Postdoc to Freelance: Dimensions of a Work-Life Niche

Editor's note: In the final instalment of his story, Ben Hemmens reflects on how the niche he has created for himself differs from his working life as a postdoc and how in many ways his new lifestyle has made him a happier person.

In 2000, I quit an academic postdoc job and became an English teacher. I worked for a major-brand language school for 2 years. Then I moved on to become fully self-employed, combining teaching and translating. This experiment is now entering its second year. In my first article, I described the lead-up to my original decision to stop doing research. Here I'd like to review how the organization of my work has changed compared with that of my previous postdoc existence.


The goals that academic researchers live for are generally long term. They are mainly self-defined, insofar as they can be defined at all, and subject to very little control by other people. I switched to the opposite extreme. My daily schedule, involving up to 8 hours of active teaching time and a few hours of driving, was delivered to my voice-mail box just the evening before. This made for long, tiring days, but in an important respect, it was less stressful than research. Getting to the end of the day alive was the definition of success, whereas a long day in the lab is often crowned by failure. The relief I felt made me aware of how much nagging worry about my work had dogged me as a postdoc.

Now that I am self-employed, the cycles of goals and deadlines have shifted again. Translations usually involve a high-intensity work phase lasting a week or two. Teaching is a matter of preparing for classes on a weekly basis. Courses may span 10 to 15 weeks. And of course, the long cycle characteristic of research has crept back in the form of how I want my business to develop over the coming years.


Closely related to time is the issue of recognition. As scientists, we tend to tune our expectations of feedback to a low level, working for years at a time on jobs with a potential world audience of half a dozen other experts, savouring occasional comments at conferences and from referees. Is that natural? As a teacher or translator, your work is much more subject to direct feedback. I certainly prefer the instant feedback of teaching, where people's faces tell you how you're doing. Often, students are directly enthusiastic. Even if there is no feedback, finding that a bill has been paid is very satisfying. I've discovered I can live happily without a regular salary because money comes in for specific pieces of work, which makes the feeling of having earned it much more definite.


I used to work on one specialized project all the time. There were enough spells in the lab when one's line of thinking got completely bogged down and working on something else for a couple of weeks would have made much more sense. This is the situation at which I have arrived. For example, I would be a terrible full-time medical writer. Suicidal boredom would set in after a month or two. But if I can intersperse, for example, pharmaceutical standard operating procedures with a little fire-protection engineering, a tourism Web site, or some teaching, I can keep my brain fresh enough to focus on what I'm doing at any one time.

I switched from working in the same place every day to a travelling job. Being out on the road and visiting companies certainly gave me the advantage of enjoying the scenery--of which there is a spectacular variety in the region. There's also a certain romance about visiting factories. An otherwise drab electronic components plant is saved by the smell of fresh pumpkin seed oil wafting in from the mill around the corner. A cement sack production facility has a welcoming glow on a dark, grey, snowy afternoon.


I used to work with the same people all the time, all of whom had more or less the same kind of qualifications as myself. I switched to an international group of former limousine drivers, restaurant managers, professional musicians, business people, lawyers, and even the occasional linguist! My students have also been a cross-section of society I wouldn't have experienced in any other job: shift leaders, mechanics, secretaries, engineers, managers, and controllers, to name a few. I realised that I liked this diversity.

People's expectations of you as a visiting trainer are usually positive. For the students, the time spent with you is often a welcome break from stressful work situations, so they are more relaxed than they might otherwise be. I've been on the receiving end of much everyday kindness and hospitality.


As a postdoc, I had a reputation for unpunctuality, mainly because I was usually so wrapped up in my experiments that the rest of life tended to pass me by and partly I just liked the quiet of a late-evening lab. (7 a.m. starts on the mass spectrometer, invisible to people who arrive at 9, earned me no points!). Switching to teaching, I had satisfaction in proving I could get up early in the morning and keep to a schedule. So my apparent punctuality problem pretty much vanished. I am flexible enough to cope with the rough and tumble of delays, mix-ups, and emergencies that are part of a travelling job, something that would give more punctual people fits.

The months of early starts even led to an unheard-of phase when I couldn't sleep beyond 7 in the morning. The best part of the routine, though, was that if there was any let-up in the course of a day, it was usually around midday. So in between classes, I could sometimes make it home for a plate of spaghetti and a nap! If I was out in the country, I could park the car somewhere and enjoy the view (vineyards to the south, big mountains to the north, baroque churches for quiet moments). I hasten to add that idyllic moments like this alternated with days when eating and going to the toilet were luxuries. But a long day punctuated by a good siesta is a rather pleasant rhythm. Maybe it's the southerly latitude!

These days I travel much less, as I have shifted the main emphasis of my work from teaching to translating and now have my own office at home. But I enjoy the courses I do have even more.


I suppose one of the reasons I left research was the feeling that I was a bit of a workaholic. I wanted to make space for more human goals. At the moment, I'd have to say that hasn't changed dramatically. I still work a great deal. But it is early days for my business, and I am still doing a lot of setting-up work. And the nature of my work has changed: It has become more porous, more interleaved with bits of leisure. If my brain is seizing up, I can take a nap or go out for a coffee or a stroll up the castle hill at the back of my house or a swim at a pool a few minutes' walk away. I can meet friends during the day if I wish. Phases of a week or two of intensive work alternate with quieter periods. I can work through a weekend if necessary and then take a day or two off during the week. There is also the human interaction of teaching.

Now there's actually no limit on my free time, if that is how I wish to set my priorities (i.e., if I am content to earn less). This has been crucial during a recent time of family upheaval in which I was able to spend long periods away from Graz and use the time in between to earn just enough money to keep out of debt.

So although I am working quite hard, I feel I have a much more natural lifestyle than before. I can find my own temporal rhythms and human networks. And it looks like I'll be able to make a living at it.

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