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#118 Interview with Sara Andersson about the conflict between her PhD interests and her personality

In this episode, Sara Andersson tells us about her PhD journey and how she became a talent advisor.

Published onJan 13, 2023
#118 Interview with Sara Andersson about the conflict between her PhD interests and her personality
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’I really never knew how I felt in the lab, what does it really mean [for me]?... I’m a creative person, I love to meet people [and] I realised that being in the lab can be quite lonely’, Sara asked herself during her time as a PhD candidate.

In this episode, Tina Persson, the founder of PhD Career Stories, interviews Sara Andersson, who tells us about her PhD journey and how she became a talent advisor at Mpya Sci & Tech.

Sara finished her PhD in Pharmaceutical Sciences at Uppsala University where she gained experience as a manager, problem-solver and critical thinker. During her PhD years, she learned in detail about the pharmaceutical industry and she also chaired the doctoral committee which tremendously helped her to understand the skills and the challenges faced by a PhD candidate. 

In this podcast, Sara also shares how she got her job as a recruiter and how this fits her previous experiences. Since Sara herself has travelled the path of a PhD, she understands the applicant’s journey, which allows her to help, advise and recruit graduates in the science and technology fields.

You can find the video of this episode here: https://youtu.be/4BybOmx5D_w

Do you want to know more? Listen to this interesting and insightful episode. Enjoy!


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TRANSCRIPT

Tina Persson: Hi and welcome to PhD Career Stories. This is Tina Persson and I have the honor today to have a guest, and that is Sara Andersson from Stockholm, and she is a talent advisor and a recruiter. But before that, she was a PhD student and she realized that she didn't really like the lab work, because she's a PhD in Pharmaceutical Science. So she has spent many, many hours in the lab. But she came to a point when she realized that being in the lab might not be my thing for the future. So hang on in this podcast here, because she's going to share with you, dear followers, what really happened. But before that, I have recently come back from Berlin and Vienna, and I catched a cold. So if I sound a little bit different as usual, it is because I have a very sick throat and a very sick nose, at the moment. But I hope I'm going to survive here. Together with Sara’s energy. So welcome, Sara, to the podcast here.

Sara Andersson: Thank you. Thank you so much. And I'm very happy to be here.

Tina: Yeah, I'm happy to have you because I know you are sitting in the office at Mpya, because you work at the recruitment company Mpya Science and Technology. So could you just give us some background: what is Mpya doing? What kind of company is that?

Sara: Well, Mpya is a recruitment and consulting company in the life science and technology area. And we are based in Uppsala, Stockholm and Gothenburg. And in Gothenburg they are more focused on technology, and here in Uppsala and Stockholm we are more focused on life science and especially the pharmaceutical and biotechnology area.

Tina: You have a PhD as a talent adviser and recruiter. Do your colleagues also have a PhD?

Sara: Yes, many of us actually do, the talent advisors have. Many of the employees have a PhD as well. It was also from the start, the aim was to build this very niche and specialized life sciences company. So it's just been, because of that, having a PhD is of course, an advantage.

Tina: It's an advantage in the job you have because I guess you're going to meet a lot of PhDs that apply for the positions that you evaluate. So what would you say in what way do you understand PhDs better than people or recruiters not having a PhD? What would you say?

Sara: I'd say, first of all, I understand the industry. During my PhD I collaborated a lot with the pharmaceutical industry in Sweden and also in Europe. So I got a feeling, an understanding of the life science industry, especially when it comes to research and and science, but also knowing what it takes to perform a PhD and do the years and all the hurdles, and what you really get to learn, not only within your field, but you get so much more out of it. You are a project leader often. Then you are self going, but you also have to team up with other people. You don't usually have anyone to ask, you just have to figure it out on your own. So a lot of problem solving around that, and then of course getting very specialized in a field and competence in it. So yeah, I feel I have a good understanding of it.

Tina: The full picture of a PhD because what you say, a PhD is much more than just being very specialized in a field. But, that's many times how PhDs feel, they are very specialized and forget what you have, because what you mention here is some important transferable skills. You know, self leadership, leadership, project management, time management, many of these things PhDs are very good at, it's just that we need to emphasize them. But do you know what? I like to pull that back because one thing I believe that you understand very well, that is when PhDs come to you and they say, you know, I'm not really sure what I want, but I have a feeling that I shouldnt stay in the lab, because I know you were in that situation, because we have talked before the podcast. So you said, and I'm super interested in that, because many of my clients, when I coach them, they can't really define because what I do is, you can be practical. I'll be super interested in being in the lab, but you can be extremely creative, more administrative, enterprising and very supportive in your nature. 

So I want you to just go back to that specific moment, or moments, when you realized, okay, it's fine to be in the lab here. This is my PhD here, really. But what feeling was that connected to, that you found out that the lab is not really my thing?

