#089: Svante Hedstrom Story

In this episode, Dr. Svante Hedstrom will tell us about his story and about his transition from academia to industry. He will also share with us some reflections on his journey and how important it is sometimes to leave our comfort zone. After his PhD, Svante followed the path of “least resistance”, which was postdoc-ing. With time he realized that it was not the best path for him and thus decided to leave academia. He is currently working as a chemistry specialist at a private company in Sweden. He will also tell us about how it is to work outside academia.

The conclusion is: don’t stay in academia just because you’re used to it, just because it’s in your comfort zone, that you’re familiar to the environment“.

Dr. Svante Hedstrom

To know more about Svante’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!

Transcript

Hello and welcome to PhD Career Stories, the podcast about career paths inside and outside academia. My name is Rui Cruz and I’m very happy to introduce Svante Hedstrom to you. Svante works as a chemistry specialist at a private company in Sweden and in today’s podcast, he will tell us the story of his transition from academia to industry. Svante will also share with us some reflections on his journey and how important it is sometimes to leave our comfort zone. We hope that his story will be inspiring to you and that you enjoy this episode of PhD Career Stories.

Hello!! My name is Svante and I was asked to contribute to PhD Career Stories by Paulius, friend of mine and former coworker and he’s one of the people behind PhD Career Stories. I was thinking that I would talk to you a little bit about my story as a researcher, PhD student and then Postdoc and I’m gonna start by going through my experiences chronologically and then I’m gonna delve into a few aspects a bit deeper than I thought were less important and that I now consider important about my career as a researcher in academia.

Right so, I’m from Sweden, northern Sweden, small small place in the middle of nowhere and then I moved to Stockholm, the capital of Sweden to study. I  studied chemistry there for five years getting what is equivalent to a bachelor and a master within the same program. And it turned out that I really liked the more theoretical subjects. I was never much of a person who liked labs. Most of my classmates thought that labs were the most interesting thing but that never really clicked with me. I liked theory, calculating… I loved computers, to use computer software already at an early stage… a bit of computer nerd private too. 

So that meant that when it came to choosing a master’s project, by the end of my studies, it turned out to be much more interesting to go into a research group at the university doing theoretical chemistry than to go into a company or so which most of my classmates did, at least very many of them. So it was a good…the reason I chose this master’s thesis project was mainly because the professor of that group had been a good teacher in two courses and one of them was right before choosing master’s thesis projects. So it was a very very simple choice for me to just talk to this professor, ask if there was a place in his, in his lab to do a master’s project, if he had any projects lying around… and he did it.. even announced that this could be a possibility during this course. So essentially I followed the path of least resistance when it comes to master’s thesis project and this will turn out to be quite important because if I hadn’t chosen this master’s thesis project I would probably never have gone into academia. Generally for me when I was young and partly also now, I tended not to think through my steps too thoroughly but rather go where in the direction my nose points as you say in Swedish… that I essentially just go with the flow, see what turns out…yeah, take the path of least resistance.  As I become older, become a little bit more…a little bit better at visualizing where I want to go in life, what I want to do, who I want to be, although not so much but but at least more than before. So master’s thesis project in a research group at the same university where I did my studies, and the group happened to be a theoretical computational chemistry group, so working with computers, computer software, simulations to answer questions in chemistry. Specifically, my project was about solar energy, there is a particular kind of solar cell that it’s not like the normal silicon solar cells that most people are familiar with, but based on a different technology. This is was at the time a quite new and upcoming technology, now it’s obsolete…But anyway at that time there was a lot of research efforts going into this. So for me, interested in sustainable development, sustainable society, sustainable energy production as a part of that, this became a..an ideal thesis work I think, master’s thesis work. 

