Ten Questions for Your (STEM) Career

Here are some questions I got asked at a recent careers event. It was aimed at those in third year science. They were considering all of their options – further study in science or research, changing tack and joining the workforce. They were a VERY well prepared group. I thought the questions (and my thoughts) might be useful for a wider audience to consider.

1. What role does VC (venture capital) play in STEM in Australia? I’m not a venture capitalist. I don’t fund research or commercialisation or translation of research into practice. However, I do help people with all of those questions. In my experience very few researchers obtain venture capital funding to develop their research ideas. In my experience, funding is more likely to come from a grant, tender, or direct funding via the researcher themselves or an interested industry partner.

2. What do I do? I help people with PhDs, or on the path to their PhD, answer the question What next? For some people this is a career question. For others it’s a choice between one grant or another. For others still it is how to do something. How to turn their idea into a research centre or institute.

3. Why no social media? I’ve got it, but another panel member did not. He was asked why he was not on social media. As a marketer he felt he had enough interaction with social media from a work perspective and did not need to add that to his personal life. For me – and the advice I give others – is that being on social media allows you to network. It provides opportunities to meet new people. Meeting new people means new, different and more opportunities. And in research, those opportunities are vital.

4. What business training do I have? None. Just experience. I’ve done short courses in Project Management, software use (e.g. MS Office suite and MYOB). For someone starting out in research, aiming to lead their own group or lab, I’d encourage you to undertake a small business course. Similarly, if you’re about to start a small business, do a small business course. The easiest thing is to look at your local council website and enrol in a course there. They will be cheap (free in some cases) and provide a good grounding. BUT don’t let doing the course get in the way of getting started. More important than education is experience.

What business

training do I have?

None. Just experience.

5. How much did luck play a role in getting to where I am? The quote  the harder I work the luckier I get is apt here. However, it is also worth noting that bias, prejudice etc also play a role. Thus the luck I had (still have) is being born into a middle-class family, being a white (now middle-aged) man. This is probably better described as privilege, not luck. Although such things are unfair (and I am constantly trying to see these biases in myself and change them), it is the system we have. Thus knowing they exist is a good first step to dealing with them and changing them once you’re in a position to make that change.

6. Did I always know what I wanted to do? Nope. Do I know what I want to do now? Perhaps. Is it what I want to do forever? Not sure. A few years ago I would have said “yes”, now I am not so sure. As per Q 4, more important than knowing is doing. Having a go. You’ll never know what you like or dislike without trying it first. Be comfortable with having the second best option, knowing it will move you on your way towards your preferred goal.

7. What mistakes have I made? Many. Poor invoicing. Poor planning. Taking on too much work. Spending too much time planning. Spending too little time taking action. However, I can’t change those things. And, I know that at the time I did the best with what I had and what I knew/thought to be true.

8. Did planning help? Especially given the somewhat random nature of where you’re going? Yes. Planning is essential, but plans are useless (Eisenhower). Having a plan helps you get to where you want to go. Sticking rigidly to the plan might mean to arrive at the wrong location. Think of it like travelling to a friend’s house that you’ve not been to before. You would not just jump in the car or on public transport and hope you’re headed in the right direction. You’d at least ask them how to get to their place, and then perhaps look it up for yourself. That’s a plan. Now, if on the way there was a car accident and the road was blocked, you’d have to change your route. But having a plan means you’ll know where you are and make it easier to re-route. Same in life. When an unexpected change happens you can pivot to leverage it to your advantage or move around it to get to the original destination.

9. Anything I wish I did differently transitioning from uni to work? As with Q7, I did the best with what I had a knew at the time. Having said that, I had a part-time job at uni. It was great at teaching me customer service (I worked at a department store). And I’d encourage all students, including those in a PhD, to have a part time job while they study. Ideally, you should try to align that job to your future career. So, if you want to work in the pharmaceutical industry, a part time job in a pharmacist would be better than one at a fast food chain. But the fast food chain job is better than no job. If you want to work in the automotive industry (as an engineer) a job as s salesperson at a car yard would be better than a department store job, but the department store job is better than no job.

10. Recommended path in terms of education? I went from bachelors, to honours and then onto PhD – all consecutively. No gap year. Indeed, that was straight from high school. That worked for me. I enjoyed studying and I found it easy. Keeping on going seemed right at the time. For others, knowing your passion will be important to study and maintaining the discipline required for success. If you’re not passionate you might find it hard to study. Thus, working might help you find your passion. It’s also important to know what your qualification will get you. In most cases experience is needed. Thus, the importance of a part time job (Q9). Some qualifications appear to be necessary and sufficient for success (e.g. PhD to a research career). But when you did a little deeper you find many research roles are held by people without PhDs. And you also find that having a PhD does not automatically get you into academic or non-academic research roles. In many of the non-academic research roles experience in research is valued over PhD training.

Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He has helped more than 200 PhD students, early career researchers and established academics build their careers. He has provided strategic advice on partnering with industry, growing a career building new centres and institutes as well as establishing new programs. Richard is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart. His clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality.

To find out more, call 0412 606 178, email (Richard.huysmans@ravencg.com.au) or subscribe to the newsletter. He’s on LinkedIn (Dr Richard Huysmans), Twitter (@richardhuysmans), Instagram (@drrichardhuysmans), and Facebook (Beyond Your PhD with Dr Richard Huysmans).