[…] They’re not just choosing me; I’m choosing them. This is going to be a healthy, fruitful relationship and I’m really here to see if we are compatible for each other.
Dr. Elvira Ganic
Welcome to PhD Career Stories, the podcast about career paths inside and outside academia. My name is Rui Cruz and I am very happy to introduce Elvira Ganic to you. Elvira is a regulatory affairs specialist for a pharmaceutical and medical device company located in Sweden, and in today’s podcast, she will share with us insights about her academia-to-industry transition experience, with a particular focus on the job search process. Elvira will also address how her PhD prepared her to successfully tackle those challenges. We hope that her tips will be helpful for you and that you enjoy this episode of PhD Career Stories!
Hello everyone! My name is Elvira and I work as a regulatory affairs specialist for a pharmaceutical and medical device company located in Malmö, Sweden. Today I will talk to you a little bit about my career path and how I went from academic PhD to the industry and regulatory affairs.
So, I think there are many different reasons why someone would start to do a PhD. For me… Obviously had studied a subject that I was very passionate about and it wasn’t only that you get the opportunity to learn more and dig deeper into something that you’re already obviously interested in, but also the opportunity to really broaden your set of skills on so many different levels. Not only are you involved in the scientific project from… you know, that asking the questions in initiating the projects, finding the experiments, executing them, interpreting data and publishing process, dissertation; all of that. You’re also involved in everything else around it: the financial part, the grant applications, the working with many different types of people with different types of feels, collaborations, competitions. It’s really a big world out there, where when you’re in it you hardly realize how much you actually learned and what sets of really fantastic skills you have the opportunity to develop. So, that PhD experience that I have, looking back at it, I would never change it, because it has… [I’m] realizing now, given me so much even though I chose to do something different.
I think, for many people doing a PhD, somewhere along the way, either early on [or in the] middle, it’s different for everyone: you realize that perhaps it’s not the straight line that you thought it was gonna be. “In six months I will do this, in two years I will do my half time. In four years I’m done.” Most often the road is a little bit more crooked than we could have imagined and I think this was surprising for me. I had imagined that it wasn’t going to be easy but I really hadn’t been able to foresee the actual struggle. But it was a struggle to keep your projects, to keep getting financed, to , you know, have everything around it going and working. So you really are involved in so many things that are not just research related.
I knew relatively early on that perhaps I wouldn’t want to stay in academia. I think it has to do with me as a person. I don’t think you can compare wanting to do an academic career with wanting to going to the industry, because this has to do with how you are as a person, with your personal preferences. You can’t say that you want to do this thing because it’s better than the other: they’re just really different paths. So I will talk to you today about the industry and about my own personal preference and I really want to stress that I do not think this one way is better than the other it was just that I thought that the industry was the right choice for me. And it was also realizing that being in basic research that… you know you’re struggling with these projects with these questions, but you also do not always get to bear the fruit of your work directly. And in academia, I’m sorry, in the industry, it’s depending of course which you work with, but most often you get direct results: direct measurable results. Which I think for me is a very important factor, and it’s very motivating. It’s something that keeps driving me. I want to see results, I want to be able to measure them and I want to be able to set measurable goals. Whereas in academia, for me it was, you never know, initiating a project what is it going to result in? You can spend years of work with it and perhaps not get what you had imagined out of it. And of course you learn, but will you be able to keep the funds or get the funding? That level of stress is something that really has to be considered when considering pursuing that academic path.
For me, knowing this and experiencing this, I think made the decision to leave academia much easier. What I wish I had known before my PhD, is the different paths one could take. Because when you start university and, you know, your studies, you’re in there. The information that you get is so focused on the academic side of it, for natural reasons. So when you consider your options you’re most often presented with academic options, which if you don’t actively do the work and if you don’t look beyond, you might not see the whole entire world out there, and what it is actually that you can do.
