In this podcast, Tina Persson, the founder of PhD Career Stories has an interesting interview with Dr. Martin Blaser, who is a postdoc coordinator and co-founder of the Max Planck PostdocNet. Martin studied food and nutritional science in Giessen and continued his doctoral study in microbial biochemistry at the University of Marburg (2007). He continued his academic career as a postdoc and project group leader at the MPI for terrestrial Microbiology in Marburg until 2017. During this time, he also was a postdoc representative. After spending over 10 years in academia, he took his first step out of academic system and became a career coach, a postdoc coordinator at the Justus Liebig University Giessen and a co-founder of the Max Planck PostdocNet.
“Really the problem is that you focus on the academic track and a lot of people are really having biased idea that they can stay. Which isn’t supported by the evidence in reality so much.”
If you are curious how Martin step out of academic career and started a new career, please 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.
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Tina: Hello everybody this is Tina Persson, I’m the founder of PhD Career Stories. I am at the moment attending Max Planck Alumni meeting – it’s an annual meeting and it’s the fourth year – and I’m sitting here in a small rainy Berlin. It’s been a fantastic meeting though and this is the last day and it’s my pleasure to have Martin Blaser with me.
Martin Blaser, which I met at the first alumni meeting at the hotel seminars at breakfast and we have had many great discussions here. That’s just a short introduction, I think you can introduce yourself much better than I do Martin, so why don’t you tell our followers a bit more about you.
Martin: Okay thanks for the opportunity to speak up here. My name is Martin Blaser and I studied food and nutritional science in Giessen and when I was about to finish my studies I had the idea that I would like to continue as a PhD student and there I changed a little bit my scientific focus. So I did my PhD in microbial biochemistry, and purified the anaerobe enzyme system in Marburg [University of Marburg].
My idea to do a PhD was to become a professor and teach people because as I was during my studies a mentor for first year students and I really liked the atmosphere there and the things I could give to them. That’s why I was inspired to go on with an academic career.
Then when I was finishing my PhD and had my defense; the next door institute at the University of Marburg is the Max Planck Institute and they had an open call for a postdoc position and I applied there. And in my defense, there was my next boss attending, and in the end where nobody is supposed to have any questions anymore he stood up and asked me some questions about my PhD work and then he invited me for an interview and that’s how I started at the Max Planck.
There again I shifted the topics so I went from microbial biochemistry to microbial biogeochemistry and was more an environmental microbiology then. I stayed at the Max Planck for over ten years – first doing a postdoc and then I became a project group leader, I was in charge of two labs and more than six coworkers over the years and some PhD students. And then in the end of this, after ten years my supervisor retired and the whole department was closed down. I knew that way ahead and I was like okay, I’m not sure if I can continue in the scientific system. Essentially at that time I met Tina and I was looking for a coach in this regard to see what are my options. My first step out of the academic system was then to continue as a scientific manager in a way. I’m now at the University of Giessen and coordinating a postdoc program there.
Tina: Your story Martin, you share with many many scientists that you actually after finishing your PhD you stay in the academic systems. But just to go back a little bit in time, why did you start the PhD at all, do you remember that?
Martin: Yes – because I wanted to become a professor. I was not so much interested in the science part I was really much more interested in the people part – in connecting to the people and teaching them. As long as I stayed in the academic system I realized/the first thing I heard was: as a professor you have three jobs to do 1) you have the teaching 2) you have the funding and 3) you have your own science. Then I realized this is not a one third, one third, one third story but the teaching is like 5-10%, the grants is like 80% and the own science is like becoming less and less important.
Tina: Yes, that’s right.
Martin: That’s where I realized, okay, I’m not really in for all this administration. So that’s when my idea to do something else become more present. But on the other hand I stayed for over ten years in the academic system and what I liked there is that I really got a bigger and bigger picture. As a PhD student I worked on a tiny piece of science and as a postdoc I was in environmental science and it was much more complex and I needed to read much more broadly and I really enjoyed this broad picture I got there.
Tina: Yes, it’s interesting again here that you wanted to go to professorship and I think it’s very very common because some statistics shows here that the expectations that people have when they start in academia is to stay and go to professor. I think Nature when they look at the statistic 50%, maybe up to 60%/70% have an ambition to stay in academic system to become a professor. That’s not the reality, because we know that 90% need to leave academia for a career outside. I I don’t like to say an alternative career because it’s not an alternative. It’s another career path! But again just a little bit pushing you back why you did a PhD – when did you start to actually think this is not for me? You said you noticed things – but if could you look back now with the knowledge you have now – couldn’t you have figured that information out because you were thinking you wanted to be a professor and you didn’t really figure out what it takes from you to become a professor.
