Thank you for this great podcast! Inspiring story. It reminds me of when I was young and working as a florist in France, I had to work hard. I visited many countries and finally made it into research. Congrats on your wonderful career!
Dr. to be Natalia Bielczyk is just about to get her PhD in Neurosciences. Meanwhile, she launched a foundation and founded a company that helps researchers to develop careers beyond academia. In today's episode Natalia shares her story and how she became an entrepreneur.
Welcome to a new podcast in PhD Career Stories. In today’s podcast, Dr. to be Natalia Bielczyk shares her journey from her homeland Poland to the Netherlands and the different steps she took to become an entrepreneur. Natalia is just about to get her PhD in Neuroscience at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition, and Behavior in Nijmegen. In 2018, she launched a foundation, Stichting Solaris Onderzoek en Ontwikkeling, that offers free consultancy to early career researchers interested in self-development or search for new careers in industry. Furthermore, in 2019, Natalia established, Ontology of Value, a company that helps researchers to develop careers beyond academia. She also wrote a book entitled “What is out there for me? The landscape of post-PhD career tracks.” Natalia brings us to a journey of self-discovery and recalls how she navigated herself from academia towards the open job market to finally become an entrepreneur.
Academic CV: https://www.nataliabielczyk.com/archive
To know more about Natalia´s journey, 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.
Hello! My name is Natalia, and today, I would like to tell you a little bit about my personal story and about all the events that led me to the place where I am now. First of all, I would like to thank to the organizers of this podcast for inviting me. I am very happy that I can share with you today!
I would like to start really early as I have a feeling that everything that happened in the early age, really mattered for what happened next. I am Polish originally. I now live in the Netherlands but I was raised in Southern Poland, in Katowice — which is an industrial city, not very rich and not very modern. When I was a kid, my family lived in a dangerous neighborhood with high crime rates. I feel that the story of my best friend gives the best picture of what kind of environment that was because when we were both 8, she was strangled to death. At some point, police station on our street was also moved to another block because police was too scared to stay around. Well, in general this environment was full of gangsters, drug dealers, hip hop artists, and all kinds of shady people. Magik, the frontman of the famous Polish hip hop squad Paktofonika, lived just two blocks away from my family. The group basically got famous at the point when Magik killed himself by jumping out of the window. The only person around who got famous for the right reason, was the hiker, Jerzy Kukuczka, who lived like few hundred meters from us. So, he got famous because he was the second person on Earth after Reinhold Meissner who climbed the Crown of Himalayas. And then, he died, tragically. Anyways, you can get the picture what kind of place that was.
Maybe because of that, kids at school were quite competitive when I was at primary school. I had a feeling that everyone was doing their best to get out of that bad neighborhood. Kids were really determined, and never in my whole life have I ever met such determined people again. Everyone was putting on long hours, and we already worked till 8 pm or 10 pm every day as 7, 8, 9-year old kids. That might be why I never learned that weekend is a free time. My natural mode is working until I have a good reason to stop working, not the other way around. And a “free weekend” is not in my vocabulary, actually. Polish school system is also structured in a way that to actually be able to complete all the courses and do all the homework, you have to pretty much work until 10pm every day, even as a 7-year old kid.
So, I was working quite hard since a very early age. When I was in high school, I had good grades and I would even say that I had best grades at my school — but I also felt that I had a flat distribution of talents: I was good at every class but I was not good enough to win national competitions in math or in literature. There was always someone better than me! This is when I had my first dilemma about where to go next with all these talents. I was good at maths, I was good at arts, I was good at literature — but I did not excel enough to be a prodigy in any way.
My parents also were not as helpful at that point. Most Polish parents try to influence their kids and suggest them good careers, which usually causes some tensions. But my parents were completely the opposite. My dad is a chess player, he travels a lot, and he is very laid back, just walking in the clouds and obsessed with his chess ever since I remember, so he never really took that role of a guide for me. And my mum, who is a specialist in aviation and automotive industries, always had a policy to let me and my sis go and do whatever we like. So, they didn’t really suggest me anything, neither back then nor later. “Do what you like” — so I heard. And probably, it would be easier for me if they told me just anything because then I would probably do exactly the opposite to what they said [laugh]. But instead, they told me nothing at all so that wasn’t really helpful.
So in the end, I chose for Interfaculty Studies in Mathematics and Natural Sciences at the University of Warsaw. University of Warsaw is the best university in Poland, and I embarked on a special study program where we were free to choose the courses from the very start, and we could study in 17 different disciplines of exact and natural sciences. That was a lot of knowledge, and when I got the chance to study there, I felt it was a lifetime opportunity for me: it was studies I dreamt about, I felt a lot of freedom and everything seemed so shiny! I was taking classes in many disciplines, from Maths to Psychology, and even in Anthropology or Economy, only because I was curious. I was always putting so many hours and doing so many courses because I just wanted to make best out of the opportunity. In the end, my portfolio was so large that I could actually graduate from three different Masters so I graduated from Physics, from Mathematics and from Psychology within the College.
