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#128 Interview with Flávia Sousa on Academic Mentorship and Transferable Skills

In this episode, our guest Flávia Sousa talks about her passion project Lyris where she provides mentorship and courses for PhD students and postdoctoral researchers for suceeding in their future careers.

Published onNov 10, 2023
#128 Interview with Flávia Sousa on Academic Mentorship and Transferable Skills

Has your academic path lacked solid mentorship and support? Do you feel that, in order to move up, you need management skills that weren’t passed on to you during the PhD? Well, Flávia Sousa has “been-there, done-that” and in today’s episode she tells our host, Tina Persson, how she is working on making it easier for you!

Flávia Sousa holds a PhD in Biomedical Sciences from ICBAS, in Portugal, and is currently a Senior Scientist at Adolph Merkle Institute, in Switzerland. Her current goal is to become a full professor, and she is also the founder of her own company and passion project, LYRIS, which is focused on providing mentorship and courses for PhD students and postdoctoral researchers.

#128 Interview with Flávia Sousa on Academic Mentorship and Transferable Skills

During the episode, Flávia talks about her drive to help other academics succeed in the less science-focused parts of their jobs, and how LYRIS came to be. While exploring her personal experiences in international environments, she and Tina talk about the most important skills for the future, such as language learning, teaching skills, and the ability to manage people.

Flávia also shares how crucial it is to choose a country where you will be happy even outside of work and a supportive supervisor, but she also highlights that, most of all, you should “enjoy life!” through it all!

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Tina Persson: Hi and welcome, Flávia, to PhD Career Stories, the podcast that is here to inspire academic professionals. And I'm very proud to have you on the podcast, so welcome, Flávia. Thank you.

Flávia Sousa: Thank you. Nice to meet you.

Tina: Yeah, nice meeting you too. So, just shortly before we start, this podcast topic is about having sort of a dual career or, as I see it, keeping many doors open when you still haven’t decided to go for a full professorship. But shortly, about you firstly, Flávia, I have it on my paper here that you are a PhD in Biomedical Science. You are today a Senior Scientist at AMI, and also founder of your own company, LYRIS. You live in Switzerland, but you are from Portugal, so you have left your home country to live somewhere else in Europe. You have a PhD, a degree from ICBAS and you are aiming for a full professorship, but at the same time sort of exploring and developing skills in your own company. And that is what we're going to talk about, because this is also what I learn when I'm coaching PhDs, that it's okay to do many things at the same time and explore things. So welcome and I'm going to kick off with the first question.

Flávia: Yeah, thank you.

Tina: Yeah! Why did you start with the PhD in Portugal at all? How did you start with that one?

Flávia: Thank you very much, first, for the invitation and to be here is my pleasure. And that’s a very easy question to answer. So, I'm from Portugal and (…) I knew from the beginning, since I was born, that I wanted to become a professor, and to become a professor I needed a PhD. And, at that time I would say that I was not able to move countries for personal reasons. And then I said “Okay, let's do the PhD in Portugal”, because it was where I was born and where I was living. But since I started my PhD, I immediately realized that it's good to have the mobility and to change countries. So, my PhD was kind of international as well. During my PhD I was in three different countries: I started in Porto – so, I did the PhD in Biomedical Science in University of Porto -, but then after, let's say seven, eight months, I moved to Denmark. And then I came back and then I said “Okay, now I liked the experience, but I want to have a full international experience”, and then I won a Fulbright grant, so I moved to Boston. It was amazing! So, just to say that it was not just fixed to Porto, but I was also not so flexible in my mind. So, during the last years I changed a lot regarding that. And that's why, at that time, I was young, and I was like “No, I don't want to move because I want to be close to my family, I want to be close to my parents. I'm afraid to move alone.” So, that's why I started in Porto. But then after one year, maximum, I changed.

Tina: You changed countries, exactly. So, you have been in the United Kingdom, Denmark, born in Porto and now you're in Switzerland, is that correct?

Flávia: Exactly, but I was as well in Belgium and in Italy. Yeah. So, it's my seventh time moving countries.

Tina: Seventh time moving countries. So how many languages do you speak?

