Hi and welcome to this special episode of Phd Career Stories!
My name is Maria Sjögren and our guests today are the Max Planck Alumni Irene, Maria, Sneha and Arnold, whom we met at the 2nd Max Planck Symposium for Alumni and Early Career Researchers in Berlin in early September last year.
In one of the breaks, we got the chance to sit down with these inspiring people to discuss the importance of keeping in contact with peers through your alumni association. We also talk about how events such as the Max Planck Symposium for Alumni and Early Career Researchers can broaden your horizon on possible career opportunities after a PhD and also help build a network that bridges academia and the industry.
So without further ado, let’s listen to what they have to say!
This is Tina Persson, founder of PhD Carries Stories. I’m in Berlin at the Max Planck Alumni Association (MPAA) and around me now I have a team of five alumni. I’m going to ask some questions here but first I think we just should introduce who is around the table here.
Irene: My name is Irene Ferreira. I’m alumna of the MPI of Biochemistry in Munich. Actually I'll start now to work on the board of the MPAA so I'm very looking forward to this new chapter in my life of the MPAA.
Maria: Hi I'm Marija Pesic and I’m an alumna from the MPI of Neurobiology also in Munich. I spent close to five years at MPA doing my PhD and then I was closely associated with an institute for two more years during my postdoc. So most of my adult life I would say was spent at the Max Planck Institute.
Arnold: Hi, this is Arnold and I was associated with the MPI of Neurobiology again in Munich. I graduated in 2013 and then moved straight into industry rather than staying in academia. This is my first interaction with the MPAA.
Sneha: Hi, I am Sneha Kumar and I’m also an alumna of Max Plank of Biochemistry in Munich Martinsried. I'm very happy to be back to the MPA group and very happy to be a part of an organizing team, which is going to introduce topics like equal opportunity rights for everybody and thank you so much for bringing us all together on this table.
Tina: Yeah and I'm looking forward to all the answers here because and I'm very curious. I'm a Max Planck alumna myself. I worked at the MPI for Experimental Medicine in Göttingen in the early nineties, so you are a little bit younger than I am. But the MPAA is growing in Europe and it's something that is new for the Max Planck so what visions do you have for Max Planck Alumni and why is it important to have an alumni association?
Arnold: I can give you perspective being the first time member of such an association that it is a wonderful opportunity to connect with the younger generations as well as people from your year who have moved out to different fields or have stayed in academia to exchange information to connect basically into and to expand your horizons and to know what there is in the whole wide world and offer.
Irene: I and Maria, we came for the last conference last year and I just can say that I didn't have so high expectations but after these events I really got in love with the entire concept of the MPAA and I think for me that this concept of the MPAA actually brings people together that are interested to create such a platform to make great ideas. For instance, we have been working together for the mentoring program so like Sneha mention of we also now have on the pipeline for women in power months and the so again I believe that's such a great idea and great project in needs to do it in the group. And sometimes it's very difficult to find these types of people that are interested to working on such projects. And I think there are the alumni here, especially from the Max Planck, you can get these people that are very motivated and that are a driving force to do such great projects.
Tina: Because it is a voluntary project, isn’t it? What does it take to be an organizer as some of you are?
Irene: We can talk about the mentoring program that we are talking about the committee, Maria can you take on this part?
Maria: Yes, I can take on. We started this project actually while we were still at the Max Planck which made it easier to initiate everything because we were connected to the institute very strongly. But then once we left the institute and I actually even left Munich, so I'm not in the city anymore, it is much more difficult to still be a volunteer, to still be actively involved in this. But having an alumni association makes this possible because it enables people that are far away in many different places to still connect together and to still work together on the same goals and this is maybe what I found the most impressive on the symposium and it was also the last year the case that being surrounded with so many people that are so motivated.
When I left Max Planck that was a little bit of a surprise for me that it's not the case in other places. So actually people are not so driven and are not so motivated to coming back, it's really like getting the energy again, boost again of motivation and really wanting to be a part of something bigger and create something meaningful.
Arnold: Also it's very important to underline here the importance of an alumni association. Because as far as I've seen all over the world and the universities, the best of the universities and research centers are very active in the field of alumni networks and career counseling. And to give, basically if you take PhD students as real students to give kind of career counseling which is very important for the students and this is something that's lacking. I wouldn't know about Europe but at least in Germany there's no organised alumni association and I think it's a great start and it's high time for Max Planck to have one because it's such a great network of academic institutions. And obviously not everyone stays in academia so it's important to make the students aware of what there is and what better way can there be than to build your network and then to proceed on from there?
Tina: And I think you have something to say as well or?
Sneha: For me what I look for is that Max Planck is giving opportunity to social entrepreneurs to come forward and bring up the social topic and set up their own organisational issues. For example we had a question in mind hoping for with the topic of equal opportunities and all the best in all the walk of life and what you realize is that it was very easy to get connected with the Max Planck Alumni Chapter and to get an access to a group of people who were immediately very excited and motivated to contribute. So we were able to tap on great energies and bring together people who had the same ideas in mind but didn't have a ground or foundation and Max Plank gave us the ground to put a foot on.
