Being a scientist in academia is not always easy. You go to school for years and years and years, you don’t make much money, you have to apply for grants to fund both your research and your salary, you move house quite frequently (at least at the beginning of your career), you work long hours. You spend months, even years working on a particular project. If you are lucky it works out, and you can publish the results. If you are unlucky, someone publishes them before you. Or your machine breaks down or your cell culture dies or animal rights activists kidnap your mice or it goes wrong in the many, many other ways it can go wrong. (You know, all happy scientists are alike, but every unhappy scientist is unhappy in their own way.)
So, many of us have a Plan B.
Actually, almost every scientist I know has a plan B, an ideal job we would do if we weren’t doing science. Some Plan Bs I have heard about include:
- writing poetry
- running an Irish pub
- working in a bookshop
- being a diving instructor
- becoming a Buddhist monk
- making jewellery
- having a little farm (with sheep)
My personal Plan B is opening a little cinema, not least because I like the (sadly now obsolete) German word for the person in charge of the projector. It’s Bildwurfmeister, which literally means something like “Master of image-throwing”. How cool is that?
But chances are I won’t ever be throwing images. Nor will my friends become publicans or booksellers or poets. For most of us, Plan B is not real. If we do not stay in science, most of us end up going into teaching, or science communication, or patent law, or science administration, or consulting, or software development. Although I know of one scientist who really did become a Buddhist monk – much to the dismay of his grad students who were not informed beforehand.
But for most of us, Plan B remains eternally hypothetical. So, why do we have a Plan B? Well, sometimes it’s nice to daydream about it. About having a little cinema for instance, picking out the films, standing on a ladder and putting up the letters spelling out their names (because, obviously, it would be that kind of cinema), and probably getting a rebate on popcorn (because, obviously, it would be that kind of cinema). But then, it’s also sometimes helpful to think about what it would really be like. I mean, really. Showing films, day in, day out? Dealing with customer complaints? Agonising over how to make this cinema commercially successful? Getting on that ladder on a dark, freezing, rainy night? Nah, maybe I’d rather do science.
See, the function of our Plan B is not to make us change paths. It is to make us carry on with what we do.
I like the idea of daydreaming about plan B! It does help to remind yourself from time to time that your hands are not only made for pipetting and your eyes not only meant to stare at error messages. In my own case plan B would definitely include sitting in a cabin in the hills and practiscing violin all day, moving to a bustling city to spend my days writing or working at Shakespeare and company, but I also get the feeling that I am more likely to stay in front of my computer and running my simulation for years to come than doing any of the things I dream of to keep myself happy.
Ranjita, I can so picture you as a writer in a bustling city! By the way, it’s interesting that those Plan Bs often include remote locations (or, at least, different locations) and/or doing something creative/artsy. Maybe we feel that this side of us is not getting enough attention in our present lives.
In my world sans science, I would be an essayist (Who gets to be such a thing!) but also an adventurer. I would trek through far-away lands and write thought-provoking, evocative, sometimes subversive essays about the insights gained from momentarily merging with another culture and habitat. But then again… I can’t imagine my world sans science. I am one of those happy, happy scientists!
Lol, Rukwaro. (kidnapping lab mice)..Hilarious. Its great to have a plan B and not everyone is lucky enough to see their plan B come alive.
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Great article, thanks.