Episode #23: Thomas Thestrup’s story

Episode #23: Thomas Thestrup’s story


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Thomas Thestrup was born in New Jersey (USA) and has lived and worked in the USA, Australia, Germany and Denmark. He holds a MSc in Biology and Biotechnology from the University of Copenhagen and a PhD in Neurobiology from the Max-Planck Institute of Neurobiology and Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. Today, Thomas is an Associate at Sunstone Capital, an early-stage Life Science and Technology venture capital company investing in European start-up companies with strong potential to achieve global success in their markets.

By networking, networking and networking, and assessing your dreams, your feelings about what keeps you excited, you will eventually find people that can help you take the next step, at least, that helps a lot.

in: linkedin.com/in/thomas-michael-thestrup
w: sunstone.eu
t: @DaneThestrup 

Transcript

Hi everyone and thanks for listening in on this PhD Career Stories podcast.

My name is Thomas Thestrup and I am an investment associate at the Danish life science and venture capital company called Sunstone Capital, located in Copenhagen. We invest in and build early-stage life science companies in Europe, active in the fields of therapeutics, medtech and diagnostics.

Today, I would like to share with you my story on how I came from doing a PhD in neurobiology to ending up on the dark side, as some people call the venture capital world.

As this is a podcast discussing the life as a PhD student and how you transition into your first real job, it is natural to ask: Why did you start doing your PhD in the first place? Was it a part of a greater plan? Are you dreaming of being a professor? Is it by chance or was it by chance? Everyone has an agenda of some sort in the beginning and this agenda often tends to change as you progress through your PhD.

For me, doing a PhD was never really something I planned to do. At least I had not given it much thought before I started. I started in the lab of Dr. Oliver Griesbeck at the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology in Munich as a master student. At that time, I was doing a master’s in biotechnology at the University of Copenhagen. I needed to find a project for my one-year thesis work. As I had already been abroad before in Brisbane, Australia, to be precise, during my bachelor’s thesis work, I wanted to take the opportunity to do this once more. I thought it was very exciting to be abroad.

I applied for master thesis projects at companies and labs all over the world. I was lucky to get two interviews at the same Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology. Of those two, I chose Dr. Oliver Griesbeck’s lab and project as it fulfilled most of my biotechnology interests. As I was writing my master thesis and preparing to defend it in Copenhagen, Oliver, my supervisor, asked if I wanted to stay in the lab and continue my work as a PhD student. Honestly, it came as a surprise, but t I also considered it as an opportunity to naturally continue the work I already was doing. As I really enjoyed the project and the lab, I said yes and returned to Munich again shortly after turning in my thesis in Copenhagen. It was something like nothing had changed, really, and it was basically how I started my PhD.

After agreeing to continue my work in Oliver Griesbeck’s lab, it dawned on me that I didn’t really give much attention to or consideration of what I just signed into. I was heading into a new space. Basically, what I realized was that I had just decided to stay in Munich for the next many years. Like most other PhDs around me, I would soon learn what a PhD was all about.

I think everyone doing a PhD or has done a PhD can subscribe to the fact that it’s a very long journey. It’s long hard work. It’s often with oscillating mood swings, hair pulling, and driving people around you crazy. But I tried to always see my PhD as a real job, real work, and as a very long education in self-motivation. Surely, your friends, colleagues and family try to motivate you, but frankly most PhD projects are very lonesome in their own nature. It’s you against challenges and time. This was perhaps also what I liked about my PhD.

I was lucky to be in a group with great and fun people, and a supervisor that trusted us in doing our work and avoided being a micromanager. He never really were after us on the small scale, only on big data, which was important for him. As long as you generated progress, you had a reasonable flexible life and this I enjoyed. What I also enjoyed was the feeling of ownership, because you owned your projects. You were expected to be the expert on your projects. You were the one to blame, yourself at least, if you didn’t work enough on the project.

