When is the right time to think about the future?

Having spent about ten days at home with two sick kids, and thus having had limited options to do some fun activities – like going outside, drawing, reading a book, or writing – is not a great thing for my mind. My brain is the kind of goo that needs something to feed on, anything really, or else it starts inventing some of its own, like creating horror scenarios. The way it usually goes is that it replicates them a million times – usually at night – until it starts believing them. Then what? Yeah, well. Then it takes a whole lot of effort to get rid of it again. Better just stay distracted.

Luckily, having two kids around the house gives a lot of distraction. Lots of diapers to change, food to prepare, mouths to feed, and in the past few days even medication to administer. I did not expect that my mind would start racing about crazy thoughts in such an environment. Yet, the past few nights have been odd – and not because of the kids. They actually slept for a change. I, on the other hand, have been sleeping weird and waking up earlier than necessary, usually at the end of a strange dream.

Yesterday morning I woke up in sweat. I dreamt that I was at an ecological conference, where I had given a talk. After my presentation, I was walking through the venue corridors, feeling pretty satisfied about my just finished story, and ready to enjoy the rest of the talks at the conference. While on my way to another session, I passed a well-known professor whom I have known – and who has known me – for many years (but for this story will remain nameless). As I pass by, he is in conversation with another person, so I gently nod to greet him, and continue my way. He quickly turns and grabs me by the shoulder. “Robin, would you have a moment? It is about time that we have a serious conversation about your future”, he says. “Do you have a couple of minutes? There’s a meeting room a few doors from here. Wait for me there. I’ll be right with you.” Now that sounds like a potentially exciting conversation. So my dream self was pretty stoked, and went to the meeting room and sat down. What followed was an endless dream, waiting for someone to show up, but the person never came. Did he just try to make fun of me? Or did I maybe wake up too early? What did this person want to discuss with me? Did I screw up my future? Believe me. I have tried harder than ever to go back to sleep to find out what happens next, but somehow this approach is counterproductive if you’re me.

I have had a couple of dreams like this during the holiday break. Same rough storyline. Different people. The broader message in all of them being that I am somehow failing at taking the opportunities that present themselves. Or rather, having high hopes for possible very specific opportunities in the future, which may or may not ever come. Now, the opportunity I would hope for would be returning to my home country, to raise our kids closer to their family. Maybe even more importantly, I want to give them a home where they can spend the rest of their youths (and an ideal home here in Bavaria is not affordable for an ecologist, even with a permanent position). To be honest, at this point my desire to return home isn’t even about personal preference anymore. I’m quite happy where I am now in Germany, job-wise. However, my job is not permanent here. My contract ends later this year, and although it can be extended once, it has recently also been made very clear to me that permanence is very unlikely to ever become an option for me. And that’s the thing. I’m now at a phase in my life where I want – no, need – more stability. I chose to have a family, and I want to settle with them somewhere. I don’t want to wait and wait until an opportunity comes up in my home country. First, it may not even come. Second, chances are that I will not even be considered, if there is one.

People around me – friends and colleagues – are telling me I should apply for positions already. Sure, I can apply. But the thing is, I am not sure if my cv is strong enough. If my experience is convincing enough. I want a job, obviously, but I also don’t want to make a fool of myself. I can find many excuses. I guess that the most important reason, however, is the current lack of fitting academic opportunities in the Netherlands. Now, during this holiday break, my wife and I have had some serious conversations about what’s realistic for our future. We may be willing to broaden the horizon a little bit, and will consider moving to a place that is not the Netherlands, as long as it is in either a very nice location, or at least very close to the Netherlands. It is clear for both of us that we want to move for career purposes one more time, but that after this, we should and will only move because we really want to move.

So I have broadened my scope a little, which of course yields more potential positions. But now the question still remains: when is the right time to apply for permanent or tenure track positions? Do you need a minimum amount of postdoc years, or foreign experience? Is there a minimum number of PhDs you need to have supervised? Is there a minimum number of peer-reviewed papers needed? Let me guess, it’s about money, right? It’s always about money. How many grants would it take, before even considering applying for tenure tracks?

Are there some golden rules here? I could use some advice!

Or a job. A job offer would even be better!

Published by Robin Heinen

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

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