Prateek Mahalwar is originally from India and completed his PhD under the supervision of Nobel laureate Prof. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, Germany. During this time, he studied the cellular mechanism of pigment pattern formation in zebrafish. Beside his PhD research, he was involved in several initiatives with Max Planck Society (MPG) stakeholders as the spokesperson and deputy spokesperson of the Max Planck PhDnet in 2015 and 2014 respectively. He has represented the MPG at several internal and external initiatives like Opencon (a global open science initiative), Early Career Researchers (ECR) advisory board member at eLife, science policy meetings with Science Europe and Open Access Ambassadors program at MPG.
He has been an entrepreneur as well and co-founded two start-ups in parallel to his PhD studies. Currently, he is working as Manager Strategy - Life Sciences at Ernst & Young in Frankfurt. His work includes advising biotechnology, pharma and MedTech companies on investment, product commercialization and digitization topics.
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Here I have a young man, Prateek Mahalwar, who works as a manager at Ernst & Young in Frankfurt.
Tina: Great to have you here. Thank you for letting me interview you.
Prateek: Thank you.
Tina: I’m curious, when did you finish your PhD and why did you start doing one?
Prateek: To give a little bit of background, I did my PhD in Tübingen on developmental biology in Genetics with Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard. I started my PhD in 2011 and finished in early 2016. Why I started it? Because I love science! I did my master thesis at Max Planck and it worked quite well. My boss asked me if I wanted to do my PhD with her and she’s a Nobel laureate, so saying ‘no’ did not fit well. Besides, she gave me a lot of freedom to choose my own topic and whatever I wanted to do. Also, Max Planck is a well-known name. That’s a few of the reasons why I started a PhD. It was very defined from the beginning of my studies that I wanted to do a PhD, not just for the namesake, but more because I love science.
Tina: What initiated your decision to leave academia?
Prateek: In the first two years I had a very hard time. I jumped onto one project from another, one failure to another. ‘This is not working, that is not working.’ I was often thinking about what was going to happen if nothing worked, if I graduated without a paper or successful results. A postdoc would probably not have helped me. What kind of career would I have had in the future? Suddenly, I got a success, things worked, I got a first-author Science publication in my third year. I had also seen other people in academia who were very successful scientists, very brainy, but the overall scientific society is changing. Fundings are going down. Many people are there and positions are becoming fewer and fewer. It’s a very uncertain world, at least from my point of view. At that point I thought about whether I really wanted to continue in academia or if there were possibilities outside academia to flourish what I had learned in my academic life.
Tina: If you try to describe the feelings you had at the end of your PhD when you decided to leave, what feelings were connected to you leaving?
Prateek: I was not sure and a little bit sad when I joined industry. Now I’m a consultant by body and brain, but by heart I’m still a scientist. When I was leaving academia, I was not sure whether or not I was going to stay in science because I had some good publications next to me, some good recommendation letters from a Nobel laureate. I was also thinking about what my future was going to be after a postdoc, whether I was going to be a group leader or how I would become an assistant or associate professor. I was very confused but I applied to industry as well as academia. I got some postdoc offers and some industry offers. I would write down on a paper trying to visualize and think in terms of a tangible future, what was more probable and definitely also thinking about what made me happy. I felt more happy outside than inside the lab. I think that was the major decision point, that I wanted to be more outside the lab.
Tina: You did an inventory. What did you write down on the paper?
Prateek: I made a simple Excel sheet on what industry and academia had to offer. For example, if I’m a postdoc for four years, what I could get out of that experience and equivalently after four years of industry experience – that experience would count much more in openness. Basically what my possibilities would be after four years of experience here and there. Also, at this age, you think about family. So how probable it is that you will be able to settle down in terms of a family. I’m a little bit ambitious, I always want to do big things in life. I thought that the academic system would probably restrict me because I would be running around behind tenure and things which are very set goal points in academia. I want more freedom in my career, which can only be obtained through industry.
