The plan is not to have a plan!

I find it kind of interesting how many people with established careers advise the younger people to plan their careers and take their steps accordingly. I have noticed here in Germany that it is already expected from bachelor and master sttudents upon arrival at the university to have their careers more or less planned out. All these standard questions come up again and again. What do you have to offer, where do you see yourself in the future? I see the same thing occurring quite often in academia, where being an expert at one thing is apparently the holy grail. You really can’t be a jack of all trades. (But at the same time you have to be able to excel in all kinds of other tasks that you weren’t trained for, including teaching, public speaking, debating, management, administrative stuff, the list is long…)

What’s the point of all this planning and strong focus?

Aren’t we supposed to explore a little?

Also, should we really treat every person like if the same recipe works well on each and every one of us? (It doesn’t!)

I had no clue what I wanted to do in my career until the moment I started my PhD. To be honest, I didn’t think about pursuing one, or staying in academia. I have always been convinced that I’m not smart enough to do science. I started my PhD because I needed a job, and this was a four year job that was paid for. Up until about two years in, when I had published my first PhD paper, I was still not convinced that I could make it. Well, I made it through. The Dr. title still sounds weird to me, even after one and a half year. (Does that feeling ever go away?) None of the choices I made prior to accepting that position, prepared me much for my PhD, except choosing (by necessity) an internship at the right institute (Netherlands Institute for Ecology) with the right person (Jeff Harvey), who later became my PhD co-adviser and is now still a great friend and mentor in many ways. I’m only here because he was convinced that I could do it. I was at the time not aware that this was a good institute, or that Jeff was a great scientist. I had not planned any of it. I just responded to opportunities that presented themselves.

After my PhD, for a short while, I thought I would move to Uppsala, then cancelled that. For a couple of hours, I thought I would move to Göttingen. Then that did not work out either. Finally, I went to Freising to work at the Technical University of Munich. None of these options were planned. It was, again, me responding to opportunities that presented themselves. And still, I don’t have a real plan.

My original plan was to stay in Wageningen, The Netherlands forever. Now my backup plan is to move back to Wageningen at some point. I’m not convinced that that will work out, but we’ll see how that goes.

So far for planning your career. I don’t believe in it.

I think what prepared me much more for life, career, and everything around them, is that I did not plan much in my career at all. Instead, it took me about nine years to finish my bachelors and masters. I failed massively in my first year at uni. I dropped out and considered doing something different with my life. Then I returned to uni. Then after finishing my bachelors degree, I worked in a wet wipes factory. Wrote a multi-million euro business plan (that got backed). Then that failed. Then I traveled. Then I returned – again – to university. Along the road I made friends. I lost friends. I fell in love. I had fun a lot. I failed. A lot. Most of all, I had no clue and no plan. But I did get many vakuable experiences, and I think these make me who I am today. I am a firm believer that I am where I am because of who I am. A planned career may have ended elsewhere*.

I guess my point is to say don’t worry if you don’t have a plan. If you do, also great, but don’t worry if you deviate a little. Just be you, and grab opportunities that appeal to you. All will be alright. If you plan too much, you will only be disappointed.

———————————————————————————————– * When I was 18, my uncle was convinced that I should stay in his company (where I had worked for a couple of months) and work for him as a tax consultant, that that would be a better career plan. I hate taxes. I hated that job. Perhaps that ignited the career plan rebel fire in me.

Published by Robin Heinen

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

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