088: Ben Hartwig Tips and Tricks

This is the second episode of Dr. Ben Hartwig, in which he will talk about resilience and will share tips on how to stay resilient and how to deal with stress.

In his first podcast (#85) Hartwig shared his story and the lessons he learned during his PhD.  So if you have not listened to his first podcast, don’t hesitate to do so.

Ben is a German scientist, entrepreneur and actor. He studied genetics at the Max-Planck Institute in Cologne, specialized in Epigenetics and toured with Germany’s biggest improv theater, Springmaus, for the past six years. He has performed, directed and created close to a thousand shows on five continents. Three years ago, he founded his own company Neuroblitz to combine science and applied improvisation in workshops, speeches and seminars.

In this episode, he shares four relevant tips.

The first tip is to surround ourselves with people who believe in us. The second one is to ask better questions. The third tip is to see the things for what they really are and the last one is Ecotherapy and to be our own doctor.

To become more resilient we can make changes on three different levels – environmental changes, cognitive changes and habitual changes”.

Ben Hartwig

To learn more about Ben’s tips, please listen to this episode. If you also have a story to be told or if you know someone, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Enjoy Listening!


Hello and welcome to PhD career stories, the podcast about career path inside and outside academia. I’m Viral Panchal and it is my pleasure to introduce Ben Hartwig. Ben is a German scientist, entrepreneur and actor. He studied genetics at the Max Planck Institute in Cologne, specialized in epigenetics and toured with Germany’s biggest improv theater, Springmaus, for the past six years. He has performed, directed and created close to a thousand shows on five continents. Three years ago, he founded his own company Neuroblitz to combine science and applied improvisation in workshops, speeches and seminars. I hope you will enjoy this episode of PhD career stories.

Worried, overwhelmed, not sure if the struggle will pay off? 

Here, I want to introduce you to the topic of resilience. It is a quality that you can train and grow over time. Resilience helps in dealing with stress and overwhelm to bounce back to a happier and healthier pursuit of your goals in science. 

Being in science can be demanding. Stress and overwhelm are very common amongst PhDs, Post-Docs and PIs. The latest big PhD survey in Nature in 2017 and in the Paper of Katja Levecque et al. about work organization and mental health problems of PhD students paint a fairly clear picture. 

PhD students are 2.4 times more likely to get mental health problems than the highly educated in the general population. The main predictors for that are job demands, your family-work relationship, job control and inspirational leadership (Levecque et al., 2017). 

If there are constant high demands, an unbalanced family-work relationship, the lack of control for what you do at work and a lack of inspirational leadership, your nervous system will be challenged. After a while, you’re at risk of losing control. Each of us has a different tolerance for stress, but even the strongest tree will fall, if the storms are too strong. 

Instead of just dealing with the stress and resisting as much as possible there is another way. Storms might break trees, but they’ll have a harder time with bamboo or grass. Resilience is the power to bounce back from adversity. You feel the stress, but it does not break you, instead, you learn to let it pass. What makes us resilient and how can we use it in science?

To become more resilient we can make changes on three different levels – environmental changes, cognitive changes and habitual changes. Meaning, how we prepare ourselves to feel less stress, how we think about our challenges and how we regenerate and recharge after a period of stress. 

One thing we can do is to work on our networks and connections to other people. The truth is that PhD students are hired to become experts. To become the person that knows the most in the world about a particular niche of a subject. Specialization creates loneliness, if the wrong system is in place. Studies such as the one conducted by Emmy Werner on the Hawaiian island Kauai show that we need at least one person in our network that tells us that we’re good enough and that we’re able when things are not going well. 

We need to remember that great discoveries are rarely achieved alone. And we all depended on the help of others to get where we are now. Watson had his Crick, Daniel Kahneman had his friend Amos Tversky and Einstein was lucky to have a wife smarter than him. So, my first tip is to surround yourself with people who believe in you, even though your work might not be successful yet. 

You can find those people and change your environment by asking better questions. 

This is my second suggestion, seriously, ask better questions. A lot of people told me that it wouldn’t be possible to reduce my working hours as a Postdoc to pursue a second career. But simple questions and a boss, who was willing to listen and saw the benefits instead of the problems helped. I could reduce my hours to 50 %, then 40 % and finally a B.Sc. student helped me in the lab before I decided to found my own company. 

There are three secrets to asking. First, observe if the person you’re asking is ready to receive your question. Second, be specific and only ask for one thing at a time and third stop talking after you’ve asked your question and wait for the response. You might not always get what you want, but then you have at least as much as you had in the first place. If you hear a no, you haven’t lost an opportunity, you’ve gained some experience. 

The third tip is about surprises. We don’t like all the surprises we encounter during our PhD. The ones we like are called gifts and the ones we don’t like are called problems. My advice to become more resilient is to not confuse a gift or a problem with your personality. This either leads to entitlement or to depression. Instead, see the things for what they really are. This way you’ll learn to develop realistic optimism instead of blind optimism or pessimism. 

My last tip is ecotherapy, which is essentially going outside to relax and recharge. I’ve met a doctor who has founded a successful burn-out clinic. He said that sometimes, when people came to him with feelings of overwhelm and worry, he would see that and he would suggest that they don’t need to take any pills. He was convinced that all the patients needed was to take a break or walk through the forest an hour a day. Research should later prove him right, but his patients just wouldn’t follow his advice.