Martin: Actually around the transition from the university to Max Planck, so from my PhD to the postdoc, I was not only applying for the postdoc position at Max Planck but I was also at that point in time really considering to start my own business for the first time and do some kind of training, my own seminars things like this. It was more oriented to nutrition because I had the background there. When I then started at the Max Planck I think it was just because it was an easy option to stay in science.
That’s what I now face for a lot of people I talked to as a postdoc is that many of them chose academic career because it’s really easy to get positions there because it’s huge market and you’re well prepared and you don’t need to change a lot on your CV or on your own habits because you already know a little bit about the academic system. So that’s why it’s convenient to continue in science.
I took the convenient way and actually I had a rather rough start at the Max Planck, I was really unsure for the first three or four years if I wanted to continue with science. I didn’t publish anything in this time because I really changed my scientific topic and was starting all over again and then I got my first result and I didn’t trust them. So it really took me five years to convince myself to trust my own result because there were conflicting with previous published data. I need it enough evidence to be sure that this is real and then I started to publish. In the end, I finished with 13 papers in ten years so it’s quite okay. But It really took me awhile to get in the system deep enough to really hold me there.
Then the more I became acquainted or habitualized to the academic system I lost kind of the idea that I wanted to do my own training. I became fascinated with the science more and more. Then when I was at the point where I knew okay this science here is not going to continue because my supervisor is retiring, I was more or less remembering my old story and now I did a training as a coach and I try to implement coaching ideas in my postdoc coordination thing. I have the idea that in a few years time I may have a second start again and doing something else out of academia.
Tina: That pushes us to the coaching thing here because coaching is pretty new within academia. It‘s been used for a longtime in industry and leadership training and self-development training, team training, communication training – it’s been going on for long in the industry if you look there! That’s because they need to be very efficient at teams. The coaching concept for you, I remember when I met you and we did some coaching together, I was very surprised because I learned to know a new Martin – so could you share a little bit about coaching? What that is for you because you coach yourself now but what coaching actually meant for you?
Martin: Yes my feeling was I was quite resistant to accept help so I had the picture of the lone rider, the cowboy in the sunset doing everything on his own. I think this is quite common in science that you’re having your project and you are the expert there and you don’t need any other expert there. And then you think and you’re also the expert for your own career and you don’t need any help.
For me, I was really looking for several years what to do next and I could not really get a handle on why it was so difficult for me. I was sure I didn’t want to continue with science and then I was looking at industry and I was like industry is just not my route – for me as a microbiologist pharma would have been a choice – but all these pharma ideas were like really strange for me. So I was like this is an obvious option but it doesn’t feel right. I could not connect why this doesn’t feel right from me.
Then I was like okay I’m somehow stuck and I need somebody helping me to overcome my own resistance and this is something where I experienced that coaching is really helpful – to help you reflect and reframe your own ideas and help you to see your blind spots. And sometimes it’s also only holding the space for you that you can explore yourself in a different way, which you cannot if you don’t have the boundaries of a partner. It’s really hard for me to describe but it’s an experience I have that if I have somebody sitting next to me who’s listening to me and helping me to reflect on my situation this is really helping me to understand myself better and really helping me also to connect to this why does it feel strange.
It was like the logic: My head was always really clear that it would be an option, and my stomach was – no it’s not an option! – and to get this connected was really hard.
Tina: I agree with that because I was in the exact same situation that I knew everything best myself. But when I met my coach she said to me “Tina you have to connect your brain with your stomach and heart because it’s disconnected”. You think you can think, you know, it’s like you’re solving problems with yourself but your problems they are connected with the holistic thinking and it helps a lot to talk about feelings but we, scientists we are not trained to talk about feelings.
Martin: Yeah we are expert in the head.
That’s sometimes becomes a problem because we’re then so focused on trying to find the solution by using our brains and I think a lot of problems don’t have a brain solution that’s my experience now and that was interesting to discover.
Tina: I remember we did an exercise where we were running. I was running in Sweden.
Martin: That’s the best thing I ever did!
Tina: You were running in Germany and you said something happened I don’t know what it was but something happen to the next session.
Martin: The exercise was, I was kind of stuck and we were at a dead end and then you said okay maybe you just stand up and jog a little. I was like: “What the !!!? I said I should now stand up and jog? What should that change yeah!?” and then I did it and then I realized how moving the body and how funny it feels to stay in the lab because I was in the lab at that time.
