Transitions Part Five: Imaginary Careers

In our " Transitions" series, Stijn Oomes tells us about the lessons he has learned about himself and how they helped him to make decisions regarding his future career. Today, Oomes is out looking for a job in industrial research that would support him until such time as his own ideas are transformed into profitable products. After enduring several different conversations about prospective jobs, he imagines a string of possible careers while reflecting on the role that serendipity plays in life's big decisions.

Quiet desperation.

That's the state I am in these days. Although I mentioned earlier in this series that I was confident my start-up company would have its proper launch in the near future, things have not turned out quite how I would have liked. I had given myself 1 year to get to the point of actually making a living off my company, and that just did not happen. "There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune," wrote Shakespeare. Clearly, I happened to stumble onto the scene as the tide was going out. ...

It took me some time to acknowledge my failure to meet the 1-year deadline, but having done so I started generating ideas for other career possibilities. In the past few months I have made many plans. I first tried to find a part-time job so that I could build my company in the remaining time. This turned out to be extremely hard, and as the bottom of my bank account came into sight, the "part-time" idea quickly evolved into looking for full-time positions.

Initially, I looked for a job here in Amsterdam, but in a matter of weeks I expanded the optional locations to the rest of the Netherlands. Not much later, I started contacting people across Europe, and presently my only restriction is that I want to stay on this planet!

So much for geography ... what about career focus? Well, from my erstwhile erratic dreams and unstructured desires, a few clear career options emerged that I decided were worth exploring.

Chapter 7 in Peter Fiske's excellent book is entitled "Exploring a Career That You Know: Research Science." Indeed, the first thing that popped in my mind was to return to the lab. I'm thoroughly familiar with this line of work and I have already invested many years in becoming proficient at it. Why not exploit that experience?

I approached everyone in my academic network in the Netherlands and explained that I was back on the market. Unfortunately the situation in academia in this country is presently extremely bad. There is plenty of work, because the Netherlands is currently transitioning to a bachelor's-master's system, which means a higher workload for everyone involved. Among many other things, curricula have to be adjusted and tested, and the logistics of the whole operation are quite daunting. The academics need all the help they can get, but there is simply not enough money to go around, particularly as our new center-right government has, in its shortsighted wisdom, decided to cut the higher education budget by another ?143 million. The typical response I get from my contacts is that they would love to hire me but that they just cannot afford it.

As I mentioned, I am willing to move abroad, so I applied for positions all over the globe. And I also extended my job search to industrial research positions. Presently, I'm juggling a number of leads, even in places as far away as Hong Kong. Partly because of the quiet summer months, nothing definite has yet come out of these efforts. So, I'll have to sit tight and try to be patient.

Meanwhile, during a dinner conversation with some friends someone suggested that I might be interested in a career in scientific publishing. Because I have a weakness for books and journals, this was not such a bad idea. I also fondly remember the days I edited the quarterly magazine of the Dutch Psychonomic Society. The whole gamut of activities really appealed to me; approaching authors and convincing them to contribute, editing, suggesting improvements, composing the issue, designing the layout, and of course the best moment, holding a stack of freshly printed magazines in my hand before distributing them and anxiously waiting for comments.

I started searching for information, and from my broad reading on the matter I got a sense that this would be a dynamic line of work--in particular because of the possibilities afforded by electronic publishing. One of my friends from college turned out to work as an editor, so we had a long conversation during which he gave me the ins and outs of the business. He told me that he traveled a lot, made good money, and really enjoyed the contact with the contributing scientists all over the world. He also emphasized that compared to his graduate and postdoc days, he now actually had a life besides his job. His work would simply be done at the end of the day. But at one point he also confided in me that he sometimes misses the intellectual challenge of being a scientist.

Would a career in scientific publishing represent a serious option for me? It sure sounds exciting, but I have this nagging feeling that I would stray too much from my path. I have invested so much time and energy in my ideas that some day I want to harvest the fruits of my labor.

So, the wheel turned full circle as I discovered that I simply couldn't give up on the idea of turning my invention into a success and reviving my company. In parallel to applying for jobs, then, I am still trying to strengthen my business network. For example, I discovered at a conference in the spring that the Eindhoven region, the birthplace of Philips Electronics, is trying to attract companies. I am now seriously looking into the opportunities in and around Eindhoven and again making contacts that might lead to something. ...

You might wonder how I deal with the insecurity of this prolonged transitional period--after all, my future is still completely up in the air. Well, I just try to maintain my network as well as I can and try to strengthen it whenever I can. And I like to think of John Lennon's words: "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans." But I have no doubt that, with patience and perseverance, one of my imaginary careers will eventually turn into a reality.

Further Reading

Peter Fiske, Put Your Science to Work The Take-Charge Career Guide for Scientists ISBN 1-87590-295-2; available from the American Geophysical Union Web site.

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