Planning the perfect exit strategy for a scientific career move

Julie Gould: 00:10

Hello, I’m Julie Gould and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. Welcome to the series Beyond Academia, where we explore the movement of people between academia and other sectors.

In the first part of this series we explored what porosity was – “the movement of people between the academic world and the world beyond.”

I want to remind you of the metaphoric, although very real membrane that sits between the academic world and the world outside.

This membrane is porous, slightly flexible, and I’m imagining something quite otherworldly at the moment. Something slightly slimy and sticky. so that when you’re moving through it, it almost moves with you a little bit. And then once you’re completely through it, wobbles, bounces back and sticks together again.

Okay? If you’ve got that image in your head, I’d now like to talk about this membrane from the perspective of those moving from academia to the other side.

The flow of people is stronger in the direction away from academia, which makes sense, as most people who’ve done a PhD have left academia. The 2010 Royal Society report, The Scientific Century, showed that only about one person per 200 stays in academia. Yes, you heard me right. One person stays, the 199 others leave academia and go through this barrier to the other side.

So the question is, “Why do some people still find it so hard to break through?”

Chris Woolston, a regular contributor to Nature Careers and the editorial lead for its global annual surveys on working scientists, says that it’s partly due to peer pressure, but also partly due to a fear of the unknown.

Chris Woolston: 02:01

They feel a lot of pressure from the people around them to stay where they’re at. They get encouragement from people around them to stay where they’re at. Postdocs, the lab leader, will often say that academia is the place to be. And they currently are in academia. It’s a place they know.

And even though it’s a challenge, and they may feel that they’ll never be able to get a job there, they at least know it, it’s a known quantity.

And everything on the other side of that membrane is an unknown quantity. And even if they have friends who have been over there, and they can talk about it, they still may not be completely sure about making that transition,

Julie Gould: 02:36

The decision to make a big career transition like that can take a very long time to make.

And Helke Hillebrand, who is now the director of the Graduate Academy at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, took her time over it.

She had her dream job in the 1990s. She had recently received her PhD, and was then promoted to be a group leader in the Department of plant physiology at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany, where she could develop her own group,

Helke Hillebrand 03:03

…develop my own subject area, and really also plan for habilitation. And to eventually stay at the university. So the choices were really broad and open, and I felt….I had felt all my PhD lifem and also the diploma life before that, staying at the university and becoming a professor would be really a dream, likem the thing to do.

Julie Gould: 03.27

And it was, for a while…

Helke Hillebrand 03:28

I was in a lifetime position. I wasn’t even 30. Yeah, my dream had come true, but the dream was not what I expected the dream to be. And so I really had to do some change.

Julie Gould: 03:41

Here’s the thing. It was a risk to move away from academia. And making a change, a big life, career moving change, at a point where your career is flourishing isn’t easy, says Chris Woolston.

Chris Woolston: 03:54

The biggest part is they just may not be able to make that leap. And they have to talk themselves into trying and taking a risk.

Julie Gould: 04:03

What if I move away and I don’t like it? What if my career options aren’t what I thought they were going to be? What if the work life balance isn’t what I imagined? Will I be able to come back? These are the kinds of questions that Helke had going through her mind when she was making her decision.

Helke Hillebrand 04:21

And there had been anecdotal knowledge about people who went into industry and who somehow returned at some point, but it was very anecdotal and more like very suspicious exceptions.

But once I had taken the decision, I wasn’t worrying so much anymore about returning. It was more like I was worrying about open and closed opportunities and doors while I was trying to take my decision, but the moment I had taken it, I certainly had in the back of my mind, “So if it doesn’t work, and I do know in a couple of months or week, there’s always space for change.”

I think once I started it I really wanted to be sucessful as well. And, and yeah, I think I was also fed up with this long period of decision making and I wanted to build on something instead of shaking all the time.

Julie Gould: 05:12

So after six months of thinking, considering moving to the US to pursue her academic dream, or to move to industry, Helke finally made a decision to break through the membrane and take on a role at BASF, a German multinational chemical company, in 1999.

She started there as a researcher and moved through the organization, eventually leaving the post almost 10 years later, when she was working as an investor relations manager.

And we’ll hear more from Helke about the next stage of her career in another episode.

But for Helke, the decision to leave academia in the late 1990s was a worthwhile one. And Chris Woolston says that the numbers from the most recent Nature career salary survey reflect this.

Chris Woolston 05:57

I think, for a lot of people that risk turns out to be worth it. Our numbers show that if you can get an industry job, you’re more likely to be satisfied, you’re more likely to be paid well, and you’re more likely to see good things in your future.

Julie Gould: 06:11

The reasons for shifting career directions often coincide with other major events in people’s lives. And your future can be difficult to plan when this happens, and it can make moving really hard.

But sometimes, it actually makes the decision much easier. For Jorge Abreu, the period at the end of his PhD at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in the Heidelberg area, Germany, was a busy time.