It was like really awkward but it did something with my body and I really started to laugh. That changed something in me and then I could be present in a different way.
Tina: You were present in a different way. We started to laugh, you remembered in the lab.
Now I know that you are a coach yourself, What you gonna do with it?
Martin: I think my hope is that I can help people to overcome their own blind spots a little bit better and to reflect themselves in a new way. Essentially, I think the core is to turn to the big question who am I a little bit differently and I think a coach is a person who can really help you reflecting on this. My coaching has to do a lot with the inner processes and I know there are other coaching which are doing more outside processes. But I realized from myself that this is a bigger help to start with the inner and that’s what I try to bring to the world with my coaching.
Tina: Considering that you are a PhD, been in academia for very long, it’s logical that you’re going to work with academic professionals.
Martin: This is my first target group – I see the advantage that I really could connect to that situation. The disadvantage for me is that I could connect to the situation and it’s really difficult not to come up with my own solution.
Tina: Yes, that’s right!
Martin: But to give the client or the coachees the room to find their own solutions. This is what coaching is for me to meet somebody at the eye level. I’m the expert for the process and the other person is the expert for the problem and is also the expert for the solution and my job is to help them explore the problem so much that they can find their own solutions and not my ones.
This is sometimes really difficult when you’re really inside and know – yes, i lived exactly the same! – and here is my solution. It’s tricky to not go and give advice to somebody.
Tina: I think that’s very general to the coaching in general. It’s so easy to fall into the trap to actually advice. We have that dialogue here at the Max Planck you know what’s the difference between mentorship, coaching and advisor and career coaching is maybe something in between advising and coaching.
Martin: For me there’s a clear difference so advising is really: I’m an expert and I have information and can give it to you. There’s a hierarchy – I give something to you and you are only on the receiving end.
Coaching is for me on an eye level and mentoring is somebody who already went the path you want to go and you are following and trying to take their advice for that specific path. So they are experts for just their career and can help you avoid certain pitfall states/traps.This is the advantage of a mentorship program – usually they are not experts in communication or process, mediation or something. So they can only be an expert on their own career and this is the difference.
Tina: And this is good to strengthen because I meet many PhDs and postdoc [saying] I want a mentor that can help me to get the job. That’s not mentorship that’s something completely different and that’s not coaching either. Even though as a career coach you can indicate certain areas but it’s still so that you have to do the investigation and the reflection yourself. You can realize okay I have my drive and motivation into sells and marketing then you can investigate that job area by using tools and so on.
Martin: Right and a mentor is a perfect tool to investigative certain job market because he knows the language, the environment, the framing and everything which you from the outside don’t. If I want to go to sales or management there’s a completely different language, dress code, whatsoever, habits and to have somebody really helping you to understand this environment because he lives there this is a big help and big advantage. So that’s where mentoring is coming in.
Tina: Mentoring is coming in there. So if a mentor has a person that need coaching – it’s clear they need to go for the career coaching or coaching first. Then I usually say that when you know where to go, then you contact people in the field you want to be and get advice from them.
Martin: So the coaching is more for finding your decision and the mentoring is then helping you go the way.
Tina: That’s very interesting but now again I want to go back to you here – if you look at yourself as future coach what skills have you learned? Because we are going to need more coaches – PhD coaches – in Europe here. There are plenty of them in the States but not here in Europe.
What skills do you think you have learned during your time as a PhD and staff member that you can apply now to become a future successful coach. Because you’re going to be a successful coach!
Martin: I think the one thing I really appreciated from being a staff member so long was to have the opportunity to think in big pictures and really to hold complex situation. Which I think is something I really learned through my academic training. And this is the thing which is really interesting when I go with my wife to some meetings or workshops – she’s always tired after an hour or so hearing people. And me as a scientist I’m used to having like eight hours of presentations and I realize I can completely absorb information in a different speed and different depth and this is also something which helps in the coaching process to be able to hold all the information which is coming. So these are two things I learned in academia.
I also learned the world view of the science people. How you try to solve problems with your mind and I was long enough in there to know what it is good for and to publish these ideas. Now I’m at a point where I think okay what else is there?-Is science the end of the route? I think there’s even a bigger picture – this is life itself. They’re different facets which science people tend to ignore, try to neglect and help them to find these spots again in themselves. Because a lot of science people really have a need for being more emotional, integrating human parts of themselves, which they think are not allowed in the academic system. To bring them together and really show them you’re not alone in your situation and you feel stuck: you are in a very press situation, you are in a very stressful environment, you’re trying to get grants, you’re trying to publish a lot; you’re stressing yourself, you’re putting a lot of work on yourself in order to fulfill the requirements of the systems and to reflect this.