He realized that they would take the pills though, when he wrote it on a receipt. So, he decided to change the things he would write on the receipt. He wrote things like: “Take a break 3 times a day for 10 minutes during working hours ” or “Have lunch in a park.” And when he handed the receipt to people they would start doing it. All they needed was the permission. So, my last tip is to be your own doctor and give yourself permission to relax.

Thank you very much for listening.

And that is it for another episode of PhD Career Stories. As always, you can find us on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram as well as on our webpage phdcareerstories.com.

If you like what we do please subscribe to our show on iTunes or Spotify we would love to hear from you.

Good-bye for now, we will be back with a new story in 2 weeks time.

086: Kate Evans Story

Dr Kate Evans, Founder and Director of charity called Elephants for Africa, shares her story and tell us how her passion and interests in elephants shaped her career. Kate is an award winning behavioural ecologist and conservation biologist who conducted her PhD ‘The behavioural ecology and movements of adolescent male African elephant in the Okavango Delta, Botswana’ through the University of Bristol.

With over 20 years of experience as a field biologist throughout Southern Africa on a variety of species, she has a solid understanding of the challenges of large mammal conservation, the complexities of conflict and the importance of stakeholder relationships. 

Kate is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Exeter and a member of the IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group, Elephant Specialist Advisory Group and the Gothenburg Global Biodiversity Centre.

My PhD taught me many things and amongst those was how my work could potentially influence policy. The politics of working in different environment: academia and the challenges of working with difficult characters. So diplomacy certainly helped me through my PhD and since in a conservation is not just about biology, it’s not just about elephant. It is about working with stakeholders from the ground up and from the top down, to instill policy preferably, long term policy. 

“Dr Kate Evans”

If you are curios how Kates interest shaped her career, please listen to this episode. If you also have a story to be told or if you know someone, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Enjoy Listening!


Hello, I am Kate Evans, and I am gonna apologize in advance for any background noise you may hear as I’m recording this from my tent at The Elephants for Africa research camp which is on the Boteti River in the Central District of Botswana. So whilst it’s quiet, it’s night time at the moment and we are by river and there are hippos that can make some noise. So I apologize in advance if they interrupt but otherwise it should be fairly quiet but we’ll see.

So, I am here to talk about my PhD, well my PhD led me here. I am talking to you from a tent in the middle of Botswana. So I did not set out to do a PhD, in fact far from it. Post degree that was it for me really and I’d struggled academically in school but I knew I wanted to be a field biologist, more importantly I knew I wanted to be an elephant conservationist. So I figured in spite of no valid career advice, I worked up myself that a zoology degree was the right degree for me.

And at that time in the U. K. you applied and then you also had interviews and I fell for Swansea University, which is in Wales. And I think they let me in because I didn’t get my grades at A level, they let me in on clearing, I think because I had a good interview and I think the professor saw my passion and my possibility. And for that I’m extremely grateful because as soon as I started my zoology degree I had found my path. I was really interested in it, I was passionate about it and that of course made learning a whole lot easier.

So I got my degree and did quite well really and that was it. I was off to save the world and off to save the elephants in particular. But I had some doubts about me. As I was very outdoor kid, I was quite able, I believe in camping and orienteering and all those kind of things. I didn’t know whether I could be a field biologist, you know, you have this romantic view of what a field biologist was but I was very aware that it’s going to be hard work. You’re living in remote locations a lot of time and it’s more than just the theory of being a biologist, it is learning to survive and more can be quite challenging environments.  

And so after having worked in a factory for six months, I had enough money to travel the world, except I didn’t get very far. I ended up in Africa and I pretty much stayed there. I first volunteered in Namibia and then throughout the southern African region and ending up in Botswana in 1997, gosh! That’s long time ago and fell in love with the place really.

I had lived in South Africa as a child and what I found in Botswana was, apart from a fresh air, that I didn’t feel that I was categorized as white European. I felt very welcome and they have a lot of wildlife and are very pro-conservation, so I felt that I could contribute. They also happen to be home to the largest remaining elephant population and so I felt like found my home and it was here that I wanted to do work. So I set about finding a project. And in the meantime I ended up having an opportunity to do my masters on lion parasitology. Lion parasitology, again being a field biologist, lions, everyone thinks, oh that’s great, but in reality you are collecting lion poop for a year and which is less great but very interesting. It’s amazing what you can find from poop.So I was self-funded at again Swansea university and I had the opportunity to expand that into a PhD, but again that wasn’t my passion. I didn’t set out to further my academic career through ticking boxes, what was my passion was elephants. In fact I did my masters because I realized quite early on that having an honors degree wasn’t going to be enough to get me where I wanted to be and also to earn the respect of people within wildlife departments, policy makers, etc. I 

realized that further education would better train me to be an elephant biologist and elephant conservation, but also to play amongst the stakeholders, I guess. 

So I found the place in to do my…So I came up with a project in elephant ecology up in the very north of Botswana. And off I went back to the U. K. to find a supervisor which I managed to secure at Bristol university so I had my place. And then another opportunity came along through a corporate sponsor to fund my PhD, if a component of that would be rewilding capture raised individuals. So I jumped at that chance and these were all young males and started my journey on elephant ecology and more specifically on bull elephant ecology. So I guess, moving back to the PhD, I could go on about elephants all the time but that’s not why you are listening.

