The contract tragedy

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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?”

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