Tina: Scientist forget themselves sometimes!
Martin: Yeah, they are living in a bubble. So I have the picture of [what] I call the science bubble or the science loop, this is: You produce data then you write up your data in a manuscript, then you publish the manuscript in order to acquire money, then you have the money to produce more data and then your start the loop again. The problem is that many people in the academic system only focus on this loop and don’t see anything outside – like your work holds your purpose in life – what you’re here for. And there’s so much focus and you receive from the system so much stress to stay in this loop. That is really hard for many people in the academic system to find there way out. I think this is a systematic problem so this should be addressed on a different level but it folds down to an individual problem for many many people in the system which are having health issues, which are having breakdowns, which are having depressions, which are having all kinds of problems in order to stay in the system which is not healthy for them.
Tina: No, it is not a healthy way to live just to focus on the professional part and then you think and believe that the rest will just solve itself. And we know, both you and I, that it doesn’t! You have to work with your personal development the rest of your life – you know like family, where you gonna live, and have some longer future perspective on things and also you investigate what’s actually out there, outside of academia.
Martin: I think the other thing is that many people which are in the scientific system at a PhD, staff or postdoc level have the feeling okay now this is a stress phase and if I survive this I am becoming a big professor and then I can relax and other people will do the work for me and I just have to write a little bit. This is the big hope that it’s becoming easier the longer you stay in the system. And I’m not sure if this is working for many people. I’m not sure if you are successful and want to stay successful in the academic system, if the loop is going to stop for you.
Tina: No, I don’t think so because it becomes a habit to work like that. So actually when you are a professor then you expect other people to live the same style as you did. I remember from a professor I had, he said: ”Life is hard, it should be tough” and I thought why? I only have one life and it is very short – of course it’s tough – but in what way? I thought it was a negative way of why should my life be that path. When I came to industry they had a completely different mindset. They said we want to have a great life. I remember when my manager in industry said: “Tina you have done a good job here, so why don’t you go home on Friday”. I said: “What?! Can I go home on Friday?” It’s completely different but you know we have been here discussing and I think it’s now time to round up a little bit.
So if you now think about the followers and the listeners we have, if you just give them some tips on what to think about it?
Martin: I think an important tip is for me to early on look for alternatives. Really the problem is that you focus on the academic track and a lot of people are really having biased idea that they can stay. Which isn’t supported by the evidence in reality so much. I think this is something which needs to be changed. I think it’s really important for the individual to start to stop a little bit, pause a little bit, try to get out of the stressful loop a little bit and try to reflect a bigger thing and then orient yourself.
I think there are ways to be really successful in the system without burning out. This is something which you can find. My supervisor was somebody like this. He was really relaxed, he was publishing the most of the directors in our institute but he was never pushing anybody. The other directors were trying to push their people and this was backfiring.
My supervisor was like in the first half year of your PhD you’re just reading and preparing and find out what you want with your PhD and then we talk. This half a year you just get your own ideas and then you are completely differently motivated than when the supervisor in the first week gives you the protocols and says “Okay, now you have three years, do this!”
That’s something I learned from him to open this creative space, which I think is important for science not only to follow somebody in a track but really to generate your own ideas. This is something I would also like to encourage people to. To find really your own ideas and this could be something, which is not in the line of your supervisor but this is something which can bring the system to a different level than when you just follow footsteps from people who already went there.
Tina: What you’re touching actually is that we need maybe a new kind of leadership in academia and you can see that the leadership has changed a lot in many industries. You know we talk about team management, communication and that you find a coaching leadership. I’m not going to talk about that but that people find their own motivation. Because in that way you work actually better even though it’s less hours – because it’s not about the hours you do it, it’s what you do with the hours.
Martin thank you very much it’s been extremely nice and talking to you and meeting you again here. I’m looking forward to get the response from the podcast and I’m sure that you have helped a lot of people by sharing.
So thank you very much and this is Tina Persson reporting here. I say thank you to all followers. Don’t hesitate to contact PhD Career Stories if you have any ideas of topics, or if you know anyone that would like to share a story or if you for that sake like to share your own story.
Tina Persson from Berlin, all the best.