How a snail became a lion – Interview about PhD and industry experience

As the wine and the cheese were getting low, and the candles were burning down I was learning more and more about my friend’s (who wished to remain anonymous) half-year-long experience as a consultant in a company specializing in business consultancy in the health care field. Her job is to collect information (internet search, phone calls, field visits etc.) about a given health care topic. This information is later presented to the client, for example, a pharma company, which will adjust their focus and/or investments based on the provided data.

Because sometimes I can be brutal but altruistic I treated that conversation as an orange, squeezed the tasty juice out and poured it on the computer screen for you (the screen survived, but letter-shaped stains remained and you can see them below).

 

What was the reason that made you decide to go astray from the university career path? Was it a sudden strike of enlightenment or was it rather a slow process of maturation?

The decision to leave the university career path was a slow process of maturation (image from colourbox.com)

 When I defended my PhD, I was actually still looking to stay in science. I was applying in different European countries and going to the interviews. However, since I was lacking my first authorship (still in progress), I wasn’t able to apply for money from DFG to go abroad for the post-doc.

So, it was a slow process. It wasn’t a sudden decision. I applied for various positions always keeping in mind that I would like to be able to use my scientific background and knowledge. I looked in the medical, academic research (immunology, virology, oncology…), pharmaceutical companies, different consultancies, small firms, regulatory affairs etc. And I found this job in Cologne as a health care business consultant.

 

When you were looking for the job offers, what got you interested in your company?

 I was applying randomly to companies that interested me. And the company I interviewed for had offices in Europe, Asia and US. It is quite common to start in an office and after some time switch to another one in a different country. That was a big plus.

Another plus was that it was a pharma/healthcare/life sciences company.  And the business aspect was also nice, because business means money. Seriously.

And, actually, it was one of the first companies who replied to my applications.

 

How long did it take?

 It was unusually fast. I applied and three weeks later I got an email from the company’s headquarters to fill in a special application form. Then I had to go through four rounds of interviews. One every week. Three days after the last interview they made me a salary offer, and I agreed.

I was doing a management course in Cologne for five months (image from colourbox.com)

 

So they really wanted you?

 Yes, they said that they really would like me. They also agreed that I start few months later because I was doing a management course in Cologne – a five-month-long course of lectures and interactive workshops daily.

 

Would you recommend it?

 Absolutely! To anyone. Also to the colleagues and friends who don’t know what to do. Five months is a lot, but you get enough spare time to look for a job. And they actually actively help you to write a CV and cover letter and to focus on what is most suitable for you. Although you are in a group of around 20 people they support you individually. And the teachers are specialists with long experience.

The course is paid by the employment agency. They even pay your bus fare every day. They would also pay the rent of a room in Cologne if necessary.

Besides, the company offering this course has several other courses which they provide to people wanting to specialize further.

 

Going back to the company where you work, what do you think convinced them that you are the one?

 I´m not entirely sure, but I think having a PhD degree was a big benefit. Most of my colleagues here also have a PhD and the company knows we can work very independently. We know how to solve problems, because we have been solving them for the past 4 years probably.

I am also fluent in English, which is another benefit in this company. We have an international consultant office with many international clients. Not all the consultants speak German in our office. The communication language is English. Also with the clients.

The scientific background was also important. We have consultants either with business background or scientific background. When you are working in healthcare and pharma, a scientific background is a great advantage.

Besides that, maybe my outgoing personality. I don’t know. I think they like happy people who smile a lot.

 

How would you describe the atmosphere there?

It’s very positive. Of course, there is always something that is not perfect. But there are a lot of nice things that get organized for us: team events, wine tastings, game nights, Christmas parties etc.

 

Are there any job-specific funny situations that you could share?

Not so far, but maybe when you have to call people (it’s called cold calling), and they say: who are you? why are you calling me? what company do you work for? It’s like… oh God! It’s kind of embarrassing. When you do cold calling, sometimes the response from the other side is… it’s interesting. Let’s put it that way.

 

What do you enjoy about your work and what is still a challenge?

I enjoy client interaction. I enjoy meeting people and getting to know stuff I don’t know. Like when you have to become a specialist in a specific subject in a set timeframe. It is very challenging but also hugely interesting. It’s cool. It’s like: yeah! That’s what I want to do!

 

Do you have sources to help you become a specialist?

