Associate professor at Leiden University Medical Center
Name: Wiep Klaas Smits
Master’s degree: Biology at University of Groningen
PhD degree: Molecular Genetics at University of Groningen
Current position: Associate professor, head of the Experimental Bacteriology group and the Center for Microbiome Analyses and Therapeutics at Leiden University Medical Center
Looking back at my PhD, I do not think I was particularly career-oriented at that stage. I think students nowadays are much more aware of “CV building”. I was lucky to be in a group with several very talented people and this has helped create a stimulating atmosphere and also explore my options for doing a postdoc abroad has taught me a lot about possible career paths in academia. For me, it has never been a question that I wanted to have a career in science, as I get excited by discoveries.
Academia certainly comes with its challenges. Early stage career development grants are highly competitive and take a significant amount of preparation time, which is difficult to combine with spending time on lab work. A lot of good ideas and good people do not get funded. Working on fixed term contracts comes with pressure and can be hard on your partner and/or children too (moving).
In the end, the inherent love of science is what got me where I am now; this is my key motivator. It helps to be in a place with people that support and mentor you and actively seek out opportunities to help develop yourself (at a personal as well as a professional level). Colleagues are also extremely important for work satisfaction, whether it is in industry or academia.
I enjoy the many facets of science: delving into literature, carving out questions, generating and analysing data and presenting the work of your team to the outside world (conferences and manuscripts). But in my current position, I am also exposed to management tasks, teaching and mentoring. This makes for a very diverse range of activities that continuously forces you to look at the lab from different perspectives.
In my view, motivation is key. Do what you love in order to succeed. Don’t do it on your own; find people to coach you at all stages of your career. And: be a better planner than I was. Keep track of opportunities for funding, awards and personal development (courses) that will help you build your CV and skill set and put you in the best possible position for the career you want.