Want a glimpse beyond academia? Ask the professionals!

On 24th of November 2016, in a nice restaurant in Bochum, 40 PhDs and early postdocs within RESOLV discussed possible future career options with seven professionals from the industry – CEOs and Founders, R&D Managers, Consultants and Product Specialists. Five RESOLV PhD students who participated in the meeting have drawn the following comprehensive picture of a lively discussion that was filled with striking statements, valuable advices and lots of human touch.

I. The kaminabend

Stefanie Tecklenburg: The evening started with a short introduction round to get to know the guests from industry. It was fun, and it helped warming up the atmosphere, to hear the guests talking about their childhood dream job: The wishes ranged from veterinarian over entrepreneur to mad scientist.

screen-shot-2016-12-21-at-21-37-39Stefanie Tecklenburg was born in Germany. She received her BSc in Biochemistry and MSc in Chemistry from RUB. She  is a PhD student at MPI für Eisenforschung in Düsseldorf in the group of Prof. A. Erbe. Her area of interest is water/semiconductors interfaces investigated by spectroelectrochemistry. She would rate her probability to remain in academia in ten years to be less than 10%.

Yetsedaw A. Tsegaw: It helped me a lot. Before the event, many of us were just thinking about entering R&D after the PhD. We just didn’t know about the variety of jobs that industry can offer, such as development, management, human resources, etc.

Oliver Lampret: It was a perfect opportunity to get to know people from the industry.

II. Academy vs. Industry

Yetsedaw A. Tsegaw: I’ve learned that careers in both sectors can be very much interesting, offering unique benefits and challenges. In academics, you have more freedom, but you may struggle for funding. In industry you have no funding issues but you have to deliver a product in time.

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Yetsedaw Andargie Tsegaw was born and raised in Ethiopia. He has a BSc in Chemistry from Bahir Dar University and a MSc in Chemistry from RUB. Currently he is a PhD student working on matrix isolation experiments at RUB in the group of Prof. W. Sander. Tsegaw would rate his probability to remain in academia in ten years at ca. 50%.

 

Oliver Lampret: One professional argued that pressure in industry is indeed significantly higher compared to academia, especially concerning responsibilities towards your team and staff.

Stefan Schünemann: One guest revealed how research in the chemical industry is different from the academia: Industry’s major focus is on product development rather than research.

III. What working for the industry looks like

Yetsedaw A. Tsegaw: You should be ready to work in a team and perhaps travel worldwide. Thus you’ll have to deal with international colleagues, different cultures and habits. For example, one guest recalled going to southern Italy for an appointment at 9:30 AM, only to be able to meet the other person five hours later than planned!

Oliver Lampret: A position in industry involves more responsibilities and excellent expertise, but tasks and activities may vary a lot within the same job: From very difficult projects to organize the bus tour for the annual outing, which can be quite relaxing.

Stefanie Tecklenburg: The career path you can follow is not as fixed as it might have been in former times. Besides, working conditions have changed tremendously over the last decades: While there used to be strict working hours, flexible working time and half positions are now frequent. Thus, a meaningful combination of working and family life can be much easier to accomplish than before – today, also fathers are going on parental leave in big companies. Equal opportunity may still be an issue in only few companies, fortunately.

 IV. Small vs. large companies

Stefan Schünemann: I was startled to learn how many small/medium enterprises and startups in the Ruhr area are desperately looking for well-trained scientists. Certainly, working in a rather large company has its pros: A good salary, career prospects, and a good reputation for example. However, small to medium enterprises offer unique advantages that may lack in a DAX listed company: A familiar atmosphere; the possibility to make an impact and be personally rewarded; an atmosphere filled with gumption and enthusiasm.

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Stefan Schünemann received a BSc in Chemistry from RUB and a MSc from the MPI für Kohlenforschung at Mülheim an der Ruhr. At the MPI, he’s currently a PhD in the group of Dr. Tüysüz, working on the nanostructuring of heterogeneous catalysts for biomass conversion and of organometal halide perovskites for solar cell applications. He would estimate his probability to remain in the academia in ten years to be 5%.