But actually in the process, already after my first year of studies, I realized that pure sciences are not for me. I saw my friends enjoying solving equations and that’s pretty much what studying Physics is. When I was in high schoolI thought it would be about talking about the universe, black holes and the origins of the world, but in fact it is not. In fact, it is much more about down to Earth calculations, learning theorems, and stuff like that… so in the end, the reality didn’t really meet my expectations, and I already knew from almost the very start that I would not end up as a Physicist or a Mathematician. For me, equations were always a mean to achieve some goal rather than a goal by itself, and I wanted to do something more applied. I got interested in brain research at that point. I was so hyped! I really fell in love with the idea to do brain research for a living, and I got really excited about the idea to go for a PhD in neuroscience. It was so interesting because the human brain is some form of a computer, and computational neuroscience is a discipline dedicated to investigating how the brain perceives and interprets the external world. For me, it was a very logic direction given my interests in Psychology but also in Physics. I thought: this is something I am suited to do, and something that sounds so interesting! I could definitely see myself doing this for a living. I also remember my mum once said that human brain is so complicated that we too stupid to understand how it works. And you know, I got this reaction: “Hold my beer!”
The problem was that, at that point, in Poland there were not so many opportunities for me. Now it is much better actually — there are a lot of good labs in Warsaw and in other cities, the quality of research went up, these labs are really competitive and publish in top-notch journals. But back then, ten or twelve years ago, it was not the case. There were not as many opportunities in Poland and I was quite sure that I wanted to go somewhere else. In Western Europe, there were many places where neuroscience was on a really good level. I had a little bit of dilemma where to go but at least I knew that I wanted to do brain research. At the end of my undergrad studies I was a rather poor student, and I didn’t have a lot of savings, maybe 500 EUR. I took all my money, and I spent it all on making a little tour around Western Europe. I went through Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden trying to figure out where is the best place to live. It was a bit of a crazy journey because I was sometimes sleeping at the airports, and really trying to make it cheap, as cheap as possible, so it was really on budget. But I got a general impression that Germany was not one of my favorites actually but the other thee were acceptable. I started applying to these countries and in the end, I got myself a PhD in the Netherlands.
In the end of my studies, before I departured for the PhD, I also did an extensive course in economy from the Warsaw School of Economics which is a leading business school in middle Europe. I got the title of the Young Master of Business Administration. Just a little hobby on the side… Next to the natural sciences I just needed more knowledge I guess.
In the meantime, when I was still in Warsaw, I also went for a short internship in a neuromarketing company. I just wanted to see if I would fit the private sector better. PhD is a few years of commitment I thought that I better first check if there are other routes. So, I was already thinking of industry before I went on to do research. But at that point, the answer for me was: “No”. I did not get a good impression from working in that company, mostly because they were doing really low-key, rudimentary techniques, it was very commercial and the employees were very low paid and exploited. I thought that this was definitely not a place for me. So, in the end, I went for a PhD.
The PhD was a long process for me: very intense, both physically and emotionally. And actually, I can tell you a little anecdote here. So, just before I started this PhD, in September 2013, I went to Tanzania for a trip with a purpose of hiking Kilimanjaro. It was actually supposed to be my honeymoon but my fiancee disappeared before the wedding. So in the end, I went there on my own. I still planned to hike the mountain, and I didn’t want such a “non-important detail” — namely a fiancee disappearing — to screw my plans. So I went. On the very last day of the hike, there was like 8-hour ascent towards the peak. It was very painful to me, and I could barely move forward. My legs got deoxygenated completely at the last slope, and I was feeling very miserable. In the end, I hiked the peak, and I thought to myself: “So, I am done with the hard stuff. Now the easy stuff — now I can start my PhD!” Now I am laughing at this because after I started the PhD, every single day felt the same painful, or even more painful than that day at Kilimanjaro. It was a never ending grind, doing a lot of unwanted and frustrating things, and facing a lot of challenges every day. And whenever I had a particularly hardy at work, I used to think: “Oh, I wish I was back to Kilimanjaro right now!” So, when I think about what I thought back then, I smile.
PhD was a very intense and heavy period for me, to such an extent that in my fourth year, I even landed on a 3-month sick leave. I was also frustrated because my main PhD topic was basically an unsolvable research problem. It was like adding 2 to 2, and hoping that the result will come out as 5. It was just impossible, and I was so stuck on this problem for so long, and I felt misunderstood and overwhelmed, and I felt a little to no support. I am also into people; when I work, I love working with people. During the PhD, 90% of the time was basically struggling with obstacles alone. It was not the type of work that I would enjoy tin fact.
I also saw a lot of flaws in the academic system. My supervisors had very little time for me, but they are also overwhelmed with a lot of unwanted duties and meetings. In general, this environment is badly structured and most people in academia suffer from bad management. If I could compare it to something, I would compare it to the “Game of Thrones” show, or if you prefer, to the original books by George R. R. Martin because it is a good demonstration of the fact that evil occurs when there are lots of people with conflicting interests in one place. From everyone’s perspective they always make the right decisions that benefit them and their closest coworkers but in the end, since they have conflicting interests, conflicts occur of course. I couldn’t avoid that.