So the biggest challenge for me was to realize: number one: what is out there?, number two: what can I do? What are my unique set of skills? When can I contribute? How can I use the skills that I already have, which I obviously do after so many years of really hard work. How can I use that somewhere, how can I be an asset to someone? So, this is something that if you have the opportunity to get coached by Tina, or any other coach, it really is a fantastic opportunity, where you have to really go and dig deep and question these things about yourself. Who am I when I’m not a researcher? What do I know, what have I learned, that I can use that is not the microscopy or the animal models or whatever research field you’re in. How can I use what I have learned and apply it on to something else? Because this is something I really feel like every PhD student should be aware of: the broad unique set of skills that you really do develop. One of the things that actually has made me never regret doing a PhD. Because even though I’m not in that field it could be easy to say, you know, “you’re not in the biomedical research field anymore, wasn’t it a waste of time?”. Absolutely not! I’ve learned so many things that I’m not sure I would have gotten the opportunity to learn if I’d been elsewhere. I’ve learned that if something is going to get done, you have to do it yourself. And not only do you have to do it yourself: nobody’s gonna have the questions!
So, this is really made me not rely on anyone else. And transitioning into the industry, I’ve been surprised about, you know, how I tackle problems. I’m not afraid to take on anything that is perhaps unknown, that nobody knows how it’s going to be done, because I’ve got the daily in research! You daily do things that nobody else has done or nobody knows how to do! And you develop skills where you learn how to talk to people that have done perhaps similar things, that have other ideas “how have you done this?”, to ask for help. And this way of thinking and this way of working, I feel, has developed me in such a way that I feel confident in the role that I have today, that is not a research role but it’s an absolute soft skill that I will bear with me.
I think there are many things that you learn in academia, in this way. What you don’t learn in academia… I think it’s difficult to say because the experience is so individual. It depends on where you work, what you work with, what your line of field at work is, but one thing that I think is important to remember is everything that is out there that is not academia. Which I felt when I was in my world, was lacking… You forget that there are things outside of academia, outside of university, that it is not the end of the world if that project doesn’t get funded: that there are so many things you can do! And you just have to see them, identify them, and go for them! So this is something that I really wish would be more of an open communication in academia, about all the other things that you could possibly do.
Getting unemployed after the PhD was tough, really tough because I think I spent the initial time only thinking in these terms. My skills were microscopy, diabetes, ELISAS, very specific hard skills, and I thought that I had to find work where I could use this. Somebody that needed me to do an ELISA or, you know, these very specific set of hard skills that we have. And this was a little scary because there are not many options for you then if this is what you consider. Not only do I have to have these hard skills: it has to be within this field of work because I am now a specialist. I know so much about this very specific little topic, and it would be a waste of time not to use that. This was my personal feelings.
I think… You know, meeting Tina [Persson] and getting this amazing opportunity to get coached and hearing about soft skills and transferable skills for the first time, really was eye-opening! Because it was challenging to think about yourself in a completely different way: to apply everything that you have, that you are, that you can, on to something else! But it also at the same time, gave you this feeling of hope and a little bit of power, because you have to realize your potential. And this is I think very important: you have to look at not where you are in now, but where do you have the potential to be?! And I think this is something that, you know, I realized with Tina, with the coaching.
But it wasn’t easy, it wasn’t as though I heard ” oh, transferable skills, got it, soft skills. I know all of this”. It was challenging, so for me and this is an advice that I would give to everyone going through this, is to be coachable. Listen to your coach! Sometimes, the things that are the hardest to here take the most love to tell, so don’t be afraid. Hear the hard things, listen, apply, do the work, grow.
Why I got a job? I think it’s very difficult to answer. Of course, I don’t… I think only my employer would know the answer to that question. But I think, I think that somewhere along the way I learned that this was an experience that I should enjoy. And again, Tina gave me the advice to look for the jobs that you think are fun. It doesn’t matter if you don’t match all the points that they’re looking for, she said, that’s a wish list. And that really landed in me when she said: “it’s a wish list, this is what they wish they had, but sometimes they don’t actually know”. And that’s where you really get the opportunity to go in and say “this is what you need, you need me for this and this and this and this and this reason”, and I think this was one of the things that really made, or taught me that this should be not just a learning experience, but a developing and a fun experience.
From that day, it transformed my job searching experience, because I did start to look for that job that maybe I wouldn’t have applied for. I remember I applied for a marketing position because I thought it was fun! I only matched 40 percent of the points that they were looking for and, don’t get me wrong, I applied for all the other job that I was suitable for as well, but knowing this in the back of my head: “apply for the job that you think sounds fun!”. I did that, thinking “no way they will never call me”, but that was fun. I could sit there, doing my regular job search and dream a little bit, and go on to look for something that you know “perhaps this is for me ?”.
