Today I’m happy to bring you a chat with a great friend and one of the most helpful and selfless guys I know, Chris White. His story blends a love of cycling with a job doing what he loves (working with bikes!). This interview is absolutely worth a read, so please grab a hot cup of coffee or tea and enjoy the insights.
Chris and his wife Heather riding their tandem up the infamous cobbled Tremola on the Gotthard Pass
Hi Chris and thanks for offering to share your time with us! So the story goes that you have a PhD, that you’ve worked for 5+ years as a Post-Doc Researcher & Lecturer and that your primary job now is as the Head Mechanic at a bike shop in scenic Lausanne, Switzerland. Did we get that right? If so, that sounds like a fascinating combination!
Hi and thanks for giving me the opportunity to chat with the Hillseeker® community. My PhD is in Psychology, with my research being more specifically in judgment and decision making processes (which I obtained in Canada, after getting my bachelor’s in the US). I worked for 5 years as a post-doc researcher (more formally, a post-doctoral research fellow) and lecturer in the Faculty of Business and Economics at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, and have continued to teach one course per year there for the past 3 years after the research job finished. I’ve been working as a mechanic at a bicycle shop in Lausanne for 2 years, with the last few years as head mechanic; I do quite a bit of customer sales work, but mostly it’s bike mechanics.
Teaching a bike maintenance workshop at Hillseeker® in 2012
What prompted you to shift your career from academia to the cycling business?
I was actually reasonably happy with my job in academia, and would have continued to be a post-doc researcher if they had let me, and my boss would have been happy to keep me. Unfortunately, the university has a rule that people cannot be post-doc researchers for more than five years because it is intended to be a training role/stepping stone in your career. Unfortunately, there are not many jobs in my field in the world, even fewer in places where I would actually want to live, and many other such post-doc jobs have a restriction that you cannot be hired if it is more than 5 years since you obtained your PhD. Therefore, to stay in academia I had to start looking for jobs at the assistant professor level. The problem with this is that I’m not that interested in being a professor – it comes with many more responsibilities, a LOT more work, a LOT more stress and pressure, and you have to basically make it the only thing in your life. It may be a step up on the career ladder and in salary, but it is a HUGE step down in quality of life that I didn’t want to take.
I’d been learning about bike mechanics ever since starting to do long bike tours when I was an undergrad’ student, and had spent the last three years of my PhD studies buying, fixing, and selling used bikes to other students out of the backyard of my student house (with a turnover of up to 50 bikes per year). You learn a lot of skills by working on the cheapest, crappiest stuff, but you make virtually no money – it was purely for the love of it. Once I became a post-doc researcher in Switzerland, I finally had a bit of money, and some friends with real jobs, so I started building many custom bicycles for myself and friends with modern, more expensive components, and kept up to date on all the latest product news, but still made no money from any of that. Therefore, by the time I finished my post-doc position, I already knew about 90% of what I needed to be a bicycle mechanic.
When my post-doc contract ran out and couldn’t be renewed, I was faced with the decision of struggling to find a position as an assistant professor, a job that I didn’t really want to do, and for which I would probably end up in a location that I didn’t really want to be. In fact, most people in academic jobs have very little control over where they end up getting hired, which was something that I really didn’t like the idea of. Instead, I could make a massive change and try to find a job as a bike mechanic in the place that I was already living in and was happy with – Lausanne, Switzerland. There was also the important factor that my wife was happy here and had a good job (as a lab technician in a biology laboratory at the technical university) – although with her training there would probably be a job for her in most university towns that we might move to. I therefore opted to apply for the only other skilled job in town that I was qualified to do – be a bicycle mechanic. So it was as much that I wanted to control where I lived as much as it was a decision to change jobs.
