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.

tsegaw

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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Great Science in the Middle of Nowhere

 My research stay at Purdue University, IN, USA
by Laura J.B. Wollny

In Spring 2015, the RESOLV Graduate School Solvation Science gave me the opportunity for a two month research stay in the laboratory of Prof. Zwier at Purdue University in Indiana, USA, to advance my PhD project. I reached Indiana at the end of February, and while in Bochum the spring was already arriving, the winter still clung to the midwest with snow and freezing cold. Luckily, all my new colleagues and staff at the university were the total opposite of the weather and gave me a warm welcome. During my stay, they supported and helped me a lot and I really had the feeling of being a part of the group and the university.

My research project was the investigation of two small biomolecules (cyclic tetrapeptides mimicking β-turns) that had been synthesized in Bochum by another GSS PhD student. Two small samples of these fine white powders were shipped from Bochum to the US in the middle of February but were held up in Customs at the Detroit airport. So my first task was to get my samples released, which took almost three additional weeks and numerous calls by my US lab colleague. With six weeks left before returning I finally began my investigation.

Purdue_University

Purdue University


Science Zone

Purdue_instrument

Instrument I used.

My experiment consist in bringing the small molecules into a vacuum chamber by ablating them from a graphite rod with a laser beam and then measuring the wavelengths at which they absorb the light of a second laser beam. By comparing the absorption spectrum with calculated spectra we can deduce the three dimensional structure – the conformation – of the molecule, which aides in determining the function of biomolecules. The main reason for my stay at Purdue University was that they have lasers there that produce light in another wavelength regime than the ones we have in our lab. With the information from the additional wavelength regions we can determine the conformation more unambiguously. Apart from the laser source, the apparatus at Purdue looks quite similar to our instrument in Bochum and a lot of the components are the same. Therefore, I quickly felt familiar with the set-up.


The two small towns where Purdue is located are Lafayette and West Lafayette and they are in the middle of nowhere in Indiana. Their advertisement claim is “Two great cities, one great university,” which is, as I think, way better than Bochum’s “UniverCity.” Unfortunately, this is the only thing that the home of Purdue is ahead of Bochum: there is not much to do and to experience in Lafayette/West Lafayette except the university. The weekend highlights were taking part in a 5k charity run with the whole group and doing trips to Indianapolis and Chicago with two really nice colleagues. With my accommodation I also had some luck: a student from Prof. Zwier’s lab came to Bochum in my place, which meant we could interchange our flats and office places. My new place was located directly off Lafayette’s Main Street, in a nice old building with high ceilings and decorated affectionately with all kinds of American sports memorabilia. The good things about living in a quieter area are that even on Main Street nothing can disturb your sleep on a Friday night and not much can distract you from research.

I had no time after the three-week delay in obtaining my samples, especially because the project was more demanding than I had thought and I had to try all kinds of conditions to get good absorption spectra. In the end, I worked until the last possible minute and I wished I could have stayed just one more week. But it was time to go home and I really almost made it to measure in all the wavelength regions as planned in the beginning. Of course I was happy to see my family and friends here in Bochum and to return to Bochum itself, but I have to say that I really enjoyed working in the Zwier lab. The atmosphere was great, Prof. Zwier was always considerate and his team a great help. It was a wonderful experience, I would do it again and I can recommend it to everyone who has the chance.

Link to Graduate School Solvation Science

Link to Purdue University


About the Author

Laura WollnyLaura Wollny was born in 1987 in Essen. She obtained her M. Sc. in Chemistry at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum and her B. Sc. in Chemistry from the Universität Duisburg-Essen. Currently she works on her PhD thesis about IR spectroscopy on isolated molecules and their clusters in the group of Prof. Havenith.