The contract tragedy

Wednesday afternoon, 4 PM. Just after teaching a third semester molecular biology class I notice in the corridor that the light is on in my boss’s office. Professor Lous has been travelling so much that her presence in the department is a rather rare event. I don’t want to talk to her but I don’t know when she will deign to grace her place of work with her presence again. I take a deep breath and knock on the door.

“Come in!”

Lous’ slightly high-pitch suggests irritation at being found at work. I enter her office to be told, not in so many words, ‘oh get lost, I have so many more pressing matters to tend to than you!’ She says this in her tone. Her words are polite but direct, to deflect any possibility of small talk. “Miriam, nice to see you! What can I do for you?”

“I wondered if you already have news about my contract.”

A frown quickly forms on Lous’ forehead. It would seem my simple words are rather puzzling. “I don’t quite see… you still have about three months left… and then I will try to extend it.”

There is a short rhetorical pause. I grind my teeth, softly I hope, while looking around the small office with its beautiful plants and old wooden cabinets full of books and papers. I am thinking about what to say next. I do not want to leave. I do not want shooed away as if me and my life plans are but a trifling irritant. After a few seconds it is Lous who comes up with some words; “You do want to stay, right?”

Again, this is well-trodden and very dull ground.

“Yeah, yes, I do,” I say quickly. “It is just that…. How sure is it that I can stay?”

“I am optimistic, but I can’t promise you anything. I am waiting to hear back from the Head of School. The School needs to partly fund you.”

“I know. I just would like to know when the decision will be taken, that’s all.”

“These things never are as easy as you imagine. There are many factors. Many last minute decisions… But they all know that we just submitted our paper to Cell and there is more in the pipeline. Seriously Miriam, I am optimistic.”

“I know. But I just think that if I am to leave, it’s only fair I know sooner rather than later. I would need to start applying for other positions now. Probably I should even have started applying months ago… And anyway the insecurity drives me nuts. Uncertainty is an enemy of concentration, isn’t it?”

Lous nods understandingly. “I know. It is. I will ask if a decision can be made in the next few weeks.”

“Good,” I say, trying to live into the modicum of relief to be taken from Lous’ dubious intention.

“I will let you know as soon as anything is decided. But until that time, don’t worry too much, focus on the next paper, okay? Every result will enhance your chances.”

“Okay,” I say, a bit happier, smile weakly and leave the office.

I pass the mailboxes on the ground floor and pull out all free magazines, advertisement and college announcements that have piled up over the last week; out of my own mailbox and close colleagues. Slightly out of balance, due to carrying a tree of paper waste, I waddle to the other end of the building.

I open the door of our office with my shoulder and I drop the pile of unreadable waffle on the small table next to the entrance. I walk to

You Must Be Very Intelligent- the PhD delusion“Mail for you,” I say handing him an envelope.

“Receiving letters in the hashtag era is never a good sign,” he sighs from behind his desk, which is straining under the astonishing piles of scientific papers, books and student reports – an accidental monument to academic slavery.

“Yep… either a bill or a rejection,” I suggest.

He tears the letter open, with haste, and reads it, with a frown.

“What is it?”

“Oh, just a spot of excellent news to take home with me for the evening.”

I raise my eyebrows. Marcel sighs and reads the letter aloud, saying that he was thanked for his application and interview as a Junior Professor in Darmstadt but that they have appointed someone else to the post. He is welcome to apply again should anything similar come up.

“Oh nooo… you were set on it. Weren’t you?”

“Well, set on it… set on it…. only in so far as the application took a hell lot of time, and it would have been nice to get away from Uncle Scrooge.”

Uncle Scrooge is his professor, and a penny-pincher par excellence. Eleven months a year Uncle Scrooge invests vast amounts of time and energy ensuring no atom is wasted in his lab. Then in December he splashes cash like Oliver Reed at an Irish stag do. This is, of course, because no academics want to give money back but usually there are limits. However, not with Uncle Scrooge; all sorts of chemicals, plasmids, cells and you-name-it are purchased with gleeful abandon, and without due consideration to their actual usefulness.

“I suppose you were really keen on it then?”

“That’s right. On a positive note…at least I don’ t have to move to Darmstadt.”

“True. I don’t think anyone ever moved to Darmstadt out of free will.”

“Right. No one does.”

“There’ll be other positions, won’t there?”

“Hmmm… at some point. There are suitable openings in academia maybe twice a year for me…”

“Oh dear!”

“You will get extended, right?”