So half a year passed, master’s thesis project in Sweden is supposed to take half a year and I wasn’t quite finished but I was finishing up, after some initial setbacks, I had to change the angle of my project a little bit..yeah, not really that interesting but but what is more interesting is that as I was finishing up, I wanted to leave Sweden. So I thought now I’ve been studying all through primary school up to secondary school and then high school and then university with no interruption… just continuous studying and so as I was finishing my master’s thesis and and also my master’s degree then…and I thought: well it’s time to take a little break, see something else, do something else and I I’ve always loved traveling and luckily I had some money saved up and so I decided to go out into the World, to travel a bit. Where to go? well I had previously done an exchange year as an exchange student one year in Spain.uhm, it didn’t tempt me so much. I wasn’t in contact very much with those people but my best friend since youth lived in New Zealand at the time as an exchange student. So perfect! So I decided that even before my master’s thesis project was probably finished I went to New Zealand to spend some time with my friend. 

I thought: well… it would be good to have some kind of job, I could work maybe in a bar but since I had already tried my fortune in an academic research group I sent a few emails to professors in the Chemistry department in the city in New Zealand where I was going and asked if there could be a possibility for me to work as a research assistant, for a few weeks, months, unclear…for a short time, to be decided.  And I was very lucky… one professor must have been, I guess interested in in my previous research because he was working on similar things with these types of solar cells that I had previously been working with… So he said that, yeah there should be a possibility for me to work as a research assistant for a few weeks, at least. 

So great! I was very very lucky I would have gone there anyway but now it makes even more sense. I could pay for at least the plane tickets there and back to Sweden with the money I would be earning, I could live cheaply, initially at my best friend’s couch and then I could live in student housing which I probably shouldn’t have been entitled to because I wasn’t student .. I was employed by the university but somehow they were generous and I could stay at the student housing… I of course spent all my time with the exchange students living essentially what felt as an exchange student life with the difference that I had a small salary. And I liked I liked it there. In the two months that I was working I didn’t get any proper research done. I barely got set up and got started on the project. I mean, I was a very very young in academia at the time, and two months is way too little for someone who’s not even started a PhD yet, to get any results of note. During this time I was also course considering what to do next and I had already an idea that I might do a PhD after. 

So in my group in Sweden where I did my master’s thesis work, of course there were PhD students in that group and they seemed to like it. And they seemed nice and I liked the environment… I mean, I still like their academic environment a lot… so it just felt like the path of least resistance to do PhD. So I applied for a few PhD positions in Sweden and a couple of them before I was finished with my master’s thesis work and I didn’t get them. I I had one interview. It went reasonably well but in the end they decided to go with other candidates but I wasn’t discouraged… so so I applied again when a new position came up came up in Sweden during the time I was in New Zealand, in a completely different city of Sweden but it was the perfect topic…it was again related to these kind of solar cells that I have been working with…so probably I was the ideal candidate for the position and very soon after I applied, the professor contacted me and and wanted to arrange an interview. So I thought, well my time in New Zealand might be cut a little short but this is a great opportunity I thought, to keep on doing the research related to what I had been doing. so and it’s again, was definitely the path of least resistance otherwise I would have had to figure out how to get a job in industry or or elsewhere in the public sector and I had no idea about that, I didn’t know who I would even ask… so academia I knew a little bit, was comfortable in with and familiar with so is there very easy to accept this position as a PhD student in the city of Lund, in southern Sweden, so completely different end of Sweden. 

So I started my PhD, it went quite well… so I met a lot of interesting friends, co-workers, other PhD students, postdocs in Lund… and I really liked the environment in academia. Research was okay, I didn’t apply myself very much in the beginning and my adviser was not pushing a lot, so I had a very easy life the first couple of years. In the, after two, almost three years, then I started realizing that, well I went to graduate, I want to have a nice PhD thesis, I started to pick up the pace. And just for my own sake, I was maybe perhaps a little tired of taking it easy… I mean I had my first article after two years, which is little on the late side perhaps but but after that it’s kind of got rolling in and then in the end I had a nice PhD thesis. But as my PhD was drawing to a close I still hadn’t given it a proper thought what I really wanted. It was essentially the same situation as before I started my PhD. That is, I didn’t know how would even go about getting a job outside academia, and I knew academia now so well that it was much easier to contemplate where to do a postdoc then how to get out of academia. And it went reasonably well during my PhD thesis, I think was quite nice so so I realized it wouldn’t be difficult to find a postdoc position. 