For the PhD, it really was part of my journey and it gave me a platform for long term elephant monitoring, which was my focus. It’s really, I believe important when you are studying such charismatic and long lived okay selected species such as elephant. They have long term data. It is only through the long term data that you can really understand the behavioral needs met behavior ecology, which is what I am. It also gave me a platform to post PhD to set up a charity and now NGO. So charity in Wales, England and NGO in Botswana.

So my PhD taught me many things and amongst those was how my work could potentially influence policy. The politics of working in different environment: academia and the challenges of working with difficult characters. So diplomacy certainly helped me through my PhD and since in a conservation is not just about biology, it’s not just about elephant or wildlife numbers or biodiversity or ecosystems. It is about working with stakeholders from the ground up and from the top down, to instill policy preferably, long term policy so we are not just dealing for the next five or ten years but we’re looking beyond that to the next hundred, two hundred, three hundred years.

In retrospect I wish I’d appreciated the importance of relationships and networking more during my PhD. I was very closed off from spending three years in the bush in a very remote camp. It was about eight hours drive from mount. And my supervisor did come out to see me but ultimately was on my own to collect the data, to make sure I had enough data. In fact I had way too much for my PhD. Thankfully I had the right data and was able to finish it off. 

I was very closed off, three years in the bush and the culture shock was really when I came back to university. That was really challenging and no one really prepared me for that and it’s obviously very different being very independent in the bush coming that to an academic lifestyle in a busy city but I managed to cope with it. But it only took me about six months to get back into the flow of things and then it was really just heads down and getting on with it.

I had a great group to work with, lots of great postdocs and other PhDs that really added to my PhD. They really helped me get it through and make it a much better thesis. But I still wish I’d asked more questions and not just within my department but had networked outside my department. As conservation needs such a multidisciplinary approach and obviously if you are in an academic environment, there is always amazing people doing amazing stuff. So I’d really encourage people to look outside their department and look at how potentially cooperating and partnering with other universities but also other departments within the university to really strengthen the work that you’re doing. I think that would apply to most things.

I have been told many times I am a bad scientist as I didn’t think of the questions. I already had my study species and then came up with the questions. But having said that I’m not sure I could have done my PhD without my blind passion for my study species. It really is what got me through some challenging times. But the most challenging time was not getting stuck in the middle of nowhere by myself with no radio reception. We definitely didn’t have any phone reception. It wasn’t finding funding to complete my studies. It wasn’t clashing with my supervisors or fighting bushfires to save the camp where I was staying and the other tourist camp nearby. It was actually during my PhD right up, when I was back in Bristol, working hard and communicating became difficult and difficult with my supervisor.  

There was a great welfare group and there was a great welfare department within the university. And I did an online tests and tick a lot of boxes and then went to see the welfare offices and it was only then I was diagnosed with dyslexia. So it was quite a shock and within my final year of writing my PhD to then deal with being told I have a reading age of twelve-year-old and I had a huge crash of confidence and I guess in retrospect it was an imposter syndrome. I didn’t think I belong there, how was I doing a PhD, it was ridiculous (that’s the hippo). This is, I shouldn’t be doing a PhD basically…I thought I just let them say, I can’t really compete with hippos.

Amongst all the statistics in writing up and analysis, yeah, I had this massive crash of confidence and it did it was a big journey back for me to convince myself that I did deserve to be there, that I have every right to be there and I could get my PhD and that I did. 

My supervisor asked me who I wanted to be as my examiners, my internal and external examiners at the end of this long journey. I thought, well you know what, you gotta shoot for the moon and you’ll land among the stars. So I asked for Iain Douglas Hamilton, who is very famous and a real hero of mine, to put it no other way really, he’s campaigned for elephant conservation for so many years. He has an amazing research studies all over Africa and conservation work. And I asked if we could get him as my external examiner and amazingly he said yes. 

So the day of my viva came on and not only was I dealing with the nerves of defending my thesis but I was also dealing with the nerves of meeting a great man who I admire hugely. So that was a bit scary and I chose to walk into university, I thought that would calm my nerves on the big day. And it was on that journey that I was passed by a funeral entourage and that’s actually just what I needed because I realized that this was a big day for me but the world isn’t gonna stop spinning. It really didn’t matter. There were people out there who were saying goodbye to a loved one and it was just a real reality check and perspective. You know PhD is a big thing, but there’s always something more challenging that someone else is going through.

Yeah it really calmed me down. I was able to get into my thesis and after about the first ten minutes I was a blubbing idiot. I was able to calm down and I really actually enjoyed the process of talking to two great biologists. It was a real joy to have two amazing biologists in the room analyzing my thesis. So for me I’ve gone from a pure behavioral ecologist to a conservationist after ten years in the Okavango delta. So after my PhD, I set up the charity Elephants for Africa and have taken on students and continued to focus on male elephant ecology. But after 10 years in the delta we moved and relocated down to another place which is an amazing ecosystem, very very different from the delta with interesting challenges. What was very compelling to come here was the huge male population. On the time when we came here in 2012, it was just males. We now see more females coming through, but at that time it was just males. And as a male elephant biologist it was just like wow, what’s going on here.

But it also brought us to the frontline of conservation. So when I was in the delta it really was amongst the wildlife. There wasn’t any communities living by us, so I was quite excluded from the realities of communities that were living alongside wildlife trying to grow their crops, trying to survive, trying to remain safe amongst wildlife. 

