Karin Bodewits studied Biology in the Netherlands and is a PhD graduate from the University of Edinburgh. She founded the career platform NaturalScience.Careers. She works as an author, speaker and seminar leader for a range of communication topics. She is the author of the novel ‘You Must Be Very Intelligent — The PhD Delusion’, published by Springer Nature. The novel is a humorous but tragic story about PhD life and it has been discussed by quite a few prominent magazines and newspapers, such as Times Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed and Chemistry World.
[…] none of the things I'm doing today, and I really love doing them, has ever been my big big dream. Point being - you don't have to have a dream!
Karin Bodewits, Writer*Entrepreneur*SeminarLeader*Speaker*Scientist
Tina asks me to participate in the PhD Career Stories already months ago and I have to admit I kept on procrastinating and missing deadlines. Partly because I wasn't really sure what to say. But then at same time I really love talking, I love giving presentations, and I even earn a part of my incomes speaking, so that should not really be the issue. But somehow talking to a voice recorder seems to be a rather obscure thing to do. But here we go let's give this one a try.
About seven years ago, when I was sitting in my PhD defense, on the opposite side of the table I see two examiners. I was feeling anxious and I was waiting to be grilled about the lack of research results in my thesis. But then the external examiner - he unexpectedly ask me - he said “Karin what’s your dream?”. And I was like: “What’s my dream?!”, reacting as if this was the most ridiculous question I've ever heard.
But of course I have had dreams in the past. As a kid, I was dreaming about writing a book about chicken one day because one of the persons in our village did that and I found that extremely cool. Then as a bachelor student, I was just dreaming about traveling the world as a biologist. And as a master student, I all of a sudden felt this desire to either work in management consultancy or in an R&D in industry. It was only after spending some time in industry, and having several unconvincing job interviews that I realized that my future would be in science, nowhere-else!
That doesn’t mean that my time in industry was bad, not at all. I worked for Ebro Puleva, this milk factory in the south of Spain and for Unilever in Shanghai. They offered me job security. I could have started my PhD there with yearly evaluations; they had a career development plan in place, and it provided me a salary and spoiled me with a large and luxurious flat in Shanghai. I actually even felt quite important at once, as Unilever paid for someone to chauffeur me around town.
But at the same time, it didn't really take me too long to realize that I did not belong in that word! I didn't care about optimizing returns. I didn't really want to develop shampoos that make your hair shine even more. I don't care about job security and so I realized very quickly as well that I'm not much of a teamplayer. I’m an individualist! Content to sit in an office working for hours upon hours alone.
I am a scientist!
Of course when I was opting for academia, I fully understood that from a financial and quality of life perspective, I was taking a really big step back. I was living like a queen in China and I would go to mash potatoes and peas at the University of Edinburgh. But I had a dream! I felt ambitious and energetic and had dreamt about becoming an excellent scientist.
I fantasized about discovering a wonder drug, which targets cystic fibrosis, and writing an intellectually decent thesis about it, which would of course be discussed with great references and be prestigiously clauses and kick open doors to the most hallowed ivory towers in the scientific world. To be totally honest with you, I have secretly dreamt about walking down a red carpet to collect a Nobel prize.
But when the PhD examiner asked me this four years later - that seemed like an another person in another life! I was drained and bored, I was ran down physically and spiritually. I felt useless, and I’ve really ask myself over and over again how my presumptions about the PhD could have been so naive.
During the four years in Edinburg, I saw a world of success and failure. I saw passion and battles inside false and warm heart of disillusionment. I saw a world of collaboration but also world of backstabbing. A world where unreachable glory was the goal and desperation seemed to be the order of the day. A world where integrity was being slaughtered out of financial desperation. A world of wasted genius.
And during my PhD, I had been told from one research project to the next without ever seeing any lights at the end of the tunnel. And I quite frankly had a great great lack of research results. Needless to say, my dream about becoming a scientist faded. I was disillusioned, rather unhealthy doctor to be, without any future plans. So I stared at the examiner not knowing what to say and for several seconds I’ve grappled to find an authentic answer but I didn't have one.
“I don't have a dream”, I said.
“Of course you have a dream! Everyone has a dream!” he said.
“What kind of job then do you want to do next?”
And I didn't know really! I told him like you know four years ago I dreamt about becoming an excellent scientist but today I am not even having the confidence to be sure I will make a good toilet cleaner. “But what’s driving you?” he tried. But apart from passing the PhD defense, all that drove me those days was an old hobby I had picked back up, which involved painting nudes. But that seemed a rather obscure thing to mention during my PhD viva, so I just said: “I’m not sure. I am mainly driven by wanting to have this exam out of the way.” And my voice had been trembling when I said that, and the examiner look disappointed. But thankfully he did not ask any personal questions anymore and he continued with the exam and I passed.
Less than a week later, I did have dreams. At least I claimed to have them and they were defined based on the cover letters I was writing. If I was applying in patent law firm, I wrote I always dreamt about becoming a patent lawyer. And if I applied in industry, I wrote I had great commercial interests and a passion for applied science. I can still recall one day that I wrote a cover letter for a quality management position; and the moment that I wrote down that I’ve always dreamt about becoming a quality manager, I felt okay this is really a bit of a far stretch. So I never sent this letter off as I was terrified to actually get invited to the job interview.
Now seven years later, I am the co-founder and owner of a thankfully successful small business and since six years, I'm only doing things I love doing. I’m a Springer Nature novel author, I write career columns and short stories about the peculiarities of the academic system, I write opinion pieces and articles for science magazines, I give seminars and I give talks.
But none of the things I'm doing today, and I really love doing them, has ever been my big big dream. Point being - you don't have to have a dream! We are all being told to actually follow our dreams and our passions in order to be successful. Many of us don't have long term dreams. I don’t! That doesn’t mean, however, that there's nothing beautiful out there to dream about. There are many beautiful jobs and opportunities for scientists. And it's good to have some sort of vision and have an idea about what you could all do.
Wasn’t it only to get your butt off the sofa and away from social media, to make you try out things, to stretch yourself mentally and physically and give meaning to your life. As Dimension said in his inspirational speech - ”it is totally okay to eat micro dishes and pursue short term goals”. Also reverse this to a long time dream or a dream that gets shattered on the way - you can make it!
Thank you very much for listening to my story and I wish you a very pleasant day.