Career Paths

The Twists and Turns of a Dynamic, Nonlinear Career Path

Niklas Manz

What is life if we don’t even make an effort to follow our dreams? 

At a glance, the career path of someone you admire can look like a series of simple steps that led to a dream job—the person got a degree, got experience, got awards, got advancements, and found a perfect balance between career and life. Sounds simple, right? Such a snapshot perspective misses the truth of many career paths that are nonlinear, full of surprising twists and turns, and as distinctive as the values, personality, and strengths of a particular individual. No one can give you a perfect map toward your own career success. The most that can be offered are some pathfinding wisdom and helpful resources to assist you in making the most of your unique journey. We hope the adventures that Dr. Niklas Manz shares here will give you helpful tips and encouragement in figuring out your own career path, no matter where in the world of science it’s headed.

—The Editors

When I talk with students at my undergraduate institution, they are often concerned about their lack of a clear vision and well-defined path toward their current long-term career goals. In their eye, not being accepted to THE graduate school they are hoping for would be failure. Or worse, they might not receive an acceptance letter at all and would lose one year—at an age of about 22. Then it becomes my task to try to convince my advisees that their career paths will not always follow a straight line (i.e., it might turn out to be a “wiggly line,” some kind of spiral, or a spectacular loop), and perhaps they will even end up working in a completely different field than the one they plan on right now.

I speak from experience. This is the story of my own “nonlinear” academic path.

During my last two years in high school in Germany, I studied advanced course work in biology and physics. I knew I wanted to continue in between these two fields. Therefore, I enrolled in a Diplom-Physik degree program, which is similar to a master’s degree; took biology courses and labs for my minor in zoology; and completed the usual physics, math, and chemistry courses. As the experimental part of my thesis, I built a detector to measure low-level radon concentration in air—in the field of environmental physics.

A Twist Toward Chemistry

After obtaining the Diplom-Physik degree, I was looking forward to working on biophysical questions (as planned) in a biophysics lab where I’d been accepted for my Ph.D. BUT….

The first twist in my path started innocently enough. There I was, working with a chemical system, the nonlinear Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction, to investigate the behavior of propagating reaction–diffusion (RD) waves. Suddenly, my career veered. RD waves turned out to be great because they behave very similarly in many biological, chemical, and physical systems. I loved the new topic! Using chemistry to understand pattern formation with a relatively simple tabletop setup was great! No large, expensive equipment necessary! This biology and physics fan immediately became an ACS member to be able to publish in renowned chemical journals and to attend ACS conferences. Then, at my first conference in the United States (an ACS national meeting in New Orleans), I had an experience I will never forget. Anatol Zhabotinsky, the very creator of the reaction I was working with, talked to me at my poster.

Still incorporating my interest in biology, I continued my research in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Florida State University in Tallahassee, with a postdoctoral fellowship from the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina. At FSU, in a more gradual career adjustment, it became clear to me that I wanted to stay in academia and find a position teaching and doing research—now at the intersection of chemistry and physics rather than, as originally planned, the one between biology and physics. One advantage (as I thought then) of my fellowship was that I could focus on my research without “wasting time” teaching.

Filling a Career Gap

 After three years and several publications in good journals, I started applying for faculty positions at chemistry and physics departments. Beyond one phone interview, I did not get any invitations. Why? The answer becomes pretty clear when you think about it. Who would offer a teaching position to someone who lacked any real teaching experience? What bad career planning! I should have thought about this before or at the beginning of my postdoc time: Take teaching opportunities even if they are not required, because the experience will be necessary in the future. Gaining classroom expertise, it should be noted, goes beyond sporadic lecturing when your postdoc adviser is out of town.

It was time to adjust my career path. I had no job offer and no teaching experience, but I did have a good idea of what I needed. So, I got a one-semester teaching position at FSU to teach Chemistry for Liberal Studies and Calculus with Analytical Geometry I, and I continued applying for faculty positions. I also applied for one research position (with the prospect of teaching).

My Career Path Takes Charge

Then my career path adjusted me. After a phone interview and a visit, I got an offer to work at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, NY in their Psychiatry Department’s Neurodynamics lab. This research was far away from my beloved chemical RD systems, but it involved propagating waves, oscillations—and—it involved a biological system. This was the point where my wish to teach seemed to fade from reality. Spending my time programming, I missed actual lab work and going to conferences. Even after seven or eight years, I continued to follow publications in my old field. Looking back, I think I never let go of it and embraced the new one.

