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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