V. Becoming an entrepreneur

Stefanie Tecklenburg:  It seems to me that entrepreneurship calls for a certain state of mind. This includes the will to work hard, being tough, confident and direct, but at the same time light-hearted, positive and open. Contacting people who have raised their own business is a good step to gain first-hand advice and potentially help.

Dennis Pache: A guest stressed that fear of failure should not stop you from pursuing your own ideas – something everyone should be used to from their own PhD studies. Actually, even a failed business idea can still make a good addition to one’s résumé since it shows ambition and skills like leadership and organization. The most important thing when trying to found your own business is not the initial idea. A good idea can still lead nowhere if it is approached in the wrong way. It’s a solid execution that matters, for it almost always guarantees some degree of success. I also got surprised to learn how many subsidies are available, and how comparatively easy it is to get funding in contrast to academia. Sums in the 6 to 7-digit range do not seem to be unusual for middle sized businesses.

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Dennis Pache was born in Germany. He acquired a BSc and a MSc at RUB. He’s currently a PhD student at RUB, investigating solvent behavior in the vicinity of charged surfaces via polarizable force fields in the group of Prof. R. Schmid. He would rate his probability to remain in the academia in ten years to be 5%.

 

VI. Your mindset towards the next job application

Yetsedaw A. Tsegaw: If your “dream job” is in industry, you may think that your current studies are too specific for it. Yet, they come with other skills: How to do independent research, how to find the right reference, how to deal with methods/instruments, how to solve scientific problems, etc. You’ll have a better shot to your “dream job” if you tell the company why your scientific achievements are useful and what problems you can solve.

Stefanie Tecklenburg: First, make up your mind on what you really want and then, when applying, try to establish early connections with the target company. For example, you can call the contact person in the job advertisement to get more information; or you can talk to a company representative – at the Kaminabend, but also at conferences and fairs – even before a job ad is made public; working in industry labs for your research both brings you forward with your research and allows you to stand out from the crowd in way more detail than any job interview ever could, giving you a head-start for job openings. However, you should also not forget to ask yourself if a company suits you, your abilities and needs.

 VII. Important skills for your CV

Oliver Lampret: A “modern scientist” should do good research, but also have a broader spectrum of skills. Before all, one should be able to present himself/herself in a special way.

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Oliver Lampret was born in Germany and achieved both a BSc and a MSc in Biochemistry at RUB. He he is working as a PhD at RUB in the group of Prof. T. Happe. His work focuses on studying the catalytic properties of the [FeFe]-hydrogenase from a green alga for a possible industrial application in the future as an alternative renewable energy source. His goal after the PhD is to work in the industry.

Stefan Schünemann: Companies are not much interested in your scientific background but rather in the skills you acquired by working on your project – one should emphasize them in the application letter. We were given a very simple recipe: “Be different”.

Stefanie Tecklenburg: Tolerance towards frustration and the ability to learn are key skills on the market – you don’t get a PhD without them. Thus, it’s basically irrelevant if you already know the techniques demanded or not. You’ll always be able to learn the ropes quickly.

Dennis Pache: People with a wide spectrum of skills, especially in the digital field, and the willingness to try something new will have it easier to find their place in the shifting industry landscape. It is seldom mentioned how much important social and interpersonal skills are.

VIII. Life after all – and after a PhD

Oliver Lampret: I was kind of reassured to hear that “As a PhD you are in the middle of you 20s, an age where you are stressed the most. But the older you get, the more relaxed you will become, especially on your work”. Another striking statement came from a guest who founded a company and later became professor at the age of 58: “Be ready to change and, most importantly, to expect changes in life, because they keep you powerful and fit”.


Photos of the Kaminabend

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The Ombudsman and the art of settling scientific disputes.

Your boss has just thrown you out of the paper you have worked so hard in the last months. Or you accidentally discovered that your colleague has copied the results from another article. Or maybe your student has fabricated the data of his/her thesis and also the paper that followed is not immaculate. What should you do? Shut up and bite your fingernails, forever? Confront him/her, make a scene? Go to the police?

