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Dr Dennis Fink changed his career path in 2011 after his PhD in Marine Microbiology at the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Bremen. In todays “PhD Career Story” he talks about how he became a science communicator and which skills you can use from your PhD if you aim to be self-employed.
You can use a lot of your PhD skills, even if you leave academia. Networking is the key to success!
Dr. Dennis Fink, CEO & Co-Founder of mediomix GmbH in Cologne, Germany
Hey and welcome to PhD Career Stories – the podcast to share experiences in life during and after your PhD. My name is Jo Havemann.
We are celebrating 20 episodes today with stories and tips from 14 different people – and the list keeps growing. What do you think of the podcast? Would you like to participate yourself or nominate someone we should contact? Did any of the stories resonate with you so that you can relate and find parallels to your own science career path?
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Now it’s time for Dennis Fink to tell his story. He started off as a marine microbiologist and transformed into an entrepreneur in science communication with his company Mediomix. Welcome Dennis!
Hi, my name is Dennis Fink and this is my contribution to PhD Career Stories.
I started to study life sciences because I was really inspired by my biology teacher, I guess. I did a bachelor’s in science degree in biology in Cologne, Germany, then I went to Bremen to join the Max Planck Research School on marine microbiology. There I did master’s and PhD. Actually, the decision to go from bachelor to PhD was for me that I heard that if you want to work in life sciences as a biologist you actually have to do your PhD. There’s no way around it. I have never met people who tried to work as a bachelor or as a master in biology in Germany. It was clear that I needed to do my PhD.
What I liked most about at doing the PhD at the Max Planck Institute was the degree of freedom that we had. I had a really good supervisor. She would basically leave me alone most of the time and let me do the research, let me do the planning of my research. I met with her every week and I had a thesis committee meeting every six months. But most of the time I was really on my own. Of course I could talk to my teammates, but I could really make up my mind, try to decide where to go next and what actually to do with my research topic. This is what I liked most.
After the PhD, I took three and a half years – during the last half year of my PhD I went into this state where I thought, “Okay, what should I do after the PhD?” I met with my supervisor, and this was one of the big turning points in my career or was a huge reason why I decided to leave academia, because she actually told me that she would not see me in academia. Then I got really mad at her for like two days, because I thought, “Hey, I’ve been working a lot, I’ve been studying a lot, why is she telling me not to proceed in science?” Because I really did good research at the MPI.
But she was right and she knew me. She convinced me to go another way. This is what was really important for me, to have someone who knew me and knew my skills and would actually open up my view. Open it in a way to see that there is more than staying in academia. There is nothing wrong with staying in academia, but I think a lot of people need help and need this external vision to say, “Hey, there’s actually more. Look at your skills, maybe you would be even better in another job or if you proceed in another way.”
Then, towards the end of my PhD I decided to leave academia and I decided to go into communication. I realized that the scientists have a huge problem when they are done with their science, when they need to communicate their science, be it with other scientists, be it with the general public. Of course they still have to do their research, they have to write it down, they have to publish it, but nowadays it’s not enough anymore if you want to reach out to people, if you want to be known for your research. You need to use the Internet, you need to use modern media, you need to reach out to other people. For a lot of scientists, especially in Germany I have the feeling, this is still a problem. So they seek help. They for example go to media agencies and ask them to produce visualizations or visual help for their research.
I realized that there is the potential problem that they don’t understand each other. Scientists speak a special language. The people at the media agency might not really grasp what the scientists wanted. So we decided together with a friend of mine who graduated in the same year that we wanted to leave academia and actually do something not completely different but help other scientists in their communication. What we did is that we applied for a stipend. In 2011, I graduated and in the beginning of 2012 we actually got the stipend.