Flávia: Just Portuguese, English, Italian because I had to learn, and a bit of French so far because I've been here for one year. (…) Speaking is a bit more difficult, but I understand it, and writing is also fine. And, of course, Spanish because it's super close, Portugal is very close to Spain. But not fluently.

Tina: Yeah, I've learned that! I have never been in Porto, not in Porto, but in Lisbon and then in Barcelona and I said, “Do you understand each other?” and they say “Yeah, there's certain similarities between Spanish and Portuguese but there are still differences in the language”. But that is a future skill: to speak many languages. I learned that now from speaking with a person working in a corporate company in Stockholm and he said he speaks about four, five languages, and he said it's absolutely important. He says, even though he doesn't need it because everyone speaks English, still after the meetings, between the meetings, after work - that you can speak the local language is very important.

Flávia: It’s very important, actually, and very important to settle down and to create different friendships. Because sometimes when you are in a country, of course in academic life everyone speaks English, so it's easy. But, if you go outside, few people speak English, depending on the country. For instance, in Italy, yeah, I found that problem, so I needed to learn Italian to survive outside.

Tina: To survive outside.

Flávia: Yeah, but it was very cool.

Tina: And the reason I mentioned language here in this podcast is because this is what I have learned to do business: if you want to stay in academia, English is usually good enough. But if you want to actually live in the country and maybe leave academia or have a dual career, you need to learn the local language. Otherwise, it's very, very difficult to make connections and network and sort of understand the culture. And this is sort of a hindrance for many PhDs and Postdocs when they change careers. So, I was just curious because you for sure have that interest. And I would say there's an important skill that might be connected: that you are very curious and open-minded here, Flávia.

Flávia: [laughter] Exactly! No, that's for sure. I like to do new things and learn, always learning.

Tina: Always learning! That's a future skill as well. But now, you've done that and now you're Switzerland! And we discussed before the podcast here that you, first of all, would like to aim for a full professorship.

Flávia: Exactly.

Tina: We will not get into why - we can come back to that later -, but, at the same time you started your - you said “side project”, but I would say you are exploring something else on the side here, that is LYRIS, the company you’re a founder of, where you want to help and support PhDs. How did you come up with that idea?

Flávia: Yeah, so during my PhD and after the first postdocs, I found it very difficult to have mentorship and help during my career and even offers of some core courses, like how to write a good abstract or to find alternative careers to academic life. Because, at that time, I couldn't find, at least in Portugal, in my country, any course regarding that. So, I thought “I have this drive to teach and mentor” and for me it was like “I would like to start a new project where I can help people, help PhD students and also postdocs to pursue the academic career…or not”. So, two years ago, 2021 - or before that, in 2020 - I started thinking about this project, and for me it was like “Okay, let's open this company, LYRIS, and the aim here is to help PhD students and postdocs in their career”. So, we started, as I said, in 2021, in May and we were offering courses more or less every month for PhDs, sometimes for PhDs, sometimes for postdocs, with the aim to help them, for instance, in writing the thesis. We also had this one-to-one coaching session writing the thesis, and even if they want to write a paper, they don't know how to start writing the paper. So, we were helping these with my team. Apart from that, we also had some workshops every month. We divided four PhD students or four postdocs. For PhD students, of course it's more like, as I said, how to write the abstract or how to do a good peer review process. For postdocs, it was more like “Okay, which kind of alternatives are out there apart from academic life?” or also “How can you successfully write a project, like a grant?” And that is my aim, it’s to help people and to offer a good mentorship, because I found it very difficult. And now the next project that we have for the next year is more for postdocs. Because, as I said, I want to become a professor, right? So, this is my ultimate goal. And I found it very difficult for a postdoc to move in to do this step because I believe that we don't have the soft skills. When we have the job, let's say when we are professors, or at least it's what I have heard as well, we don't really know how to do the job because we were not prepared during the postdoc. So now we are planning a new course and for this it’s a big one, because the others were very short, let's say like one day, two days maximum. And this one will be a big one. And the aim here is really to help postdocs to move on but move on with the good skills that they should have. I'm not just talking about research but also, it's very important, for instance, to know how to teach because sometimes we don't know how to teach, or even to manage people because it's very hard to manage people. Or we can talk about financial management as well. Now I'm here in Switzerland and I have my own grant, so of course I'm developing these skills. But some postdocs don't know how to do it. And so that's why my drive is really to help postdocs and PhD students in their career to feel supported by someone.

