Time will tell

The start of my postdoc position at TUM was not really as I had expected it to be. Most postdoc positions that I was aware of at the time were project positions. In such positions the goals were usually quite clear and I thought that this was somewhat similar to what I was walking into.

Boy, was I wrong…

From the moment I accepted the position, my new boss started sending me all kinds of projects, that ‘maybe you could be involved in?’. At the time I had no clue what that meant and given that most of the material that was sent to me was countless pages long, I was not sure what to make of it. I thought I’d be mostly working on my own research, although I knew I would be co-supervising a PhD student that had already started. Oh, and of course there was five hours of teaching, which sounded manageable. Five hours only (haha). I had not really realized that these projects my boss had sent me, were PhD projects that I would supervise. I had not given it much thought that this postdoc was not a project, but that I was responsible for shaping it. I was inexperienced, and very naive. I had no clue.

I was literally thrown off a very high cliff. Go figure it out. I think it is safe to say that my boss did (or does) not have much time to hold my hand or actively supervise the things that I do every day. In fact, he probably has no clue what I’m doing most of the time. I must say I do like this independence and am happy not to have a professor constantly breathing down my neck, but it felt pretty scary at first. I have spent the first three months having daily rounds of panick attacks and insomnia because I was scared shitless that I did (and would be doing) everything wrong. Two of the very early weeks I spent mostly in bed or under a blanket on the couch, reminiscing about how everything used to be better back in the Netherlands, and repeating the mantra ‘you have destroyed the future for your family’, which is something I can really recommend if you really want to bring yourself into a negative spiral. Those first months absolutely sucked! But as is the interesting case with anxiety and fear, the more frequently you expose yourself to them, the sooner those feelings will start to fade away.

Of course, I could not really escape my job, or quit without having an alternative. We had given up everything ‘back home’, and had a baby mouth to feed. It was quite evident that at some point I had to return to the job, even if it were just to pick up my belongings. Instead of writing a resignation letter, I went on a quest to find a proper therapist to help me sort shit out, which is a useful thing to do in such a scenario. I also slowly got back to work and there quickly got inundated in academic life, with teaching, supervising, my own research and the unavoidable administrative bullshit. The schedule was full from the start. In a way, a full schedule is good, when you’re a worrier like me. The more things you have to take care of, the less time you have to worry… It is crazy how much of your mental and physical state is determined by your thoughts and worries.

When I look back at who I was just one year ago, I see a lot of growth. The learning curve was super steep. I had to learn or re-learn how to do pretty much everything, and most of it in a third language. I was 100% sure that I could pull it off then.

Today, I had a project meeting of one of the ‘maybe you could be involved in’ projects; the DFG Chemodiversity research unit. I just felt such gratitude for having been invited to this wonderful group of scientists, to figure out how phytochemical diversity affects insect communities. For the first time in a long time I can say that I feel ‘in the zone’ again. I haven’t had a strong panic attack in weeks (months?). I’m just glad that I pushed through the personal shit, stuck with it, and because of it became a stronger person.

It’s crazy how life can change in what seems like the blink of an eye. With our second child now on the way, I am curious (and a bit scared) to see where we will be another year from now.

Published by Robin Heinen

Father of two | Husband | Entomologist and Ecologist | Postdoctoral Researcher @ TUM | Traveler | Coffee Addict

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