This is something that makes a PhD very interesting. Surely, you should also be driven by a lot of curiosity. If you have those things, you can motivate yourself, great people around you, and you’re curious, I think most people would be able to finish a PhD.

So, I sort of jumped into academia in a way that I didn’t expect. I think I was never really destined to stay and work in academia. I truly enjoyed my time in academia and I miss things from academia from day to day, but I also know this is not the world for me.

Perhaps I should take it back to when I started studying after high school, because I think it was not during my PhD that I had the defining moment. You know, the “Get me the hell out of this lab now” kind of experience. It was during my bachelor’s and master’s theses that I slowly understood that I would not be a professor.

As I was finishing high school, I wanted to work a bit and earn some money and do some traveling. I was interested in programming and web design in those days. This was a new hip thing to be involved in in the late 90’s, early 2000’s. I was lucky to convince my step dad to hire me in his small software company, to make homepages for companies basically. It was great fun and I got much responsibility. I got to talk to customers and guide them through the design process and work together with them on their new pages and so on.

Once I had done that for a year I decided that, “Hey, this is very cool, I think I should study business administration and some informatics.” So I started my academic career at the Copenhagen Business School, which was a very different place to where I would end up a year later. I think in those days, I had imagined the university to be packed with young eager students, ready to be nerdy on their subjects. That’s not really what I met at the Business School. To make a long story short, I concluded that this education was not the moment for me, the right time for me to continue.

So, I dropped out and went back to doing homepages and thought about what to do next. While talking to some friends after this happened, I realized that I really enjoyed natural sciences in high school. I basically decided to reinvent the image of me and decided to use the next possible occasion to apply and enroll at the bachelor’s studies of biology at the University of Copenhagen.

This turned out to be a good choice actually. For me, every day was an “aha” experience. I went to Copenhagen Business School and I heard about politics and finances. Obviously, it was more detailed, but I had heard about it before. At biology, there were a lot of things I never knew existed. It was all new to me. It was very interesting and inspiring. People around me were very different, not so stereotypical as I saw them at least at the Business School. So for me, that was a good choice.

As I was nearing my bachelor thesis, I started to think about how I would use this knowledge that I now had as a bachelor in biology. What could I do with it? Should I continue on a master’s? Should I go find a job? What did this education give me in terms of tools? As I started to be a little bit nosier in this area, I realized that no one was really thinking about this. There were no lectures about it, there were no professors trying to inspire us about it, except for continue being in academia. Frankly, it didn’t really seem to bother anyone.

I felt that was very strange, so I started talking to people myself, many people. People that were ahead of me. People that were maybe still studying, but further ahead, maybe in their first job. To me, that was very inspiring. I met many that had been abroad with their bachelor’s thesis or during their master’s. While doing projects, they were doing semesters abroad. While I was doing a biology project in one of our courses in marine biology, I spoke to our supervisor. He had a lot of contacts and some of them were in Australia. I jumped the chance and managed to organize my bachelor thesis in a way so I could do it Australia. Honestly, this was a very good experience.

What I also learned from speaking to different people that had gone sort of the same path as me, was that I needed my knowledge to be applied. You could study biology for the sake of biology, but I wanted to study biology to come out as an engineer that could build something, that could turn biology into tools or drugs. I think this was one of the first times I realized how I should plan my studies.

When I looked on what to do next, there was the option of continuing my master’s in biology or to do something different. I was lucky enough to find that there was a new education, a master’s in biotechnology at the University of Copenhagen. I changed to this and that was definitely the right choice for me.

It was a new education and it had heavy industry focus. Not only were all biology classes about how to use biology in industry or drug development, but they also brought in peers from the industry to educate us. We had classes in intellectual property rights, financing, how to write a business plan, how to set up a biotech company: what would it mean to make a budget for a biotech company? All these things related to real-world industry biotech and not very much plain biology. It was so much fun and extremely enlightening for me. So, I did that, and we had a one-year project for the master thesis and I decided to use that chance again to go abroad.