The fact that a bicycle mechanic is not that well paid is not very important to me; in fact, I don’t even want to work full time – I only work four days per week even though my boss would be happier if I did more (and the same is true for my wife); we want to have time to enjoy our lives instead of just trying to maximize our incomes. We don’t have a car, we live in a nice but not extravagant apartment, have no kids, and so don’t need much money to have a comfortable life. The fact that there are not many “career advancement opportunities” for a bike mechanic is also not important for me – that was the problem with working in academia, because there I wasn’t allowed to remain at the career level that I was happy with (post-doc) and was instead being forced to move up the ladder to a position that I didn’t want.
An extra lure of working in the bike business is getting nearly all the bike gear that I want at wholesale cost instead of retail. Between my wife and I, we now have 10 bikes, so this is a significant bonus. In my old job, I used to get paid to go to research conferences across Europe and North America about once a year, and would always make the most of those trips. Being a bike mechanic certainly involves a lot less travel opportunities, but we travel enough for fun so I don’t really miss the conference trips.
After building a Hillseeker® cargo bike for me (such a great bike!)
With such extensive education and teaching/research background, what was it like to apply for your first mechanic job while in your 30s?
This was not much of a problem. I visited the three bike shops in town that I was interested in working at, one was not hiring, but two were and each offered me a job – it was surprisingly straightforward. The shop owner quickly realized that I knew what I was talking about and his only concern was that I wouldn’t stick around for long if I went back to looking for something in academia. In Switzerland, there is a major lack of skilled bike mechanics who are happy to just be bike mechanics because most young people who go through the apprenticeship program end up using that qualification to go onto an engineering job or do further training to keep moving up the ladder. So it turned out that my skills are actually in quite high demand, mainly because of the meagre pay and lack of status of the job.
How was the learning curve and experience getting started? Any funny experiences?
There were only a few things about bike mechanics that I needed to learn about, and those are still the things that I don’t like doing so try to leave to the other mechanic (e.g., gluing tubular tires onto rims). My biggest problem was not really speaking French (the local language) well. Two of the other three people working in the shop speak English fluently (the owner is American), but I need to speak French with many customers. After two years, I understand and speak French much better, but I’m still pretty rubbish and don’t speak correctly at all; I don’t care about it any more because I can now get by 99% of the time, but my boss would love for me to improve.
No really funny stories, sorry. My colleagues were initially amused by the fact that I am happy to work on any bikes, including the pieces of cheap, department store junk, that some mechanics refuse to touch; and two years later, they still laugh at me for this because I almost never turn a bike away (there are a few kids bikes that are more like plastic toys than bicycles that I do refuse to touch – I’m amazed that some parents let their children ride those dangerous things).
What’s an average work day like for you now?
I work on bikes all day long – fixing parts, changing parts, installing accessories, assembling new bikes, building wheels, etc. In the same hour, I might work on a bike that is falling apart and just needs to be fixed well enough to get the owner back and forth to the train station during their daily commute up to the top-end $10,000 race-level bikes that people treat like their precious babies. We have either one or two people working on the sales floor, so whenever more customers than this come in then I go out and help with sales, or if a customer needs some technical advice then the sales guys will call me out. I also make many of the parts orders. Regular customers often stop in just to say Hi and discuss the results from the latest bike race, which is nice.
Did you ever have 2nd thoughts and consider returning to your prior career full time? If so, how did you deal with that?
If I found the right job for me in academia – at the right level, in the right location, doing research in my field, I would probably go straight back to it tomorrow, and because of that I’m still subscribed to an email listserv where all such jobs are posted. A couple of times per month something is posted that is half-interesting, but there is normally some aspect about it that makes it less than ideal and I haven’t seen anything that looks like it would give me as good a life as I currently have. Of course, the longer I stay away from academia, the less likely it is than anyone will consider hiring me again. I’m still teaching a course once a week for a few months per year, so I still have some connection, and I still have a couple of research articles that some colleagues and I are working on getting published, so I’ve not completely broken away from my previous job yet.
How about identifying with your job? Were you ever one to label yourself by your job (e.g. answering the question “what do you do?” with an “I’m an X”). If so, did that change in any way when you changed professions?
