Personal Story researcher Sanquin Reagents

Name: Dieke van Rees
Master's degree: Biomedical Sciences (VU Amsterdam)
PhD degree: Immunology (University of Amsterdam)
Current position: Process Engineer (Sanquin Reagents)

Ambition: What was your ambition in terms of career perspective, during your PhD?

During my PhD I found it difficult to really pinpoint what I wanted to do after. I knew what I liked doing, I knew what I was good at, and I knew what I did not want: a career in academic research. However, I was not fully aware of all the possibilities, just as many PhD students I believe. Research and development, biotech; those directions were the first that crossed my mind, and although I am working there now, I am doing something completely different than what I envisioned during my PhD.

Difficulties: Which uncertainties did you face?

If you are looking for R&D vacancies, or jobs in biotech, you often see that they require either a postdoc or a couple of years experience in biotech. Many PhD students will first do a postdoc just to fit those vacancies. I did not want to do a postdoc, so I was uncertain how I would get into biotech. Still; my current position required a postdoc, so I believe it can also really depend on how you convince your potential employer of your qualities.

Helping hand: What helped you in taking the career step?

I talked with a lot of people about their jobs: friends who work in science but not in academia, ex-colleagues, acquaintances of friends and colleagues, even their acquaintances! My primary goal of these network talks was not to land a new job, but just to create an image of the career possibilities after academia. Even when I initially thought that someone’s position was really not what I would like to do, I still talked with them: at times I was pleasantly surprised and at times I knew a certain career was not for me.

Through networking I got a job at Sanquin Reagents, the “biotech” branch of Sanquin, where reagents and diagnostic tests are developed and sold worldwide. I started as a project leader in which I was responsible for one diagnostic test, and its renewal of the CE-certification.

I did not know beforehand if this would really fit me, but in the first year I rediscovered my qualities and strengths. I knew what I was good at during my PhD, but during this first year I learned how these qualities helped me also during other aspects of work.

For example, during my PhD I had good presenting skills and could easily convey a (research) message. I learned now that this quality also helped me in leading meetings, in creating support amongst colleagues and helped with the communication with external parties. Likewise, I realized that problem-solving and optimization of processes were not only strengths, but also things that I truly enjoyed. So, 1,5 years later I continued my career as a process engineer, still at Sanquin Reagents. In this position I am responsible for the optimization of production processes, solving production problems or bringing new products from our R&D department to production. I still use my research skills on a regular basis. I design experiments and tests, dive into literature to find answers or new ideas, write research reports and study proposals and conduct desk research.

Personal growth: Why is this job outside of academia a good fit for you?

If there is a problem in a production process, I need to assess the problem, I need to find the cause of it, and I need to think of ways to solve it. I therefore still need the scientist mindset: the biomedical and immunological (laboratory) knowledge, the analytical and critical thinking, and also a bit of creativity to come up with solutions and new ideas. I enjoy this immensely. I like the need for fast decision making and my involvement in the whole production process, and sometimes even in the whole organization.

Take away: What can others learn from your story?

  • Talk to a lot of people. Not only for job hunting, but also to peek behind the scenes of other careers. Even talk to people whose jobs you think you won’t like, they may surprise you. If you are hesitant to approach people, remember, most people like to talk about themselves and their work!
  • Do not try to find the perfect job after your PhD. Start something that you think you might like, but give yourself time to figure out if it indeed fits you or not.
  • Apply for a job even if you don’t match the full demands, you never know what it will bring you.

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Personal story researcher TNO - Brightlands Materials Center

Name: Amandine Codou
Master’s degree: Chemistry & Materials (University of Le Mans & University of Nice)
PhD degree: Polymer Physic and Chemistry (University of Nice)
Postdoc: Bioproducts Discovery and Development Center (University of Guelph)
Current position: Medior Scientist Specialist (TNO – Brightlands Materials Center)

Ambition: What was your ambition in terms of career perspective, during your postdoc?

I had no clear position in mind but wanted to follow the ideas I was passionate about. My main motivations were a strong interest and belief in sustainability and the need to contribute to useful and tangible products. After my PhD this led me to Canada for a 3-years postdoc. During this postdoc I focused on the development of bioproducts using agricultural waste.

This experience helped me define my main requirements for my next job: the field, type of activities, as well as the company’s culture were important focus points for me.

Difficulties: Which uncertainties did you face?

In the South East of France, where I come from, the jobs in my field are limited. Being ready and flexible to travel allowed me to follow my job wishes. Finding such a job involved frequently checking the offers submitted on multiple relevant websites and applying for positions in several countries.

In the last decade, energy & material transitions, sustainability, reducing material waste and the carbon footprint were hot topics. This rising importance and the direction taken by European legislation comforted my career choice.

Helping hand: What helped you in taking the career step?