And so here in the Boteti river area is a hard border on the western boundary to community lands. And so over time we built up a good working relationship with Comarca and two other villages since where we now have launched a community coexistence project in 2015 and also an education program for the local primary schools.

So I love spending time with elephants. They are my inspiration. And but perhaps the most rewarding part of my work is when I am educating, either in schools here or at least watching all amazing communities outreach or when I give public talks in the US or Europe and indeed going to schools and in the US or Europe and talk about my work. For me it’s passing on my passion in some way and if I can inspire someone, I think I’ve done a good job. And I am happy if I inspire someone. Yeah my PhD journey was a part of the bigger picture. It always was. It was a stepping stone to get me where I am today.

#086: Interview with Martin Blaser

In this podcast, Tina Persson,  the founder of PhD Career Stories has an interesting interview with  Dr. Martin Blaser, who is a postdoc coordinator and co-founder of the Max Planck PostdocNet.  Martin studied food and nutritional science in Giessen and continued his doctoral study in microbial biochemistry at the University of Marburg (2007). He continued his academic career as a postdoc and project group leader at the MPI for terrestrial Microbiology in Marburg until 2017. During this time, he also was a postdoc representative. After spending over 10 years in academia, he took his first step out of academic system and became a career coach, a postdoc coordinator at the Justus Liebig University Giessen and  a co-founder of the Max Planck PostdocNet. 

Really the problem is that you focus on the academic track and a lot of people are really having biased idea that they can stay. Which isn’t supported by the evidence in reality so much.” 

Martin Blaser

If you are curios how Martin step out of academic career and started a new career, please listen to this episode. If you also have a story to be told or if you know someone, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Enjoy Listening!


: Hello everybody this is Tina Persson, I’m the founder of PhD Career Stories. I am at the moment attending Max Planck Alumni meeting – it’s an annual meeting and it’s the fourth year – and I’m sitting here in a small rainy Berlin. It’s been a fantastic meeting though and this is the last day and it’s my pleasure to have Martin Blaser with me.

Martin Blaser, which I met at the first alumni meeting at the hotel seminars at breakfast and we have had many great discussions here. That’s just a short introduction, I think you can introduce yourself much better than I do Martin, so why don’t you tell our followers a bit more about you.

Martin: Okay thanks for the opportunity to speak up here. My name is Martin Blaser and I studied food and nutritional science in Giessen and when I was about to finish my studies I had the idea that I would like to continue as a PhD student and there I changed a little bit my scientific focus. So I did my PhD in microbial biochemistry, and purified the anaerobe enzyme system in Marburg [University of Marburg].

My idea to do a PhD was to become a professor and teach people because as I was during my studies a mentor for first year students and I really liked the atmosphere there and the things I could give to them. That’s why I was inspired to go on with an academic career.

Then when I was finishing my PhD and had my defense; the next door institute at the University of Marburg is the Max Planck Institute and they had an open call for a postdoc position and I applied there. And in my defense, there was my next boss attending, and in the end where nobody is supposed to have any questions anymore he stood up and asked me some questions about my PhD work and then he invited me for an interview and that’s how I started at the Max Planck.

There again I shifted the topics so I went from microbial biochemistry to microbial biogeochemistry and was more an environmental microbiology then. I stayed at the Max Planck for over ten years – first doing a postdoc and then I became a project group leader, I was in charge of two labs and more than six coworkers over the years and some PhD students. And then in the end of this, after ten years my supervisor retired and the whole department was closed down. I knew that way ahead and I was like okay, I’m not sure if I can continue in the scientific system. Essentially at that time I met Tina and I was looking for a coach in this regard to see what are my options. My first step out of the academic system was then to continue as a scientific manager in a way. I’m now at the University of Giessen and coordinating a postdoc program there.

Tina: Your story Martin, you share with many many scientists that you actually after finishing your PhD you stay in the academic systems. But just to go back a little bit in time, why did you start the PhD at all, do you remember that?

Martin: Yes – because I wanted to become a professor. I was not so much interested in the science part I was really much more interested in the people part – in connecting to the people and teaching them. As long as I stayed in the academic system I realized/the first thing I heard was: as a professor you have three jobs to do 1) you have the teaching 2) you have the funding and 3) you have your own science. Then I realized this is not a one third, one third, one third story but the teaching is like 5-10%, the grants is like 80% and the own science is like becoming less and less important.

Tina: Yes, that’s right.

Martin: That’s where I realized, okay, I’m not really in for all this administration. So that’s when my idea to do something else become more present. But on the other hand I stayed for over ten years in the academic system and what I liked there is that I really got a bigger and bigger picture. As a PhD student I worked on a tiny piece of science and as a postdoc I was in environmental science and it was much more complex and I needed to read much more broadly and I really enjoyed this broad picture I got there.

Tina: Yes, it’s interesting again here that you wanted to go to professorship and I think it’s very very common because some statistics shows here that the expectations that people have when they start in academia is to stay and go to professor. I think Nature when they look at the statistic 50%, maybe up to 60%/70% have an ambition to stay in academic system to become a professor. That’s not the reality, because we know that 90% need to leave academia for a career outside. I I don’t like to say an alternative career because it’s not an alternative. It’s another career path! But again just a little bit pushing you back why you did a PhD – when did you start to actually think this is not for me? You said you noticed things – but if could you look back now with the knowledge you have now – couldn’t you have figured that information out because you were thinking you wanted to be a professor and you didn’t really figure out what it takes from you to become a professor.