Postdocs are popular, right? They do good research, they get the papers out, they don’t have to teach, they don’t have to take courses, so understandably professors are very keen to take on a postdoc that has shown some productivity. And indeed, for me, it was quite easy to find a postdoc: I got two yesses from professors that I had been emailing, I essentially just made a list of prospective professors that I thought did interesting things fairly related to what I did, and I, I simply mailed them and said: this is me (very short email) and then I also attached a longer motivational letter, a cover letter and and my CV and said would there be a chance, can/is there something we can discuss, do you have funding, I can also apply for funding…you know, probably standard stuff. And and I got two tentative yesses, I decided in the end to go to.. (actually I got three, I think positive replies) and I decided to go to the U. S., it’s a great country for research and this was a good university too, I reasonably well known professor in the field, everything felt right. The only thing that wasn’t great was the fact that my girlfriend was still in Sweden, was still studying but we decided eventually, that she would come with me. And in order for that to happen we got married so that she could get a visa to the US, otherwise that can be a bit tricky so consider that anyone who wants to do postdoc in the U. S. if you want to take your partner, you better be married or it’s going to be very difficult to get a visa, otherwise your partner will have to get her own visa. 

Right so, I landed my first postdoc, no sweat, actually quite easy. Went to the U.S. of course this was…had its challenges both practically, I mean packing everything, moving to a different continent…I had lived abroad before but U.S. is a bit special with with a visa requirements they are not… it’s not as easy to to live there as for example Spain that I lived in there before, or New Zealand which was also very easy to get a working holiday visa. So in the U.S. I, you know, had my head down, did a lot of research, worked long days, I knew I had to be there for a limited time because my wife could only be there with me for one year because she could only take one year off her studies, and then she would have to go back to Sweden. So I kept my head on and and worked worked worked a lot. I mean I was averaging nine, ten hours a day, yeah maybe fifty hours a week at least initially, and it went fairly well… I mean I I was productive and so on, but by now I should have really started to contemplate is this really what I want to do but I didn’t really think it through so much…I mean since it went well objectively speaking, I published my papers, and I was fairly well liked by the professor and the collaborators and…you know it was…yeah… I was I was fitting in, then it gave me no real immediate reason to question my choices: should I be here?, is this what I want to do?

So then after one year in the U.S., my wife went back to Sweden and then I kept working hard but I started to look for…I realized I I started I had to start look for the next step! And this is when I started to contemplate to also apply for jobs outside academia. I was still focused on academia, my thinking was that I at least need to give it a proper shot, at least need to try to get an independent researcher positions, assistant professorship or or similar. So I applied mostly for such positions, I also was starting to contemplate a second postdoc, I was applying yeah… assistant professorships pretty much all over the all over the world, well the west let’s say; North America and and mostly Europe. I sort of wanted to go back to Europe especially since that’s where my wife was. And I was looking for positions…didn’t have a lot of luck, had no luck to be honest in terms of independent researcher positions. I was still a young researcher, I’d only done one postdoc…at this time.. by by this time it was one one year of postdocing, so I was very young so I realized this is probably too soon for me, to come in question for more senior researcher positions but I kept applying, figured it’s good practice…I interacted a lot with the other postdocs in the group and in adjacent groups so we had this job application grouping where we would meet once every two weeks or so, to practice our CV writing, our cover letter writing, our, what do we call it, research proposals so when you apply to become an independent research of course you have to show a proposal, what is it that you want to study, want to research if you get the position, these are very important and we gave it a lot of time and effort and that was I think very useful. 

When I started looking for senior positions, the first applications were very bad I I didn’t really know what was expected…but with practice and with the help of fellow postdocs who were also looking for jobs, got lot better. The time went by I didn’t find anything as a senior researcher and I hadn’t quite started to look for a lot of jobs outside academia maybe one or two which were particularly ones where I would do research similar to what I was doing in academia but in a private company. 