220 Shades of Grey

Wednesday 5:45h, Munich airport. I am at gate 16, Air Berlin. Life is grey, blue, black. Mostly grey. So many men. So many suits. So many shirts. So many shiny shoes. A few pairs of jeans, below a practical Jack Wolfskin coat. Tech staff or engineers I presume.

I am sitting, staring at the passengers I will soon share an airplane with. I smell Axe, Adidas, Chanel for men. Some look at me, flirt. I wonder if they find me attractive or if it´s just the lack of alternatives. I am the only woman between so many men. We sit, we wait and nip from our coffee.

You Must Be Very Intelligent- the PhD delusion

The stewardess starts to call for boarding. First all the people having something to do with the frequent flyer or Sky programme. All of a sudden I see purple. It is lively, beautiful, refreshing, business…feminine. High purple heels, tights, a purple skirt, a yellow top and a purple blazer. Oh what beautiful clothes. You make this picture shine! My eyes move up. A wrinkly skin, heavy lipstick and eyes looking annoyed. You express misery. A grumpy man I would not have noticed, but you are in the spotlight. A light of misery in the dark. A purple dot in a sea of grey. Poor you!

I am boarding the aircraft. Row 26, seat B. Seat A and C are occupied by men. One helps me out of my coat, the other stores my backpack in the luggage compartment. Daddy instinct or potential sex partner? Age-wise both possible. A sporty stewardess is elegantly walking from the front to the back of the aircraft. Every step is followed by two clicks of closing luggage compartments. She pauses at the row in front of us. It is empty. She comes a bit closer and looks over the seats into our laps.

“Anyone with long legs?”

The man on the aisle jumps up.

“I have.”

I struggle to keep the sip of coffee I just took in my mouth, pressing my lips together, swallow. A few drops still run out. He looks at me. Playful, friendly, surprised.

“You call that long?” I ask him.

He shakes his head, smiles, lifts his arms sideways.

“What? I am not that short!”

“No, but long is just different,” I reply.

My other neighbour is laughing, entertained. He looks at me, curious. One minute of silence. I feel he is searching for a question, a comment.

“Where are you going?” he asks.

“I think we all have the same destination” I reply. Realising that my answer is an absolute small talk killer I say: “You tell first.”

“I am having an appointment today to sell something to a potential customer.”

“Are you a salesman?”

“Yes.”

“What do you sell?”

“Plugs” he says slightly insecure.

I laugh. “You sell plugs?”

“Yes”.

“What do you tell people at parties if they ask you about your job? Do you admit you sell plugs?”

He laughs. “It is not that bad…”

“Well, it is,” I reply. “But what is so special about your plug that you need to fly to Hannover for it? It is not a normal plug right?”

“No, it is not a normal plug. But it is too technical to explain.”

“Really?” With a half-smile I briefly look him in the eyes. “You think I do not understand it?”

Slightly embarrassed he tells me about his plug. A special plug that adapts to the position of cables attached to moving medical lights in surgery rooms. It takes him a while to explain. Smartarse me, I say: “You should write a pitch. An “explain your plug to dummies” pitch. For parties and so on.”

“Probably” he says. “Now it is your turn. What do you do?”

“I am traveling to a research institute to give a seminar to women in science. A career seminar.”

“Why for women?” he asks. “Is that topic not done yet?”

I lift up my head, stretch my neck, look over the seat in front of me, to the front, to the back. I look at him. Mockingly I say “It is a grey, grey world here, dude.”

“Yes”, he says. He lifts his shoulders and nods his head. “You are right.”

 

Written by Karin Bodewits (Originally published in Laborjournal, 05-2016) 

Run away (a short poem)

When I saw you at the party I wished we could just run away together 

Run away from the lunatics

Run away from the physicists 

Run away from the cynics 

Then I realised you are one of them 

That I am one of them 

And I just said ‘hi’

 

Written by Karin Bodewits

 

 

Goodreads Book Giveaway

You Must Be Very Intelligent by Karin Bodewits

You Must Be Very Intelligent

by Karin Bodewits

Giveaway ends August 10, 2017.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

When to stop?

Wednesday morning, 11 AM. I walk out of the lab, through the corridor where plenty of undergraduates are hanging around between lectures and enter the large office at the far end of the building. At this time of the day, there is bright light shining in through the large windows. It is quiet inside, everyone is working concentrated. The white board next to the entrance announces that Max’s Nature paper got accepted for publication. Well done, Max! I think and sit myself behind my desk. I open the internet browser and immediately click on an email with ‘Your grant proposal – 308846LG’ in the subject line. I only read the first two sentences and feel my face loosing colour. The energy leaks from my body like streams of water disappearing in an open sink. I shortly close my eyes, wipe my hand over my face and stretch out as if that could bring vitality back into my body. But it doesn’t. I lean heavily against the back of the office chair and stare passively around the office.

