closer. Keep up with your classes and take some extra time to focus on the two hardest courses (20%) in your semester. If you can manage to get through those, then the rest will follow more easily when it's time to study. At the start of your studies, keep an open mind, explore and don’t immediately commit to loads of student organisations or lots of things. Try to look around and find the right ones that work for you."