Sara: Yeah, that's a good question. And I try to look back and I think it's probably been several different times. But from the start, I think we don't really know so much about ourselves and what we like. We have an interest in a subject or an area, and that's interesting, and I never really knew how I felt in the lab sitting there? What does it really mean? And I know for myself, I'm a creative person. I love to meet people. So the lab can sometimes be where you are sitting there, on your own, minding your own business, and then you're analyzing the data. And that might be in front of your computer and that might take some time as well. So I realized that it can be quite lonely from time to time, and a bit boring to me. Always interesting, but boring. So here it's like a conflict, because you know that you are doing something that is important and, and you have a passion for the field and the subject. But over time, you start to feel that this can't be right. I'm so bored and I don't really get to use my skills and everything that I have in me that I can use to to feel, and that I'm kind of living my, my full potential and, and having family and everything that I do. So it started somewhere there. And then from there I did a lot of self development, I would say.

Tina: Did you get any help in that self-development? Did you read books or listen to podcasts?

Sara: I didn't get any help really from perhaps the university. I had to take help a little bit outside. But I did. I did read books, I did listen to podcasts. I did go to different events and meet up with people that had perhaps my background, but had done something different afterwards. And I felt, yeah, very interested by hearing their story and learning more and trying to figure out for myself, well, what will my future be? And I think it's also, because it's like a side always, or most of yourself that you have to let go. And I hold on to that for quite some time, but I am this person. I have been in the lab for many years. I have been in this field. I have my PhD. I have done a lot of research and work around this on all the articles that I have. Will it just be a waste of my time? I think you always end up in those types of thoughts.

Tina: Of course, you end up in these thoughts, you know. So you decided to do a PhD for a reason. We can come back to that. But then with time you actually realized that this might not give me the energy I expected. So could it be so that you had an idea about research and science when you started your PhD and then you came to realize that it's actually in the lab? It's a lot of routine work. And that maybe was not really your thing. What was your idea about science before you started doing  science?

Sara: I think a lot more creative. You see all those pictures, and it looked so, I don't know, I think I perhaps did my own picture, which was very creative. The labs were open. And it's, you know, it's different colors and it's all those fancy machines and you're running around and you're helping each other. Perhaps a bit of another environment I pictured from the beginning.

Tina: But I think you pictured very well, you know, this is what I hear from my clients. I thought science was, I saw the professors on stage and they were traveling, and these exciting pictures, as you said, I read books and then I came into the lab and I was just sitting doing a lot of experiments, the same experiments every day. And I said, yeah, you know, that's the hard work behind the research. You have to do that to get the beautiful pictures. And this is again, because now you work as a recruiter. You obviously learned that you are not a routine person. I can hear that. But you didn't know that at the time. Science for you was a creative thing in your brain.

You could be, you know, I can be here and I could do that. And then you were sitting pipetting. But the thing is, you know, you must have plenty of people coming to you when they look for a job, and they feel the same thing, but they can't put words to it. Is this where you can help your clients or help your prospects in the recruitment business?

Sara: Yes, I hope so. And  that definitely happens a lot of the time, because I think we need to do a little research ourselves here, like, well, what is out there, and where do I want to go? Where do I want to be? And of course, when you have those thoughts and you don't really know, it's also very difficult to sell yourself. So that's a bit crucial, I think. And when I came to that point, I realized it was very, very easy. I can tell a little bit about that story. When I realized that, okay, I want to be in life sciences because I think it's such an interesting area overall, and I don't want to leave that, but I want to meet people. I want to be able to help, to be able to help people has also been something that I always wanted to do in one way or another. And be more creative and be able to be flexible and have multiple different tasks so I don't get bored. One day I will do this. Perhaps it's going to an event. I meet up with people. The other day maybe I'm sitting to have interviews and meeting people that way, and another day maybe go to a company that we collaborate with, so yeah it's a lot about meeting people. I did understand that something here in me, I'm a people person.

Tina: It's very clear and I have a vague feeling that you like to help and support people?

Sara: Well, yeah. And I have always done that, I think since I was a kid, with my friends or also family, you have those thoughts and feelings. Let's sit down and have a chat. And I think it's interesting to hear how I can help them and is there something I can do here? And so when I defended my PhD last year, it's actually about one year ago, and I was pretty clear on that. I wanted to move forward and move from academia to a position and a company where I felt both that my skills and also perhaps having, you know, the values that I also have, and that those were met. 

Tina: Yeah. Your values were included in that next step in your career. But what are your values?

Sara: So for me, I think it's very important to be able to be myself. I have felt that I haven't always been able to be that. In academia, you are supposed to be professional and present your data in a certain way. And I like to be a little bit something who is sometimes that I think I worried that and I was often appreciated, but I don't think I could and be like that. 