You Must Be Very Intelligent- the PhD delusionThe remaining ceiling-high brown wooden bookcases against the walls give the room the old character of the library it used to be. Every fifth shelf of the bookcases is sloped (rather useless for today’s usage) suggesting that scientific journals were displayed here at times they were only available on paper. There are fifteen desks spread randomly over the room. No one sits too close to someone else, but the distances between the desks are by no means large enough to have a conversation that can’t be overheard by others. In the middle of the room there is a round table with five chairs neatly placed around it. It obviously has been placed there to hold meetings, but no one in the office dares to use it. It is one out of many unwritten rules this office has: If you have a meeting, find a different spot in the building. Don’t talk loudly on the telephone. Tell visitors that they should not knock and just walk in. No music without headset. Don’t disturb the other inmates (unless this person is clearly not doing anything concentrated). Don’t ask how someone else’s research is going and be reserved about your own successes. Definitely don’t enquire if the grant proposal your office mate has been working on for weeks has been successful. Happy messages like papers in high-class journals, acquired research funding or the landing of a professorship position, can be announced on the whiteboard next to the door, but please don’t rub it in to the others. Rules that all inhabitants of this old library understand. Newcomers in the office, all in the post PhD phase of their careers, don’t need long to learn them. I learned them within two weeks after arrival.

Not everyone in the office is a researcher. Or to be more precise, not everyone in the office is still a researcher. It is an office in which one either grows from being ‘the ugly underbelly’ of academia to a long-craved-for professorship at a university somewhere on this globe or you give up. Most of the people who give up find jobs somewhere outside of the ivory tower, but a few are being soaked up by the academic system and fulfil coordinator positions or become helping hands of one of the more prestigious professors in the department. It is easy to tell who in the library was once a researcher and who still is a researcher. The people in the ‘still are’ category have more emotional ups and downs in their facial expressions than the people in the ‘once were’ category, whose muscles usually relax after a short period of bitterness. For most it is only a matter of weeks [sometimes months] between giving up and being forced to settle for something that was not quite their first choice of a career, and seeing the bright side of their new career path; the joy of a predictable job and having free time. On average the ‘once weres’ are older than the ‘still ares’, but despite still having little job security and temporary contracts they are smiling more than the others.

I want to become a professor one day and find myself lucky being in the ‘still are’ group. But on days like today when I just receive an email saying that my grant proposal has been rejected, I sit at my desk staring at the ‘once weres’ wondering at what point they decided to give up. How did it happen? Was it age? Was it when they saw their 40th birthday approaching and still not seeing the light and the chance to land a professorship? Was it when they saw one of their office mates announce the acceptance of a Nature paper on the white board? Was that the moment that they realised they could not compete? Or was it when they started waking up in the morning and lacked the energy to go to work? Were it family obligations and financial concerns behind their decision? Did they lose faith in their own abilities to become a good researcher? Or was it mere self-protection- not having to handle another rejection? How on earth do you know when to stop? I would like to know, but there are certain things you don’t ask- not in this office.

Would I ever have the courage to give up and be able to love a new career path I could not imagine to pursue? Not for now, that’s all I know. I take a deep breath, open a blank Word document, and start writing a new grant proposal.

Written by Karin Bodewits

With mother-in-law to the conference

7:00 AM, Frankfurt airport. I am queueing at the check-in counter of Lufthansa airlines. My mother-in-law is standing next to me, humming the slowest version of “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” I ever heard. My tired son, Sam, is sitting on one of her arms. On the other she holds an outsized wicker picnic basket covered with a tea towel. I am wearing a blazer, carry a large backpack, a laptop bag, a poster tube and a changing bag stuffed with diapers, wet towels, bottles of milk, changing clothes and God knows what else an eleven month old might need on a three hour flight and a four-day stay in Barcelona. I push an empty buggy in front of me.

I feel physically and mentally drained, I am sweaty of dragging the luggage and the buggy with Sam in it up and down the stairs of train stations. After a full week of long days in the lab and evenings behind my laptop (Yes, I had desperately, and unsuccessfully, tried to get a few more results to present before heading to this conference), I got up at 4.00 A.M. this morning to be at the airport in time.

