A Day in the Life of a PhD Candidate in the Scanning Probe Microscopy department


“Being in such a stimulating research environment is an invaluable experience”, that is how Nikhil Seeja Sivakumar describes his first year as a PhD student in the Scanning Probe Microscopy (SPM) department at Radboud University. Why did Nikhil choose to come to Radboud University? And what does his research entail? Find out below!

“In my research, I investigate van der Waal materials, ranging from bulk down to the single-layer limit, so-called 2D materials. These materials exhibit novel types of charge and spin order, leading to correlated ground states like charge density waves, noncollinear magnetism and Mott insulating phases. My PhD project involves using simultaneous current and force-based probing techniques to investigate the role of electron correlations in charge ordering or charge density waves. On top of that, I am also designing a setup that can combine scanning tunnelling microscopy and atomic force microscopy to study charge order at phase transitions towards insulating material phases in 2D materials. My focus is on fundamental physics in my research, but my findings can help to find new material classes for energy-efficient data storage capacity.”

Why did you choose to do a PhD?

“During my studies in India, I worked in a cryogenic lab for my Master’s thesis where I did experiments at very low temperatures for the first time. I discovered that while conducting experiments, you can apply the knowledge you read in textbooks and understand it to a whole new degree. Since I didn’t have access to my own full project during my thesis and wanted to learn more, I decided that a PhD would be the right next step.

While reading papers about the field of high-resolution microscopy, I came across Alexander Khajetoorians, the head of the SPM department at Radboud University. The setups he used are unique, and there seems to be a big focus on constantly pushing the limits of their research and upgrading the equipment. At the same time, I saw they had an open position that gave me the chance to design a completely new setup as well as to conduct measurements. Because it seemed like a place where I could work in physics, science, and instrumentation at the same time, it was an opportunity I didn’t want to pass up.”

What does a regular week look like for you?

“A regular week can look very different depending on whether you’re measuring on a setup or working individually. While measuring, I spend most of my time at the lab. Because we always work on setups in pairs, there is a lot of input from others which is very valuable. Throughout the week I also have regular meetings with my supervisor, Nadine Hauptmann. Additionally, we have journal club discussions and group meetings with all our PhD’s and postdocs as well as staff members, which are great for learning more about what’s going on in the field.

If I’m not doing experiments, I’m designing a setup in my case at the moment. But other tasks also include writing articles or papers or analysing data from the lab. Additionally, I have a teaching load of around 10%. I mostly assist my supervisor with her courses and supervise Bachelor’s and Master’s students in the lab. The supervision part is nice because explaining something to someone else is a great test to see if you fully understand it yourself.”

How have you experienced working and living in Nijmegen?

“Coming to the Netherlands has mostly been super easy for me. I was fully prepared to learn Dutch, but I realised that everyone’s English is great here. Because of this, I never really had an adjusting phase. It took me a while to pronounce ‘Nijmegen’ correctly, but I love the city. Everything is nearby, and if you have a bike you can go anywhere. The city centre is always bustling, but as soon as you step outside, you’re back in a calm environment. As someone who spent a large part of his life in big cities, this is a very welcome change.

The only tough part was coming here during COVID last year because I didn’t know many people. Fortunately, I saw my lab mates frequently which helped a great deal. We have a very diverse community within our lab, so I’m learning a lot about different cultures. For me, that is one of the biggest advantages of moving to another country.”

What has a PhD taught you so far?

“Research wise, I’ve learned to be critical and ask the question ‘why?’ with everything I do. In this field, it’s crucial to be curious and combine that with an understanding of what you can expect before conducting an experiment. Most experiments we do in a pair, so I’ve learned a great deal of teamwork and collaboration skills as well. Additionally, there are opportunities to improve my scientific writing as well as build up a huge network of scientists in the field.

Because of the research plans, scope and development within the SPM department, I plan to stay in academia. I still have three years to go on my PhD, so I am excited to progress further in this unique environment and see where it takes me.”

For more information about the SPM department, visit their website.

Looking for a new colleague

Are you a physics graduate and have Nikhil’s experiences sparked your interest in exploring the future of nanoelectronics at Radboud University? And does characterizing magnetic order in novel quantum phases of 2D materials sound exciting to you? Check out the vacancy below for the position of PhD candidate in the research team of Nadine Hauptmann (assistant professor in the SPM department).

Is applying for this position currently a step too far, and would you first like to discuss how this experience could fit within your academic career? Feel free to contact Nadine by email. Please include your current career situation and any questions you may have. Nadine will then contact you to discuss your questions informally.