Lately, I’ve been pondering over the question ‘what happens if this science thing doesn’t work out’ quite a lot. I never intended to do a PhD, but more or less did so because my MSc internship supervisor told me I should, and I liked working on plants and interactions. I never thought I was smart enough to ‘be a scientist’. I mean – I know I’m efficient and I know I can write, but sometimes I still wonder whether I’m smart enough. Maybe science is not really about being all that smart? My PhD I just started with the intention of giving it my fullest for the four years that it would take. And so I did. But especially in the beginning, I just saw it as a job that I liked. If after four years, that would be the end of it, so be it. I remember during my job interview, my PhD advisor asked me the question ‘where do you see yourself in ten years’, which I pretty much answered with the ‘I don’t know, hard to say’, followed by a ‘I would like to continue science for as long as it was enjoyable’, but most importantly ‘that I did not necessarily aspire to become a professor, but that I would see where the journey would take me’. Anything else would have been a lie. I don’t like lying, even in job interviews.
Somehow, I managed to finish my PhD unscathed. They never figured out that I wasn’t all that smart. They may have just given me my degree because I showed up in a silly suit. Before the end of my PhD, I applied for a couple of postdoc positions, one in Uppsala, two in Göttingen, and one in Freising. I was invited for all of them, and have been offered three of them (and for the fourth I cancelled the interview because I accepted my current position). I’m still not sure what happened there, but all these job interview panels did not manage to figure out that I’m not all that smart. I also found out that apparently application letters are my specialty in writing, although admittedly I do not enjoy it very much.
In my current position, I still have about four and a bit years of job security left, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think ahead. Half-inspired by the #IchbinHanna stories, I started thinking about what it means to be a postdoc on a university position in a German university. What does it mean really? It seems that it really means a couple of years job security, and nothing more. What bothers me most, is that what I am doing, is pretty much like a tenure track position, except it isn’t. The only thing that is missing is the prospect of permanence at the end. I do the teaching, I do the writing (including grant proposals), I do the science, I supervise PhD’s, I supervise student projects, and I even do administration. This is all fine, but it is pretty annoying that at some point the job security dries up, and when it does they kick me out like a rabid dog. I guess I don’t want to wait until that happens. So I am sometimes looking around a bit, only half-serious.
I guess the next logical step, then, would be to try and get a tenure track position. But I still have my doubts sometimes. First of all, I am not sure if it would work again to convince people that I’m that smart, but also, what about my earlier self confidently stating that he didn’t necessarily aspire to become a professor. In all honesty, I still don’t. If I look at my boss, and even my previous boss. Two professors. All they ever do is try to rake in money for more projects and sit in a gazillion meetings. They both rarely do the experimental work that I love so much. They live from meeting to meeting to meeting. Is that a future that I want for myself? I am not so sure. I sometimes wonder if there are ways to be a professor without all the crap? And if not that, what then? The longer people stay in academia, the more unsuitable they tend to get for anything non-academic. Right? Or is that just one of these persistent myths that I somehow took for truth?
And that brings me to the question I opened with. What if this all doesn’t work out? What if it isn’t for me? I always said plan B was a coffee bar, but realistically that would probably bore the life out of me after two days. What would I be good at other than putting plants in the ground and measure stuff? I always point out to people that they have all these soft skills and how important they are for doing X job. But at least these people have jobs in mind to consider. I have none in mind whatsoever. It is hard to come up with the matching soft skills. So when I think about soft skills I have, all that jumps to mind is that I am great at talking about rubbish over a coffee, and I talk even more rubbish and at a faster pace if you put another coffee in me. (Don’t put in more than that, two is enough.)
So one of my next challenges for the next months to years – I think – is to come up with a better plan B, something that involves a real and existing job description. Or come up with a better entrepeneurial plan than a coffee bar. I mean. Seriously… What the fuck do I do when this all doesn’t work out…?
2 thoughts on “What’s plan B?”