As well as preparing and defending his thesis, his first daughter was being born. He didn’t have the time mentally or physically to prepare projects for a postdoc position. As well as that, he really wanted to be there for his daughter, especially during the first year of her life. And he didn’t think that a postdoc position would be flexible enough to do that. What he wanted was stability. And that career in academia doesn’t always offer this.

Jorge Abreu 07:04

So I defended my PhD on the 25th of January. And I became a father on the 18th of March, right after.

And so first of all, this PhD defence, plus finding postal plastic kit and everything, it was like a really difficult time for me to really be centered and to organize a products to find a product. So that made it really difficult in that sense.

On the other hand, I also wanted to be there for the kid. I wanted, especially, the first year really to be there.

Julie Gould: 07:43

So for Jorge, moving at an early stage of his career, worked well. And he found a position as a data science consultant in the private sector. For him, there were more risks to staying in academia with respect to financial stability, than there were in the private sector.

Jorge Abreu 08:00

Industries in machine learning offer you long term contracts. So there is not this problem of “Okay, I need to look now per slot, and we need to move another two years, with a kid and then we need to move to another place else.” And so in that sense, obviously, the private industry was offering a much more stable condition.

Julie Gould: 08:22

So to minimize the risks of moving, what is the best time in a career to move from academia to a role outside?

Almost everyone I spoke to said that either during your early career or at a later more senior stage are the two easiest times to move.

There is another reason why a move during the early stages of an academic career is easier, says Søren Bregenholt. It’s because you’re not invested as much into an academic career yet. You’re also younger, and you may have more flexibility in what you’re willing to do.

Søren Bregenholt: 08:56

When you are early in your career. I I guess there is more flexibility and you are less set in your ways. So I think from a, from a personal perspective, it may be easier.

And yes, actually, I think when you are later in your career and may have established yourself in either academia or industrial science, that name you you may have built for yourself allow you a little bit more room to operate, so to speak.

Julie Gould: 09:27

The hardest time is the mid career stage, says UK entrepreneur and technology transfer professional Nessa Cary. For example, when you’ve done a couple of postdocs….

Nessa Carey 09:37

…..because you’re then you’re in a really difficult position. You’re starting to become quite expensive in academia, but you haven’t necessarily been able to demonstrate all the skills that industry might want for somebody of your age and your seniority.

So I think people need to think very early about what their career path is. There’s a limit to how much you can map it out.

But if you’re doing a PhD in the UK, the figures are that for every 200 people who start a PhD in the UK, one of you will become a professor. Those are pretty bad odds.

So everybody needs to be playing a more active role these days, I think, in planning their careers. And I have to say the younger generation are so much better at it than my generation was. My generation was rubbish. We had no careers advice, we had no career planning. You know, it was just assumed you would just stay in academia in some form or other.

I work quite a lot with young professionals from academia, and they’re so much more savvy. They know that there are other options out there. They know that those other options are not necessarily lesser options. They don’t view it as “You’re they’re taking a step back,” or anything like that.

And also, many of them, I find, are taking the position that they’ve looked at their PIs, and they don’t want a PI’s lifestyle. They don’t want the pressures that are on the PIs, where they can see them being in jobs, for which often, the pressure is immense.

Nobody’s ever thanking you for anything that you do. Nothing’s ever finished. And in relative terms, often the salaries are dropping. And you have years and years and years and years and years of job insecurity, leading up to that. So I think a lot of people are being much more thoughtful about their careers, which is fantastic.

Julie Gould: 11:27

In 2020, I spoke with Shambhavi Naik, a biological sciences postdoc turned journalist, turned policy researcher at the Takshashila Institutions technology and policy program in Bengaluru, India. She also runs her own startup which procures lab supplies to labs in India. And she believes that the attitude towards the postdoc period needs to change, that it should become a time of transition, of exploration, of self discovery, to see where your career can take you.

Shambhavi Naik 11:56

You look at it as a step into academia. But it’s actually a step into self discovery. Through all your PhD you’re learning theory, you’re looking learning techniques, you’re learning how to apply science, you’re learning critical thinking, to apply to a science program. Your postdoc allows you to do much more than that.

And I think it is in that position that you can actively think of, “Hey, now I’ve learned critical thinking. I’ve spent six years behind a single research issue, and which has taken over my brain space. But now I can think of where I can apply this. Are there any other avenues I want to use this for?”

For me, it was policymaking and policy analysis. But others it could be something else. A postdoc position has to be looked off looked at as a transition point into thinking that hey, I’ve created this trained person who can run a western blot if they want to, but basically knows how to look at a problem and try to solve it. And can we down give them opportunities of applying that training across a spectrum of fields and seeing what they want.

Julie Gould: 13:11

But if a full transition from academia to elsewhere isn’t what you want, there is a middle ground. There are many, many researchers that straddle the academic/industry boundary, and we will hear from some of them on how they manage it in the next episode of this series.

Thanks for listening. I’m Julie Gould.