When one and a half year of my first postdoc in the U. S. had passed I applied to a couple of second postdoc position in Sweden…I wanted to go back to Sweden, back to my wife, especially back to Europe in general but Sweden was was a good place, I was missing it a little bit. And I found a great second postdoc and I accepted it. It was in Stockholm, a city that I lived in, and studied in before, so I knew the city, my wife was just about to finish her studies in a different city so it looked, it looked nice…we could both move to Stockholm, move in together after almost one year of living apart, living in different continents…that’s a challenge in itself but not something that I will discuss so much here, I think. So second postdoc in Stockholm, city I lived in before, the capital of my home country and it went quite okay. The interview was very nice, the professor, after almost a whole day of interviewing and presenting myself and my previous research, the interview finished with the professor inviting me and PhD students and postdocs in his group out to dinner. So it was on him but he wasn’t there so gave us a chance to chat about the professor. I thought I was a very nice gesture so I was very optimistic and thought it would seem…seem very nice during the interview and that’s why I accepted it. And…and this started…and the research again went quite…well, I mean, I would say probably better than average but not exceptionally well. 

And yeah I of course then from the very first moment, I started applying for jobs…and that’s what you want to you do when you are a postdoc…You’re a postdoc only until you can find a better or or just the next job. And by this time I had started to applying more and more outside academia. I had more more doubts… let’s say it became more and more clear that in order to get these senior researcher positions, you really have to be not just good, not even just great, but quite extraordinary. Very few of those who want to and apply for these kind of positions can get them. The demand is just higher than the supply, simple math. And this had become more and more clear to me, so I branched out more and applied to more jobs outside academia. And I think during my first year of my second postdoc in Stockholm, I applied to some five or maybe, ten assistant professorships and at least ten jobs outside academia, both in the public sector, different departments in Sweden, but mostly of course, industry, private companies…but nothing, nothing came back positive. And privately, at home I had become really at home in Stockholm, I really enjoyed living there, so I started to realize that it’s more important for me to stay in Stockholm, to stay in the apartment where me and my wife lived, then to stay in academia. This this took some time to realize but eventually it became clear that a third postdoc, moving again, moving somewhere else, keep working as a postdoc with low pay, low job security, hard very hard work expected, quite long days (not that the professors in Sweden really force you to work longer than forty hours a week but it’s on yourself). I’m sure a lot of you can can relate that as a postdoc, and also as a PhD student, you want to… you want to make it, and you want to do well because you want to bolster your own CV,  you want to get your publications and do the outreach, do extracurricular activities because you’re responsible for your own projects and your, and your CV has to be super strong if you want to make it in academia. So that’s how I acted as a postdoc…I worked very hard. In the beginning of my PhD I hadn’t realized this, but during my postdocs, I definitely did and I worked very hard as a result. And thus the prospect of a third postdoc became less and less appealing. So there was one company which responded positively to my my application to to a job ad, it was just on the Swedish authorities, what do you call it, job market place, where a lot of jobs in Sweden are announced, run by the Swedish authorities. And so I applied there and they actually gave me an interview and even a second interview but then at the last moment, they went with someone else. Of course I was disappointed because this was the only place where I had gotten any kind of positive feedback, and I was, you know, I was a bit disillusioned I thought I had a quite strong CV, I mean, I thought I had that was very qualified and good candidate for a lot of the jobs that I had applied for, especially outside academia the ones for senior researcher positions, I knew that I was still academically young but, but the companies where I had applied…I thought, I thought I was a good candidate for the ones that I applied and still nothing from most of them. Eventually after again almost, almost one and a half year of my second postdoc, the same company that I had applied for before, announced a new job which was similar to the previous one and I applied again and this time I wrote explicitly in the cover letter that now I’m really sure that I’m ready to leave academia. Because I hadn’t been sure previously and I think that’s why I didn’t get the first job that I applied for there… because I was still sort of trying, hoping, plan A was still to become an independent researcher. So by the second time I made it clear that I’m ready to leave academia, I would love to work here and if I get the job I would for sure accept… and I think that did the trick, because this, for the second time with this company they were very quite quick to to give me an interview and to offer me the job. 