Irene: And I can give other examples, so one of the projects that we want to start in Munich is about open innovation and it was easy for me to get people that were alumni but not in the association. They were not even aware that these already exist so they were really senior. But it was very easy for me to approach them and I was very welcomed by them just because I also am alumna of a Max Planck Institute although they left already a long time ago. So I think these kinds of networks even – if it was informal – I think it’s giving access to a lot of industries a lot of associations that you would normally not have.
Tina: Now of course you have to help our audience that listens to this podcast what is open innovation. Just shortly what is open innovation here.
Irene: Open innovation is like a new concept, or not such a new concept, but it’s now implemented by e.g. big companies where they are creating like partnerships with smaller biotechs with academia – so that the exchange of knowledge happens much faster between all these big sectors and the innovation also goes much faster as well.
Tina: And I also picked up you said something about career opportunities, as I work as a career coach. The challenge I have as a career coach is actually that PhDs should start much earlier to network outside of academia. It doesn't mean that you have to leave and take a decision but network it seems to be kind of a forbidden word. But if you speculate about that, why is it like that and how could alumni change that mindset do you think?
Sneha: I completely agree with the fact that if you want to step out of the academic environment or even make a career within the academic environment you have to start way earlier, you shouldn’t wait for your PhD to end. You need to coach yourself and therefore you need to network, you need to grow your network, your professional network. But somehow we don't get so much opportunities while we are doing our PhD or it’s not fostered by the academic group leaders.
Therefore I think Max Planck Alumni Association is doing a great job because this kind of event is also bringing forward a networking scenario. Like it's an event, it's an evening, these evenings are a great opportunity of connecting with peoplewith whom you can professionally network outside the scope of just being a part of alumni.
We for example also did another project called InPharma which was started three years ago and was also a networking event which took place in Munich at the MPI of Biochemistry. This was an event done by a group of interested students in Max Planck, not alumni but at that time students.
This was an example of coming forward and starting a networking event bridging the gap between industry and academia already when you are in the academic environment. When you are in the academic environment - start coaching yourself, self coaching, also helping your peers, also bringing forward people from other sides of the industry and making them aware that we are open. We don't have the ground, we don't have the opportunity but we are trying to create opportunities.
And when you want the opportunities what's the best thing about the Max Planck Alumni Association is that they consider your project, they give you the right kind of resources and they motivate you. So it's really nice to come up with an idea and put it somewhere.
Maria: Of course there are already some people, some PhD students, that have the driving force to implement and to create this dialogue between industry and academia. But the thing is that I think that the MPAA can really facilitate that people who can easily access through the MPAA already to alumni that are already in industry and making the process so much easier. Because I know that if you were just developing your career to academia is super complicated to start to meet people that work in the industry. You don't have so much opportunity to do it and so when there is a complete database of alumna and alumni that you can search and then you see there is this person doing such a cool thing – let's talk. So I think the dialogue with this person will speed up and accelerate.
Tina: What I hear is that alumni fills for academic people to be a more natural way of networking and after that it's easy to step out to non alumni - is that what I hear you say?
Arnold: Coming back to your original question Tina, that is why is the word network such a taboo among scientists or academics? I would like to systematically analyze this. I think that this is really important and that this comes out in the podcast and that you hear this. You come to science maximally because of your ideology, because of your kind of passion and the romantic idea of changing the world and doing something great in science. And we are brought up, for example in my case I was brought up with the teaching that your work should speak for itself and that is how you get fame.
Fortunately or unfortunately we have to learn how to sell ourselves and this is very important in the industry. It's also very natural because how is someone supposed to believe you in this age of everyone hyper inflating their credentials, you have to have a better way of selling yourself. And networking is one of the ways of selling yourself. And that's why it's very important also for scientists to learn this well, that if you're not going to stay in academia, then you have to start learning how to sell yourself. You have to know your strengths and weaknesses.
I've spoken to a lot of younger students and I have the feeling that these are all accomplished people, they're working at Max Planck Institutes, but when asked what their strengths and weaknesses are, they all falter, they don't have an answer up front.
I always insist to these people that they should go home and write down on a piece of paper what the strengths and weaknesses of their personality are. These are questions that would be asked at job interviews. Network might be a taboo reason for this.
Irene: But I have another point to add, because I see also network in other sense where it is not a way to sell yourself. It’s also to increase or broaden your horizons because when you get to know, for instance here I get to know people from so different backgrounds, you’re are learning so much things that you are normally surrounded by your normal colleagues that you'll not have access.
Just to give an example when I finished my PhD and I started to look for jobs.