I also suffered because I couldn’t meet the beneficiaries of my work. I was doing quite abstract models of the brain and if you are a person who is doing methods, then you have to hope that your methods will be picked up by someone who is a clinician and who can test those methods, and see if they could potentially lead to any therapy. Sometime it is even a longer process because someone first has to apply your methods to a new dataset so that the clinician can test the method in the clinical trials based on their results. In the end, there are so many people downstream whom you depend on that you can never be sure that your method will lead to anything potentially useful to anyone. For me, this was one of the reasons why I didn’t really feel that much satisfaction, and I realized that if I stay on this career path, it will never change actually.
But at some point I still felt like I could accept all these flaws. I felt: “There are some downsides to every job. There is no perfect job! I have to take a chill pill, and learn how to live with this. Doing science is still awesome, people I work with are still very intelligent, I love going to conferences… There are many expects of this job that I still enjoy.” I felt that I have to expect less, accept more, and I still had a really positive attitude — even though I saw all these problems.
I also got tempted to stay in academia because I had quite a strong CV at that point. At the end of my PhD, I had a contribution to over 20 publications which is much better than average, and I had lots of extracullicular activities including hackathons, student associations, travel grants, etc. Basically I had a better research CV than most of the starting assistant professors that I knew. So, I doubted myself a lot, and I was thinking to myself: “You worked so hard for this! Do you want to waste all this effort now?”
Nevertheless, I decided that after my contract expires, I would prefer to take a gap year, to finish the unfinished research projects, and also think about what I would like to do next. So I slowed down, and I took an unpaid function of a Career Development and Mentoring Manager in the student board of the Organization for Human Brain Mapping. It was a position for two years where I coordinated the International Online Mentoring Program for early career researchers that the student board was leading. Initially I felt this would be just a side-kick, or a hobby. But, that was an amazing experience, I met really nice people there, and I also realized that I really like this type of interaction: namely, the process of figuring out what is good for people, finding them good mentors, and talking about careers. That was a surprising discovery, and in the process, I realized that I don’t want to end up doing just this — I would like to do more in this direction.
So, I set a foundation within that gap year. It is called Stichting Solaris Onderzoek en Ontwikkeling, and it is based here in Nijmegen, in the Netherlands. The foundation operates mostly online, and it offers free consultancy for researchers interested in self-development in academia, but also in successful transfers to industry. When I think about it now, I think it was a bit of a risky move. You know, if you don’t have a job, and if you have no idea what to do next, then running a charity might not be the best idea for your own self-preservation… But, that was my first impulse back then! I felt I wanted to do more, I wanted to help people to solve their problems, so that’s why I did it. From my current perspective, I am happy about this decision — but back then, it was a gamble.
After this gap year came to the end, I started thinking about finding a job. So, I thought to myself: “Now, I find a job. Decision made.” It felt a bit similar as in high school since initially, I had absolutely no idea, and my first instinct was to solve this problem by brute force: not assuming anything, I wanted to do exploitative research of all the opportunities, and search for options on the job market both in academia and in industry. I guess I was suffering form the curse of abundance because there were just too many opportunities and I didn’t know what to choose. Or at least, IT SEEMED that there were too many opportunities, at first sight.
I started from sending out a lot of job applications to companies but I also applied to universities for Postdoc positions where I felt I could fit. And of course, networking! — as networking is usually the best way of getting jobs. But, I experienced a lot of doors being shut. I heard a lot of these conforming words from friends, e.g., “I am so sorry for you! You have such a bad situation!” — but in the end, they did not have any recommendations or options for me. I asked around maybe 200 people but no one said: “You know, we have that vacancy, I can hook you up for a job interview.” I felt quite lonely in that sense because I had a lot of friends, many of then already transferred from academia to industry, but I could not really see how I could get any opportunities from that. I thought I was well connected but apparently in this case, it was not helpful.
And also for a lot of jobs, I was overqualified. I got a lot of flat desk rejections without any explanation or with an explanation that I don’t fit the profile which usually means that you have too long CV, basically. It was also not easy for me because I am not Dutch, and my Dutch is very limited. So, for a lot of jobs I could not get in because my Dutch is too bad. Nevertheless, I never felt discriminated on the job market in the Netherlands, I just thought: “You know, this is practical. If there is a position where Dutch is really important then you have to speak Dutch to be able to do the job.” So, I never felt bitter about it; I felt like: “OK, at some point I have to learn Dutch but since for now it is still not good enough to work in Dutch then unfortunately, I have a disadvantage on the job market.”
The next problem was that the job offers were just non-transparent. I was reading through the job offers, and I didn’t really know what I was reading. Everyone was looking for a highly motivated, enthusiastic team player, or they were offering opportunities for growth — whatever that means. So, I didn’t really know, and I was often applying blind.
