The academic hoolahoop

After finishing undergraduate studies, the academic career track is typically characterized by a number of steps – hurdles, hoops, whatever – that need to be fulfilled, taken or jumped through in order to establish yourself in the system. Hopefully, if you do all these things right, and have the luck of being in the right place at the right time, and happen to work in a field that’s buzzing (no, not a flower meadow filled with bees, although I work in those too), you might end up somewhere permanent (and forever stuck in a tenured position).

Now, years ago, I jumped the slippery hoop of a bachelor’s degree. This turned me off a bit, and for a while as the curriculum was partly fixed and I sucked at getting through some boring parts. It took me longer than I’m proud to admit.

The master’s degree hoop wasn’t really a hoop. Instead of lighting the hoop on fire, some spark ignited a flame in my heart. I realized I liked experimentation in entomology.

Next, I was pushed into applying for a PhD that I didn’t believe I could get, or deserved. But then I did get it, and was told at the end that I did deserve it. It was a heavy hoop to jump through, but by the time I finished it, I sort of started to enjoy the process of hoolahooping.

The next logical step in the trajectory is a postdoc. You can get those in various types. Some are project-oriented and mostly focused on tasks related to that project. Others, like mine, have no scope or clear goals, but offer the person to develop an independent research line, often supporting students and sometimes supervising PhD candidates, teaching, admin, or all of the above.

Project postdoc positions generally offer clarity in that at some point the project ends, and generally with it, the position ends too, and it will be time to look for new hoops or hurdles.

The more independent positions are weird in that what you start becomes part of who you are, and there’s no clear end to that, besides that at some point you no longer have a contract.

What makes these postdoc positions difficult is that they are always temporal. This obviously means that you need to be on the lookout for jobs pretty much constantly, and take opportunities as they present themselves.

I wasn’t sure about how to handle this. I still have almost three years on my current contract.

My scientific work is now really moving in a really nice direction.

I feel comfortable.

In November last year I was on a conference in France, where a well-known Professor in ecology approached me and asked, “Robin, have you landed a permanent position yet, or are you still in Freising?” I was a bit confused, as I have several years before I should get worried, or so I thought. He must have recognized, as he immediately added, “it’s vital in your career stage that you get a professorship as soon as possible, so apply to everything that fits your profile.” Trust me, this was a trustworthy guy, and the tone with which he delivered this message was humble and came from a place of respect. It was advice based on surviving years in this system, and understanding much better than me how academic hoolahooping works. An esteemed hoolahooper of the highest level.

I talked to many other professors – and several of my academic friends – about this.

They mostly echoed the same message.

I need to prepare to start leaving…

Several people have also urged me not to talk about any of the actions and steps on my future career path to others until there’s actually something to talk about.


So of course, whatever follows is purely hypothetical…

Let’s say that I decided to look around for job opportunities as the kind professor urged me to:

Would it be weird if I would not want to look?

Would it be strange to look for excuses and reasons not to apply?

Would it be weird that I would feel conflicted about leaving a place I feel happy and comfortable in?

Would it be strange to feel guilty? Guilty towards my family, my team, even my boss (but certainly, him least, don’t worry!)

Would it be strange to want to share the process with people?

I write this because, well, in the hypothetical case that something like this were to take place somewhere in the next three years, I think I would feel very conflicted about all of these things.

I think I would want to write about it. All the god-damned time…

But of course I would not be allowed to write or talk about how I feel about any of these things before there is something to talk or write about.

Because that’s how academic hoolahooping works.

You focus, you jump, you miss, you jump again, you miss, and repeat until you made it through that last fucking high, flaming, and bouncing hoop. The mother of all hoops.

And then you write a success story. Ugh.

Such fun, eh?

Published by Robin Heinen

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

2 thoughts on “The academic hoolahoop

  1. I don´t think it is weird at all that you want to stay where you are. You found a home, a job that you like and have a family settling down…
    Isn´t it just normal that you don´t want to move on?
    Academic life seems very tough. From my experience most people around me start searching for new jobs ~half a year in advance. Keeping an eye open probably never hurts, but starting to search actively way in advance, doesn´t that add a lot of preasure?

    Liked by 1 person

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