#098: Dr. Evelina Kulcinskaja Story

Transcript:

Hello and welcome to PhD Career Stories, the podcast about career paths inside and outside academia. My name is Rui Cruz and I am very happy to introduce Evelina Kulcinskaja to you. Evelina works as a Lab Manager at a Pharmaceutical company in Sweden, and in today’s podcast she will tell us the story of her transition from academia to industry. 

Evelina will also share with us some reflections on her journey, as well some useful tips and tricks for researchers in different stages of their careers. We hope that her story will be inspiring to you and that you enjoy this episode of PhD Career Stories!

My name is Evelina Kulcinskaja and I have a PhD in biochemistry. I defended my thesis at Lund University in 2015 and I now work as a Lab Manager at a Pharmaceutical company.

I have been interested in science since childhood, because it explains the world around us. I particularly liked biochemistry, because it describes the processes of life. After finishing school, I applied to the molecular biology program to Lund University. I chose Lund because, out of Sweden’s top universities, that’s the closest one to my home town. I knew I wanted to do research, so I also knew I should do a PhD after I finish my studies. While still being a student I was checking job advertisements to know what jobs are out there and what the requirements are. The jobs that seemed interesting they also required a PhD.

When it came to choosing a topic for the master thesis, I wanted to do it in a group where I could also stay to do a PhD. I wanted to make sure that I liked the supervisor and the group and it is also easier to get a position if the PI already knows you. I heard one lecturer talk about his research and I thought it was very thought through and could be applied in a broad range of interesting topics from biofuels to medicine. I asked if I could do my thesis there. It was possible and I started some months later. Towards the end of my thesis, my PI got a grant for a PhD position, I applied and got the position. Doing a PhD in biochemistry, you have a research project, or several parallel ones, that you need to drive, together with your supervisor and sometimes in collaboration with other PhD students. I knew I would like this type of work, and I did enjoy it. 

While I was doing the PhD was quite different than I imagined. Previously, I knew I was doing alright by seeing my exam results, but in a PhD it is much harder to get objective feedback on your performance. There are general requirements for what a PhD degree is, but there are no specific requirements for your project, as no-one has done it before and no-one has the answers beforehand. You cannot get a detailed description of what exactly you should know and do. It is hard to know how far along you have come at any given point of time, and this was very stressful to me. I thought that keeping my work-life balance would be easy because I knew that it was important, but realized that it was not always the case. As I was unsure of how well I was doing and that made me worry about not being good or smart enough for the PhD. As some experiments failed, I sometimes stayed in the evenings or weekends to re-do them. Skipping doing things that I used to do made me feel like I lost part of myself. If I were to give one piece of advice to current and future PhD students, that would be to keep doing the things you love in your free time. That is what can keep you motivated to go through with your PhD. 

It can be easy to forget the bigger picture and get disappointed when one of your projects doesn’t work. It helped me to do non-research activities within work and doing hobbies outside of work.  Also talking to other PhD students and knowing that they share my struggles helped me a lot. We were a large division with about 40 PhD students, so there were plenty of people to talk to. I also got to teach lab courses and also supervise master students. I liked this a lot because it means that I can share the knowledge that I have once received with a new generation. I am not very motivated when it comes to writing, so I was struggling with writing my PhD thesis. My supervisor realized this, and made me hand in drafts with regular intervals, and that really helped me a lot to progress. If you struggle with writing, I would definitely advise you to ask your supervisor to read your drafts after certain deadlines. If your supervisor does not agree to doing this, ask your co-supervisor or someone in your group, but agree up on a deadline and hand in your draft at that time.

Doing the PhD was tough at times, but I really knew that I wanted to have the PhD degree, so that was my motivation.  I had disagreements with my supervisor, two out of my main three projects didn’t work, but I had several interesting collaborations within and outside the group, gave oral presentations at several conferences, and had five scientific publications, although three of those were published after I defended. The further I came in my career, the more I realized that staying in academia is not for me. The current funding system, with short-term grants, makes it hard to plan for the future and the pressure researchers have to publish doesn’t promote the best projects. There is a rush to publish which can diminish quality of research. Finally, I also realized that I would just not be happy being a PI, because I would worry too much about having enough funding for my PhD students to do the experiments that they need to do. A professor, who had been in industry and then went back to academia, said: “in industry, there is more structure around what you need to do. In academia, you are more free to do the research you want.” Since then, I never doubted that academia was not for me. The lack of structure, feed-back and clear, long-term goals really stressed me out.

When I got my PhD degree, I had only ever known one lab and one university and I wanted to see what academic research was like elsewhere. I also knew that post-doctoral research experience is a must for future academic positions, and I wanted to keep that door open. I also saw the post-doc as a possibility to go abroad, broaden my skill set and learn a new culture. I applied for four post-doc positions that I found through jobs.ac.uk portal. I got two interviews and one offer at The University of Nottingham, in the United Kingdom. I would work in a new cross-disciplinary group that was setting up. This was exciting, because I got to do some organizational work, establish standard operating procedures for the biochemistry work and train 9 students in biochemical methods. I also had my main research project. I got three publications out of the post-doc although no first-author because someone else published similar work earlier than us. I went to two international conferences and several national meetings. As I knew I didn’t want to stay in academia it did feel like a procrastination period before I start a permanent job, but now I see the experience has really contributed to broaden my skill set. I am happy about having taken the opportunity to do the post-doc. 