When you’re done with your PhD and you decide to something different, something you have maybe not been trained for, there’s a challenge. Because you have your skill set and you might be a good researcher, good scientist, but what of these skills can you actually take with you to your new job, be it in industry, be it in a completely different field. A lot of PhDs or people who are just done with their PhD, I have the feeling they are afraid, because they don’t know what of their skills they can actually take with them. I think it’s not that hard. It’s actually like you are trained very well and you just have to realize that these skills that you have learned during your PhD are very valuable, for example if you move into industry. For us it was the decision to create our own company, a media agency to help scientists with their communication. No one has trained us in for example creating a company or working then with customers, writing bills, creating all this work that is needed if you want to satisfy your customers.
So, what were the skills that I could actually take from my PhD? In my opinion, what is really important is skills like that you’re able to organize yourself, that you’re able to look at a problem no matter how big and you can break it down. You can break it down into smaller steps and you can approach every step by itself. You can work in a team. As scientist you also depend on other people. You have to work with other people, you also have to guide other people. You might have realized that your joy is if you’re supervising younger students. These are all skills that for example if you decide to be on your own or create a company, these are skills that you can actually take with you.
When we started we had the stipend so we did not have to care much about our income for the first half year. This was also very important. I think it’s important that if you choose to leave academia, if you choose another career path, of course if you have a certain degree of safety, let’s say. – So, we had the stipend, we didn’t have to worry that we run out of money soon. A certain degree of safety is of course really beneficial, especially if you want to do something where you might have not been trained for in the last months or years. If you want to try out something completely new, if you want to be on your own, if you want to be an artist or anything that you like, it is really beneficial if you have some degree of safety. Let’s say a part-time job that you can run on the side which generates income for you.
Another really important skill I took from my PhD education is to have an open mind. To approach problems with an open mind. To gather the facts, to dig into it, but to stay open and also stay focused on the topic. No matter what challenge arises if you are for example in a new job, you have been trained as a PhD. You can approach these things with an open mind, you can see it from different angles. You can exchange your thought with colleagues and you will not get stuck at the first point. This is really important, especially if for example you want to be self-employed and you want to work for customers. It is really important to have an open mind, because you might want to create a product for them. You decided that you have a good product and then your product hits the market or you offer a service and then you realize that you have to change this. That it’s not perfect yet. There are some problems, there are challenges. You need to stay open, to have an open mind, because if you don’t have that, if you’re too rigid and too strict in your thoughts, then you will not succeed.
For example in my case, when we decided to create this media agency we wanted to offer video production for scientists. We thought that it would be a really good idea to approach the scientists and tell them, “Hey, if you want to tell your story, if you want to reach out to the general public or other scientists, let’s do it with short video clips. Tell your research in an engaging way. Let us do videos for you about your research, because it’s the easiest way to bring across even complex science in a short time.” So, we built also our business plan around this.
Then we realized that people don’t actually want to have videos. Maybe we do five or six videos now per year, but it was not our plan. It was completely different from the beginning. You have to keep this open mind especially if you leave academia and you go at a new place. Even in huge industry firms and huge companies, people will appreciate if you have not a too narrow field of view, if you are open toward the challenges, and open to new ideas. If you get self-employed and if you offer stuff to other people, you have to be open, because you most probably have to change. You have to change your product, you have to change your service, so it’s really important to keep this open mind.
When I went from being a scientist to being a science communicator, of course I wasn’t trained to be this. I mean, during the PhD I had some soft skill training. I learned skills like communication skills, but no one prepared me to actually be on my own and to run my own company. It was very important for me to exchange ideas and everything that I thought would be a problem with other people, be it my colleague or be it other people from the same fields. It is really important to still exchange with other people and learn from them. You have to accept that other people can still teach you something, even after your PhD, even if you have a master in a really complex scientific topic. If you now change your career path you might end up in a field where you have to start at zero again.
I had to learn to catch videos, to illustrate images, to deal with customers. No one taught me this and it took me some years actually to learn all these things. Basically I had to start almost at zero again, which you are not used to. Because after you’re a PhD you have the feeling that you have a pretty good idea of what you have been doing the last years and that you are now among the few people who are really understanding a specific scientific field. But if you change your career path you might start at zero again so you have to be open to this. You have to be open the idea that you’re not done with learning stuff. You are not done after your PhD so you have to learn again. You have to be open to this, you have to be open criticism also from other people. Then you will succeed.