Martin: Actually around the transition from the university to Max Planck, so from my PhD to the postdoc, I was not only applying for the postdoc position at Max Planck but I was also at that point in time really considering to start my own business for the first time and do some kind of training, my own seminars things like this. It was more oriented to nutrition because I had the background there. When I then started at the Max Planck I think it was just because it was an easy option to stay in science.

That’s what I now face for a lot of people I talked to as a postdoc is that many of them chose academic career because it’s really easy to get positions there because it’s huge market and you’re well prepared and you don’t need to change a lot on your CV or on your own habits because you already know a little bit about the academic system. So that’s why it’s convenient to continue in science.

I took the convenient way and actually I had a rather rough start at the Max Planck, I was really unsure for the first three or four years if I wanted to continue with science. I didn’t publish anything in this time because I really changed my scientific topic and was starting all over again and then I got my first result and I didn’t trust them. So it really took me five years to convince myself to trust my own result because there were conflicting with previous published data. I need it enough evidence to be sure that this is real and then I started to publish. In the end, I finished with 13 papers in ten years so it’s quite okay. But It really took me awhile to get in the system deep enough to really hold me there.

Then the more I became acquainted or habitualized to the academic system I lost kind of the idea that I wanted to do my own training. I became fascinated with the science more and more. Then when I was at the point where I knew okay this science here is not going to continue because my supervisor is retiring, I was more or less remembering my old story and now I did a training as a coach and I try to implement coaching ideas in my postdoc coordination thing. I have the idea that in a few years time I may have a second start again and doing something else out of academia.

Tina: That pushes us to the coaching thing here because coaching is pretty new within academia. It‘s been used for a longtime in industry and leadership training and self-development training, team training, communication training – it’s been going on for long in the industry if you look there! That’s because they need to be very efficient at teams. The coaching concept for you, I remember when I met you and we did some coaching together, I was very surprised because I learned to know a new Martin – so could you share a little bit about coaching? What that is for you because you coach yourself now but what coaching actually meant for you?

Martin: Yes my feeling was I was quite resistant to accept help so I had the picture of the lone rider, the cowboy in the sunset doing everything on his own. I think this is quite common in science that you’re having your project and you are the expert there and you don’t need any other expert there. And then you think and you’re also the expert for your own career and you don’t need any help. 

For me, I was really looking for several years what to do next and I could not really get a handle on why it was so difficult for me. I was sure I didn’t want to continue with science and then I was looking at industry and I was like industry is just not my route –  for me as a microbiologist pharma would have been a choice – but all these pharma ideas were like really strange for me. So I was like this is an obvious option but it doesn’t feel right. I could not connect why this doesn’t feel right from me. 

Then I was like okay I’m somehow stuck and I need somebody helping me to overcome my own resistance and this is something where I experienced that coaching is really helpful – to help you reflect and reframe your own ideas and help you to see your blind spots. And sometimes it’s also only holding the space for you that you can explore yourself in a different way, which you cannot if you don’t have the boundaries of a partner. It’s really hard for me to describe but it’s an experience I have that if I have somebody sitting next to me who’s listening to me and helping me to reflect on my situation this is really helping me to understand myself better and really helping me also to connect to this why does it feel strange.

It was like the logic: My head was always really clear that it would be an option, and my stomach was – no it’s not an option!  – and to get this connected was really hard.

Tina: I agree with that because I was in the exact same situation that I knew everything best myself. But when I met my coach she said to me “Tina you have to connect your brain with your stomach and heart because it’s disconnected”. You think you can think, you know, it’s like you’re solving problems with yourself but your problems they are connected with the holistic thinking and it helps a lot to talk about feelings but we, scientists we are not trained to talk about feelings.

Martin: Yeah we are expert in the head.


That’s sometimes becomes a problem because we’re then so focused on trying to find the solution by using our brains and I think a lot of problems don’t have a brain solution that’s my experience now and that was interesting to discover.

Tina: I remember we did an exercise where we were running. I was running in Sweden.

Martin: That’s the best thing I ever did!

Tina: You were running in Germany and you said something happened I don’t know what it was but something happen to the next session.

Martin: The exercise was, I was kind of stuck and we were at a dead end and then you said okay maybe you just stand up and jog a little. I was like: “What the !!!? I said I should now stand up and jog? What should that change yeah!?” and then I did it and then I realized how moving the body and how funny it feels to stay in the lab because I was in the lab at that time.

It was like really awkward but it did something with my body and I really started to laugh. That changed something in me and then I could be present in a different way.

Tina: You were present in a different way. We started to laugh, you remembered in the lab.

Now I know that you are a coach yourself, What you gonna do with it?

Martin: I think my hope is that I can help people to overcome their own blind spots a little bit better and to reflect themselves in a new way. Essentially, I think the core is to turn to the big question who am I a little bit differently and I think a coach is a person who can really help you reflecting on this. My coaching has to do a lot with the inner processes and I know there are other coaching which are doing more outside processes. But I realized from myself that this is a bigger help to start with the inner and that’s what I try to bring to the world with my coaching.

Tina: Considering that you are a PhD, been in academia for very long, it’s logical that you’re going to work with academic professionals.