Tina: How can it be that, let's say, you do your PhD, you do a postdoc and then of course there is this funnel: there are many PhDs, there are less postdocs - still fairly many postdocs - and then there are less positions, so there is sort of a kick-out system, an exit system. There are fewer and fewer and fewer. So, we know that roughly, I would say, less than 3% continue to be full professor. I mean, it looks like a company, you're many people here and only one president. [laughter] And I’d say it's just the same sort of selection. But I'm curious here to hear you about how can it be that you stay in academia, you do postdoc for many years and then still maybe don't understand the strategy behind moving towards full professor? How can that be?

Flávia: It's not not knowing the strategy, it's more that, when you are a professor, you need to develop different soft skills that you don't know during your postdoc. And I'm talking about, for instance, managing people, human resources, managing a team. Sometimes, during your postdoc, you are doing the research in the lab, and you don't have the opportunity to mentor PhDs or other postdocs, for instance, and then when you start, you find it very difficult to start. It’s like your own company, almost, right? So, you have your own team, and you need to lead the team. So even, for instance, leadership skills. I believe that a good professor should be a good leader. And for that you need to have training. Either you are born a good leader, or you need to have training for that. Because then this will impact your PhD students [a lot] and your Master’s students, and then maybe they don't find the academic life attractive anymore, due to bad supervision. I have no idea, for instance, it’s just one idea. So, the aim here for my company is to offer a kind of course that will help, let's say, create a new generation of scientists that will be more aware of how to be a good professor and leader and inspire students to do good science. But for that, as I said, it's kind of like a CEO of a company, at least the way that I see being a professor, because you need to write grants well. Because sometimes, during the postdoc – it depends, of course, on the person, how the person is - you need to write grants, you need to write the papers, you need to go to the lab, you need to supervise student. And some people are good at writing, some people are good at communicating, but it's always good to know how to do it during your postdoc.

Tina: And this is what I'm coming back to. So, my question is that you talk about developing soft skills, but I'm not sure. Are you really selected, when it comes to competition, by your soft skills? Are you selected by how good your science is and how many publications are published?

Flávia: No, you are selected by both.

Tina: You're selected by both! How can you measure that you have good soft skills? I never heard about that, I'm very curious.

Flávia: Ok. [laughter] No, you are selected by both. The soft skills can be, for instance, problem solving.

Tina: Yeah, that is something else that you're talking about here. Those are not soft skills. So now we need to define here, Flávia, what soft skills are. Soft skills, you know, that is a fluffy word. So, we need to make sure that the listeners understand how we define soft skills. You know, personality. That could be that you’re open minded, you can be curious, adaptable, whether you're reactive, you know? That's your personality! And that, of course, is part of leadership to some extent. But what I understand when you talk about that is abilities that you learn that are more connected to transferable skills. So, let's say that you like to solve a problem, but how do you measure how you solve a problem? Basically, I don't think you can do that. But (…) these things you develop, we maybe should call them something else. It's abilities and skills you learn, of course, as a PhD, but in order to become a good professor, you need to be able to learn how to strategically write a good article, and that is a skill that requires training and strategy, isn't it so? [There’s] strategy behind writing a very good article or writing a very good abstract. Wouldn’t you say that that’s a skill that you can train?

Flávia: It's a skill that you can train, definitely, it’s a skill that you can train. Because, at least from the workshops that we had with PIs [in which] they were writing projects, they had a strategy and they told us how to write a good [article]. I remember one professor [saying] “It’s very easy! You just have this strategy and you do exactly like that every time!”

Tina: Yeah, yeah.

Flávia: And, yeah, it's something that you should learn…

Tina: It’s something you should learn, yeah.

Flávia: But it depends on your PhD if you are able to learn or not. So that's why I think it's important to have the training.