When I was applying for academic positions, they usually already had a preferred candidate so I was flat desk rejected every time just because the position is only announced because it has to be, but usually there is already a preferred candidate so you have no chance whatsoever.
And applying for positions in industry was also painful to me as they were always misclassifying me. I was often classified as a data scientist who I don’t feel I am, because I feel I am more skilled in managing and motivating people, creating projects and writing than in programming — but this is apparently not what transpires from my CV as all my research projects were quite technical. Sometimes, they also didn’t really know how to classify me, so they were so confused that they were just rejecting me for that reason. That was difficult as well: rejection while applying for jobs feels very different from rejection while sending out manuscripts for a publication because you feel like they do not accept you as a person. At some point, I felt really drained by that, especially in instances when the recruiters I was meeting, did not seem very skilled or putting any real thought into what they were doing. They were basically filling in checkboxes, and that was it.
What I also knew, was that if I go get myself the wrong job right now, I might get stuck there completely. If you are a high school student and you think: “I should now find the right major to study”, you are like an 18-year old, and if you make a mistake, you can always change your mind. You have so many opportunities, and you can take so many turns! But if you are 30+, if you choose the wrong career track, you might one day wake up as a 40+ without that much energy anymore and frustrated. So I felt that if I made a wrong choice right now, I might get stuck in some job I don’t really enjoy but after I reach certain age, I will be too scared to change anything anymore, or I will not feel enough energy to change anything anymore. So if I don’t do it right, I might end up in a bad place for the rest of my life. That’s why I felt a lot of pressure to actually choose the right career path.
I also experienced a little cultural shock because in the end of my PhD, I got interested in blockchains and cryptocurrencies, and I was really naive back then. And that’s when I realized how much of an egghead I was because you know, some people sold me really bad advice, and some bad bots, and the rest of my money was basically stolen from a cryptocurrency exchange. So basically, in the process, I lost all my money. Previously I had thought that I was good at investing money on stock exchange but now I realized that it was basically luck and that I was not a good investor at all. It was a bittersweet discovery. As a 7-8 year old kid I was quite smart. I remember as I used to make lectures for my friends as a 7 year old, and I tried to explain to them why they should not play in a lottery. Even at such a young age, I was able to get the concept of probability and the concept of the expected value, so I was trying to teach my friends that if you organize a lottery and collect money from all the participants and get part of it for yourself, and then distribute the rest of the money as rewards, the participants of the game always lose in the long run. I am not sure if my friends ever got any of my points but I was no bullshit when I was 7, and I was quite mature as of my age. But now, after 27 years of education, and putting on 60-70 hours per week of work every week, as an outcome of all this, I became an idiot, pretty much. And that’s how I felt. And I felt that I needed more street wise knowledge, and I that have to completely change my thinking about the world or otherwise I will simply not survive in this jungle.
But even though I lost my money in blockchains (or at least I lost it so far, since I also learned a lot and who knows what will happen in the future), I made some friends there: I was going to a lot of conferences and I met a lot of people. At some point, I also realized that these people that I met in blockchains, actually enjoy and understand my sense of humor and my point of view much better than my peers from the graduate school used to. You know, in graduate school, there were a lot of people who found my sense of humor so dry that they didn’t really want to talk to me at all. Some of them literally get torsions and cross the street every time they see me. Well, I am preparing for my PhD defense and I just came up to the idea of steaming my favorite movie “The Room” at my defense party so maybe in a way they are right [laugh]. But anyway, in blockchains I never experienced that aversive reaction, and that was a major relief. And, I felt that with these people, we shared the same attitude to life, at least to some extent. That’s when I got enlightened that I probably should be an entrepreneur. And, that I should have probably been an entrepreneur for my whole life but I just didn’t realize that before.
When I thought about my life backwards, back to the times when I was a kid, now I see that there were cues for my entrepreneurial spirit for all this time. I always liked selling things in primary school. I used to buy candies in the nearby store and sell them to the fattest kids I could find at my school because I knew they would obviously buy it for whatever price. That’s probably not the most ethical way of making money [laugh] but I didn’t think too much about that as a kid. I also used to collect herbs and sell them in vacation time. Also, in the graduate school, I liked presenting what I did even more than doing it — so, there were always elements of salesmanship in my daily life.
I was also a very competitive kid, and mostly competed with myself; I always aimed to have better grades than I used to have the year before no matter how much effort that would take. I also don’t really like to be told what to do which is basically something different from being able to work on your own. It is a completely different quality, and it is characteristic for entrepreneurs.
Next, I always valued personal freedom very high. At some class in high school, we were asked to make a list of the qualities most important to us, and I was one of the very few people who have placed “freedom” on top of this list. So, this desire for personal space was always there.
Also, in entrepreneurship, it is good to have a lot of skills in different areas even if these skills are not a world master in each one of them. You just have to know enough about maths, enough about building the product, enough about sales, enough about economy, enough about networking, enough about building websites, have enough esthetic sense, or know enough about programming to be able to tell the difference between a good and a bad programmer, etc. This flat distribution of skills used to be my weakness in high school or in my undergrad studies because only people with one extraordinary talent were promoted, and were getting all the scholarships there. And now, I felt that entrepreneurship is an area in which this weakness can now become my strength.