Martin: This is my first target group – I see the advantage that I really could connect to that situation. The disadvantage for me is that I could connect to the situation and it’s really difficult not to come up with my own solution.

Tina: Yes, that’s right!

Martin: But to give the client or the coachees the room to find their own solutions. This is what coaching is for me to meet somebody at the eye level. I’m the expert for the process and the other person is the expert for the problem and is also the expert for the solution and my job is to help them explore the problem so much that they can find their own solutions and not my ones.

This is sometimes really difficult when you’re really inside and know – yes, i lived exactly the same! – and here is my solution. It’s tricky to not go and give advice to somebody.

Tina: I think that’s very general to the coaching in general. It’s so easy to fall into the trap to actually advice. We have that dialogue here at the Max Planck you know what’s the difference between mentorship, coaching and advisor and career coaching is maybe something in between advising and coaching.

Martin: For me there’s a clear difference so advising is really: I’m an expert and I have information and can give it to you. There’s a hierarchy – I give something to you and you are only on the receiving end.

Coaching is for me on an eye level and mentoring is somebody who already went the path you want to go and you are following and trying to take their advice for that specific path. So they are experts for just their career and can help you avoid certain pitfall states/traps.This is the advantage of a mentorship program – usually they are not experts in communication or process, mediation or something. So they can only be an expert on their own career and this is the difference.

Tina: And this is good to strengthen because I meet many PhDs and postdoc [saying] I want a mentor that can help me to get the job. That’s not mentorship that’s something completely different and that’s not coaching either. Even though as a career coach you can indicate certain areas but it’s still so that you have to do the investigation and the reflection yourself. You can realize okay I have my drive and motivation into sells and marketing then you can investigate that job area by using tools and so on.

Martin: Right and a mentor is a perfect tool to investigative certain job market because he knows the language, the environment, the framing and everything which you from the outside don’t. If I want to go to sales or management there’s a completely different language, dress code, whatsoever, habits and to have somebody really helping you to understand this environment because he lives there this is a big help and big advantage. So that’s where mentoring is coming in.

Tina: Mentoring is coming in there. So if a mentor has a person that need coaching – it’s clear they need to go for the career coaching or coaching first. Then I usually say that when you know where to go, then you contact people in the field you want to be and get advice from them.

Martin: So the coaching is more for finding your decision and the mentoring is then helping you go the way.

Tina: That’s very interesting but now again I want to go back to you here – if you look at yourself as future coach what skills have you learned? Because we are going to need more coaches – PhD coaches – in Europe here. There are plenty of them in the States but not here in Europe.

What skills do you think you have learned during your time as a PhD and staff member that you can apply now to become a future successful coach. Because you’re going to be a successful coach!

Martin: I think the one thing I really appreciated from being a staff member so long was to have the opportunity to think in big pictures and really to hold complex situation. Which I think is something I really learned through my academic training. And this is the thing which is really interesting when I go with my wife to some meetings or workshops – she’s always tired after an hour or so hearing people. And me as a scientist I’m used to having like eight hours of presentations and I realize I can completely absorb information in a different speed and different depth and this is also something which helps in the coaching process to be able to hold all the information which is coming. So these are two things I learned in academia.

I also learned the world view of the science people. How you try to solve problems with your mind and I was long enough in there to know what it is good for and to publish these ideas. Now I’m at a point where I think okay what else is there?-Is science the end of the route? I think there’s even a bigger picture – this is life itself. They’re different facets which science people tend to ignore, try to neglect and help them to find these spots again in themselves. Because a lot of science people really have a need for being more emotional, integrating human parts of themselves, which they think are not allowed in the academic system. To bring them together and really show them you’re not alone in your situation and you feel stuck: you are in a very press situation, you are in a very stressful environment, you’re trying to get grants, you’re trying to publish a lot; you’re stressing yourself, you’re putting a lot of work on yourself in order to fulfill the requirements of the systems and to reflect this.

Tina: Scientist forget themselves sometimes!

Martin: Yeah, they are living in a bubble. So I have the picture of [what] I call the science bubble or the science loop, this is:  You produce data then you write up your data in a manuscript, then you publish the manuscript in order to acquire money, then you have the money to produce more data and then your start the loop again. The problem is that many people in the academic system only focus on this loop and don’t see anything outside – like your work holds your purpose in life – what you’re here for. And there’s so much focus and you receive from the system so much stress to stay in this loop. That is really hard for many people in the academic system to find there way out. I think this is a systematic problem so this should be addressed on a different level but it folds down to an individual problem for many many people in the system which are having health issues, which are having breakdowns, which are having depressions, which are having all kinds of problems in order to stay in the system which is not healthy for them.

Tina: No, it is not a healthy way to live just to focus on the professional part and then you think and believe that the rest will just solve itself. And we know, both you and I, that it doesn’t!  You have to work with your personal development the rest of your life – you know like family, where you gonna live, and have some longer future perspective on things and also you investigate what’s actually out there, outside of academia.

Martin: I think the other thing is that many people which are in the scientific system at a PhD, staff or postdoc level have the feeling okay now this is a stress phase and if I survive this I am becoming a big professor and then I can relax and other people will do the work for me and I just have to write a little bit. This is the big hope that it’s becoming easier the longer you stay in the system. And I’m not sure if this is working for many people. I’m not sure if you are successful and want to stay successful in the academic system, if the loop is going to stop for you.