So this was a process that in the beginning I was looking for type of jobs and these things was evolving with information that acquired from the other previous interviews and then this was fine tuning my journey at the end so I have a different job that I would never thought at the beginning that I wanted this type of job.
Tina: Now we actually talking about you know networking probably can mean different things here. So you say broaden your visions, your ideas, learn to know new people, interact with people so that you learn that there are other things than you know at the moment. I think that's a fantastic way of saying networking. But it’s also what you say here, selling yourself, so you can tell people in your network actually what you want and what you don't want based on where you have your strengths and weaknesses, because you know your strengths is your weaknesses.
Sneha: And also realizing what possibly you could also do because in networking events for me it has opened doors for new opportunities. Like things that I could not imagine I was offered a job in one of the networking events where I didn't know what actually meant to do business development. I was just approached by a CIO asking ‘would you like to do something like this’ and I learned what is the phrases, what are the credentials of being in this position. And therefore it also makes you realize what possibly I can do. It opens new channels, you think out loud, you think out of the box. It's it relaxed environment, right? It's not like a very professional coordinated event. It’s a relaxed environment, you are talking to people casually so the whole environment, is is the ease of it which is also facilitating your personality to bring the best part of yourself and explore your credentials.
Tina: How can you learn to know yourself if you're not among people? You wanted to say something?
Maria: Yes, I just wanted to add another aspect because you're always talking here that people need to network in the beginning of their PhD in order to exit academia so they have to start networking beforehand. But I don't think that's even the point, it’s just getting more information because in the beginning of their PhDs they don't even know what exists outside and it doesn't necessarily mean that they should leave academia. It just means having more information what's going on there what's going on here, so that they can actually make an informed decision about what they want and will do later.
This decision can also be no actually I don't like what is going on there and what these people are telling me that is going on in the industry. I actually realized by listening to them that I want to stay in academia. But it should be a decision that they make by knowing all the sides and that doesn't happen at the moment. They only know one side and they think okay I leave it's going to be better. But sometimes it happens that it's not better. They leave and then they realize there are the same problems there. It's also realizing why you wanna leave. Do you want to leave just because you're frustrated from amount of work? It might be the same in the industry. We also have a lot of work. Or do you want to leave because yousimply don't feel comfortable anymore.
Tina: You have a great point because now I have to catch that line you said something, you know it's a difference of leaving something and running away from something. Because if you run away you maybe haven't figured what are your drive or motivation, so you actually will do about roughly the same thing you did as a PhD and then of course you are disappointed. But you could do something completely different based on what you know and then we are actually back on what you said: learn to know your strengths and weaknesses, drive and motivation, what's actually fun for you and kind of have a career plan.
We’re going to wrap up a little bit here because I would like you all to share, you are Max Planckists all of you, you are here for a reason. I want you to think a little bit about why you did a PhD? And now when you are a Max Planckist, what you would like to share to the PhDs not being here. What's the difference for you if you hadn't been here in the Max Planck alumni?
Arnold: So would you reformulate that for me.
Tina: I was maybe a very complicated question. I don't know whether this was a question or not. I want you to think back because you know it’s important that you share your experience. If you think back when you started your PhD. You remember when you started your PhD. You had thoughts about doing a PhD. Then you experience things and then this alumni Max Planck came last year. What difference do you think this possibility have done and will do for you.
Irene: I mean maybe I can start with what I would like and what is the driving force for me. I mean okay, of course, in one way it is to connect with everyone else. But I really wish that when I was a PhD student that there was someone like me now to come to me to talk to me, to tell me maybe that everything's going to be fine and this is all normal, give me some guidance and I would love to do that for someone else.
Tina: So I hear you would like to be a future mentor.
Irene: Yes, I would!
Arnold: So I think I for me personally the reason for doing a PhD was pure passion. I had an ideological interest in science and that's why I did my PhD. When I was towards the end of my PhD I realized that academia is something that doesn't hold that much passion for me and hence it was time to make the transition to the next level and that was industry for me. I've been to several alumni events and I've seen that I need these kind of events to also extend my horizon to know other perspectives and it's also to, in a way, guide the younger students who might hold my input valuable.
Tina: Thank you!
Sneha: But I also started my PhD because I was purely passionate about what I was researching and I enjoyed it to a certain extent to a certain time point. And then there was this question that should I stay in academia or should I leave industry and then I engaged my experiences and all the offers and resources I had and I made an important decision for myself.
Being a part of the alumni association for me gives me a great support to bring forth my ideas. To be associated with a group of people who will also echo my opinion and who will bring me forward in my court process so I'm here purely for networking reasons.
Tina: Thank you. I am very glad to have these short questions here. So, thank you for contributing to the podcast and to the Max Planck Alumni Network. I am very glad to have met you. Thank you very much.
You’ve just listened to an episode of PhD Career Stories. Subscribe to our show on iTunes or Spotify or on any other podcasting app. You can also find us online on phdcareerstories.com and on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Linkedin.