Tina: It’s important to have the training. Now we can stay here a little bit, because this is what I learned from someone when I was in United States: his name is Doctor Akintunde and he's developing courses in actually how to publish and he says that many PhDs and postdocs haven't learned that in their training, that you have results, but you need to get the results down on a paper and answer questions in a strategic way so it's attractive, so it gets published. And he said that is a strategy. And many don't have a strategy on how to do that. And that is what I'm curious about, Flávia, to hear your opinion [on]. How can it [be] that you do a PhD and a postdoc, some PhDs and postdocs learn how to write a paper, and some don't? How can that be? What do you think?

Flávia: Yeah, it depends on the supervision.

Tina: It’s the supervision…

Flávia: Yeah, I think it depends on the supervision. So, if you have a good mentor, the mentor will teach you how to do it, or you are very good at that already and you don't need any supervision. [laughter] I think it's a combination of the mentorship and also the student. Sometimes the mentor can teach the student, but the student is not interested, for instance, I have no idea. It depends because sometimes people do the PhD with different goals, right? So, some people do the PhD of course to learn - or it should be to learn - different skills and to be better after the three, four, five years as a person, as well. And then to open doors for other [things]. It can be academia, but can also be a non-academic life, but also some students, they have in mind that they want to pursue a non-academic life. So, they are not interested in writing papers, for instance, for them it's not a big deal.

Tina: Yeah, for them it's not a big deal. But if you're planning to stay, learning the strategy behind writing an article is something you should start already as a PhD. So, this is for you listeners here: if you are planning to stay, learning how to write an application is super crucial! And I completely agree with you - if you can, do that. And another thing that I would ask you is also how to early on learn about writing, attracting funding. Because we know if you want to go for full professorship, you must be able to write a fund application, so you attract funding. How can you start adding that as a skill to your portfolio already as a PhD, you would say?

Flávia: So, the best way is to talk with your supervisor and help him to write, I would say. Because your supervisor should write some grants so you can ask him if you can help in parts, like in a very small work package or something like that, and he can teach you as well how to do it. But then it's a question of practice and time. So, you do it, then you receive the comments back, you know what you did wrong. Also, in this kind of training like courses, people can share with you what they did before and what worked and what didn't work, and then you will learn by practicing basically. Of course, there is some strategy, but sometimes it's also a question of luck, being in the right place at the right time, and having luck as well with the reviewers on the other side. Yeah, but I would say it's a question of asking your supervisor to help. Sometimes the supervisor - I would say not in the first year, of course, but in the last year of PhD - some of them ask you to help. I had this opportunity, so it was very good for me.

Tina: So that was my question. Listen now to what Flávia is saying: that maybe it is so that it's very crucial for you, when you plan a PhD and a postdoc, that you choose your supervisor. Maybe even more important than choosing the project, it’s the most important.

Flávia: Yeah, it’s more important to choose the right person than the project, that's for sure.

Tina: Yeah, that’s for sure. That's a big [lesson]. So how did you learn these things?

Flávia: After a while. [laughter]

Tina: [laughter] After a while. Share! Would you like to share?

Flávia: I cannot complain, but I said I moved countries seven times. So, it's not just about my personal life, but also about others. My friends, for instance. And I know a lot of people in different countries, and I know very good experiences with supervisors, but I also know very bad experiences with supervisors. That's why then I realized “Okay, maybe we should start changing this as well!” Choosing the right supervisor is the most important thing. Because some people have a good experience - I cannot complain about mine -, but some others don't have it. So, that's why.

Tina: Yeah, you know, I listen carefully because I heard that from many more people, and I can refer to my own career. As long as I had my supervisor's support, my career in academia was fairly easy, but when suddenly I came back to Sweden in those years and I didn't have any support system, it just didn't work. It's like working against the wind.

Flávia: Yeah, you feel that you are always working alone… [laughter] Working against the tide.

Tina: Yeah, exactly.

Flávia: Yeah. And it depends as well on what you understand by supporting. You know, for some people a good mentor is one thing, for other people a good mentor is another. So, (…) you can perceive that you are supporting people just by not, for instance, being against their will, but being supportive is more than that. It's also help creating a good network and help, as I said, to write articles, help with how I can write a good project. Or asking even the students “What is your goal? What do you want to do after the PhD? How can I help you with that?” If you want to go to industry: “Okay, I know a lot of people in industry, so I can introduce you”. Something like this. For me being a good, supportive mentor is something like that. But then it will also depend on the personality.

