Learning how to juggle

I wasn’t ready.

Not even close.

When I applied for my current job as a research associate in ecology about three years ago now, I just sent letters to the four or five European positions that were available at the time, and were a good fit for my cv. Surprisingly to me at the time, I was invited to all, and got offered several of them. I cancelled the remaining meetings after accepting my current position. That went better than expected…

I was probably the underdog in the interviews for my current position. I had the lowest number of publications and citations, for what they’re worth, and probably was generally the least experienced researcher. The job description was a bit cryptic, and welcomed young researchers from a broad range of subjects. Let’s say the three interviewees were apples and oranges, and probably a banana.

I’m not completely sure why I got the job.

When I started to work here, I knew one thing; how to work on my own project, and finish it in time and in the highest quality possible. That was basically my PhD. Although I obviously had my own struggles during the PhD, finishing, or doing the work wasn’t among them. I figured I would do just that in my next position. Continue as I did. It served me well.

What I forgot is that I had zero other things to worry about in my PhD. A lot of freedom. A lot of time. Just my own work.

That all changed, and did so quite rapidly when I started working in my current job. I had underestimated the impact of teaching, administration, supervision of students and PhDs, and everything else that comes with climbing the academic ladder. Most postdocs I knew worked on their own projects. I thought it would be the same for me. I could not be more wrong.

I had to learn how to juggle. Fast!

In the first week, I was already given the daily supervision responsibility for a PhD student. Two balls in the air immediately. Teaching came quickly after. Three.

Have you ever tried juggling with more than three balls? It’s fucking hard!

Another PhD project came (four balls) and a grant proposal for another was submitted and funded (five). A fourth PhD project simply presented itself and without much discussion became ball number six. Technicians, student helpers, project students all came and went during various stages. So many balls, I lost count. I’m not even sure it counts as juggling. My office now feels like one of those ball pits at McDonald’s, but much less disgusting.

I wish I could give people some advice about learning how to juggle, but I can’t. I don’t know the answer. I suppose you just do it, you play the game, and see where it brings you. It works a bit like my daily writing process, if you continue doing it for long enough, and make it non negotiable it becomes easier, faster, and you almost forget that you’re even doing it.

I guess the most important thing is to just try to juggle in the first place. Do not resist! No one learned how to juggle by bouncing off all the balls. Instead, learn to juggle as quickly as you can. The earlier the better. Juggling (not multitasking) is probably one of the most important skills you can gain for your future career, regardless of where you end up. Pick up a ball or two and start juggling! Before you know it you’ll be a juggling clown like me!

Published by Robin Heinen

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

8 thoughts on “Learning how to juggle

    1. Yes. I think it is certainly true for many careers that involve writing or other projects that may run in parallel in various stages of completion. Also very true for writing scientific articles.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I do hope I go the opposite route and start Marie Kondo-ing my life, because I tend to pick up new things just for the sake of it, only to realise that I can’t possibly dedicate enough time to everything on my plate. You sound like you have an exciting life though, because a busy day always makes you feel good when it’s time to hit the sack. Thanks for sharing this slice of your life with us!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope that the pattern will have a bell shaped curve, where I reach peak in the next few years and can drop some balls as I can delegate things to others.

      It’s often exciting, but terrible to combine with high sensitivity, which is pretty strong in my brain. I sometimes go without proper sleep for days, just because of the mind racing. So it doesn’t always make me feel good during the events, but does make me feel great when everything works out in the end. Mentees successfully reaching milestones is probably one of the best feelings in the world.


  2. I understand that feeling of juggling so well! It hits suddenly at different points in my life, and as a freelancer, I feel like I’m constantly juggling nowadays. You’re right though, it’s just one of those things that you *do* without really thinking about it, then you look back later and think, “Huh, how did I do that?” I hope you’re able to set down those juggling balls every now and then and find some peace during this busy time. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

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