Actually, there’s another move you may opt for. Many European countries have set up a body dedicated to handle scientific misconduct. The German ‘Ombudsman für die Wissenschaft’ was established by the DFG in 1999. Based in Berlin, the board is made up by three scientists, which dutifully listen to other scientists’ stories of misconduct and ponder if it’s appropriate to further investigate and take action. One member of the board, Prof. Dr. Joachim Heberle from the Free University of Berlin, presented the Ombudsman activities at the 52nd Symposium on Theoretical Chemistry (STC2016) ‘Chemistry in Solution’ in RUB last September.

What misconduct means.

Heberle has a friendly and gentle approach, yet going to the Ombudsman is not an easy step. First of all, you have to be aware of the problem, recognize it. The case of Jan Hendrick Schoen is an extreme example of misconduct. Schoen, a German physicist working on molecular transistors at the Bell Labs, US, falsified and fabricated data in more than 20 articles appearing in prestigious peer reviewed journals. His acts were discovered by fellow physicists that noticed data anomalies, such as identical noise traces through various publications.

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Fig. 1: The German Ombudsman inquiries a broad spectrum of issues ©Ombudsman-für-die-Wissenschaft

Fortunately, data fabrication is a pretty rare issue for the Ombudsman –in 2015, only 3% of the inquiries dealt with it. More popular disputes involve plagiarism, authorship conflicts, inadequate mentorship, even mere scientific disagreement (see Fig. 1). The DFG has drafted a series of recommendations for safeguarding good scientific practice. For example, scientists should adhere to absolute honestly and should keep track of primary data used in publications (i.e. raw data, probes) for at least ten years! Authors should bear full joint responsibility for a paper content, including the raw data. And supervisors should offer adequate, fair support to early career researchers.

Becoming a whistle blower

Once you present your case to the Ombudsman, you become a whistle blower. The Ombudsman is bound to confidentiality, fairness and transparency. “Of course this is a narrow path”, admits Heberle, ”to combine confidentiality and transparency is not always straightforward”. The whistle blower is protected by confidentiality, but self-identification is paramount to guarantee truthfulness – anonymity is allowed only in the most severe cases.

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Fig. 2: The number of inquiries in Germany since 1999 ©Ombudsman-für-die-Wissenschaft

The Ombudsman then evaluates the motivations of the whistle blower, the allegations to the defendant and the justification to follow up. Seeking an ad-hoc reviewer to scrutinize a publication, and contacting the defendant to ask for his/her take on the issue are also steps the investigator may take. Finally, a decision is made: “These are highly emotional issues, but we try as much as possible to moderate, to find a compromise that satisfies both parties”, said Heberle. Only in very severe cases, when the scientific misconduct might have legal consequences, the Ombudsman hands an inquiry over to a local university commission or to the German Research Foundation – which in the end may decide about sanctions.

The scientists going to the Ombudsman.

If you worry about being alone seeking justice or compensation through the Ombudsman, rest reassured. The number of inquiries for scientific misconduct is increasing since the dawn of the German Ombudsman (Fig. 2). “This doesn’t mean that the scientific enterprise is becoming more prone to misconduct”, explained Heberle, “only that the system we established works”.

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The scientific groups seeking advice by the Ombudsman ©Ombudsman-für-die-Wissenschaft

But who are the candidate whistle blowers? Biomedical scientists constitute the most numerous group seeking help by the Ombudsman, but inquiries have covered the whole spectrum of scientific disciplines (Fig. 3). Misconduct is a stumbling block in the scientific journey that can happen anywhere, anytime. Hard science is not immune from it, but the participants of the STC2016 conference were relieved to hear that hardly any case has been related to theoretical chemistry.


About the author

EF3Emiliano Feresin is a science journalist, currently responsible for the outreach activities within the RESOLV cluster at RUB. Born and raised in Italy, he holds a Diploma and a PhD degree in chemistry. Driven by an innate curiosity for scientific stories, he completed his education with a master degree in science communication. Along the path he has written for outlets like Nature and Chemistry World and learned that the reader has always the last word.