Tina: That depends on the personality. And I need to interrupt you because I picked up a lot of things that we need to sort of [go through]. Flávia, we talked about writing, and you said the fund writing, but you mentioned a lot of other things. Actually, I would say it's a soft skill, you can say, but it's an ability some people have that is to somehow (…) choose the people they work with deliberately so that they get a support system. So, listening to you, you have moved around a lot so you would know what a good and a bad supervisor is. So, you know that “If I'm going to succeed, I need to have a support system”, so you find a supervisor that can sort of support you. And I would say that's a skill of being a good networker and understanding that “I can't do this on my own, I'm going to need help”. So, would you say that's an ability or skill that you have, Flávia?

Flávia: No, I learned that. [laughter]

Tina: You learned that! Now you have to share how you learn that.

Flávia: Yes, it was not easy.

Tina: It wasn’t easy! Now I'm curious. Okay, now you have to tell me.

Flávia:So, as I said, I have this goal, right? The professorship position. And sometimes, as I say, you feel a bit lonely in the academic life, right? And in the path. And I knew that to achieve this I needed to improve myself even in my skills, like my communication skills: to not be shy and go there and talk with people, with the important PI's and professors. And for that I have my coach that helps me, my psychotherapist that helps me to be there, and without the psychotherapist’s help I think it would be much harder for me. 

Tina: Now I have to be careful: is it a coach or a psychologist?

Flávia: It's more of a psychologist, yes.

Tina: Because a psychologist is therapy (…). [Just] so we don’t mix the therapies here.

Flávia: No, because just to give you an example, because I think it's easier to understand. For me, it was very hard to talk with people, to show myself, to go to a conference and start talking with someone. So, with my coach we create a strategy before going to a specific conference. I said “I want to talk with this person, what should I do?” So, with her, she helped me to go there and start talking. Now it's easy for me and now it's okay, but a few years ago it was really not. And it was sometimes very frustrating because you have it in mind like “Okay, I want to talk with this person, I should not be shy”, and then you cannot, you simply cannot (…).

Tina: No, no, no, no, no, no. But now you're touching on something else. This is something I also learned from people around me: a coach is a person that helps you move into the future, but coaching is also exploring your personality of course and strengths and weaknesses. And with a coach you overcome what we say is a hindrance. A hindrance that you say you were shy…but I'm going to stay there: you were shy. What is shy actually, for you?

Tina: Yeah, that is understandable. But why were you shy with a lot of people around you?

Flávia: Ah, sometimes mostly in conferences or even-

Tina: Yes, yes, I understand. But why?

Flávia: Why? [laughter] Well, because I'm afraid to talk. I don't know, I'm afraid to give my opinion or something like that, you know?

Tina: You’re afraid to give your opinion, afraid to talk…

Flávia: Now I’m not. Because I was not confident enough, you know? During the PhD. I think most of the PhDs…it depends. When they start, it's good. But then with the frustrations that come with the PhD, sometimes your self-confidence goes down.

Tina: You're afraid to fail. You're afraid to say something that is not correct, and maybe be corrected.

Flávia: Yeah, exactly, exactly.

Tina: And that is, and sorry for being a little bit pushy here, but this is a hindrance in your career. You say shy and this is common, “I feel shy”, but it’s usually (…) that we are afraid to fail, or we are afraid to say something that we would be criticized about, so we get back. And this is not a future skill, because the future skill is really to be open-minded about it, “I can be wrong, but it's okay, because I get the feedback”. So, going for a conference you have learned, you also have trained yourself to get feedback. Even though they criticize you, say “Oh, thank you for telling me that! I didn't know that. Good! Now I can add that note in my portfolio”. So, congratulations, Flávia! I say, listen here now! This is a shy woman we have here that had sort of learned in academia to be so [criticized] that you were afraid to share your opinion. And this is trainable and it's coachable. So, congratulations, Flávia.

Flávia: Thank you! Yeah, it took me a while but now I'm good!

Tina: So that's another networking and outreach sort of skill that you trained. That is, of course, very important. But you were talking about having done something else here, which I read between the lines that you are a woman that is not afraid to ask for help.

Flávia No, I'm not.

Tina: That's a future skill. Did you know that?

