Choosing to study biology is a decision made out of passion. Unfortunately, considering the job market today, passion sounds pretty romantic. As Master’s or PhD students we work really hard to set up experiments and to get our work done whilst constantly trying to improve ourselves and become the scientists that we have always wanted to be. Whenever people ask what I am doing, they are surprised by how much effort it takes to do research – and, honestly, they have no idea! We, as daily lab workers, know how much time it takes to prove a putative simple biologic question, and sometimes we even fail to do that. But, even though our path is paved with failures most of the time, we still hold on to our projects and try again – every day.
You get what you deserve – or not?
This short abstract of what my and other PhD students’ lives look like makes me wonder what is next in line for all the upcoming “Dr. rer nats” and “PhDs” in the world. Personally, I think hard and dedicated work should always be rewarded but I also have the feeling that the world does not always work like this. During one’s PhD studies, almost every hour is spent in the lab and then, three to five years later one suddenly finds oneself at a cliff facing a completely new life – the life after school and university. Because this brand new world already sounds frightening without acrophobia, I was happy to once again talk to my former colleague and friend Dr. Melanie Flick, whose career has progressed ahead of mine and is filled with valuable experiences. Lucky for us, she agreed to share some of them.
PhD – curse or blessing?
Melanie studied Biology in Kaiserslautern and then concentrated her studies on Human and Molecular Biology at Saarland University. “I worked in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at Saarland University as a student and also later on during my Diploma thesis. After that I did my PhD at the research centre caesar in Bonn while being funded by a scholarship of the NRW International Research School “Biotech-Pharma”, Melanie explains. But her path in science started even earlier when she worked as a technical assistant in the central animal testing facility at the University of Mainz. “To be honest, I studied Biology and then also did a PhD in this field to improve my job chances later on. From what I know today I would say that this was a true misunderstanding.” Why is that? After one and a half years doing a PhD Melanie realised that she did not want to pursue a career in academia. She spent some time as a Postdoc at caesar to finish her project but had already started to apply for positions during the writing phase of her PhD. “I first of all applied for a position as a school teacher and wanted to step in as a replacement teacher”, Melanie remembers. But as her PhD defence was due, she had to first finish one thing before starting the next one.
Applying for jobs – over and over again
After successfully defending her thesis, the application marathon revived: “Back then it was very difficult to admit that the path that I had chosen so far was not the right one. I had to think about my real interests and talents so I took my time and figured things out. I had already attended one or two seminars during my PhD to find out which of my personal skills might turn into relevant qualifications. This helped me a lot”, Melanie adds. Still, she ended up with a shocking number of around 100 job applications without being hired. During her time of unemployment, Melanie received the chance to participate in an advanced training at the mibeg-Institute of Medicine to become a Clinical Research Assistant. “In my group we were 18 biologists holding a PhD title and several of them even brought Postdoc experience of two years or more. All those people were unemployed. The course is held four times a year – so think about unemployment rates of biologists yourselves!” During this training, participants get the chance to do an internship in a company and Melanie considered the German Drug Regulation Agency, BfArM, in Bonn as the right choice. “Working at BfArM pushed my applications and I suddenly got invited to job interviews in the field of Regulatory Affairs much more often than before”, Melanie explains. She was then offered a job as a Clinical Trial Assistant that she mainly took to escape unemployment and gain ground in this business field.
Sometimes, there’s light at the end of the tunnel
But, sometimes the next chance is just around the corner: After being in her new position for only six weeks, Melanie got the chance to work as a Regulatory Affairs Manager at betapharm, the company she currently works for. Recognized as one of the leading generic companies in Germany, betapharm Arzneimittel GmbH was founded in 1993 in Augsburg and distributes high-quality generics. “It was another tough but right decision to move 500 km to southern Germany and start working at a German Affiliate of an international company. Now I can say that it was really, really worth it”, Melanie smiles. Since 2006, betapharm belongs to Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories, a global pharmaceutical company headquartered in Hyderabad, India.
What was it like to be interviewed for a job like that? Besides studying the current training books on job applications and job interviews, Melanie was able to collect information about the company and the job field. “As scientists we learn to ask the right questions. I think this is one of our strongest qualities and we can make use of that when it comes to a job interview or to the job itself. Get in contact with the new colleagues in the office and, most of all, be honest!” Melanie points out.
Working intercontinentally: From Germany to India
So, what is it like to work as a Regulatory Affairs Manager? “Our department is responsible for submitting marketing authorisation applications and the regulatory maintenance of generic medicinal products in Germany and Europe. I love the interaction with people from different countries and calling my colleagues in India as well as in Switzerland belongs to my daily business.” Besides that, Melanie and her colleagues are also responsible for patient information texts like package leaflets and the summary of product characteristics. “My normal working routine might sound boring because I am face-to-face with my computer for 90% of the day, but in fact it is pretty cool to work “behind the scenes”. In March I visited my colleagues in India, a trip that strengthened our collaboration a lot.” What Melanie’s path truly shows is that being open-minded about the future is the road to success. “Do not get disappointed if it takes some time until you find a job that suits you well. Also consider jobs that do not look ideal at first glance because sometimes you might miss a good opportunity”, says Melanie. In Bonn, the support for scientists during their job search is quite good and there are many possibilities to start networking locally (Links: Agentur für Arbeit Bonn, IITB, BFB), or worldwide (Xing, LinkedIn).
What is next in line?
Now that Melanie’s business career is cut and dried, what are her current plans for the future? “I would like to grow in the field I am working in right now because it takes at least five years to be considered experienced in it. I also want to improve my skills at the intersections of my working field, for example on topics such as Supply Chain Management as well as Launch and Quality Management because my department has to deal with both. I could imagine being in a team leading position one day.” The route to the top might sometimes be rocky but asking for more is always the basis for improvement, sometimes including questioning oneself. When I asked Melanie if she had any idols, she mentioned her former physician and friend who started out as an architect, then started a family, and finally became a medical doctor with her own practice. Women like her truly symbolise what is achievable if one works hard enough whilst still enjoying it. Honestly, this reminds me a lot of all the hard working PhD students that I began this article with. Is there any good advice? “Try to explore your personal skills which are often (and wrongly!) degraded to “soft skills” and find out what kind of job is good for you. When the road gets rough – only stop to change your shoes!”