Also, what I remember from high school, is that I used to talk to everyone, and even though I was quite nerdy, I was one of these people who were able to spend time with almost anyone. I was not a part of any particular group or circle of mutual adoration, but I could find a common tongue with most of the people around. Classroom stars invited me to drink with them, and the religious girls invited me to pray with them, and I was there with them, even though — funny enough — I neither drunk alcohol nor was I a believer. So, I was not a member of these groups but my presence was tolerated everywhere. And I always needed space; I needed to interact with a lot of people. That’s also why I chose for the Interfaculty Studies at the University of Warsaw: these were the only studies where I could choose to do almost anything and meet a lot of different types of people.
So now, altogether, everything started making sense to me. There are also two types of relations that are very different from each other. The first one is employer versus employee type of relation and the other is provider versus client type of relation. Most people feel comfortable having an employer but I personally feel much more comfortable having clients. There is no job in which you won’t be assessed; you are always assessed by someone but I would rather be assessed by a client who pays me for a service and then I have to perform well, than an employer who is basically paid from some other source and that’s not their private money — and for some reason, this person has an entitlement to tell me what to do. For me, this provider-client type of relation is much more natural, and makes so much more sense. At some point I got this realization that making clients happy is much more enjoyable for me than working for someone, and being an employee.
And since I got interested in blockchains, I also learned a lot about entrepreneurship. I was observing how many people around me set companies, and I even wrote a white paper for one blockchain project. So, I did not feel all that green about entrepreneurship anymore at this stage, and I knew more or less what I was going for. I also realized that people who make companies work, are not necessarily geniuses. These are people who are persistent, who network, and who take care of their product, and of their clients. And honestly speaking, in the long run, vast majority of people who want to become entrepreneurs, succeed. Unlike in academia, where eventually most people need to go.
It is actually crazy that — or at least, this is true about neuroscience which is a very competitive discipline —only 2% of PhD graduates become full professors. Which basically means that you spend a few years working hard to get your credentials to do a profession where you have 98% chance of becoming unemployed. No one tells us that when we are Masters students.
So in the end, I decided that I will start my own company. As J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, once said, “I had nothing to lose, and sometimes that makes you brave enough to try.” It is totally true! In my case, I also felt like I had no good options. I could get employed as a data scientist but I knew this was not what I wanted because programming was the least enjoyable part of the projects for me. I enjoyed the conceptual part, writing, teaching students, and presenting to people, but definitely not the programming part—and this part always drained me like hell. You know, I can program but I can also paint walls, and I never aimed to become a wall painter. And, in general, I have lots of other talents that have fortunately never became my profession. So, the argument that I should be a data scientist only because I would this well, was not a good argument to me. So, talking the “Game of Thrones”, I decided to subvert the expectations, and in the end, I started a company instead.
And, I started from solving problems which I noticed and that I experienced on my very skin, and problems that were the most urgent — so primarily, the problem of PhDs on the job market. If you have a company, you should first choose to do something that you know about, and something where you can create value to other people. As this is what entrepreneurship is — it is all about creating value, as only then you can put a price tag on what you do. So, this was the topic I wanted to work on.
I also reassured myself about this decision when I went to the annual meeting of the Organization for Human Brain Mapping in Rome, in June last year. We were organizing a little, 1-hour-long workshop about post-PhD career tracks on this conference, and for me, initially it was yet another duty during the conference, so I did not make any special arrangements. But, the room was so full that people were sitting on the floor, or they were standing outside the room where they couldn’t really see the slides. It was a bit ironic because OHBM is the biggest conference in the field of human brain imaging, and people go there to present their work. While here, they chose to listen about post-PhD career tracks other than about news in their research field. So when I came back to the Netherlands, I walked straight to the Chamber of Commerce, and I registered the company.
I also decide to write more. I always enjoyed writing, and the first book I wrote at the age of about 7. Actually, that’s also quite an anecdote. That book was based on the adventures of the plush toys I used to play with together with my sister. It was a sort of a parody of “Winnie de Pooh,” or if you prefer to frame it that way, a toy version of “Sin City.” The main character was a female fox, Catherine. She was a mayhem! She was just a walking chaos! She was a dancer, a minor criminal and a local femme fatale. She was always surrounded by her biggest fans, a bunch of bears who were always drunk and up for a fight with whoever would approach or offend their love. Catherine was chasen by a local cop, a rabbit called The Mustache, who had a golden heart but was not too intelligent, and he couldn’t catch her despite multiple good occasions. The Mustache’s wife was very jealous of this obsession with Catherine, so there was an ongoing drama in their marriage. There were also 50 other characters in the story, but this was basically the essence of the plot. My grandma read the story, and she was quite unhappy about the amount of alcohol, violence and other adult content in it. But yeah, I wrote my first book back then, and I am still proud of it.