When I meet with PhDs nowadays and I talk about career path or they ask me for help, what I tell them is one of the most important things is to start networking. I started to network just after my PhD, which was too late. Independently where you are in your career right now, start to network. What I mean with this is go to conferences, go to talks, but not the ones that are in your field or are happening anyway. Look for things that broaden your narrow field of you. Even more important, online networking. Join online career networks like LinkedIn. Create a profile and be visible, because it is so important to have a good network independent of what you want to do after your PhD.
If you want to stay in academia, you need your network because you might want to switch your places. You might want to go from one institute to another, even to another country. Then it’s important to know people there, to talk to them how work is in this new research group or how the institute is structured, because this is information that you do not get on the Internet. It is the same case if you want to leave academia and for example go into industry. I know it’s not fair but it is the truth that you get jobs or you get into or you get further in the application process if you know people, know people in this company.
These online career networks can actually help you. If you grow a network that is big enough, you actually see people who know people that know you. Then you might even find people in this new company that you are looking at and they can give you really valuable information. It doesn’t mean that if you know people from this company that they make it sure that you get this job, but it is so important nowadays to know people and to get maybe just a foot in the door or get your application a bit higher in this stack. I know it’s not fair because you should be judged only by your skills, but nowadays there are so many people.
It’s around, on average, 180 applications on a normal industry job. All of them, all of these applications, will be from PhDs who have the same skill set as you. They have actually the luxury to pick people not only based on their excellent skill set or their excellent grade. They can pick them by special skills or by things that they might not have learned. So, it is important to network and regarding the skills, it is also important to acquire new skills, skills that set you apart from all the other applications.
For example if you want to go into industry, these are skills like, for example, software skills so that you learn, for example, to handle graphics software or office software. This is of course – this means that you have to put extra time in learning things that no one is paying you during your PhD. You have to grow your skill set for example during your PhD, but no one will pay you for this. You actually have to do this in your free time, maybe go on YouTube, watch tutorials and learn Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator.
But these are the skills, these extra skills will set you apart from all the other applications who apply for the same job with the same skill set that every scientist has after his or her PhD. It is also very important to acquire extra skills. It is hard because maybe you are at the point in your career where you have not decided what skills you these are that you actually need or these extra skills. But I would really encourage you to think about to learn more, to broaden your view and go out there. Then, when you are at an interview you will have a skill set that is not only comparable to the other ones, but it’s actually way better.
The last tip I want to give you if you are changing your career path, if you look for a job and if you now enter an application phase, find out what it is the information that people find out about you in the Internet. If you apply for a job, what these people will do is that they google you, they look on Facebook and they will try to find out more information about you. If you go on the Internet, for example if you google your name and you are satisfied with the information that you find, this is fine. But most of the times you will realize that this information is too less or not accurate. If you did not yet put any effort in this you might only find your institute page where you see maybe a picture of you and some minor information, maybe your CV.
I really encourage you that if you’re not satisfied with the information that you see, if you look for yourself on the Internet, you have to become active. Create your own platform. Start with a LinkedIn profile that also shows up on Google so if people google your name they will at least find your LinkedIn profile with your nice stuff that you put in there. But also think about creating your own platform. Nowadays it’s really easy for example to use WordPress to create just a small landing page with the basic information that you want to show people which might be different from the information which is currently available of you on the Internet. Then, next time you go to a conference or your standing in front of your poster, you can say, “Hey, if you want to learn more, just go to my website” Or if people sit in your talk, they will automatically google your name if they’re interested in what you’re saying. You have to make sure that they find the information that you think is the best source.
I wish you all the best of luck for your future career, be it in academia or industry or if you want to become self-employed, it doesn’t matter. But make sure that you do something that you like, because you only have one life. Make it count!