This was a little trip down memory lane, but I think, looking at the choices you made in the past can also help you understand what choices you can or will make in the future.

I often get questions from PhDs, people around me that are doing PhDs, such as “is it the right choice to do PhD, do I need a PhD to be in your position, etc.?” I always say, if you’re curious, if you like what you’re doing, a PhD is not a bad choice. But you should see it as a stepping stone to something else and you should decide very early, at least if you have a passion to be in academia or not. This is hard to conclude before you start a PhD, but at least you should give it a thought very early in the process once you start the PhD.

You should always ask yourself, “What are my perspectives, from where I am here and now and onwards? Do I want to do a postdoc? Yes, no, maybe?” There can be several reasons to say maybe, but a lot of people I know end up doing postdocs because they don’t know what they want to do. So, you just do a postdoc, it’s the most natural step. A little bit like when some of us start a PhD, it’s a natural continuation of what we’re doing. I think you should be curious about your options, because it’s pretty important that you know that you have other options than to stay in academia when you do a postdoc. I’ll come back to that a little bit later.

What I have learned from being active in the field, mainly in industry, is that doing a postdoc is not necessarily going to add any value from an industry perspective. It might add some value for specific scientific positions in industry, but if you look at it broadly, it will probably not increase your chances of getting a job.

Another thing you should consider is that if you do two, five, six years of postdoc, you actually lose those years in industry, when you could have increased your salary, you could have earned more retirement money, you could have gained more experience in the field. If you come as a postdoc with four years, you’re basically starting where the PhDs are also starting. So, you have a lot of years to gain. It basically means that you’re behind your peers that left after their PhD.

I asked myself if I could see myself for instance as a group leader one day. If I dream, I probably could, it sounds good to be a professor. But using the good old gut feeling to answer this questions, it was clearly a “no.” I didn’t want to sit and be a group leader in academia. Therefore, for me, doing a postdoc was never really the natural step to take. If I would have done it, it would have been an emotional choice. I actually came to the point where I had to make this choice.

I got an offer from Princeton, which was amazing. I never dreamed that I would do a postdoc at Princeton. The project was exactly what I wanted to do in science, but again I knew that – and here I have to add that I had already been in industry by then – it was a way of going backwards. I also knew that it was a competitive space. I knew people who would have given everything to be at an institute like Princeton, and I would have been there maybe not for the right reasons. I definitely didn’t want to spend two to four years there on low salary again. So, for me, that was a natural and clear “no.” But you never know, I think I would have been happy there also. But I think the choice I made was the right one.

I think the bottom line is that if you can answer “no” to become a group leader – and I know you can’t answer this question a hundred per cent from the day you start a PhD but you have an idea – then you should at least now, early in your PhD start investigating your options. Also keep in mind that depending on the country you’re in, not more than three to eight per cent of all PhDs end up at a tenure position, a real academic professional position. That means ninety-two to ninety-seven per cent of us, we must find a job outside academia. It can still be research, but it’s not the university. Most of us will have to go out and fulfill other jobs, which can be more than amazing.

I mentioned that I started early, thinking about these things. You can save some valuable time by doing that. I often saw people sitting and writing up their thesis without having a clue what they would be doing the next month after defending. I started already year one, thinking “how could I improve my network, what kind of skills should I acquire along with the PhD to be attractive to industry?”

Now, going into the stressful phase of ending your PhD, I had an agreement with my supervisor about writing up. I was looking forward to coming out of the lab. I needed some fresh air and new inspiration. We all know that feeling. There’s nothing wrong with that. I had my plan. I was already writing up applications for new jobs, talking to people. This was maybe close to a year before I was ending. I started to send out dedicated applications and while doing that and writing up my thesis, it became a culmination of many things, because I landed a job. I was writing up the thesis and the timing was looking really good. Suddenly, we had very good data on some of the main things I did in my thesis. We could actually submit to a very high impact factor journal. It became a priority for me and my supervisor to get this article sent to the journal.