 Yes and no. Google is your best friend, so to say. Seriously. You can always ask your colleagues how they approach a topic. We have also access to subscription websites which we can use. We have a company intranet where you can put in questions and read about previous projects. You can call people of high interests (so called key opinion leaders). And during a 30 min conversation they are able to give you an overview that would have taken you a full day of google research. You have to find them, but once you’ve found them… they are usually happy to talk about their project. Their “baby”.

It takes a certain amount of courage to call them, to get past the front desks, and secretaries to actually talk to these external experts.

 

So what gives you the courage?

 Nothing really. I guess, you are either built for it or not. But your colleagues are always very supportive and give you tips and tricks to be more successful.

At the end of the day I tell myself: whoever I’m going to call, even if it is the president of United States, we are all only humans (image from colourbox.com)

 

But do you take a deep breath to calm down or something like that before calling?

 I always think that everyone is a human. At the end of the day I tell myself: whoever I’m going to call, even if it is the president of United States, we are all only humans. What more can he do than say no? I mean, sometimes you have a bad, depressing day, because you do a lot of calling and they are all unpleasant. But sometimes you have a day when you call 3 people and they are super happy to talk to you. So it really depends. It is very interesting. It’s positive. It’s still a challenge to call. But it is a positive challenge.

 

What else is still a challenge?

Sometimes the time you get for a project. Time can be very tight. You have a specific amount of time for gathering information. You actually have to stop after this certain amount of time and be happy and confident enough with what you’ve found. During the PhD often you just dig and dig and dig. And that’s why it takes you like 4 to 5 years for your PhD thesis – because you can always dig deeper and deeper to get more details. There you can’t. Otherwise they would be losing money, because you would get so interested and involved, you would be still digging. There, after a certain amount of time of digging, your time schedule says: “No. This is done”. And sometimes you feel like you didn’t really get 100% of the info. But you only need to get an overview.

 

If you compare your current job to your PhD time: what is better and what is worse?

 I can see a success – this is better (laughs). When you have a meeting and the client is happy. When you get a positive feedback from the project manager, from your colleagues, from whoever.

Also, we sometimes have short projects. Short – compared to PhD thesis (laughs). Between six weeks to three months is normal. Six months is rather a large project.

And you have so many projects throughout your career, even if you get an odd feedback which is not entirely satisfying, the next project is already starting and you will have a positive feedback then. So it’s different to the situation when you have only one project and someone tells you it’s crap (Like your PhD, lol). Even if you have a very busy project running, you know it’s just going to be for a few weeks. With your PhD is like OMG I’m going to be stuck here for years still.

What is worse is as I said: even if you want to dig more, because you are so interested, you can’t. This is my scientific head probably.

So, actually, nothing is really bad.

 

Given the job you have now: what would you have done the same and what would you have done differently during your PhD?

I would still work with the same passion as I did at the beginning. I still love science. I love the field of biomedicine and immunology. It’s super interesting and it holds so much potential for everyone who is doing their PhD. I would have still gone for a PhD. It was a good decision.

But, I would have been more pushy to finish my PhD earlier. For my industry career it was too long. Back then I wasn’t aware that I was going to leave science. I just should have called it “done” earlier.

But besides being more pushy and finishing earlier I would have not done anything differently. No. I really enjoyed it.

 

Fun question time (just in case the readers of the blog are not very serious): if you imagined your PhD time and your company time as animals what would they be?

 Well, at first I had no idea how to answer this question. Now it just came to my mind, during my PhD I was like a snail, or like these reptiles that just sit in the sun, or like a reindeer in the spotlight. Can’t move. I think snails are probably very happy being snails. They don’t know any different. My PhD at the end was a never ending story (I will get there.. I will get there.. One day..)

What am I now in my company? I am like a lion or a leopard. They can be very fast, efficient and elegant, but often they sit quietly and observe. I just wanna see how things go before attacking (laughs).

 

Any last message to the world of PhD students?

And don’t let people tear you apart in your first interviews. You can do everything! (image from colourbox.com)

 I would like to encourage people who really want to leave science. It doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t go back. If you want to stay in science, stay in science. But if you don’t, don’t waste your time on a postdoc. Be courageous. Get yourself help in finding a perfect position. Just do what your mind feels like doing! You can do everything. With a PhD you have a different approach and you know how to solve problems very well. You are worth so much! And don’t let people tear you apart in first interviews. Don’t let that happen. Good luck!

 

 

 


featured image from colourbox.com

Author: Kasia Jobin

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