Despite it having been so early with a stressful week behind me, consciousness had been upon me as soon as the alarm went off. Maybe I hadn’t been unconscious in the six hours before that anyway. During the night I had only worried about the conference; how on earth was all of this going to work out with Sam AND Granny… what if he screams like a suckling pig on the flight? What if he would get sick or doesn’t feel like spending time with Granny? What if he wakes up three times during the night before I have to give a talk? What if I don’t have access to a microwave to warm up his milk during the night? What if….? What if…?

I got out of bed and went to the bathroom.
“You are okay?” Martin asked looking concerned in my direction, while I chewed on a toothbrush. “You have been kicking around the whole night. I couldn’t sleep,” he added.
“I know. I am just so worried I forgot something for Sam. And then going on a trip with your mum…” I sighed.
“I would NEVER go on a trip with my mum!” Martin said jokingly to cheer me up.
“I bet she brings tons of soggy food.”
“Yep. And, a thermos flask with her famous filter coffee.”
“Condensed milk?”
“Definitely!”
“I think this is the worst idea my boss ever came up with…”
“I think so too,” Martin more sings than speaks.

“We still have money left in the gender pot. Bring Sam to Barcelona, will you?” My boss, Markus, had asked me six weeks ago.
“I don’t think it is a good idea. Sam doesn’t sleep much and he can only sit still while he eats a Pretzel… and there is only so much Pretzel you can stuff into a kid,” I had carefully tried to argue.
“There are child care facilities.”
“I am not sure he will stay a full day with someone he doesn’t know.”
“You can visit him during the breaks.” Goodbye meaningful conversations and clean clothes! And he will scream every time I leave….I visualised him pulling himself up on the white tablecloths with his chubby and greedy hands all across the buffet…
“The word ‘break’ got a totally different meaning, just now.”
“It is important to show young scientists there is space to be an academic and a mother.”
“But I have child care at home. I don’t need to bring him.”
“Please, try it once. Bring your partner or a grandparent along if you wish, as babysitter” Markus had said with begging eyes. I guess he was so keen on his idea because it would enable him to beef up the section “gender” in his follow-up grant proposal.

You Must Be Very Intelligent- the PhD delusionSo here I am with Sam and my mother-in-law, very slowly moving forward at check-in. Sam is wailing. I guess if I were him, I would wail too. Being woken up so early, dragged to an overcrowded airport, where you find yourself hanging with your nose over a picnic basket containing smelly cheese sandwiches, while a 65+ granny continuously hums the same tune too close to your ear. It sucks!
“You have got a hat for him?” Granny asks in her default judgemental tone.
“No. It is late spring and we are flying to Barcelona. I don’t think he needs a hat,” I say, moving one step closer to the counter.
“He’s got cold ears, though,” she says, irritated, and places the picnic basket into the buggy so she has a hand free to untie her own neckerchief and wraps it around Sam´s ears. He looks grumpy, lifts his chubby baby arms, rips the neckerchief off his head and throws it on the ground.
I struggle to suppress a smile and say: “I think his ears are warm enough.”

The stewardess scans our passports and prints our boarding passes. Secretly I hope Granny and Sam are sitting on the other side of the aisle, so I can have a nap, knowing that my chances are small. We get boarding passes for two seats next to each other and walk through security. Granny tries to negotiate her freshly brewed pancake soup and coffee through, but is clearly on the loosing track. Both her coffee and her soup fly into the large bin where they probably belong. Even if terrorists blow our airplane up, the security check wasn´t worthless.

This is such a different experience than the conference in Berlin I attended two months ago. I got to network and enjoyed to be freed from family obligations for a couple of nights and relished the first uninterrupted nights’ sleep since Sam was born.

Written by Karin Bodewits (Originally published in Labourjournal, 2017)

The Dutch girl that does not belong to any nation

It is a warm summer evening 1999. A grey-haired man is sitting opposite of me at an authentic ceramic table. We are in his garden. He hasn’t been living there for long yet. “I always wanted a garden with large trees, now I have it.” We drink wine, he talks. He tells me a story about one of his seamen having an accident on the open ocean. He fell, he broke a leg and there was blood, lots of blood. They are hours away from the closest port, and he needs medical treatment. The adrenalin is pumping through his body. He is afraid of losing a man, a colleague, a father, a human being. He is the captain of the ship; he tries to stay calm and changes direction. Singapore is the new destination. They make it. They make it in time. His colleague is weak but still mostly conscious. He needs a blood transfusion. But Singapore, at that time, did not give blood to foreigners for free. Blood needs to be paid with blood. No pay, no cure. Four needles enter four seamen’s arms. When they collect enough the treatment starts. He recovers. After several days of hospitalisation the ship can continue its way to the next harbour.

