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Guestblog by Ineke Verweire – The career choices of the academic

Hi, I’m Ineke Verweire. I’m professional chemist. I acquired a PhD and an MBA and during my entire career I have been surrounded by scientists. As a career coach, I love helping them make two fundamental choices at the start of their career. And through this guest blog I’ll share a few fundamental questions.

Should I pursue a PhD or not?

After graduating you are already presented with your first choice: whether you want to start a PhD or not. During a PhD you will learn analyzing techniques and how to produce scientific data. A PhD will give you the practical experience to supplement your theoretical knowledge. You will set up your own hypotheses and consequently will try to prove them. You will learn to set up experiments and will be confronted with frustration when they keep failing. For four years you will have to be your own driving force. You will develop skills like analytical reasoning, organization, planning, persistence and decision-making. These skills are highly valued in the industry. In the academic world however it is the number of publications, presentations and awards that will be more important.

My bronze tip: Never start a PhD with the motive, which I hear a too often, ‘I just wanted to enjoy the student life a bit longer’. A PhD is hard work!

Should I pursue a Postdoc after my PhD or not?

The choice to pursue a postdoc is equivalent to the choice: ‘Will I pursue a career in the industry or will I become an academic, alias a professor or a lector?’

My silver tip: Base your choice on your talents, the type of environment that makes you flourish and the consequences of that choice.

What are your greatest talents?

Talents are inborn qualities. Do they match those possessed by a true researcher? Analytical, patient, curious, driven by detail and the fundamentals? Or are you more goal-oriented, holistic, drawn to teamwork and social contacts? All of those are qualities the industry values. Your talents can point you in the right direction, but beware, it is not that clear-cut! Within the industry there are jobs that wish for the typical qualities of a scientists, while the same is true for the academic world.

Do I have a better match with the academic world or with the industry?

The academic world is a very small world. The number of professor positions is limited. This is cause for a lot of competition. It is essential to network and to know the right people. Perhaps what’s even more important is showing yourself. This context often causes envy. You do however have an enormous freedom to decide what themes you wish to direct your attention to.

In the industry you will be guided by your colleagues and you can grow step by step. You will have personal goals which will be in line with the industry objectives. You won’t be on your own, the work is often done by means of projects and in teams. But you will soon experience time- and performance pressure, the deadlines and quality requests. Anything to keep the client happy and to make a profit.

What are the consequences of my choice?

If you decide to pursue an academic career, understand that you will need to have postdoc experience at a university abroad.  But even with that experience it is possible that you won’t reach your goal of being a professor. If that were to happen, what is your plan B? Realize that if you switch to the industry at that point, you will be dealing with a backlog.

If you choose to venture into the industry world, you take a step back from doing fundamental research. Luckily there are plenty of jobs that are directly related to science: product specialists, representatives, project leaders and production supervisors of scientific, medical and technological products, etc. You will have develop new skills, like giving feedback, effective leadership, project management… There is no easy way to figure out what job would be right for you. Sometimes you just have to give it a try. The good thing is that during your career you will be able to fulfill a whole range of different tasks and positions.

Therefore my golden tip: at least follow your heart and your dream!

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