Tina: No, I don’t think so because it becomes a habit to work like that. So actually when you are a professor then you expect other people to live the same style as you did. I remember from a professor I had, he said: ”Life is hard, it should be tough” and I thought why? I only have one life and it is very short – of course it’s tough – but in what way? I thought it was a negative way of why should my life be that path. When I came to industry they had a completely different mindset. They said we want to have a great life. I remember when my manager in industry said: “Tina you have done a good job here, so why don’t you go home on Friday”. I said: “What?! Can I go home on Friday?” It’s completely different but you know we have been here discussing and I think it’s now time to round up a little bit.

So if you now think about the followers and the listeners we have, if you just give them some tips on what to think about it?

Martin: I think an important tip is for me to early on look for alternatives. Really the problem is that you focus on the academic track and a lot of people are really having biased idea that they can stay. Which isn’t supported by the evidence in reality so much. I think this is something which needs to be changed. I think it’s really important for the individual to start to stop a little bit, pause a little bit, try to get out of the stressful loop a little bit and try to reflect a bigger thing and then orient yourself.

I think there are ways to be really successful in the system without burning out. This is something which you can find. My supervisor was somebody like this. He was really relaxed, he was publishing the most of the directors in our institute but he was never pushing anybody. The other directors were trying to push their people and this was backfiring.

My supervisor was like in the first half year of your PhD you’re just reading and preparing and find out what you want with your PhD and then we talk. This half a year you just get your own ideas and then you are completely differently motivated than when the supervisor in the first week gives you the protocols and says “Okay, now you have three years, do this!”

That’s something I learned from him to open this creative space, which I think is important for science not only to follow somebody in a track but really to generate your own ideas. This is something I would also like to encourage people to. To find really your own ideas and this could be something, which is not in the line of your supervisor but this is something which can bring the system to a different level than when you just follow footsteps from people who already went there.

Tina: What you’re touching actually is that we need maybe a new kind of leadership in academia and you can see that the leadership has changed a lot in many industries. You know we talk about team management, communication and that you find a coaching leadership. I’m not going to talk about that but that people find their own motivation. Because in that way you work actually better even though it’s less hours – because it’s not about the hours you do it, it’s what you do with the hours.

Martin thank you very much it’s been extremely nice and talking to you and meeting you again here. I’m looking forward to get the response from the podcast and I’m sure that you have helped a lot of people by sharing.

So thank you very much and this is Tina Persson reporting here. I say thank you to all followers. Don’t hesitate to contact PhD Career Stories if you have any ideas of topics, or if you know anyone that would like to share a story or if you for that sake like to share your own story.

Tina Persson from Berlin, all the best.

#085: Ben Hartwig Story

In this podcast, Dr. Ben Hartwig shares his story and lessons he learned during his PhD. 

Ben is a German scientist, entrepreneur and actor. He studied genetics at the Max-Planck Institute in Cologne, specialised in Epigenetics and aside he toured with Germany’s biggest improv theater, Springmaus, for the past six years. He has performed, directed and created close to a thousand shows on five continents. Three years ago, he founded his own company Neuroblitz to combine science and applied improvisation in workshops, speeches and seminars.

Two hearts are beating in my chest, the first one is the heart of an actor, someone who goes on stage to tell stories, the second heart is the heart of a scientist, someone who tries to make discoveries to understand the world better and tell stories.

Dr. Ben Hartwig

If you are curios how Ben successfully combined his analytical and creative side together, please listen to this episode. If you also have a story to be told or if you know someone, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Enjoy Listening!



Hello and welcome to PhD career stories, my name is Alice Corani, and in today’s podcast you will listen to Ben Hartwig, a German Scientist passionate with Science and Acting. He will explain how he successfully combined his analytical and creative side together.

Two hearts are beating in my chest, the first one is the heart of an actor, someone who goes on stage to tell stories, the second heart is the heart of a scientist, someone who tries to make discoveries to understand the world better and tell stories.

This is my story. My name is Ben Hardwick, I’m a German scientist born and raised close to Hamburg who has done his PhD at the Max Planck institute for plant breeding research in Cologne. This is also a story of those two hearts because I’m fascinated by the creative world and by the analytical world and how to combine the two.

At first glance, there’s not much that combines acting and science, not much that the two have in common. But there are a few things, as an actor you need to stay curious, as a scientist you need to do so too. And ultimately, we all want to understand ourselves and the world better, so curiosity and understanding are the glue between creativity and the analytical world to me.

Curiosity is also what got me into science. I’ve always been fascinated by it, by the world and by people. I chose plant biotechnology as my studies during the bachelor and masters. I signed up at the Leibniz university in Hannover. For part of the master’s I studied at the Purdue University in the US in West Lafayette, Indiana. During the masters I had a professor called professor Daimler, and he was the first reason why I got into my PhD. He thought it would be the next right career step for me and suggested the Max plank in Cologne, because he had gone there earlier.

I decided to follow his advice in the plight and actually found my supervisor because we had a beer together during the selection days. My supervisor during the PhD was Francisco Torque who is an expert in epigenetics. I had no idea about epigenetics when I signed up, but today I can roughly explain it as how the environment influences our genes. Epigenetics makes that influence visible, that was great. I got to study plants and I got to understand epigenetics better. I got to immerse myself into a subject for a long time and I wanted to know if I could do it, so I love the challenge of being a PhD student. But I didn’t know what I would do afterwards. So when the time to defend this thesis came, I had already booked a ticket to fly around the world and interview actors and scientists because I still had two hearts beating in my chest throughout my PhD. 