So, this time I wrote my first official book. The book is based on what I learned in the last two years. I called it “What is out there for me? The landscape of post-PhD career tracks.” It is available on Amazon since December. The book is about the types of careers that you can choose after your PhD, and what kind of lifestyle these different careers imply. It is also talking more broadly about how to approach the job search, strategically but also mentally. I also interviewed a number of people who changed career tracks from academia to industry and back, so you can find their testimonials in the book.
And, I established a company named Ontology of Value. It serves researchers by organizing courses that help them in self-discovery. Where to go next? Is this going to be a startup? A corporation? A non-profit? Or maybe, your own company? I know that most PhDs do not have as much time as I had. I was lucky that I could spend a year or two thinking about myself, but most PhDs don’t have that time, and they have to squeeze that time as much as they can. So basically, my aim is to cut on the search time, and on this self-discovery period as much as possible — this is the main aim of the workshops we organize.
And also, we are currently testing a new recruitment model to address the problem that PhDs experience on the job market. PhDs is a particular group of professionals who are particularly well skilled and capable. PhDs are able to self-manage, multitask, plan, and solve very complex problems in a systematic way. I could talk about this all day!
But PhDs can also be very demanding, so there are a few aspects of hiring PhDs that employers should realize. Firstly, PhDs naturally have some misconceptions about industry jobs and various working cultures. This is just due to the lack of information and this non-transparency in job offers that I mentioned before. And, this lack of knowledge can cause wrong career choices of course. Next, PhDs have an inner desire to make positive impact with their work, and they might quit from job if this desire is not fulfilled. So, before they accept a position, it is good to make sure that this desire is going to be fulfilled at that position. And, PhDs are typically not motivated by money so they would rather choose high amounts of personal freedom and impact over a lavish paycheck. What is also the characteristics of PhDs on the job market is that, they often expect deep knowledge from their bosses, and bosses in industry are sometimes good managers but not necessarily good specialists as it is in academia. So, there are lots of cultural clashes because of this. PhDs are also often perfectionists and this can be an advantage or a disadvantage depending on the job — so, you need to know this before hiring a PhD. And also, PhDs are very sensitive to diversity, and to equality at work. I know many PhDs who basically decided to quit their jobs only because their working environment misses these qualities. So, employers should know all that, and coupling a PhD with the right job is difficult.
For the whole last year, I was working on a matching tool for recruitment that not only takes into account your hard and soft skills, but also your internal values, and expectations towards the jobs. My aim is to maximize the probability that the candidate will not only get hired but also be happy actually, and stay in the company for a long time. So, these non-material qualities matter particularly for this purpose. I am really positive about this initiative because there is a great interest from companies so I hope that we get this program going later this year. If you would like to know more, you can visit the Ontology of Value website.
And now, I would like to tell you a little bit about how I feel about the decision to start the company. So, the things people say about how difficult this is to start a company — yes, it is true! I mean, it is hard to get noticed on the market and even if you have a good product: to get yourself noticed is a difficult thing. But I already know that this is a good decision for me. I never regretted this decision, this is the first time I feel that I am on the right track. I don’t feel any anxiety at all, and I would even say I am calmer than ever. I already see good impact of this decision on my mood, and on my mental health — and it really feels like a never ending honeymoon, and I feel like for the first time I do exactly the things I enjoy. And I feel valuable! And I feel like I can stretch myself out mentally. When I was working — even as a PhD student — I always had to fit to some frame, and to conform to people, procedures, and sometimes I disagreed but I still had to conform. In the long run, this was very depressive. And now I feel I have so much impact on whom I am working with, which topics I am working on… and I can plan my day my way! For me, that works so much better. I never really had a crisis because of this amount of independence; I totally enjoy how my daily life looks like right now.
And if you are listening to this podcast from the Netherlands, I have to tell you this: the Netherlands is an awesome place for entrepreneurship. The tax law is relatively simple, the public communication in the country is just awesome, and you can get from one corner of the country to the other in ~2 hours. You can meet anyone you want, any day you want, you just buy a monthly Dal Vrij ticket, pay 100 EUR and off you go — you can travel around the Netherlands almost all day every day. And, a lot of people here usually are not hungry anymore, they are not willing to work around the clock. They are like “Oh yeah, so you say that you have a product competitive to ours, just cheaper and better? Oh wait, it is Friday 5pm… Let’s get back to this conversation on Monday.” They literally are not hungry enough, and do not make enough effort to be the best. So if you are determined, then the only way is up in the Netherlands.
I also changed the way of thinking about jobs, and I can share a few little insights so hopefully some of them are useful to you.
