The new NGC Career Talks Series – connect with your future

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What are you going to do? After years spent slogging away in the lab, doing constant overtime, obtaining exciting results usually preceded by a plethora of failed experiments, lacking proper work-life balance and grasping the long-craved paper (if you are lucky) finally make it. You are a PhD, congrats! What next? The desire to remain in academia cannot be fulfilled by everyone, due to overproduction of PhDs in comparison to available positions. There is an obvious gap not only in terms of employment possibilities for PhDs, but also of available information about prospective non-academic careers (Nature526, 597-600; 2015). Many still call them “alternative” careers, but the fact is that a whole job market demanding skilled PhDs has opened in recent years (Nature 555, 277; 2018). They are no longer an alternative. They are an option besides the academic one. Hence, it is important to keep early career researchers up to date with relevant job opportunities. It is also essential to help them connect to professionals who can better explain the requirements of the job. Nothing is more valuable than networking and getting to know the professionals who transitioned outside of academia.

At NGC, we want to provide early career researchers with relevant information for their careers, present, and future ones. We recently saw an increased interest in career talks rising among our colleagues in Mainz, but it seems like the offer doesn’t meet the demand yet. Thus, we want to do our part with the new Career Talks Series. In cooperation with the International PhD Programme of IMB, we are going to fish from our network of Alumni to learn from their experiences transitioning outside of academia. It is important to get the point of view of those who, in recent years, joined the lines of industry.

Our first speaker was an old friend of NGC. Dr Florie Le Prieult, former PhD student at the UMC and actually Postdoctoral researcher in R&D at AbbVie. Florie’s talk was extremely informative and so interesting to keep the audience hooked till the last piece of advice. The pharmaceutical company for which she works is young and wants to remain small (namely with less than 30000 employees) in order to carry on being innovative. How can innovation be achieved? First of all, you need to point everything on R&D (easily achievable if 17% of your annual multi-billionaire revenue is invested in the sector). Then, you need of course to get the right people. Talented scientists who want to do applied science in a fast-paced and goal-driven environment. This kind of setting can be found at Ludwigshafen, the German R&D site of the company.

Florie got to debunk some myths during the evening. Most of the people longing to leave academia want to get out of the loop of never-ending short-term contracts to finally land a permanent position. However, postdoc positions in the industry are not permanent! How could they be otherwise? Postdocs are indeed meant to be transitional positions to the next step, both inside and outside of academia. This is a point where we can begin to see a difference between the two work-settings.

The emphasis on the professional development of employees is so big that many companies actually offer them a series of training to develop any skill they might need or be interested into. Not only, they even strongly promote the development of their employees.

A second urban legend about pharmaceutical companies is that they don’t care about publishing research papers. Nothing could be falser, as it is instead highly recommended to publish peer-reviewed papers. It contributes in fact to building the know-how reputation of the company: the researchers in their R&D departments are highly qualified scientists who are capable of producing scientific works of value. Having papers going out helps also making people acquainted with what you do and the kind of expertise you have. This goes in parallel with the importance of networking, inside and outside the company. Getting to know other scientists, talking about your work, exchanging ideas is the fuel to new collaborations between academia and industry. As Florie points out, there cannot be R&D without academic research and vice versa. Thus, it is important to build and maintain a network of relationships with scientists working in basic research. Every year R&D scientists visit national and international conferences where they present posters and discuss with the rest of the community.

Pros and Cons of working in Industry. Courtesy of Florie Le Prieult.

Another difference between academia and industry appears when considering the delivery of results. First of all, there are deadlines and they must be respected. Secondly, you are expected to deliver all type of results, including the so much dreaded “it didn’t work”. Why is that so? The evolution of a project is aimed at achieving a final goal that has been fixed. Was it not possible to achieve it by the current means, a new strategy should be implemented at the earliest possible time. Had that to be completely impossible, you would need to consider changing strategy or even goal overall.

Goals, an everyday presence in R&D. Each employee is asked to determine a set of goals to achieve (for academics they usually are gaining a specific set of data for the paper). The interesting thing about these goals is: flexibility! You are expected to set them on your own, according to your personal research interests. Personal goals should of course be aligned to the ones set by the department head and the managers, but it doesn’t mean you are left with no freedom of pursuing your own interests. Goals can also be changed or adapted in itinere, e.g when an experiment doesn’t work or you choose to explore different paths.

A man is not an island, and pharmaceutical companies know it well. The creation of cross-functional projects is strongly encouraged and fostered through the organisation of meetings and presentations with colleagues from different groups or departments. An “empowering” atmosphere that creates the enthusiasm for collaboration, as Florie describes it.

What is left to say? Florie’s daily routine is quite similar to the academic one. Days are split between bench work and desk work. Projects are not much different from the ones we conduct, except for the approach to the working-style and the final goals. Meetings become an important part of the postdoc’s life, pushing researchers to talk and exchange ideas for new cross-functional projects. The real collaborative environment. Achievement of goals aimed to reaching an application are the driving force of R&D.

So, what are you going to do next?

Written by Chiara Galante; Edited by Radhika Menon. Featured image: NGC/Margaryta Tevosian.

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