Careers outside academia: Interview with Gerlind Wallon
Careers outside academia
Graduate students, early career researchers, or even established researchers may sometimes be unaware of opportunities other than the traditional path of academic research. This series aims to introduce them to exciting and rewarding careers that can be pursued outside academia. We bring you interviews with experts from diverse backgrounds who share their experiences from their non-academic journeys and tips on how to transition to these paths.
Gerlind Wallon is the deputy director of the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO). A German native, she graduated with a PhD in Biochemistry from Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, USA, after which she did a 4-year postdoc at the EMBL in Heidelberg. At EMBO, she is responsible for the EMBO Young Investigator Network, the EMBO Courses and Workshops and the Women in Science activities. Gerlind Wallon has developed the EMBO Laboratory Management Courses for leadership development and authored studies on the selection processes and the effects of gender on application success at EMBO and a report on the use of quota in academia.
Q. Could you tell us a little bit about your professional journey so far and the type of work you have done outside the typical academic career path?
I have a diploma in chemical engineering and worked as a chemical engineer for Shell Oil Company for a year, while I was applying to do my PhD in biochemistry at Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, USA. This has given me some insights into how industry works. I had a wonderful experience at Brandeis, where I was able to develop large parts of my thesis work myself and explore different questions regarding protein stability using X-ray crystallography. After this, I applied to do my post-doc at EMBL in Heidelberg. During my four years at EMBL, I had my two children (and received an EMBO post-doctoral fellowship).
Unfortunately, my scientific projects did not go as well as I had hoped, and I decided that I would not apply for a principal investigator position. I applied for other positions and received two offers: one, to work in a start-up company; and another, to work at EMBO to set up the EMBO Young Investigator Programme. Since I found working in the lab with two small children at home too frustrating, I decided to work at EMBO and have not regretted my choice for a minute since. Working in support of academics at different stages of their careers has been extremely satisfying, and I believe that I have been able to make more of a difference to academia this way than if I had stayed working in the lab.
Q. How did the skills and experience you gained as a PhD student/post-doc help you set up training programs for scientists?
The most important advantage was/is that I know the academic environment firsthand and have gathered experience in different labs and different environments. This makes me deeply aware of shortcomings or specific situations or wishes that we are now addressing through the networking activities of the Young Investigator Programme. But this is of course not a skill.
In terms of skills, I think the most important one we learn as scientists is to think analytically. We learn to identify problems, ask questions, and come up with (possible) solutions. We hopefully learn not only to structure our work but also to seek and listen to advice and feedback from others. As lab workers, we are never alone, and hence we learn to get and filter advice.
Q. What helped you make this transition? Did you face any challenges?
What really helped was the total freedom I was given to develop the programs (I later also became responsible for courses and workshops at EMBO). So, I could continue to experiment, only this time on/with people. I was able to develop the EMBO Lab Leadership courses (now delivered by the subsidiary EMBO Solutions), develop scientific skills training via the EMBO PhD course, and work on a topic that interests me personally: the question of why women do not advance at the same rate as men in academia. I have organized several conferences on the topic, worked on EMBO policies in this regard, and have published a study on our programs exploring this topic.
At EMBO, we work with some of the best scientists in Europe and beyond, which is extremely satisfying.
Challenges? Not really, at least nothing that one cannot overcome with the type of education that we receive as scientists.
Q. What types of career opportunities can PhD students and researchers explore outside academia?
There are quite a number of opportunities. They can work
- In researchfunding agencies (i.e., assisting with running granting programs; generally, performing administrative work)
- As an editor for a scientific journal
- In administrative positions at universities
- In patent law, consulting
- And, of course, in industry (research management, quality control, production)
There is plenty of literature out there specifying the different options.
Q. On the basis of your experience, what would you say are the 3–5 most important points a PhD student or researcher should consider when exploring non-academic career paths?
- Get experience beyond bench work: for example, help organize meetings/scientific conferences; teach a course; train other students; be responsible for purchasing orders or general lab management; apply for a fellowship; become involved in student activities.
- Think about the transferable skills that you have gained during your PhD: organizing your project, conducting background research, finding solutions to problems, starting and maintaining collaborations, etc. Make list of these.
- When writing a job application, carefully address all points requested in the job description, get somebody (senior) to read and review your letter, ask several people for feedback and suggestions. Do online research for sample letters and tips and tricks; there are plenty out there.
- Contact people who are in roles that you are contemplating and ask for their experience and advice on how to apply, e.g., visit biotech fairs or trade shows and talk to the exhibitors there.
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