Tina: Many people say they like academia because of the freedom. What I hear is that you left academia because you needed more space and freedom to make a choice on your own.
Prateek: In industry you have your own freedom in terms of making a career move. If I work in consulting for two years, it might be that I switch to something after a few years and then switch to something else. In academia it’s very set. You have to do a postdoc for a few years, then be group leader and after that assistant and associate professor. These are set milestones.
Tina: Today, working at Ernst & Young, what would you say are the most important skills that you learned as a PhD and can make use of?
Prateek: Definitely a lot around ideation. How to think innovatively and how to test the ideas. Also, time management and project management, presentation skills, talking to people, explaining my ideas. Especially from conferences like Visions in Science I have learned to talk to people within Max Planck and explain my very specific research to someone who has no idea about biology. This helps a lot in industry if you’re talking to other people and want to explain complex ideas in a very simple format.
Tina: That’s an important skill and we (PhDs) have learned it. What did you have to improve, or maybe you didn’t, but what soft skills did you have to improve or have you learned at Ernst & Young?
Prateek: I have definitely learned a lot and also have had to improve a lot. We’re not used to those processes in academia which businesses are running at. A lot of verbal communications that are on very different level. You do sales and marketing in consulting to sell your projects if you’re a manager. So I learned how to do those things. How to talk to CEOs. How to be very confident about your ideas and speak up. On top of that, how to talk in a very structured manner and not lose track of the topic of what you’re communicating. You always have little time with the CEO, it’s just one minute to pitch something. You have to catch their attention in a structured way of communicating. One minute is going to change your life! That’s really what I have learned. I’m not saying that I’m a master of it, but I’m on my way.
Tina: That’s an elevator pitch you’re talking about, that’s what we train in career development. That’s what you feel like you had to improve in industry. Is that something you could have trained as a PhD student?
Prateek: I think so. There were several courses which we could take, like good presentation skills, how to do pitches, especially in front of non-scientific crowds, how to write proposals without estimating that the person reading it would understand by themselves. Things that every PhD student should do. I would highly recommend it because you need it in the future, whether or not you go inside our outside academia.
Tina: Yes, just looking for a job, you still need an elevator pitch. So, what would you like to share with PhDs listening to this podcast? We might have listeners who are unemployed at the moment, or between jobs as I prefer to say. There might be PhDs and postdocs who are thinking about leaving academia but don’t know how to do it.
Prateek: First of all I want to say that most people fail. Don’t give up. Believe in yourself. Try again and again and again. Some big guy said to me, ‘Fake it until you make it.’ I follow that principle on a very a straight line. Beside this, I want to say that if you’re working on a project, there might be only one thing out of ten that works. It might not be very sexy, but go ahead with this and finish your PhD. There’s a bigger world outside waiting for you. For people who are confused and sitting at the border, write down what you want from your life, what you want to be in the next five or ten years. Plan small reachable goals. Think and dream high, but plan for reachable goals. Your dream is something that will help you draft those goals, but write it down and don’t think about what other people will think about you. Do what you want and makes you happy. What are your goals in life? You are probably not going to realize today, but in five years, that you took the right decision.
Tina: Anything else that you would like to add?
Prateek: I would like to add that you PhDs are the brains of the society. Don’t underestimate yourself. You have learned so much during your PhD. You have so many qualities. Just a little sharpening of these qualities can result in a very good job. Always position yourself highly in front of others. Whenever you go to an interview, prepare well. On top of that, there are several free online courses. Go to Coursera or MIT OpenCourseWare. Read about finance and the basics of economics. These things will help you understand the words other people are using. You will find yourself in the same league, maybe even a little ahead in terms of innovation and ideas.
Tina: Thank you very much for this fantastic interview, Prateek. It’s been a pleasure for me to talk to you. I look forward to meeting you again, maybe at the next Max Planck Alumni meeting. That’s something I’d like to share -- I met Prateek through the Max Planck Alumni Association. For you PhDs who would like to network and socialize but maybe feel a little shy, why not join an alumni club?