So first of all, I was always challenging myself with learning things that were just difficult to me. I wanted to test my limits. For instance, studying Mathematics was very hard, and very frustrating, but it was very satisfying for me to get a Masters diploma. But now, I pledged to myself to be just good to myself and primarily do the things I enjoy. And if I don’t enjoy doing something, I can always put such a high price tag on it, than if someone agrees to pay, I sort of enjoy it anyways. So in a sense, I totally avoid doing things that I don’t feel are valuable, and enjoyable. And of course, I heard this famous phrase: “Love yourself” so many times and from so many sources before! I thought I did love myself because I was always making my own choices. So I thought that I cannot really ever complain about my situation because I packed myself in this situation by myself. But did I really love myself back then? When I think about it now, I think: No, I didn’t. But now I do.
And I also changed the way of setting goals. When I was a PhD in neuroscience, I had this beautiful vision of the distant future that one day, maybe on my death bed — who knows — I will understand the human brain. And that was a beautiful vision, but my daily life was quite miserable. I was doing a lot of things I didn’t really enjoy doing, and I was coming back home wasted every day. But now, I enjoy every day and I don’t really care about what would happen in ten years — I don’t have a plan for ten years. I don’t even have a plan for two years. I have a plan for this year, and I know what I am going to do step by step, but I don’t even know about the next year or two years ahead. And, I don’t really care because I believe that what I do is valuable and I enjoy every day so as long as I can do it, I am just happy with it. So, this is a completely different way of living, and developing professionally.
The next thing I learned is that sometimes, dropping projects is not a bad idea. I used to spend way too much time on dead-end projects in academia, just because dropping projects was giving me a feeling of a failure. Now I have the company, the moment I realize that some project does not have a future, this project is cut down immediately. For instance, I realized that with hackathons at some point; at some point I had this idea that maybe organizing career fairs in a form of hackathons might be a good idea. But then, I realized that hackathons is a ton of work, and it is not scalable so every single time you have to put exactly the same amount of energy in organizing a hackathon. And it is just not going to work as a business. And I realized that only after I organized, or co-organized, four hackathons in neuroscience. And, then I saw how much work this is, and I was like “No! This is not a good idea! This is not a good path!” And I just changed the path. So, pivoting when necessary was something I was learning for a long time but now it comes natural.
And I also realized that eventually, your career development is your own responsibility. The faster you realize that you are the only person who can navigate yourself in the job market, the better for you. Many people, including me ten years ago, are waiting for advice, and passively accepting that advice. But in the end, the best way to develop is to get the good coaching so that you can ask yourself the right questions, but in the end you have to answer these questions for yourself and you have to have insight in yourself. And, you have to make decisions, no one can take these decisions for you. So the sooner you take that responsibility, the better for you.
One more thing I can tell you is that, at some point I just embraced the unknown. For some time I was scared of setting a company, but I want to tell you: don’t be scared because you will be creating solutions on the fly. You just have to trust yourself. When I get stuck, and I don’t know how to solve some problem, I just go to nearby spa, and chill for a few hours there, and completely relax. Or, I ask myself: “Natalia, if you were intelligent, what would you do now?” And then I usually know the answer. That’s the surprising thing that after asking this question, I usually come up to the solution very quickly. This sounds funny but this works. So, don’t be scared. It will be free exploration, but you will find your ways to make business work. But it will be fine.
And you will need to do almost everything for the first time, so it is good to leave some margin for making mistakes, and develop some patience is necessary. I just set a foundation for the first time, and then I set a company for the first time, and then I wrote a book for the first time, and now I developed a recruitment solution for the first time… So there will be a lot of things that come and you need to forgive yourself some little f*ups on the way. You just won’t get far if you keep on whipping yourself.
And, there will be hiccups, and problems of course. But you don’t need a crowd of teammates to cheer you up. Actually, if you can find one person who totally, utterly believes in you and in your choices, this is usually good enough. I am that lucky that I have a very energetic mum who spent most of her career in a corporation and she always wished for more freedom for me. She was really happy to hear that I have set a company, and she is always like “Show’em! Show’em all!” And this one person is way more than enough support for me.
And if you want to have a company, you need to be prepared that once in a while someone will criticize you in this or that way — and that haters will appear. This is something you cannot avoid. Once upon a time, I had a very stereotypical picture of a hater in my mind. I thought that most haters are either teenagers going through their most difficult time, and releasing their anger by clicking thumbs down on YouTube. Or, jobless, obese, middle-aged coach potatoes. Or, elderly people who feel that they no longer have any impact on anything and anyone (which is not true, of course!), and who are eager to criticize someone who ended up in a better place than they did. But, after I started a company, I learned that in fact, haters are all around. These are often people who are seemingly successful in their lives: those who have achieved wealth and a high social status, those who developed a functional family, and have an aura of life success. In fact, these people are often rotten on the inside, focus on the things they gave up on to get where they are now, and are secretly jealous of you—for instance, because you are younger, healthier, frier and more creative than them, have more friends, more free time, or any other qualities that they secretly desire but will not admit in public. Even some members of my own family turned out to be haters.
