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.