Not realizing at the time that the closing of one door along my path was leading to the opening of a new one, I started volunteering in after-school programs and taught an MCAT physics course. That was fun and gave me more confidence to again apply for teaching positions at liberal arts colleges. I applied to a very few positions over a period of about two years. Two telephone interviews and follow-up on-campus visits resulted, eight months apart. The first on-campus visit didn’t go well. Needless to say that I didn’t get an offer, which was fair, in retrospect.

The second phone interview did not seem to be official. The Physics Department chair was at a conference and simply wanted to talk to me—at least, that was my understanding. One of her questions, which was probably the main reason for her call and the only one I remember, went something like, “You would like to teach at a liberal arts institution, but I do not see a lot of actual teaching experiences?!” She went straight to THE point and the biggest problem I had. I honestly explained my wishes and lost opportunities and that I was now doing everything possible to “fill in the gap.” Something convinced her, and shortly afterward I had my second on-campus interview. I loved being on a small but spacious campus with many trees; meeting friendly faculty, staff, and students; enjoying my research talk; and giving my first physics lecture at a college. About two weeks later I got a phone call from the Provost, who offered me the tenure-track position! I was thrilled.

A Hobby Causes a Happy Turn
In later conversations, it surfaced that during my campus visit some faculty had been surprised by how confident I felt in front of a class. Here another important, seemingly unrelated part of my life came into play, shaping my career path in an unexpected way. This incident is why I always say, “Follow your dreams.” Here’s what happened.

After finishing high school, it took me 14 years to get my Ph.D.—because I spent much of that time on the dance floor. In addition to being a physicist, I am also a (ballroom) dancer. I’d danced all those years in several standard (often simply called “ballroom”) formation teams. For nearly eight years before moving to the United States, I danced in the German national team and won, to give one example, the World Championship while working on my Ph.D. During those last years, I didn’t see much more than a dance floor and the lab.

So, even though I didn’t have too much formal classroom experience by the time of my lecture during that second campus visit, I had been teaching social ballroom classes for nearly ten years in Germany, and I had continued to do so since coming to the United States. More than two decades of nonacademic teaching experience showed up to be very helpful when I walked into the classroom.

Also, this double engagement, being involved in two very different things I love doing over many years, now seems to help me cope with academic stress and time management. If you can get a time-consuming athletic commitment (or some other deeply engaging activity) and working on your Ph.D. for many years going, you learn to focus and to use your time wisely. It gives you the energy to learn and thrive. Plus, extracurricular activities may help you later in totally unexpected ways.

When I accepted my new job, some friends questioned my decision to leave a relatively secure situation behind and start a tenure-track position with an uncertain outcome. But what is life if we don’t even make an effort to follow our dreams? If it doesn’t work out, at least you gave it a try. Otherwise, you would always ask yourself, “What if?” This question also needs to be discussed with your partner, though. I “cherry-picked” my applications because we decided that if everything went as planned, we would move one more time to a place we both liked. Therefore, we both searched online and even visited the town before we actually moved. To have a good work–life balance, your partner needs to support the choices involved.

Dreams Can Lead to Unimagined Ends

Now I am in my forth year at The College of Wooster. I teach physics, and I have a lab in which we investigate pattern formation in various biological, chemical, and physical systems. Outside the lab, I am able to continue to teach dancing with my wife at a community center and in the newly founded Student Ballroom Club. This gives us a great combination of supporting student groups while doing something together—teaching dancing is our “we time.” Doing something good for your institution that you and your partner both like is another great way to create career–life balance, especially if the activity is not related to the actual job.

Looking back, the path from my undergraduate expectations to where I am now was certainly not straight. To recap: I got my master’s degree in physics with a focus on environmental physics, including a minor in zoology with a focus on animal physiology. Then for my Ph.D., I joined a biophysics lab working on chemical waves. My postdoc time was spent in a Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at a large university, followed by one semester of teaching chemistry and math. Then I had—from my current perspective—a nearly 10-year loop into the genetics of alcoholism at a Medical Center in a Psychiatry Department while volunteering in after-school programs and teaching MCAT-preparation courses. Now I am here in a Physics Department at a small, liberal arts college, where finally everything has come together.

We all have 20/20 hindsight, and looking back, I would have done some things differently. For example, I would have actively sought out teaching possibilities even if they weren’t necessary, and I would have taken career advice from professional organizations.

On the other hand, I still believe that you should follow your dreams and not be afraid to try something out. You never know whether a change is good or successful—if you don’t try. Or, as Samuel Beckett said, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”