Hi Dr. Heinen!
To be honest, You sound like a very smart person.. Why? firstly, you are questioning yourself, your being and your ideas in which produced by spending your precious times and efforts.That’s a bitter pill to swallow. Secondly you are questioning your past and future in addition to your present.. Why is it important? because that would give you a matterful opportunity to make new neurological connection in your brain to realise that your human-made problems actually solved by even smallest thing you witnessed in your daily life like walking at the park and seeing how winds shake the tree or during the times that you saw how Rafa playing with his toys and solve his triangle lego/puzzle problems?!( Childs and especially babies are great scientists. I’ve learned many things from them.) etc. there should be billions of different scenarios to fire those pathways up in your brain. Completely up to you and your neurodiversity. For example C. Darwin joined exotic food club during his student life and ate owl for wonder. He has an alley to walk daily to dare to think…
Nature is a widow’s cruse for answers that we are actively searching for our fundamental questions. If it’s about human made problems. it’d be relatively easy to solve compare to the problems that designed by nature itself and never fully understood by humans; why and how this problem has occurred? If you brake a vase mistakenly that’s ok. we are human, we can make mistakes, it’s part of human being but if you want to restore the vase. Nature going to give you full of hints on the middle of the floor that you are brake the vase, it’s going to show you how to glue each part to other in order to complete exact composition of the vase. 🙂
Being smart is not useful at all for many people. it’s like last droplet of water for full glass of water. When you have it, you have a chance to spread the knowledge everywhere.. That’s why your works in PhD was important! and that’s why your postdoc. is important! you are filling your glass with knowledge till use your smartness as a last droplet! Like Epictetus said “No great thing is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig, I answer that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen.” and also Carl Sagan said “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” 🙂
Tenure track is safe road for being scientist and give you more time and concentration power to spend on your work rather than adaptation to dynamically changing environment. I’ve limited knowledge about your personal life. Especially about your life partner because you are a father and that’s game changer situation. Normally i’d like to offer entrepreneurial project ideas but It’s also require extreme level of risk taking behaviour and such a case you are in, you must need your life partner’s support to take such a life changing decision. If She is supportive then go get it! If she’s not, limiting your risk taking would be beneficial. However in both case scenario, your way can give you excellent results.. There is not a certain pathway in nature that’s why i love science too. 🙂
We are social creatures. Where we are live in, how we treat ourself, What we are eating or drinking are describing who we really are. As a result german people tend to think like ”if the cars is running we do not need to upgrade it no matter how slow it’s running” rather than ”ohh! let’s add this upgrade! let’s add that! Wow! let’s see how it’s going work! let’s break this car maybe we can find something we never thought before.”( I mean this is a risk taking behaviour) Please, do not blame german academia for why they are acting like this because they are born in this way to this thinking style. If systems doesn’t show you any problem, you are naturally not going to be good problem solver. We are all same homo sapiens and acting accordingly with quite similar genetic material to depends on different stimulus from environment. 🙂
But if you ask my honest opinion about your situation right now is.. I think everyone can agree on that being scientist is very difficult and admirable task but you are also father and waiting another child so it’s sound like a doppio espresso. you are doing well. Give yourself credit because humans brain wants to be ready possible emergency situations like you’ve imagined such as unemployment scenario. those worries actually are not real at all. just a byproduct of multitasking and overload analysing the situation. For the neural relaxation remind yourself where actually living right now and remind yourself that your worries actually not that important at all.. like watching this video(https://youtu.be/TBikbn5XJhg) 🙂
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Hi Berkant, Thanks for the kind words. I appreciate you taking the time to read my blog and spend the time to write a lengthy answer. I guess you are right, perhaps I should just go with the flow, and not think too much about the future ahead (as always, all will be fine). Having kids is a life-changer in that sense, too. It brings responsibilities, and the need to think (at least somewhat) about the future.
Most of all, I like your doppio espresso analogy. Life is a pretty good espresso indeed.