What happened was that my time plan completely slid. My supervisor wanted my full attention on the paper. I had to leave the lab and start a new job because time was sliding. Revisions were coming back. I basically ended up leaving the lab without having done my thesis, still working on the publication. Trying to start a new job, which was a steep new learning curve, and juggling the paper editing and writing up the thesis at the same time. It’s not recommendable at all what I did. I managed at the end. It was a lot of stress. It took a long time to get everything done, the thesis and the publication.

For me, the transition time from going from the PhD lab life to industry was somewhat of a mess. I had just started my job and I still had to go back to the lab in the evenings and sometimes also in the weekends. I did that for a long time until we had finished everything we needed to finish. Even preparing yourself and knowing what you want to do, things and timelines can change and things can look messy. But at least, I knew where I was headed. I always thought that I wanted to do some consultancy, start my own company. I was really focused on talking to consultancy people at that time. My first job was also a consultancy job.

Since I was very dedicated to transitioning out to an industry job, I was trying to understand what skill set I had accomplished, what I had learned and could take me from my PhD. Today I also get this question often when I speak to people asking how I ended up where I am today. I think most PhDs and postdocs underestimate the journey they have gone through during their PhDs. PhDs prepare you for so many things and provide you with so many special skills, which are actually not that hard to translate into industry-related skills.

For me, some of the most important skills I’ve learned are persistency, taking ownership, being creative to solve problems and being self-motivated. This is a big thing for me. What you also learn as you struggle with your PhD is the fact that things always change, timelines slide, that it’s okay to ask for help and eventually, and eventually politics are everywhere. You know it from writing a paper and who should be where on the author lists and so on. That’s politics and there’s no difference in real life.

My advice is always to try and translate those skills you acquired during your PhD. In natural sciences, PhDs are much more than PCR methods, chemical formulations or cell cultures. Start early to understand what you’re capable of and what you will be capable of. Go to career events and talk to people that are already working in institutions you would be interested in. Get active in networks within fields that you would be interested in working in. Talk to people and simply gain knowledge from their experience and get inspired. That’s the best advice I have.

I can try to list a few of the transferable skill sets that I think PhDs have and make them attractive when they later on become part of an industry job. These are things such as data analysis; writing and publishing; research project design; presenting, you probably did that a lot during your PhD; grant writing, which can be broadened out also; managing people, that can be students or fellow students; budgets; interdisciplinary contacts, you work also across different disciplines; you work in international environments; you learn self-motivation; you learn critical and creative thinking; you learn problem solving; project management; time management; and a lot of teamwork. Most of these skills are effectively utilized outside of academia and part of everyday work life in industry.

When you think about what skills the industry will ask for, it really relates to the role or position you would be applying for. Obviously, there are a lot of differences between positions. Some are more scientific-related than others. You have to understand and read between the lines, understand what they are asking for. You often see applications where they list all their scientific methods, what they can do, but it’s sort of implicit in the role that a PhD can do these things, otherwise you would not be a PhD in natural sciences.

If they ask for other things, here you translate your skills. I think this is very important, because we don’t need to know that you do PCRs or you did cell biology. It’s sort of a given at that point. Try to really understand what type of person they’re looking for. Are you a passive person? Are you a pro-active person? All these things, think about how you were in the lab. Are you the one who takes initiatives or not? Are you the one who solves the complex situations or not? Try to figure out how you would fit in.

Another way you can make your skill set and profile a little more attractive to industry is to spend as much time as you can on taking soft skill courses, something that will prepare you for different situations than research problems or lab-related problems. Something that is more broad-skilled to have. At our institute, we were very lucky to have several soft skill workshops offered. I attended a couple. One was on intercultural communication and another one was negotiation skills. I did a few others which were also related to applying for jobs. But these two were the ones that I would highlight as the most important ones.