And I’ve now worked at that company for almost exactly one year…so one year ago I left academia after two postdocs, one PhD and one short period as a research assistant and one master’s thesis project in four different places I have… four different labs I have done academic research. So a big decision to leave academia of course, after such a long time and knowing nothing about the private sector but it felt I don’t know if it felt right but it felt like it was it was the right time to sort of give up my academic dreams if you will. But it didn’t really feel like giving up because I was a little tired of it I was tired of living as a postdoc with no job security… And I knew that even if I get an assistant professorship I would have to keep applying for money, always be on the lookout for new funding opportunities and never just be content and and rest so to say, just focus on the research you know and always look out for the next thing, always look out for the next student, next postdoc, next collaboration, the next funding opportunity…I was… I was a little tired of it…and after changing… changing fields, going into the private sector, this was a load off my shoulders to not have to think about this. I can do my eight-to-five, my eight hours a day, and then I can go home and not have to think about work. I don’t have to put in a lot of hours, I don’t have to be so I don’t have to work so much to bolster my CV. I can just focus on doing my work, doing my part just a small part of a much bigger company, get my pay check (which is, by the way, much bigger of course then then as a postdoc), and then focus on stuff I want to do on my free time in my free time, instead of being worried about research. Of course I didn’t know that this would be the case before I left…I had…I had an idea I had a feeling that it could be the case but then I experienced it first-hand once I left. And so knowing what I know, in hindsight, academia is probably not for me…I did okay and I performed well and you know, one thing led to another, one paper led to the next, one collaboration led to the next, one position led to the next…so it was easy to stay. It was the easy choice, I didn’t have to do any soul searching I didn’t have to make any real efforts, I didn’t have to ask myself or visualize my future…those things were too hard, I didn’t have the energy or the will to do those at the time so I just stayed because it was the path of least resistance. 

So do I regret not leaving earlier? I mean having a PhD is a really nice thing… I’m very proud of, you know, being a doctor…It’s…I’ve learned, of course a lot… and a lot of people at my current workplace do have a PhD… I’m still a researcher, still working in a research division of a company so I don’t regret doing a PhD…and I think doing a PhD anyone who don’t really dislike doing a PhD could do it and could benefit from it, and maybe should do it at least if it works out, and if they find one, if they find a group where they like it, doing a PhD is rarely a bad idea. But the problem is staying after…so I did, not one but two postdocs when I probably knowing what I know now, should have done zero postdocs, should have left after my PhD. But it felt a little wrong because I did well and my PhD advisor thought I did so well, he really encouraged me to keep researching, to find a good postdoc advisor…And of course my PhD advisor just wanted what’s best for me, he thought that I was interested because I kind of expressed interest and I, you know, I came to work and did my research, and was interested in the research so I guess he just assumed that this was the right path for me and that made me assume it too. 

I think I’ve said what I wanted to say so the conclusion is…don’t stay in academia just because you’re used to it, just because it’s in your comfort zone, that you’re familiar to the environment, and that it’s a very nice environment…I really like the academic environment, I would, in a way, love to go back to that because you have a lot of smart people around you, interested people, nerds, you know, people like me…but but in the end, the stress and the competition mean that only those who are really quite sure that this is what they prefer to do and those that actually have a real shot at getting an assistant professorship so they can start their independent career, only those people I would recommend to stay in academia. And they are quite a few…they are much fewer than all the people who are doing PhDs and postdocs. So with that, I want to thank you for listening and, and thanks to Paulius, who asked me to do this. It’s…it was kind of fun to share my stories. Great! So from Stockholm, Sweden over and out. Thank you. 

And that is it for another episode of PhD Career stories. As always, we would love to hear from you. You can contact us by commenting on our blog, Facebook, LinkdIn or Twitter. If you like what we do, please subscribe to our show on iTunes or Spotify. So that’s goodbye for now, but we will be back with a new story for you in two weeks’ time.

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