I started applying for jobs in July, 3 months before my post-doc ended, and got an offer in April 3rd the following year. I was unemployed for seven months. During this period, I applied for 25 positions and I kept track of them in an excel sheet. To apply to each job took about two days. I would read the advertisement, check the company webpage, and read between the lines, to find out what kind of person are they looking for. I would then think about how I can fit that image with my qualities and experience and write a personal letter from scratch for that position, having that image in my own head. I would check what I have written the following day, to have time to let it rest and to see what I had written, with new eyes. I always tried have at least two applications submitted while I was waiting for the reply, so that in case of rejection from one of them, I knew I had one more that might be positive. 

I had four interviews for different positions. My suggestion when it comes to the interview is be sure why you want the position. They will ask you this, and you need to answer with confidence. Also be prepared to justify everything you have written in your CV and personal letter. Actually, make sure you can justify and give examples while you are still writing the application and omit any statement that you are not able to back up with examples from your life, either professional or personal.

I noticed that it was not the positions that I thought that I would fit for the best that were the ones that I was interviewed for, so don’t worry if you don’t get called for an interview where you thought you were the perfect fit for the position.

During the post-doc, I realized that I like research planning and data evaluation as well as the organizational part, rather than doing experiments. I also wished I had more time to devote to organizing the lab. I found the job advertisement for the lab manager position at a pharmaceutical company on a recruitment firm’s webpage. I read the advertisement carefully, thought of the kind of person they wanted, prepared what to say and what to ask and then called the recruiter. She was very happy to hear from me and said I should definitely apply for the job. I did and I got an interview. After two more interviews, I got the job offer.

During the interview I was of course asked how I feel that I would not be doing research. Working at a pharmaceutical company, so many people of all roles are involved in the process of getting a drug to market. As a lab manager, I can contribute to improving the processes at the company and therefore be part of the drug development, even if not directly. Even as a researcher, you never know which molecules will be successful pharmaceuticals, so making successful drug molecules cannot be the only thing that motivates you. As a Lab Manager, I am taking care of the practical aspects of a laboratory, shared by about 70 scientists. My work is a lab service, aimed at making sure the researchers can focus on their research. I help with safety, improving ways of work and organizing lab meetings. It is a challenging role where you need to solve problems and make improvements. It involves lots of gathering of information and communication.

A PhD was not a direct requirement for the position, but research experience and communication was. For me, doing a PhD was the fastest way to get a broad experience and skill set needed for this position. As a PhD student, I learned lots of transferable skills, such as compiling and sorting information, written and oral communication, negotiation with your supervisor, team work in the group, and a broad range of laboratory skills. As part of our research school committee, I also got organizational skills and as a post-doc, I got the experience of setting up and running the practical aspects of a laboratory. If you have not had the opportunity to practice these skills during your PhD or post-doc, maybe you have obtained them via your extracurricular activities or hobbies. In that case you can also add them to your CV if the job requires that type of experience.

People ask me if I think they should do a PhD, and I answer that it really depends. If you are thinking of doing a PhD, ask yourself the following questions: What kind of job do you want? A lot of interesting jobs do not require a PhD.  Would you enjoy the process of working in a scientific project, doing something that has not been done before, and hence, no-one really knows how to do it? Sometimes you will discover something new, but sometimes discovering that your project doesn’t work at all. Another thing to keep in mind is that your discoveries will most likely be of interest to a small circle of experts, rather than to the general public. If this type of work doesn’t appeal, perhaps a PhD will be a struggle for you. Another thing to keep in mind is that in science, as a PhD student you are part of a research group, but for example in Humanities, you do the work mostly on your own. 

Something will be tough in every PhD. It can be your relationship with your supervisor, your research group or colleagues, lack of resources or just several projects that don’t work. You will need to find the motivation inside you to get through that. For me it was that having a PhD degree was my life’s dream. For someone else it might be something else. But you have to find the motivation. If you decided that a PhD is right for you, contact the group you want to work in, even if they don’t have open positions right now. Read up on the kind of work the group does. Ask if you can do your thesis in the group, or, if you already have your degree, ask if you can do project work. A PhD will take a lot of time, but you also need to have something more in life which is important to you. It could be a hobby, sport or something else that matters to you. At some point, your research will not go as planned. If research is all you have in life and it goes wrong, then in that period, it will seem your whole life has gone wrong. That can make you doubt yourself and lose motivation. 

Finally, if you want to have an academic career, be open about other options. The competition for academic positions is very high and there might not be any openings when you are ready to apply. I always thought that I wanted to do research, but currently I don’t. There are jobs for PhDs that don’t involve research, but help science to progress. I don’t know if I will be able to go back to doing research in the future, but I am sure that there are interesting jobs out there, promoting and helping science.

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, LinkedIn, 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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