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Two years into his PhD studies, Matthias Antonin realised that he needed a plan B. Although doing a PhD at first seemed as the most logical step after his undergraduate studies in biochemistry, he now found himself more enthusiastic when brainstorming opportunities to found a company, than when performing research. He therefore signed up for economics and psychology studies at the distance learning university FernUniversität in Hagen. A transition that later on landed him a job within sales and marketing at Roche Pharma.
In this episode, Matthias will tell you about his journey from being a PhD student to working at the Startup Program Marketing & Sales of Roche Pharma. He reflects over the differences between distance-based and campus-based studying and the importance of networking outside of the academia to land a job in the industry.
Keep an open mindset and if opportunity doesn’t come to you, create your own opportunity.
– Matthias Antonin, Marketing & Sales Trainee at Roche Pharma
Hi and welcome to Phd Career Stories! My name is Maria Sjögren and I’m one of the co-founders of this podcast. Every second week, we bring you a new episode of PhD Career Stories – the podcast in which PhD:s tell their stories, inspiring you to take the next step towards your dream job.
In today’s episode, Matthias Antonin will tell his story on how he, after two years into his PhD studies, realised that he needed a plan B. An insight that made him sign up for economics and psychology studies at a distance learning university in Germany, which in turn later on landed him a job within sales and marketing at Roche Pharma.
Hello my name is Matthias Antonin and I’m currently working in the Startup Program Marketing & Sales of Roche Pharma; before that I spent eight years as a biochemist in a research lab. Today I would like to share my PhD career story with you and the reason why I decided to go to academia, to do a PhD, and then leave academia and how I made the transition to industry.
Already when I was very young it was clear to me that I want to be a scientist because I was always fascinated by nature by sciences and diseases. Also my family background was supporting me in this regard because my parents are physicians; my father spent several years working in drug development in a pharmaceutical company and my oldest brother is a biochemist.
Before I left school I decided that I really want to work in a disease related field. And I decided that basic research would be my thing. So I went to university and studied biochemistry.
After finishing the diploma thesis I have to say [that] doing a PhD was not really a question to me – it was something like the next logical step. I highly enjoyed bench work and I saw myself in 20 or 30 years still standing on the bench and doing experiments and not so much doing lectures or something like this. And leaving academia [and] doing something completely different or going to industry was not really a question. So I joined the Max Planck institute for biochemistry close to Munich and a lab to work on dementia.
I have to say when I started I was highly motivated and very enthusiastic about science and after a few months reality kicked in. I’ve learnt that reading papers, planning experiments – well doing them at high quality – or having nice models doesn’t mean that you will like results or that experiments work at all. So over the next months frustrations were accumulating. I have to say that already at this time, with friends and colleagues in the labs we were brainstorming a lot about opportunities to found a company – being like drug development or like service provision for other companies.
One of my colleagues were thinking about joining a distance learning university for economics courses. And after two years of lab work and when I realized that maybe I should have a plan B, I was going to the homepage of a distance learning university in Germany, it’s called FernUni in Hagen, to see opportunities for learning about economics. And what I found out is that, just by chance, they recently started at this time offering psychology studies and I was always very interested in psychology. And I also saw a close connection to my work on dementia.
So when the 2 years were past I signed in for economics and psychology studies. I have to say like going to this FernUni or distance learning university had several benefits. First, it was much cheaper than doing MBA program, which with an income of PhD student is a very important point. Second, they are very employer friendly. This means you are very free to select which lectures you do when and when you do exams. You have to only be there like once a year for two or three days for a seminar. The lectures are offered like online lectures or in written form. So one was quite flexible. Although another important point was that it was a regular university – the exams and degrees are official university degrees.
It was actually time consuming. But also very fun to do this because economics is very different from biology or biochemistry so enjoyed to do something new. And for sure psychology is something I would trust very interesting to me and also very applicable to any part of life. Also it was giving reward to me in phases when lab was frustrating; and then passing exams was giving [me] a good feeling.
But I would lie if I wouldn’t say it was not compromising with free time or social life. But I have to say it was also the reason why I learn to enjoy and to value free time much more. And this is also what I heard from other students at the distance learning university. Like before it was just normal to go out and do weekends but if you are just so occupied that you can only do it from time to time you enjoy it much more.
So after a few more years, I found out that staying in academia is not anymore an option for me for several reasons. First what was really frustrating me was that it doesn’t matter how well you do experiments you cannot influence results. Second thing was the limited career options or job security. I mean I saw too many excellent scientists in the age of mid forties with family and kids who were super stressed by writing grants and going from one year contract to another one year contract and couldn’t really live a life. And I didn’t want this to happen to me also so I decided that I will leave academia.