During my PhD my research approach was very fundamental, investigating the structure of polymers molecules and how they influence the properties of the products. However, I was missing all the processing steps of shaping the product. So I was looking for a more applied research topic, at the interface of academia and industry, where I could use my knowledge of polymer physics to develop products. That’s what I found in the postdoc in Canada, where I got the opportunity to work with many companies, step in industrial issues, learn a different research approach, deal with upscaling questions, etc.

The complementary practical and theoretical background, the experience in writing grant proposals, and my overall background gained during my postdoc were key in finding my next job. Without these 3 years of training I would not have gotten my current position.

Personal growth: Why is this job outside of academia a good fit for you?

From my master's to my postdoc my main focus was on the study and development of biobased materials, while in my current position I’m developing technologies to recycle them. During this career journey I learned to be more open-minded, flexible on the topic but also on the field of expertise.

Besides this, I really like the diversity in my tasks as a scientist at TNO. I do not only lead research, but I also contribute to writing proposals in consultation with customers and partners, I supervise research engineers and students, and I contribute to the dissemination by participating in conferences, fairs and writing scientific articles and patents.

These multidisciplinary tasks allow me to get a very good interaction with all key players, have a good overview of the topic, and stay up-to-date with trends and technologies on the market.

Take away: What can others learn from your story?

My overall conclusion would be to stay open minded and flexible about work location as well as the job function. And even though all those years pull most of your energy into research, try to stay close to what drives you in your work and what resonates with you.

Personal story researcher Expertise Center for Vocational Education and Training

Name: Bart Kleine Deters
Master’s degree: LLM Globalisation and Law (Maastricht University) & MSc Public Policy & Human Development (United Nations University & Maastricht University)
PhD degree: PhD on Innovation, Economics and Governance for Development (United Nations University and Maastricht University)
Current position: Senior Researcher (ECBO)

AMBITION: WHAT WAS YOUR AMBITION IN TERMS OF CAREER PERSPECTIVE, DURING YOUR PHD?

I did not have a very clear ambition in terms of career perspective during my PhD, to be honest. Finishing the PhD was such a big item on the horizon that it sort of blocked out the longer time horizon. It was only when I had a clear idea of when I would finish that I was able to think about the next step.

The fact that I was late with career planning was a blessing in disguise. I had a much clearer view of what I was good at, and which work activities made me happy (and which not). This allowed me to define my ambitions not in terms of positions, but in job content, which led to a number of requirements for my next job:

  • There must be room for my passion for good education as the enabling factor for a life of dignity.
  • I want to make an impact with my work, either as a teacher or as a researcher.
  • My PhD was a monograph, and pretty much a solo project, and that did not make me happy. I did enjoy the interaction with students in teaching, and the occasional smaller research project with colleagues. My next job should thus be about working in teams, on projects with a much shorter timeline than a PhD project.
  • My partner and I were expecting a baby, and my partner had just started her medical residency, so the job had to be within commuting distance of our city of residence.

DIFFICULTIES: WHICH UNCERTAINTIES DID YOU FACE?

It was not particularly hard to find vacancies that satisfied (most of) the requirements, but getting hired was more difficult. That was mostly due to the multidisciplinary nature of my dissertation (a mixture of law, development studies, and statistics). There aren’t many jobs that specifically look for multidisciplinary researchers, meaning that you are always at a disadvantage when it comes to experience in the particular field the employer is hiring in. If you have done a purely legal PhD, you have (roughly) 4 years of legal research experience, while I had only 1/3 of that.

HELPING HAND: WHAT HELPED YOU IN TAKING THE CAREER STEP?

In one word: opportunity. I did not have a good overview of all the research organisations outside of academia in the Netherlands. I was mostly looking for jobs in academia or universities of applied sciences through AcademicTransfer, and stumbled on the vacancy of my current employer – who was wise enough to also advertise on that platform.

PERSONAL GROWTH: WHY DOES THIS JOB outside of academia FIT YOU?

After a year in my new job, I can say that I am super happy to have made the switch. ECBO is a not-for-profit research organisation specialised in education, with a strong network in Dutch vocational and higher education. This means that I can do research that is close to educational practice, as well as policy evaluations for the Dutch education ministry. Utilization of knowledge gained from our research is an important part of my current work, much more than in academia, where the emphasis on publications means that you are primarily talking to colleagues, rather than practitioners.

Being outside of academia also allowed me to gain experience in the business side of doing research; acquisition, project management. As a result my self-efficacy has greatly improved.

THE TAKEAWAY: WHAT CAN OTHERS LEARN FROM YOUR STORY?

When thinking about your career, don’t get too hung up on job titles and labels. Even though your PhD takes up most of your time and mental energy, try to save some for job market orientation early on. There are a lot of great opportunities for research(-related) work outside of academia, but you have to know where to look.