The day after the recruiter called me, and I was called… I went to three interviews there, to the top level, where actually the job went ultimately to a person that had three years experience, so he was very difficult to compete with. I had zero experience in marketing, I had no marketing education background that you needed for it. But what I did learn is that I got that far without any of that; what I thought were the most crucial skills. I got to meet the senior management and to discuss salary, in case I would get that job. So, this really triggered me to look for all these other jobs that I thought was fun! And the same experience there… All this “they will never call me here, you need to be an engineer”. They called me directly and I got to another interview. And you know, I had interviews lined up and I also think this is important to also treat them as a learning experience and to know that it’s not just about them, you know, finding the proper candidate and you fitting into their frame. But you also have to choose them, and I think that’s something that I realized during this process. They’re not just choosing me; I’m choosing them. This is going to be a healthy, fruitful relationship and I’m really here to see if we are compatible for each other. And I think this is the most important lesson that I could draw from the interviewing experience. Before that, I treated it that they ask me questions and I answered. And sometimes perhaps, like, you wonder what do they want to hear. No, it’s not about that at all! They want to know “are we compatible?”, but you should want to know that too. And I got to go to many interviews… I remember I think it applied for… Tina had said that it takes, when changing fields, you need to apply statistically for one hundred jobs to get a job. I think I applied for 27, I got my 27th job, before then I was at ten, 15, 20 interviews, I don’t remember but I really had a lot of fun, because I came to a point where I had so many interviews planned that it didn’t matter if one interview didn’t go my way. I would see it as an opportunity to learn from it, and I did. I think this is really important: if it doesn’t go your way, what did I learn? What can I do differently? Did everything that I wanted to show come across? Was I honest with them, was honest with myself? Could I communicate what I know what I can bring to the table? So whatever happens in this process don’t just look at it as a failure.
Don’t compare yourself when you’re in this moment looking for a job, and I know it’s a struggle, it wasn’t fun, it was worrying, it was scary, but don’t just see it… Compare yourself to where you want to be. Compare yourself to where you have been, when last week I didn’t this, two weeks before I didn’t know that. Like, last month I had no idea about this and this and this. So in this job searching process don’t focus on the results as in the result is getting a job, which it is ultimately, but focus also on the progress that you’ve made in terms of the things that you learned that will get you closer to your goal, because this way, it will not just be a job search, it will be a hunt for, not just your job, but also for the discovery of the skills that you have and that you’re developing in this.
So try to look at it as an entire experience, a learning experience and ultimately it will land you your dream job, especially if you have that great opportunity to work with a coach that can challenge you, that is not afraid to ask all these hard questions. So, I think one of the reasons, if I’m going to answer the question why got a job, I think, or I want to think, that I was coachable. I was coachable. It wasn’t easy but I listened and I changed, and this is extremely important: be open for change. Be open for the challenges. Allow yourself to be questioned, question yourself!
So this is my own personal advice. Be coachable, focus on your progress, not just the results and have fun.
I know it sounds strange to say have fun, and you know, you apply for jobs, you get rejections; how is that fun? But all these rejections, which I realize also had, I wish I’d realized a little sooner, they’re not personal. It’s not about you getting a rejection, it’s an opportunity and this is really what I want to take with you: it’s an opportunity for you to grow. And don’t be afraid to ask: what was it? Why? Could I have done something differently? A lot of people are happy to give you feedback if it was that, but most often it’s not. Most often it’s just that that person had worked with exactly that same thing for six years before, and that’s difficult to compete with. But then you learn from what that experience gave you, you move on. “What have I learned?” That’s very important to evaluate, what did I learn, and then you go on to the next one. I did that 27 times. Some people maybe have to do it three, five, ten [times], some people maybe have to do it 99 or 100, but when you do the work you will get the results. So that’s my biggest advice from my own personal experience. I really hope that that inspired someone for help. That’s all for now, thank you for listening.
And that is it for another episode of PhD Career Stories. As always, we would love to hear from you. You can contact us by commenting on our blog, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter. If you like what we do, please subscribe to our show on Itunes or Spotify. So that’s goodbye for now, but we will be back with a new story for you in two weeks time.