Having PhD students depend on you, some clinging to you, listening, fearing you. Other students evading you, hating you, unsuccessfully trying to trick you. Everybody in a secret circle of admiration around you, obsessing over you. You don’t even notice it anymore.
Having postdocs doubting you. Looking at you from the side. Wanting your job. You smile faintly at them, knowing that you will survive them.
Flying to conferences all over the world selling the work of your group. Young confused faces on your powerpoint slides. You always say the same thing. You get excited about the same thing. People typing on their laptops while you are speaking.
You get questions by young postdocs doubting your work, trying to impress some other professors. Sharp rise in blood pressure. In the coffee break, ambitious grad students coming up to you, trying to talk to you, trying to impress you. They are boring, but you are flattered. Your old enemies criticize your work, you criticize theirs. They will never get it, old idiots. Going in circles.
You meet your old friends that you only see at conferences. Getting older, everyone. Catching up with some of the same people you have seen at conferences all over the planet. Reminiscing about the time when you and that other professor puked in the swimming pool at the conference in Mexico when you were postdocs. Complaining about your students. “They are good, but kind of blah. No creativity, no spark.” Missing your bed, the food. Having problems to adapt to the new timezone.
Getting tired more easily lately. You have again forgotten to read that paper by your best grad student, who sends a desperate e-mail. He needs to apply. You don’t have time to focus on the paper now, it is too technical. Secretaries asking questions. Writing a grant proposal during other people’s talks, almost automatically. You don’t need to listen to anyone, you know what they say anyway. You know what kind of professors brings along which kind of students. You can even predict what the students are going to say.
Pretending to be enthusiastic about a new idea of a colleague. Really being enthusiastic about your own new idea. Being proud of your work, of what you have achieved. “I have come far”, you say to yourself, and it is true. Not really listening to anyone.
You have developed a thick skin. You do not worry about your students anymore. They will swim or drown. Your PhD student will be fine without that paper, although he does not know it yet.
But to be honest, your skin has also gotten thinner. You still worry about your reputation. If someone attacks your work, you take it extremely personally. You remain calm outside, but you explode on the inside. You have given your life to this work. You are your work. You are this paper from 10 years ago, you know what you have given to it, you remember everything about it. Your job is your passion. Your pain. Your joy. Your child. Your mother. It gives you everything and you give it everything. If someone touches on your work, he touches on the foundation of your being. You may stay polite. But you despise the person who dares to criticize you, even if you know that they have a point. Especially younger people, with their crisp dumb intelligent faces. They are young. They have life ahead of them. They have everything. Yet they seem to want to take something away of what you have: They want to find an error in your work. This could kick-start their career. Leeches. Parasites.
On the plane home, you fall asleep over your grad student’s paper. How boring his writing is. Your life partner doesn’t get up to greet you when you come home. Both busy busy busy. Both you and him. Always busy. Another plant has died. Since several years, you need new chairs in your living room, but neither of you will ever have time to get them. Your home is pretty ugly. Although you actually know how you would make it nice, you never have time. Your face is tired. Typing e-mails until midnight. Opening a cold can of beer in the dark living room. Small happiness.
You would want no other life.