I had no problem with being labeled as a university researcher. The bigger problem was when people wanted more information, and then completely misunderstood what I did. I had a PhD in Psychology, so they thought I must be a therapist. When I tried to correct this by explaining that I did research in cognitive processes, understanding how people comprehend the world, then people still thought that I was only interested in people suffering from psychological diseases, but in fact we only study how regular people think. Even when I try to clearly explain what I did, people still thought that I must be trying to analyze their own psychological problems (I know very little about that side of psychology). People understand what bicycle mechanics do much better – it’s certainly easier to identify with a job when people understand what it is and don’t immediately label you as doing something completely different that you know very little about.
The other thing that I’m not too keen on is having a “career” or even calling what I do a “profession”. I much prefer to call it simply a “job” – which just implies something that you get paid to do; using the terms “career” and “profession” suggests more of something that defines you, that you have to strive to progress in, etc. No, I just want to be paid for doing something that I don’t mind doing, and I view what I’m currently doing as simply a job or an occupation and I don’t care about having a career or a profession. This was my problem with the academic world – I just wanted a job as a researcher, I did not want a career as a professor.
Do you work less or more in your new profession? How about stress levels: same, more or less?
I probably work about the same amount, by the distribution of work time is very different. In the past 3 years of being a post-doc my professor only had enough money to pay me an 80% salary, so I had no obligation to work too much. I now work 4 days a week as a bike mechanic, so the working time is about the same. However, the big difference is in the working hours. At the bike shop, the working hours and location are extremely well defined by the shop’s opening hours and where the bikes are that need fixing. In academia, the working hours are completely open, you can choose to work whenever you want and for the type of work that I was doing, I could do a lot of it wherever I wanted – in my home office, at the university, or even while on vacation, visiting my family in another country. The downside of the freedom of the working hours in my academic job was that I always COULD be working, and therefore some people in a similar position just worked all the time; therefore, you sometimes felt slightly guilty if you were not doing so yourself. At the bike shop, I have no obligation, and no option to work outside of the defined hours, which means that I can do all other pursuits complete guilt-free.
Even so, I am generally a very stress-free type of person, so I experienced very little stress as a post-doc, and still very little as a bike mechanic, so that hasn’t really changed. As I said before, I deliberately avoided the next step in my academic career of becoming a professor that would have yielded the insane workload and high stress levels. I saw what life was like for all of the professors that I knew and decided that even though I could probably do the same, I just didn’t want to. They may have climbed the ladder, got a very well-paid job, have a high status in society, etc., but their quality of life is no better than me as a bike mechanic.
What makes you the happiest in your work now?
My current job has far more tangible results – you fix a bike or build a bike and know that someone is going to use it for transport, pleasure, fitness, or all three at the same time. That is what gives me the most satisfaction. I even get to meet that person directly, see their gratitude, and regular customers become friends over time. In my old job, after many months of work I would produce a research article that I would struggle to get published; it might then get noticed by a few other fellow researchers but would have basically zero effect on what anyone does in the world. Teaching has slightly more direct benefits as some people are grateful for learning and for having a good teacher, although many others are not there out of interest and instead only out of a desire for the degree.
Anything else you’d like to share or any advice you’d like to offer others considering an escape toward a profession they’re passionate about?
Don’t worry about working your way up the career ladder if you’re happy in your current position. The next rung up the ladder is not necessarily better, and may well be worse. If you can figure this out before you take that step then it will be better than if you struggle to make it work for several unhappy years.
Several people in the business school that I worked at study organizational psychology, and in particular the reason why there are so many fewer women in management positions than men. There are several reasons for this, and their research focuses on the stereotypes of women’s and men’s personalities and traditional roles, which are certainly important factors. However, I think they should also consider that maybe more women than men have figured out that the ultimate goal in life is not moving up the corporate/academic ladder. Maybe more women are satisfied with having a “job” whereas many men seem to need to have an image-defining “career”. I’m certainly in the minority of men who prefer a straightforward job and don’t care about a career.
Check out Chris’ recent article for the Hillseeker® community on inspecting and preparing your bike for the cycling season.