He hands me over a pack of Marlboro cigarettes. The package isn’t decorated with black lungs and scary massages yet. The text on the pack is Russian. “I got them today while piloting a Russian ship in the port. There are more in the wardrobe.” For months already I am smoking cigarettes produced in countries of which I neither understand the culture nor the language. He is bringing them for me, and I smoke them while he tells me stories about his life on sea, crossing oceans, entering ports and the occasional inland holidays he connects with it.
On warm summer evenings we are sitting in the garden under a large birch. During the other seasons we chill on the old green sofa next to the fireplace. I listen to how he travels with small boats through storms to reach large ships. How he climbs rope ladders swinging through the wind to get on board and how he pilots the ships into the local harbor. He tells me stories about warm welcomes from Russians, Chinese, Philipinnos… How he bridges the language barriers and experiences the cultures.

I am 16 years old, dating his son. I am coming from a small village in an economically dead part of the Netherlands. My parents have a middle class income, and we live in a typical free-standing family house. My sisters are both studying, I just changed schools. Apart from our yearly holidays in the Alps, we don’t see anything. I know nothing. I am a teenager, doing things that teenagers do.

He taught me about cultural differences, about life and about how to cook rice and pasta in the same pot. He showed me how to be creative and be happy with the things you possess. He inspired me, broadened my mindset and opened my eyes. He gave me a goal. I wanted to see and experience the versatility of the world. I wanted to travel and work in other nations, so I did. I just made one mistake: I never came back.

It is the year 2000, I finish school, leave the village and start to study. Most evenings I would still take the train back to listen to his stories and smoke Russian cigarettes. I studied Biology and started to plan my trips. First a few months travel in Asia, then an innocent semester in Spain. A year in Shanghai, thereafter the UK. I learned how life is when you can only communicate with hands. I ate three meals a day with chopsticks. I drank Vodka with Polish friends, supported Spain in the World cup, the Scottish rugby team in England, and Bayern Munich in a pub in Edinburgh. I learned British insults, Chinese politeness, and later on, how to complain like a German.

I got addicted to moving. Addicted to meeting new people, learn new languages and find my way around in a new town. I felt free, being anonymous somehow. In the beginning I was still coming home a few times a year, but as the years passed by my trips got shorter and less frequent. I felt more and more detached from my home country, my family, my friends. It was not that I wanted to detach from all of that, but I simply wasn’t there to stay in touch. I missed parties, dinners and could not offer “real” support in times of need. People started to point out language mistakes I made when speaking my mother tongue and their understanding of me staying abroad faded.

After my PhD I had the decision between coming back home or traveling to my next destination. Something inside me wanted to go back. Living in a country where I can vote and where the pub culture and food is how I like it. Where people live the life I want to live. A country where I know what to buy where and can easily find my way around. But the thought of moving back made me scared as well. Scared of losing my anonymous status. Scared of what people would say about my spelling mistakes. But mostly scared of being a misfit in my own country. Deep in my heart, it was probably my fears that made me decide against this move. I simply felt safer to move somewhere else. Continue to live anonymously, being the strange Dutch girl in the street.

For the fourth time in 6 years, I left everything behind, including most of my belongings and made a move.

Now it is 2015, and I’ve lived in Germany for a few years. I learned another language and live in a different culture. I speak Dutch to my children, German to my friends, and English to my partner. None of the three languages, I feel, has developed to 100% proficiency. I can write and read, but somehow feel analphabetic. When I talk to strangers the first questions is “Where are you from?” The first few years in Germany, people often guessed I came from the UK. I probably brought the Scottich accent I gathered. Now they hear straight away that I am Dutch. I pay taxes, but can’t vote. I struggle to find clothes I like and which fit a Dutch body. My children are learning songs I do not know. I dress them up for festivities I do not have any emotional attachment to. They say things I would never say. My children are being raised in and by a country where I do not belong.  I like it here. I have my work. I have my friends. I learned to get around in a new country. I have no problems supporting Germany in the World Cup and loved it when my children spoke their first “foreign” words…. But I miss something as well. I miss my “old friends” who live all over the world. I miss people and a nation I associate with. I miss belonging to a place.

Last weekend I traveled to the Netherlands, to my sister´s wedding. As always, I realised at the airport that I find Dutch guys attractive, that people wear things I like, and that their direct way of communication is something I am familiar with. At the party I see faces I have seen before. For one evening I have a name and an identity. I am not anonymous. I feel uncomfortable and at home.

Written by Karin Bodewits