First published in ‘Nachrichten aus der Chemie’ (03-2018)
“I feel stuck in my postdoc, nothing more than 1-year contracts for the last five years. I am sick of it and finally want to have a secure position, I want to be able to plan my life, at least a little bit.”
With sober assuredness, he replied, “I never thought much about safety. I always felt very employable.”
The seminar participant who expressed herself doesn´t even sound angry, rather exhausted. I can comprehend her feelings all too well. She always gave everything for her work, always heeded the well-intentioned advice from her supervisors and now feels trapped.
At the same time I can´t help but remember the story of a professor, who left a permanent and well-paid position in the pharma industry at the age of 45, in order to build up his own research group at a university. When I met him, I asked him if he wasn´t afraid what might come when his five-year contract at the university would come to an end and he wouldn´t have made the cut to a professorship. Without hubris, but instead with sober assuredness, he replied, “I never thought much about safety. I always felt very employable.”
We all want to work self-determined, without tumbling between unemployment and precarious employment. The motif of this professor was not ‘safety’, though, it was ’employability’. While safety can be measured in tenured positions and contract length, he in contrast was led by the question, “Will I land on my feet if something goes wrong?” That question sounds less like fear or trying to control everything, but rather like something forward-looking.
In my seminars, we often discuss the question, which positions in private industry are the ‘safest’. “Family-owned medium-sized company, world market leader in their own niche.” I don´t want to be a spoiler, but I usually add, “It is indeed well possible that you can work for such an employer until retirement, against the current trends. However, do you want that? What if there is a 90-year old patriarch, who turns the whole company into a sclerotic mess with his brilliant but outdated ideas? What if you simply get bored?”
The seminar participant, who thought of herself as being in a postdoc-dead-end-street can ask herself if safety is one of her main drivers. A generally good advice is to focus on what gives you professional fulfilment. If you don´t miss out on developing yourself, to keep on learning new things, then you can trust in yourself that you will land on your feet in case you face a difficult situation. You can be freer in picking the positions that really fit you.