University

The dream job wasn’t enough

Peter's crisis

For twenty years, he had only one goal: to become a professor. But the ink on his contract had barely dried when Peter Jones had an existential crisis. Would faith be able to save him?
By Ellis Ellenbroek / Photo Reyer Boxem / Translation by sarah van steenderen

His heavily pregnant girlfriend is exhausted. Perhaps that’s why she can’t see that Peter Jones is at the end of his rope as well. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise; Peter has done all the work of restoring their new fixer-upper, an old Groningen farmhouse, himself.

And while there is something quite nice about just sitting on the couch together, waiting for their child to be born, young economist Peter Jones (36) is suffering. He has just been promoted to professor – the realisation of a dream – but he’s facing a powerful existential crisis.

Sitting in his office at the RUG, the professor tells his story. It’s a very neat office; while most professors have stacks of books and papers lying around, Jones prefers order.

Harsh and competitive

The academic world is harsh and competitive. It’s a masculine environment. Vulnerability is not a desirable trait. Peter is not sure whether he wants to use his real name, preferring anonymity.

Before this, everything in his life followed a gradual and natural course, progressing logically and predictably as he climbed the academic ladder. At twenty-three, he left his native country of Canada to do a master’s degree in Utrecht. His professor in Utrecht moved to Groningen, and asked Peter to come with him, so Peter moved North to begin his PhD.

But the next time his supervisor asked Peter to follow him – this time to England – Peter refused. He had made a life for himself in Groningen; his girlfriend was here. He wasn’t interested in commuting back and forth between two countries.

Absolute must

Peter had his sights set on becoming an associate professor. The job would give him the freedom to research what he wanted, to do his own thing. He’d be able to create jobs for young geniuses of his choosing.

But most of, the permanent job would give him real security after nine years of temporary contracts, three years as a PhD student, two as a post-doc, and four as an assistant professor.

There was no other option; if he didn’t succeed, his academic career would be over. The gruelling tenure track system that turns promising young academics into professors is unforgiving.

If Groningen doesn’t want you, why would Amsterdam give you a second chance?

‘Anyone who doesn’t make associate is out. When that happens, the chances of getting another academic position in the Netherlands are basically nil. If Groningen doesn’t want you, why would Amsterdam give you a second chance?’

Rat race

It’s a rat race. According to Peter, two out of three people fail to get tenure. This knowledge followed him like a dark cloud. His diet was terrible; he lost weight; he suffered from restless legs syndrome; he was quick to lose his temper.

Peter says that for a long time, he was just too busy to notice that anything was wrong. Whenever he did, he chose to ignore it. ‘I thought, once I get tenure everything will fall into place. I’ll have a permanent contract, more money, the ability to pay my mortgage, and I’ll be able to stay in the Netherlands.’

In March of 2017, he was appointed professor just as he and his girlfriend were moving into their renovated farmhouse. Instead of celebrating, however, Peter found himself falling into what felt like a dark hole. He calls it an existential crisis. ‘Suddenly there was that contract, and it was like it was telling me I was set for the rest of my life, that I didn’t have to do anything anymore.’

‘But working hard just comes naturally to me’, he says. He finished his PhD research in two and a half years rather than four. The drive to perform and excel had been instilled in him in high school in Canada. It was a gender-segregated school where the children wore uniforms and were told to always be the best. Their grades were made public for everyone to see. When Peter graduated, he didn’t celebrate. He had to keep working.

Not giving up

He approached renovating the old farmhouse the same way. Giving up was not an option. He didn’t let the fact that he didn’t know anything about construction stop him. ‘My father always used to say: If someone else can do it, so can you.’

But when there were no more challenges to face, he collapsed. ‘I lost all emotion, all sense of pleasure. I stopped wanting to do anything. I knew there was something wrong with me and that I needed to find a way out.’

The new professor started applying for jobs. ‘I had a few meetings with companies and consulting agencies. Maybe I could work part-time for them, scale back my hours at the university. But that didn’t work out the way I wanted it to.’

Scrolling through a list of academic vacancies, he found one that spoke to him: visiting professor in Afghanistan. He made it as far as a phone interview, but his girlfriend stopped him from continuing the application procedure.

Something missing

‘On paper, my life was perfect. I had a house, a girlfriend, a baby on the way, and a permanent contract with a great research institute. And yet – there was something missing.’

On paper, my life was perfect. And yet – there was something missing

He finally stopped being able to concentrate on his work at all, Peter confesses. That is, until he met a special student. This young woman spent a lot of time doing volunteer work with asylum seekers. And she was always happy. Happy in her heart, as Peter calls it.

He envied her. The sense of deep contentment she had with her life seemed to be exactly the thing he was missing. Where did it come from? It turned out that the girl was religious.

And so Peter, who had never given religion a second thought, suddenly found himself asking a clergyman if he could learn to believe. ‘I wanted to believe that there was someone out there who had a plan for me. That all I needed was to do my best and have faith. I thought that was a great concept, and I wanted it for myself.’

Pray

The pastor at the Vineyard International Church was convinced that faith could be learned. Peter had sent him a message that said ‘Hello, I am in crisis’, after which they met for coffee at the faculty. The pastor asked Peter if he could pray for him. Peter thought it was a nice gesture, and said yes. But in the following weeks, Peter failed to learn to believe in God. As an academic, he says, he was probably too critical, too sceptical about everything.

The Vineyard pastor advised him to talk to other religious academics. And so he talked to a close colleague, a PhD student, and a professor of medical science whose father was a Baptist minister.

But no matter how much Peter wanted them to, none of his conversation partners sparked anything religious in him. The professor for example, who was a transplant expert, could not provide a satisfactory answer about how putting one person’s organs into someone else fit within God’s plan.

It’s too bad, because I would love to be like that happy religious girl

‘Ultimately, religion was just a step too far for me. It just wasn’t for me. Maybe there is a God; the universe is so complex. But I am unable to believe in Jesus or the Bible.

It’s too bad, because I would love to be like that happy religious girl’, says Peter who has since founded a pharmaceutical company with the transplant professor. It’s a new challenge to keep him occupied.

Inner peace

On top of that, he now has Jill: his daughter. She turned one in June. Jill has managed to quiet that ‘what’s next?’ feeling and has brought him some inner peace. ‘I’m just focused on her now.

For the first time in my life I’m not the only person I need to worry about. This realisation that other people are important is new to me. Was I just being really egotistical? I think so. I was focused solely on my own life, my own career.

But it’s okay, the academic says. He’ll probably always be looking for something more, even when he doesn’t know what that looks like. ‘But for now, everything’s okay.’

Editor’s note: Peter Jones is not the professor’s real name. Other details in this article have also been changed for the sake of privacy. ‘Peter’ ‘s real name is known with UKrant.nl

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