Tina: Put it this way, what I can hear between the lines here is that you like to have fun in the job and show that you are a playful woman. That is what I can see. You like to laugh and you know, this is what I also hear from many clients that find academia a little bit serious. Yeah, it's maybe because it's a different type of people who may be attracted to academia. It doesn't have to be so, but it can be the department you were at, for example, and that is something I share with you. I came to Organic Chemistry in Lundt, and these people were extremely serious and I was like you, running in the corridor laughing. So I was a completely odd bird among these people. And this is what we talk about. What kind of people would you like to surround yourself with? What kind of work style would you like to have? These things are extremely important when you plan your next step in your career. I want to ask you something I hear often here and see if you felt the same. That is that when you come directly from academia, you feel sort of as a failure. When you decide not to stay and you feel that it's hard for you to say that I want to leave. It's an active step. I don't fit in. I don't want to pursue an academic career. Did you feel the same thing?

Sara: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And for many years, I think. And that was perhaps also why I held on so strongly to the idea, I think. Yeah, maybe if I had realized it even sooner, maybe I wouldn't have even started the PhD or maybe I would have ended it before I finished it. But I'm very happy in one way that I, you know, made it through to the end. But I felt for sure that this is a failure. And my second plan was to move into maybe the industry in R&D positions. But I realized that's not probably right for me either, because it's a lot of the same thing, but it's also something more administrative. And I'm not that kind of person either. But I felt like a failure for not choosing those two careers.

Tina: I want your listeners here to listen to what Sara says, because this is really important. And I want to emphasize that again: There are many scientist types and being a scientist, you know, like you said in R&D, because that is to pursue a career very similar, is different in industry of course, but very similar to what you did in the lab in academia. But there are really many other career tracks that you can take where you go into business or you start a company, you are in business, you're in people business, you are in human resources, Sara. And that is a career that many PhDs don't think of, because it is sort of “if I take that career step, if I choose that step, then I have done everything for nothing.” Yeah, that's something that I hear. So what argument would you use, if you choose to go to human resource as a PhD, because that is basic what you do here, human resources. Why isn't a PhD a waste?

Sara: Because we learn so much, gather so much knowledge. I don't think I would've come to this position and this place and this company if I didn't have my background with my PhD and all the knowledge about the industry, and everything that I have learned from here. It will always be something that you can use, and you will always have the skills and everything that you have learned from there. And you will use that in whatever direction you are moving towards. And I think it's also very brave, I would like to say that it's not many people perhaps that dare to do this. Because we don't want to make other people disappointed. We don't want to make ourselves disappointed. We don't want to leave us feel safe. So I know that I heard when I told them “I'm moving to recruitment”. And then I got the comments from some of my colleagues and PhD fellows “Oh, so you don't want to do a career” and that hurt. I think my response is that you can do careers in many possible ways, and my way of doing a career is that I want to have fun and I want to do what lights me up and makes me happy. And that's the best career choice for me.

Sara: So I think one thing is that the Mpya is very good at marketing themselves. So actually, I think two years before I started here, I started to follow a colleague on LinkedIn and I saw a talent advisor in the life science industry. And I thought, that sounds very interesting. I will keep that in mind. So that two years before I saw something and they were posting interesting things, and really branding themselves of course, in a way that made me very interested in what the company was doing, about their values etc. But I didn't know so much about them. But then the week before I defended my thesis, they actually had an ad for Talent Advisor at Mpya Science and Technology, and the first sentence in that was “Do you have experience from the lab? But you wanna work with people?”

Tina: Oh gosh, that was a hot spot for you.

Sara: The funny thing is that I thought I could read “So are you tired of being in the lab?” So I thought that for many months, even after I started, I had to go into the ad and see that it didn't say, “Are you tired of being in the lab?” It said “Do you have experience from being in the lab?” So I totally, you know, read it very fast. But here I could read all of the things that I have been looking for.

Tina: The job ad spoke to you. It was like a Harry Potter mail and was just screaming “apply Sara, apply!”.

Sara: I mean, people you meet people and you meet people that you really and they was just and also, of course, the values. So one of our core values is “be who you are”. And since my value is “I want to be able to be myself” -  yeah, it was the same value. So I felt like, okay, they have my values and I have the skills that they are looking for, and they have the job that I want to have.

Tina: So it was a perfect fit. Well, of course you sign a contract like that. So Sara, I think we are going to end with an absolutely beautiful end from you, Sara. So dear listeners, you know, listen to Sara here, you get it all back. So it is important to actually understand the job ad and to know yourself here. So with that said, Sara, thank you a lot for this podcast and the interview. It was absolutely fantastic and amazing.

Sara: Thank you, so nice being here with you.

Tina: So with that said, I would say to all our dear followers, that this is Tina from PhD Career Stories. And you can read more about us on our phdcareerstories.com. You can follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and never hesitate to reach out to us if you have a person you like us to interview or anyone that likes to record, you think you have something you like to share with the world. Because we are a global podcast, we love to help and inspire people. So thank you for listening to us. Have a wonderful and lovely day.  

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