176 Letter from Birgit Pikkemaat
My dear young colleagues!
I do not know how I have earned the honor of writing you a letter, because it is inexplicable to me that I have been included at all in this prominent circle of high-ranking research colleagues. I cannot and will not give you any advice, as I believe that, while one becomes more serene and content with age, at least in my case, one still has much to learn from the youth of today. I, therefore, just want to tell you a little bit about my experience and emphasize what was and still is important to me.
I came to science by chance, it was not a planned career. After finishing my studies, my neighbor asked me what my next steps would be and mentioned that his sister was working for a new Canadian tourism professor who was still looking for people. He suggested he could make contact and I could meet them. No sooner said than done. That’s how I got into science, decided to write a PhD, and ended up being part of the tourism faculty in Innsbruck. So, my entry into science was neither planned nor desired, it just happened that way. A lot of things in life turn out that way, if you let them, even without a concrete plan.
That’s also how my entry into my professional life came about. We were all very young, had little scientific experience and learned a lot by doing. Our head of department, Klaus Weiermair, gave us a lot of freedom, always had new ideas, and traveled around the world. He also encouraged us to attend conferences ourselves as a way of getting feedback on our work, and thus to travel a lot, too, which was not a matter of course back then. So, we learned a lot and were quickly able to establish contacts and forge friendships with international colleagues.
When I became pregnant with my son, my PhD was not yet finished, but it was already well advanced. Since I wanted to take a break for my son, I sat at home for nights on end finishing my PhD before his birth. A few years of toddlerdom and work followed during which I learned to appreciate even more the tranquility of the office and the interaction with my colleagues and students. The balancing act between work and family was very challenging, yet I was aware of my privileged position as a scientist with relatively free time management, which I still appreciate to this day. After the birth of my daughter, I started to publish intensively, but at that time a post-doctoral thesis, or as we call it here, a “habilitation” seemed out of reach, but I finalized my tenure track. When my male colleagues completed their post-doctoral theses at the same time, I not only lacked a few years of professional experience due to my maternity leaves, but above all the courage. I was not self-confident enough at that time. That would not happen to me today.
I reflected on this and, seeing that the tourism chair was filled with a service marketing professorship, I took time off from my academic work to gain a foothold in the private sector. I took a leave of absence from the university, decided to take a travel agency licensing exam, complete an Italian course, and register as a court-appointed tourism expert. After this interesting detour, I did not set up a travel agency, but a research institute, the Institute for Innovative Tourism. I focused on conducting studies and publications, mainly for public clients. During this really successful und interesting time, I learned lots of new things, I did plenty of organizational work and communication, and I also met many interesting people. I am still very grateful for these experiences and contacts to this day. They have shaped me and made me grow, I would not have missed this time for the world, because it has made me more self-confident and has allowed me to hone my problem-solving skills, but also to become more application-oriented and more open to new tasks and people. In addition, I learned to distinguish important from unimportant things. I also began to use data from my project studies for publications with my scientific colleagues.
Again, it was chance that helped me back into science. With the realization that business initiations can be exhausting in the long run and that I actually have little enthusiasm for them, I jumped at the chance to return to the University of Innsbruck when asked by my best research colleague and friend Mike Peters. A tourism chair was once again being established at the Leopold-Franzen University of Innsbruck and so I returned to the University of Innsbruck part-time in 2016.
In the last five years, it has been, above all, my young colleagues who have fascinated me time and again. Their enthusiasm and verve are contagious, be it in new fields of research, in the application of new methods, or in their lifestyles. They take me into their language, their style, their sports, and they let me dive into their social media and apps, always being cheerful and helpful, but also focused on their work – far more so than when I was doing my PhD. They keep me and my mind happy, they challenge me, and keep me active and young. This is also true of my students, who are now far more experienced in life and far more reflective, but also more open-minded, than they were in the early days of my teaching career. I love engaging in discourses with them and hearing their views, experiences, and opinions. They enrich my world; they make it more colorful – at least most of them do 😉
Motivated by these great young people, I therefore recently decided to embark upon my post-doctoral thesis (habilitation) in my “second career” at the university. Due to my experience and age, I am looking forward to this new task with respect but also with a sense of relative calm. In my younger years, I would often have wished for this composure; it would probably have helped me in some of my discussions. But I am convinced that we only learn and mature through our own experiences with people of different opinions, different backgrounds, and different levels of education, and not from the advice or experiences of others.
With all these experiences and encounters, it was and always has been important to me to remain true to myself and to stand by my values, whether privately or professionally. Today, I am grateful, happy, and satisfied with my life: grateful especially for my health, happiness with my grown-up children and my husband and satisfied with what I do! I try not to hurt anyone with words, to be a loyal spouse, business, and research partner, to treat every counterpart with respect, to practice tolerance and, above all, to be open, open to students, colleagues, and friends! Nevertheless, today I am more aware of time than ever, and I invest it only in people and projects that have sustainable value, that have substance. It is easier for me today to avoid busybodies and energy thieves – that is probably also a gift of age and my own experience.
In short, my dear young colleagues, I think you simply must carve out your own experiences and life will also have one or two surprises in store for you. The destination is not always clearly recognizable, often it is the detours that bring us back to the path of the destination! In this sense, I wish you much fun and success on your pathways, and all the very best!
University of Innsbruck, Austria