As I saw from other colleagues who were applying to jobs, and what they have told me, I was looking around like half a year before my contract ended and started looking for jobs. At this time something really great and lucky happened to me. One very creative and enthusiastic friend of mine from the lab, had the idea to organize a career event for PhD students. The idea was that PhD students organize an event for PhD students because we know what is interesting for us; and invite people in all kinds of jobs, who were former scientists, so they can tell about what kind of jobs they are doing and how they got it. So to learn what kind of opportunities are out there and this was really really a great time! We spent almost one year in preparing that and I’ve learned so much at this time like and teamwork, fundraising, event management and also most important I started to have a network out of academia. And this is really priceless!
I would lie if I would say the time of preparing for job interviews was not a pain. As a scientist, you write a CV which is very scientific, where you write all your great achievements you performed in the lab. But it’s not so interesting often for companies. So kicking out things which are very important for me, like in the lab, was a hard process; but it was also interesting to see and also quite fun how the CV was developing over time.
And I was going to career fairs at this time talking to people from H.R. who were offering to go through some CVs of scientists. I went also to a course for application and skills for scientists who want to leave academia. And this was all very helpful but most important was sitting together with friends and colleagues from Inpharma to discuss job options, job offers, job interviews we had, assessment centers we participate or train job interviews, going through questions that are commonly asked, or going to case studies. And this was extremely useful and after quite some time and many frustrating experiences with job rejections, I finally ended up getting the job offer from Roche in the Startup Program in Marketing & Sales.
And I have to say, if ten years ago somebody would have told me [that] I will work in a Marketing & Sales in a pharmaceutical company I would have probably laughed. But I have to say I really enjoyed the work here because marketing is really my thing! Still in a pharmaceutical companies marketing is based on research. So all the stuff we’ve learned in the lab is very useful – like interpreting data, distinguishing between good and bad research and so on. So I still have a close connection to research but I’m not anymore doing it by myself.
Also the diversity of the job is a super interesting for me because we do so many different things. We still go to conferences, we talk to physicians, to patients, and so on and this is a very very interesting!
But how did I find out that I want to go to marketing this was long time process because I was not really aware of what options are there for scientists in industry.
So for one hand like this Inpharma event was very helpful about this, but also talking to people who work in companies asking them what they are doing and how the daily works looks like; and going to the internet and checking for jobs options. Going to jobs offers and reading the section about what you will do was giving me some insights. Also for sure only reading and talking about it is not the same as doing it by oneself but it gives you a first impression.
Another paradox thing I’ve realized is, I don’t know if this is true, but one is often told [that] the longer you stay in academia the harder it is to get a job in industry. I don’t know actually if this is true, but now since I have a job, I feel like having spend lots of years in academia is very beneficial for my job.
The question of what is useful from academia in industry is first analytical thinking, the presentation skill – you all the time present, in lab meetings or conferences [so] you learn how to present in front of people – to comprehend data, to tell a story, to make understandable slides, and to tell people, which don’t have the same background, [about] data which is quite complicated. This is all very useful also in industry.
What I would have done differently is: First very very important I should have started networking much earlier. Another thing is, I also should have started going to presentation skills course or personal development courses, which were offered by the institute also earlier and not just one year before I’ve decided to leave academia. Another thing, an option would have been to study already economics in parallel to biochemistry at university. A friend at university was doing this; she spend like one to two years more than the other students because she had this parallel studies. And she was a kind of genius but it also gave her the opportunity to directly after diploma start in a very good position in a pharmaceutical company.
But still I don’t regret neither to go to marketing and leave academia, because I’m often asked if I miss academia. I don’t regret it for a minute, because as I already said, markings really my thing. But I also don’t regret to spend so many years in academia because it made me what I am and I wouldn’t be the person, I wouldn’t be where I am at the moment without this experience. And I was recently talking to an experienced colleague at Roche and he was saying something I think very wise – a PhD is not about science, it’s not about research, it’s about self development – and I think this is really true.
Yeah what can say as advice what I learned is: have a look at your work life balance so you don’t burn out. Enjoy life, enjoy the small things in life. And most important be open, network, just be brave enough to talk to people, ask them about what they do, what kind of jobs they do, how does their work look like because in general people like to talk about their experiences and their work. So just feel free to do this, connect to linkedin, go to job fair. And most important – challenges and failures – see it as an opportunity. They always happen but if a door closes, another opens.
Keep an open mindset and if opportunity doesn’t come to you, create your own opportunity. So I wish you all the best for career and life and thanks for listening to my part.
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