Flávia: No, I didn't. [laughter]

Tina: Wonderful!

Flávia: I didn't. But I'm not afraid to ask for help.

Tina: No, that's important.

Flávia: (…) And I know that we are always improving ourselves, and the person that I am now is not the same that I was three years ago.

Tina: No, it's not.

Flávia: And I know that I will be better, I hope.

Tina: You will be better in the future. Of course, you will be better in the future! Because your aim is to go for full professorship, what I hear is that you're adding skills strategically, but you're also at the same time staying curious and open-minded about starting a company where you want to help and support other PhDs and postdocs, actually, to learn faster what you have learned on your own, so that you can share your learnings in your companies to them. Have I understood you?

Flávia: Exactly, exactly like that.

Tina: This is wonderful! Yes!

Flávia: It’s really because it was not an easy path, let's say, I think for anyone. And if I can help people to shorten the path, it's even better.

Tina: Of course! It's very nice, it's lovely to hear that you're doing that, Flávia. And I want you listeners also to listen to Flávia: she has created this company to help you to speed up your career, actually. So, her failures and learnings she will pass on to all of you that actually contact her in her company. So, we're now coming to sort of an end here, and we're going to round up the podcast. And I usually do that by saying: if you have to give three short tips, three short tips - if you think about that, you go back in time, and if you had to redo everything, your whole career, really redo your career - what would you have done differently then?

Flávia: Okay. So, I'd say the first, as we spoke, during the postdoc is to choose your mentor very wisely. This is the most important thing. The mentor and also, I would say, the city, the country.

Tina: Yeah, the country.

Flávia: Because it's very important for you to feel happy in the place that you are, because during the PhD you will have ups and downs and, if you are frustrated by your research data, at least you can go out and have good friends or enjoy the sea or enjoy the weather or whatever. So, this is my first advice. Second is to not be afraid to speak out. [laughter] Yeah! Even if you are wrong.

Tina: [laughter] Even if you are wrong, exactly.

Flávia: Because in the end, nothing will happen, you know? People will not remember what you said in one year or even after one day.

Tina: Apart from this podcast here. [laughter]

Flávia: Apart from this, yeah. Yes, don't be really afraid to speak your opinion and have the power- your voice, is what I want to say. And the third…I'm talking for PhD's, right? (…) It's really to follow your passion and not be afraid of the future. I believe that you will succeed, always, if you have the right passion, if you have good intentions to do the things. Not doing it because your mom wanted it or your neighbor or your professor said to you “Yeah, you will never do it”. No, just do it because you want to. For me, it's that I want to save lives and I want to create new treatments to save lives. And this is what, at the end of every day, even if I have some obstacles, I say “Okay, this is my driving force, this is what I want”. Of course, I'm not saying that I don't doubt [myself], because I doubt every week.

Tina: Don't worry, I doubt myself, my company, as well, every day. It's part of the journey, yeah.

Flávia: But at least while I'm still believing or while I'm still naive to think that I will kind of have an impact in society, it’s what makes me alive, let's say.

Tina: And so, to summarize, what I hear is: learn to reach out, choose your mentor, choose your supervisor, choose a country and a lab and go for passion. Because the future…we don't know anyway, because there are going to be more changes in the next 10 years and in the last 100. So, it's actually to trust yourself and your abilities.

Flávia: And enjoy life during the PhD.

Tina: And enjoy life at the same time.

Flávia: Yeah, because the PhD [years are] the most wonderful years of your life, I guarantee you.

Tina: Yes, it is! Listen carefully: it is!

Flávia: It is! Just enjoy life and don’t only work hard.

Tina: I think we stop there: enjoy life. Thank you, Flávia!

Flávia: Thank you.

Tina: So, she said, and I'm passing on: please, enjoy life because this is in the end the most important thing that we have.

Flávia: That's definitely true.

Tina: Thank you, Flávia, for the podcast. And I would say thank you if you follow us here or are listening to us. And I would say please never hesitate to reach out to PhD Career Stories and my team if you know anyone that you would like to hear the story from or to be produced here with us. Also welcome to follow us on Instagram, on our web page, Facebook and LinkedIn. So, from us to you, have a lovely week. Take care.

Flávia: Thank you!

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