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Dr Filippo Guarnieri earned his PhD in theoretical physics in 2014. He is currently working as a postdoc in theoretical physics at the Nordc Institute for Theoretical Physics NORDITA in Stockholm, Sweden and is the chair of the Max Planck Alumni Association. In this episode, Filippo will share his story about his transition from academia to entrepreneurship, which he is presently undertaking.
“Many PhDs aim to transition outside of academia. However, many PhDs also prefer to procrastinate this transition, further venturing into academia. Procrastination may provide additional time to better develop your transferable skills and find your mission in life, but may also come with a price.”
Dr. Filippo Guarnieri, Postdoctoral Fellow at NORDITA
Hi everyone, My name is Filippo Guarnieri. I am a postdoc at NORDITA, which is a small research institute in theoretical physics in Stockholm, Sweden. I want to tell you about my story, my story as a PhD holder who is in the process of transitioning from academia to entrepreneurship.
I have a bachelor and a master of science in physics earned at the University of Rome, in Italy, which is also my hometown. Back in the time, I chose physics as I was, and still am, interested in natural philosophy and mathematics. In my choice, I was mostly driven by curiosity, and I was not interested in a career in academia. After I did my master thesis in quantum gravity, which is one of the most important open fundamental questions in physics, my aim was to enter a master program in business administration, an MBA. However, the master was very expensive, and I had to gather information very quickly as the date of the entry exam to earn a PhD fellowship in Italy – that was the alternative career path at the time – was very close.
Of course I was interested to further investigate the same questions I faced during my master thesis and become a professional scientist in academia with publications. Moreover, I knew that I would like develop analytic skills that would help me afterwards in my career. I therefore decided not to pursue an MBA, but to continue with a doctoral program. My PhD has been a join collaboration between the University of Roma TRE and the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Golm, which is near Berlin, in Germany, where I lived for three years.
I more or less expected what I could learn in a PhD program. In the end I acquired the skills to properly identify correlations and causation relations in complex patterns in physics. I learned how to lead a research project independently. I would say that the biggest transferrable skills I developed was exactly “problem solving,” which I think is quite common among physicists.
After the degree was in my hand, I would say that I considered myself as a professional scientist; however, I didn’t consider myself as an efficient person. I didn’t think I was ready to transition to industry or actually that I acquired the necessary skills. I felt several times during the PhD that I needed to learn about time and focus management, and I simply didn’t focus on that. I didn’t follow scientific writing courses, nor did I invest in developing my soft skills, for example trying to to better present my research in a really efficient and clean way, without using thousands of equations in my slides. But I am very happy that soft skills courses are now more frequent in universities. I think this is really important.
After the PhD I was finally back to my original plan of earning a master in business administration and transition to industry. But once more I was in a situation where I had no information and didn’t really know how to proceed. I was a bit more aware at that time, after almost four years, so I knew that a good strategy was to get hired in a company and getting experience. However, I had no information about all possible career paths, which job would actually be interesting to me. At that time, the Max Planck Society and the University of Rome had no alumni networks. There were no mentors who could actually help me and provide information on how it is to work in a company or in a different field. I had no financial support, so I could not wait too long to look for a job, and my supervisor was pressing me to stay in academia.
The easier and quicker choice once more was to stay in academia, even though I didn’t want to. I hence decided to toss a coin, and the coin in this case was an application for a postdoc fellowship in Italy that was not really easy to win. I decided that if I would have won it, which was not probable, I would have delayed my transition to outside of academia of other two years. Otherwise I would have been forced to look for a job, and at that time, it meant every possible job, even though it would not have been a qualified one.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, I do not know, I actually got the fellowship, even though it was for just six months. I could then continue my research in Berlin, changing topic to another big unsolved problem in physics, which is turbulence. This was also the time when I started collaborating with the Max Planck Society in Germany. All PhD students experience this problem in their transitioning outside academia – and they transition outside, because that’s what the statistics say, at least 50 percent of them. I felt it was strange that there were no mentoring programs where the alumni of the Max Planck Society could come back to the Institute and mentor students and provide them with information about possible career paths. They also were in my situation, so they understand the importance of it. We started working on the establishment of a network of alumni who could, among several things, also work as mentors for students.
I considered it as the beginning of an alternative career path, which was parallel to my academic path. The work to establish the alumni organization was of course on a purely volunteer basis. It was really intense, almost like a second job, and required skills I didn’t have as a scientist. I had to learn about interpersonal relations because physicists do not normally talk so much with partners and stakeholders. I had to learn how to network and sell to people the importance of our project. Many other people were starting to get engaged, so I had to learn how to manage a team. I also had to learn how to work more quickly and efficiently due to severe time constraints, as I was working in my free time.
Moreover, I experienced what it means to work with a project where you actually achieve things daily. You get satisfaction from arriving at the end of the day and you see that you actually took a step. This is opposed to the academic work where you publish a paper after six months or a year, and you may stay one month stuck on an equation without knowing how to do a calculation. I have to admit that at times I was enjoying it even more than doing research, although research is one of my great passions.
I then moved to the Geophysics department of the University of Yale in the US where I lived for one year and worked as a postdoc. During this time I was in parallel working in physics and in the free time I was attending courses on management for non-profit organizations at the Yale Business School. That was simply the building on the other side of the street from my department. I was also discussing and learning about alumni relations and fundraising at the Association of Yale Alumni.
After some time I actually noticed a feedback between the two parallel career paths. The experience in networking was teaching me how to sell better my work in academia. On the other side, my analytical skills were helping me to better understand how to improve the management and structure of the alumni association.
Finally, in late 2015 I moved to Stockholm as a postdoc with a new contract, now working in climate change and stochastic processes. At the same time, we also founded the Alumni Association of the Max Planck Society where I am still the Chair. After more than a year in Stockholm, with few months left in my contract, I feel finally ready for the transition outside of academia.
I’m actually happy that I took my time, because I’m not looking anymore to earn an MBA. I want to become an entrepreneur. Thanks to the alumni project, I understood that my passion is to find problems, especially social problems, and work to provide efficient solutions to those problems. I am currently working on a few ideas for start-ups and companies. A couple of them are services oriented to improve the performance of academic work by reducing bottlenecks in research or in the organization of events.
Concluding, my transition to outside academia – which is not completed – took something like 6 years more than expected. If I could go back in time and give suggestions to a younger me, I would surely start a doctoral program once more. I would also start my parallel non-academic career from the beginning of the PhD, for example joining a non-profit organization as a volunteer, taking a job in a start-up or doing an internship in a company.
I would try to acquire all those non-academic skills, especially interpersonal skills, that we don’t develop at the university but are very important when we leave. In my opinion, they need to be fused together with the skills we actually learn at the university. In particular, I would like to recommend students to network as much as possible. Not as a useful technique to boost your business tomorrow, but for what it is: to appreciate to get to know other people, be curious about what they do, and learn from them.
This is my story. I will be happy to let you know next year how my transition ends – hopefully successfully – and provide new tips and information on a career path in entrepreneurship starting from academia.
Thank you very much for listening.