And also early I had done acting and actually learned something called improvised theater or improvisation, it’s a type of theater where you walk on stage without a script or fixed role so you walk out there every night and you don’t know what the play is going to be. Both science and acting were passions of mine and on that journey around the world I wanted to discover which way to follow, what should I do with my life.

I had learned a few things during my PhD that helped me on that journey. The first thing was organization, Francisco Torque decided that I could do an enhancer suppresses screen, well I was in-charge of thousands and thousands of plants. I had to be very organized to not lose track of all of the individual plants and their individual mutations. 

The second thing I learned was resilience, one day I came into the lab and most of my plants that I was studying had died because of a technical error in the green house. I was devastated and thought oh my god so much work and it all went down the drain because of one thing. But I had a friend in the laboratory from China and he used to say a Chinese saying which roughly translates to “When winter comes is spring faraway?”. When I heard him say that I thought of course he’s right. The plants were dead, but I still had the seeds and I still had the knowledge, so I could continue the project and I didn’t have to be that devastated about it. That was the second thing, resilience. 

The third thing I learned, that was big for me during the PhD was network. During lunch breaks and sometimes in the afternoon, I had a coffee with my friend Jared Rolands, who also did his PhD at the same time at the Max plank. We became friends and we used to go for long walks and talks science. He was in a protein lab and I was in the molecular biology lab. And sure enough during our PhD journey I sometimes needed advice about proteins and he needed advice about molecular biology. We helped each other and I believe that made our PhDs much stronger and better than they would have been.

So I was on that journey in 2012 and I had scheduled interviews with scientists and with actors to find out, what to do afterwards. The journey didn’t really give me an answer but it opened up new opportunities. So I was allowed to travel with a company, selling sequencers in Southeast Asia as well. And all that combined knowledge, let me to understand that I don’t have to choose one or the other but I could try to combine the analytics with the creativity. And after my post doc, I decided to found my own company in science communication, where I combined my knowledge from improvisational theater and from science to help creative people think in the more analytical way and analytical people to think in a more creative way. 

This work fulfils me and it really feels like the two hearts in my chest are starting to combine in a becoming one. What drives me and what has driven me is that moment of discovery, there’s always more to discover but that moment of discovery is unique, that moment of really understanding something. I love to really understand something for the first time to have that realization myself but I also love seeing it in others. Nowadays when I teach and give workshops and see that realization on a person’s face that is something unique and beautiful.

Thank you for listening and have a great day this was Ben Hardwick.


Thank you for listening to another episode of PhD Career Stories.

If you like our podcast you can follow us on our website PhDcareerstories.com or subscribe to our page on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram or Twitter. 

That’s it for today, thank you and see you in two weeks

#084: Sonia Jaeger Story

Sonia Jaeger is German-French psychologist, psychotherapist, and PhD.

She has been living a location independent life as a digital nomad for the past four years while working as an online therapist, providing online counselling to expats and other globally mobile clients in German, French, and English.

After finishing her PhD she decided to take a break and travel the world. However, instead of returning home afterwards she decided to start an online private counseling practice and has been traveling the world ever since.

In 2018 alone she went to (and worked from) 12 different countries, from Australia to Europe all the way to Latin America. Currently, she has not only started to mentor other psychotherapists who want to work online but also facilitates workshops that broach the issues of mental health while living globally.

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/drsoniajaeger/
Website: https://www.sonia-jaeger.com

Continue reading “#084: Sonia Jaeger Story”

#083: Matt Hotze Story

Matt Hotze graduated with a doctorate in Environmental Engineering from Duke University in 2008 and he is currently Administrative Director at Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment Engineering Research Center.

From his story, you will learn how almost failing the GRE exam brought him to the managing position he has now and how to apply business principles in academia and life. 

Matt also shares his experience with the dual-career challenge that many PhD couples face after their graduation and offers good advice on how to find a job and keep a relationship at the same time. 

By understanding people and how you interact with them you can improve your results, your research results.

Matt Hotze, PhD in Environmental Engineering

Continue reading “#083: Matt Hotze Story”

#082: Pearl Osirike Story

In this episode Pearl Osirike shares her story and some of the most important lessons she has learned during her PhD so far.  Pearl is a biochemist with an interest in drug discovery and infectious diseases. She holds a first-class degree and a masters degree from the University of Benin, Nigeria, where she also serves as an Assistant Lecturer. Currently, she is a second year PhD student of Molecular and Cell Biology of Infectious Diseases at the West African Centre for Cell Biology and Infectious Pathogens at the University of Ghana. 

Pearl is passionate about teaching and research and she is excited to share her story to motivate and inspire others. 

As a PhD student, the workload is vast, so I have learnt to break down enormous tasks into smaller, chewable sizes for effectiveness and to celebrate each small victory along the way. I find that each little victory gives me the strength to push on when the going gets tough.

To learn more about Pearl’s story, please listen to this episode. If you also have a story to be told or if you know someone, please don’t hesitate to contact us. Enjoy Listening!

Continue reading “#082: Pearl Osirike Story”