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Planning ahead vs. keeping flexibility – An alumnus story of Jeff Chen

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Planning out your entire project, or just starting and see where you end up, whilst keeping extreme flexibility? It’s important to remember that there is always more than one way to achieve something. Jeff Chen is the perfect person to highlight the differences in working culture between the West and the East.

Jeff, born in Taiwan, came to Leiden in 2002 to study chemistry. The reason he came to Leiden? “Many students in Taiwan are eager to go to the USA, it’s like a trend.” The Netherlands had a good offer, with pretty affordable tuition fees. The other reasons for Jeff to come to the Netherlands, as opposed to other places, was the country’s large international community and its background in science.

“I applied to several schools in the Netherlands, but in the end I came to Leiden, because this school had the greatest reputation.” He finished his bachelor degree in 2004, and then moved to the USA to deepen his knowledge and work in the field.

After having worked several years in the USA, where resources seemed “limitless” compared to the Netherlands, he moved to China, where he now works as a production manager at one of the largest pharmaceutical companies of the country: WuXi Biologics. WuXi Biologics, being one of the largest CDMO (contract development and manufacturing organisation) pharmaceutical companies in China, has over 6.000 employees. It has multiple production sites, and one of these has already landed a contract to produce a drug for COVID-19. 

Jeff is the production manager of a production site that is currently being built. He is in charge of several people. His managerial role is heavily influenced by his studies and work abroad, first in the Netherlands and then in the USA.

“Having lived, studied and worked in several countries is engrained into my DNA and embedded into my blood. It affects my everyday working life.” However, the things Jeff picked up during his time in the Netherlands and in the USA, may not always fit 100% into the project he is working on at that moment. Subtle differences in the approach to projects or in leadership may have quite large effects in the final product. “However, this isn’t necessarily a large problem, because what is important, is that you know that there is more than one way to achieve something.”

Jumping into the deep end

In 2020, it is probably easier to leave your home behind to study abroad. First, it is relatively easy to keep in touch with your family at home, given the wide variety of social networking sites and messaging apps available to talk to anyone you please. Secondly, the facilities in the country of destination are probably better now than twenty years ago. “I remember that I didn’t even have internet in my dorm, back then.” However, the one thing that according to Jeff hasn’t changed, is that when studying abroad, one must keep an open mind.

Why necessarily? Being aware of the fact that being part of an international community requires an open mind is important. You must realise at all times that the people around you may not have the same understanding of the world as you do, and you must learn to navigate that. Having and keeping an open mind makes this process easier.

What does Jeff mean with ‘keep an open mind’? “Talk to people, go out and about, learn about their lives, cultures, habits, opinions, and understandings. Even though currently, because of COVID-19, it is extremely difficult for students to get to know each other well in person, it is still important to build your network.”

On the note of building a network, students having such easy access to the Internet may be beneficial to them in keeping the relationships they had back home alive. It may also be a helpful tool in frequently contacting their family, but it may also be an excuse for people not to go out and interact with other students. It’s important to feel and seek balance.

 “There’s one thing that I probably didn’t do as good as I should have. My tip for new students is: build a network in the country where you study, it will help you out later.”


Jeff also remarks that even back in 2002, the Netherlands was a very open-minded country regarding aspects that to this day, find quite some resistance in other places. Most notably, the widespread use of soft-drugs in the Netherlands struck him as interesting. Currently, one can see that other countries, such as the USA and Canada, are also gradually opening up to weed consumption. In the Netherlands, this has been legal for years. Rather than ignoring and criminalising the problem, the Dutch acknowledge its presence, and try to control it as much as they can. 

Forget your plans

What is one of Jeff’s most notable observations about the difference in working practice between China and the Netherlands? “In China, people don’t really make a plan, they just start. In The Netherlands, there are long discussions, and thorough plans are made before a team starts working on a project.” Not having a complete plan allows for flexibility. In China, flexibility, but also speed is important. People are willing to give up their social life for a career. In the Netherlands, people care a lot about their personal wellbeing. There is more focus on a healthy work-life balance.

On this note, Jeff also remarked an interesting difference between the Netherlands and the USA. “In the States, your boss doesn’t really care what you do. You are very free, especially because there are seemingly limitless resources for your research to use. There is a lot of money in the research area. In the Netherlands, there is a stronger focus on community and collaboration, as opposed to working as an individual in the USA. In the Netherlands, not only is the space limited, so are resources, so they must be coordinated carefully.”

Working in China

China is a very ambitious country, and all its people work very hard to change its status from before. This makes China a very competitive place. “Yes, you can get a reward, but you need to make a compromise with your personal life.” According to Jeff, Europe has very great social services, taking care of everyone, and this makes it easier to create the fine balance between working life and personal life. 

Stuck here, or there?

Being from Taiwan and currently working in China, Jeff hasn’t been able to go home in almost a year. He is not the only one, there are many people living away from home, who have stayed ‘behind’ to study and/or work. The pandemic has shown how countries deal with this situation differently. Whereas in China, life is almost back to normal, other parts of the world are still very much locked up. “Perhaps, the focus on collectivism in Chinese culture is a factor that contributes to China’s ability to quickly jump to the rescue when a new outbreak happens.” In the Netherlands, masks are only being worn frequently now that the government has issued a strong advice to do so. In China, it is considered polite to wear one when being even slightly under the weather.


What will the future be like? “This is not an easy question, since the world has changed a lot in the past decade, whether that is technically or politically. For a new graduate from school, I would like to encourage you to embrace the dynamics. We may see very good economic forecasts in the near future, but this may also plunge very quickly. I believe you all will find a way to lead your life, but in the beginning, never be afraid of the hardship. The more hardship you encounter in the first place, the more valuable nutrient it will be in later stages of life. You’re lucky if you can find a thing to do and also find a decent life, however don’t forget that it’s not a tragedy if you can’t figure out the balance even after 40.”

In an ever changing world, Jeff thinks that one thing is most important: “One fundamental thing that will never change is to love. You must never give up the ability to love people, no matter where you are.”

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