And whatever you do, there will be people who do not like you and your work—and will make every effort to let you know that. 1% of society is haters who use to react negatively to most of the stimuli that come to their brain. In the past, I felt that there might be ways of avoiding this “hater effect” and screening yourself from haters by doing things very useful for society, doing charity work, being kind to everyone, etc. Now I know that the minimal 1%-hate level is a constant, it is a law of the universe, and there is no way around it. The harder you try, the worse it becomes, so the only thing you can do is to accept the situation. Actually, you should rather be worried if there are no haters because it means that you probably are not successful enough for anyone to bother. You know, even the Holy Bible does not get the average rating 5/5 on Amazon so even the God himself is criticized for their writing. So, what would I worry about that?
The next thing I learned is that, in the past I used to be constantly overworked but that doesn’t leave much space for intuition to work. And to get far you will really need to use your intuition because the projects you choose and the people you choose to work with, is 80 or 90% o your success. So, if you choose wrong at the very start, then you will work hard in vein because you have no chance of succeeding with the project. So, making these key decisions is actually the main factor for success. And to make good decisions, you cannot be chronically overworked. Now I have my safety button and if I know that I overdid with working, I just make a break, at least for a few hours, or sometimes for a day, and sometimes for more days. In the past, I used to solve problems by brute force. For instance, when I was buying a house, I printed and distributed 900 leaflets with information that I was looking for a house in the area, to all the houses in the area that was interesting to me. And that worked but that’s a representation of how I was solving all kinds of problems: just brute force, trying everything. You don’t know what to study? Study everything! You don’t know where to live? Check everywhere, etc. And, this is not the best way to get somewhere. And sometimes, leaving a problem, chilling out, and getting back to it later is the best way of making decisions. And I don’t force myself to do absolutely everything, I just cherrypick that I really find worth doing.
And, there is one generic piece of advice I could give you — regardless of whether you are interested in business or not. I recently interviewed a number of people who have rare and interesting professions, and I realized that what these people usually know very early on in their development, is not the topic that they would like to work on, but what type of role they would like to play towards other people. So, they typically know since childhood if they would like to be a teacher, a leader, a star, a follower, a glue (who brings people together), or maybe an oracle who solves problems for other people, etc. For myself, I realized at some point what type of role I want to play, and I felt so much better since then because I feel that I am something between a glue and an oracle, and in entrepreneurship it is really a place that — if you have that characteristic — then you can do better than in academia, typically. So that’s the piece of advice: you have to think for yourself, and think back to early childhood, to teenage years, and think about the role that you typically played, and preferred to play, towards other people. And that’s usually a good indicator for what type of profession you should have.
And lastly, a very important thing. You have to develop some vision for what lifestyle you want to have in the long run, to be able to gravitate towards that lifestyle. I myself only recently developed that vision, and it was also partly due to a meditation course I was doing, which helped me in the realization. So now, I have a very clear vision for what I want and in terms of my job, I want to have two modes so to speak. I want to have a job where I work with large groups of people, and I want to feel that what I do is useful. I know this sounds like a millennial talking, and actually I am a millennial 100%, I admit that! But, I also want to have periods of silence when I am at home, and I have space for creativity, for processing what I learned, for writing, for chilling out. And this is very important too, so I would like to have a home is some very cosy, silent place, maybe in the woods. And to be really happy, I need to have both these modes: the noisy mode and the cozy mode. And I also hope that I will never really have to choose between professional and private life because I experienced that before, and it was a hell to time. So, I hope that I only deal with people who live and breathe what they do rather than having a 9-to-5 job and spending all free time on small talk and drinks. I know very well that I am unable to shunt down trains of thoughts that constantly rush through my head, and my brain doesn’t really go on the off mode in the evenings or in the weekends, so I don’t really have a choice but to surround myself with people who are exactly the same. It is easy to say but in practice such people are very, very rare. Rare flowers! But given what I am doing now, I am meeting more and more of such people, so I am on the right track!
So, that’s the vision if I reach all these things, I am perfectly happy. And, I will either reach this vision, or I will die trying [laugh]. And honestly, once I realized that, that was a major relief for me. I could die trying, that’s fine. Well, at least it is much more fine than the necessity to take weekends off. Yeah. Drop the mic!
OK, so that would be about the things I learned so far on this journey. And I wish you good luck with your careers. Self discovery is a process that never really ends especially given how fast the job market is changing right now. It is probably not going to end until we are going to get retired. I am quite sure of that. I am also prepared that in ten years, I would be doing other things than the things I am doing right now but it’s totally fine. One thing that concerns me is that, you know, ten or twenty years ago I used to read Richard Feynman’s books, or Leonardo da Vinci, while now I am mostly occupied with reading how to conduct a proper campaign on Amazon, or how to put together a facebook add. So, I am a bit concerned that if this tendency holds, then in ten years I will only be able to understand the instruction of how to use the toilet paper and that’s it. But, I will probably be so stupid at that point that I won’t see this as a problem anyways.
Anyways, good luck guys, thank you for your time, and have a great day!
Thank you for this great podcast! Inspiring story. It reminds me of when I was young and working as a florist in France, I had to work hard. I visited many countries and finally made it into research. Congrats on your wonderful career!