The intercultural one was focused on understanding the cultural differences, the way we think between cultures, and solving these issues before or while they’re happening. The other one was negotiation skills, which basically was competitive strategies in the negotiation situation. These are very helpful skills, I use them almost every day. I have a lot of meetings and these are tools that are worth a lot in the academic setting and also later on.

Also, what you can do is to be active in networks or participate in voluntary work. Be part of an organization, sit on the board if you can. Get these other types of skill sets. If you’re organizing PhD symposia, you can be responsible for budgets. It doesn’t mean it’s always interesting to do budgeting, but it will give you some extra skills that you can put on your CV.

If I was to give a take home message or at least a summary of what I did; first of all, I tried to understand what I wanted to do. Obviously, I couldn’t know which type of position I would eventually land, but I was trying to figure out when I was excited about something. That can be many things, but usually they tend to point you in a direction. Try to figure out what makes you tick, what makes you excited.

Once you do that, at least what I did was that I started a LinkedIn strategy. I made my LinkedIn profile and tried to make sure that I got the people that were interesting to me on my account. Instead of adding friends from Facebook or whoever I knew, I was more strategic. I wanted to have a professional network. Then people asked, “You can’t just write or contact people and add them, they never respond.” That’s true, because they’re busy and someone just adding you on LinkedIn is not interesting. But if people write specifically: “Hi Thomas, I see you’re working in a venture capitalist company. How did you get there? Would it be okay for me to write you an email one day and ask some specific questions?” I will be more than happy to add this person. I think it’s important to help people find their way and also maybe give them an idea of going in a different direction. If you do that, always make clear why you contact people. You don’t want to take their time, but you have a few questions. Most of the time, people are willing to accept such a request. So, that was what I was doing first.

Actually, a lot of interesting people I met during my time in Munich, I met them later on for a cup of coffee, we had a chat. Some I never saw again and some ended up being very helpful, and I still see them today. Be strategic with your network. It also goes for career fairs. It goes for building up your XING network if you’re in Germany. All these things, acquire soft skills, take leadership roles in voluntary organizations. That will also give you some extra edge.

What I also did was to join a business network. You may think that PhDs are not business-like, but I always considered my PhD as a real job. I joined a global organization, DABGO, Danes Abroad Business Group Online. It’s a group of Danes meeting every first of Wednesday all over the world. We had a big a group meeting in Munich every month. I presented my work there and got a lot of attention from that, because that was not something that people were used to listening to. People started being interested in a profile like mine. That’s basically also how I landed my first job, which was through a Danish network. The same went for my next job here at Sunstone. I believe that I was attractive for a Danish VC [venture capital company] because I spoke German. I had a strong network already in Germany and Switzerland where I worked before. I could bring something to the table that was different. Plus I had an interesting PhD profile and had done something maybe a little bit out of the ordinary.

You can also take Coursera courses if you want to learn more about economy, negotiation or similar things. Coursera has a lot of interesting courses to offer.

In summary, put down a strategy. Be early. You don’t have to spend much time on it. You can sit and google a little bit every evening or once or twice every week. Try slowly to identify some of the interesting areas for you. See if you can find people that can help you move in that direction. That also goes for science. Find the right professors and talk to them. Keep them posted on what you’re doing. If you have something relevant to them, share it with them. Then eventually, I think you will land your dream job.

Going back to the percentages, most of us will need to get a job in industry. By networking, networking and networking, and assessing your dreams, your feelings about what keeps you excited, you will eventually find people that can help you take the next step, at least, that helps a lot.

With that, I hope you found what I had to say interesting. I hope you gained something from it and got some new ideas on how to transition from your PhD to a new job in the industry.

Thank you very much for listening to this podcast. I’ll be happy to connect directly via email or via LinkedIn, where you can find me. Thank you very much. Bye, bye!

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