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…?