A chat with..Berenice Kimpe. Devising your career plan

by Sylvia Mondinelli

Berenice Kimpe, International Partnership Development Manager at ABG was recently in IIT, to hold a workshop dedicated to those currently doing a Phd or a Postdoc and wanting to know more about their chances outside of academia.

What kind of jobs will make you happy? How is it to work in a company? How can you know more and how do you explain to a recruiter what your skills are?

Berenice tried to answer these questions during the workshop and, afterwards, we took the chance to ask her a few more questions. Check below for the full talk and the interview.

Short overview on ABG Association Bernard Gregory is a French association that aims at enhancing the career development of doctorate holders and helping companies to recruit PhDs. It offers a job board where academic and industrial positions are advertised and training courses on career planning and job search strategy. It has recently developed together with the French Conference of University Presidents and the French professional association MEDEF, an online skills portfolio for PhDs – www.mydocpro.org   ABG is more and more active across Europe. For more info, check their webpage www.abg.asso.fr



You have been working with PhDs and Postdocs for a long time, trying to link them to work opportunities outside of academia. What is the main challenge they face when they decide to move towards industry?

I would say that the most difficult thing is for most of them to have a sound self-awareness. To know how to position themselves as professionals, how to market themselves in a positive way. Identifying the skills you have is very important, as it makes you aware of all you can do and it boosts your confidence in the fact that you are much more than just a researcher. It helps a lot when you have to convince recruiters that you can do the jump from academia to industry. That’s why we developed together with academic and industrial partners a skills portfolio on a free access, www.mydocpro.org .

Another challenge for them is to identify career options outside academia. That’s where networking is really useful. By meeting professionals having left academia, you can better evaluate if a position is a fit for you or not. You will notice that, sometimes, people in industry may have similar activities as yours (or at least activities you can easily relate to your own experience), even if the context is different. That’s how you can better get an idea of where you stand in terms of know-how.

During your talk, you mentioned that it is good to change job if you feel like it’s not the right job for you. But not everywhere recruiters think in the same way. How can someone know when having multiple experiences could be detrimental or beneficial?

It depends on how you present your experiences. It’s true there is a difference of perception among recruiters coming from different countries in general terms. However, you can change and you have to; 10 years in the same position, without any professional development, without taking any initiatives, is never a good signal. You must change if you think what you are doing is demotivating on the long term. It’s fine changing job but, of course, the idea is trying not to change every two years or two months just because you don’t like your job or your boss, otherwise companies will think that they can’t count on you. It is useful to change, it is normal to even make mistakes especially at the beginning but at some point you really need to know what you want to do. You need to learn from your bad experiences and ask yourself what the demotivating factor was, in order to avoid it in the next job.

Many times, unfortunately, even having a clear idea does not help finding what one wants. When is it right to compromise on what your expectations should be, on what you accept as a job?

Well, the real question is what are you prepared to compromise on? Because there should be a plan, that is what you really want to do. Starting from that, you need to dissect the reasons why you would like to go down a road rather than another. At that point, ask yourself what is that you cannot do without. What is the core of the path you are picking? Doing research? Having a good pay? Having a fair boss? That’s the make or break point for you to accept a job or not and each one of us has a different one, or different ones.
There is no ideal perfect job. If you start off with something that does not reflect your expectations 100%, you can still learn something. First of all you gain experience, for example understanding how a company works and that’s valuable also for your future decisions.

Always ask yourself what you are learning even from things you don’t like. This will help you move to your next steps in a more conscious way. Be very clear about what you didn’t like – whether the colleagues, the environment, the lack of team work, the tasks you were given – because those are the things you need to try to avoid going forward. And turn them into positive criteria you are looking for in a job and in a professional environment. Do not forget to ask questions about those aspects in job interviews: it shows your motivation and it helps you decide if the environment the recruiter is offering you is the right for you.

As you mentioned, the number of open positions within academia is way lower than the number of PhDs. However most people tend to prefer academia and see industry as a second-pick, a fall-back almost. How can you promote industry – that can also be very satisfying – to Phds and how do you promote PhDs to industry, which often has no real knowledge of the value of hiring a highly-specialised individual?

First of all they need to choose industry because they really want it. Not as a second-pick. This is very important because industry don’t recruit people by default, they need to see motivation. I’m aware that in most cases, they are not presented with enough information about what industry does and what they can actually do in it and that’s where we try to step in.

Anyway you can start by laying down some facts. For instance in France, every year, there are 14000 PhDs and only 2000 permanent positions in academia. You need to be realistic. Numbers tell you that not all PhDs will be able to get into Academia, that’s a fact.

Another important aspect is to try to sensibilise PIs about the fact that the PhDs they’re supervising won’t necessarily stay in academia, to make them open to alternative careers, because most of the times PhDs don’t feel supported enough. PIs are there to support the career development of PhDs and Postdocs and, therefore, training PIs is a major issues and it is important to sensibilise them about this.

Then how do you promote PhD holders to industry? By putting them face to face, organising event where you invite both PhDs and some companies, or by inviting PhDs into companies. Even better, inviting PhD holders who are working in companies of all sorts, to come and explain what they do. Practically. On a daily basis.

All the times we organize this kind of event, there is always that one person asking this very important question that is “Have you ever regretted leaving academia?” and 99% of the times the answer is no, because they end up finding very satisfying activities. There is a narrow vision of what’s open for them outside of academia. They grow in an academic environment and therefore that’s what they know best. Having someone who, just like them, studied and gained a PhD, maybe even a Postdoc and tell them about his/her success story, is extremely eye-opening and could change the mind-set of people.
That doesn’t mean they will switch from wanting to stay in academia from wanting to work into the business world,  but at least they would have a concrete real idea of what that means.

In order for PhDs/Postdocs to get closer to the industry, they need to know about it, but there is a disconnection between these two worlds. How to better make them talk?

The best way is organising events. Networking! Testimonials are the best mean to convey a message, because they have first hand experience and can really get into the day to day details of the matter. When messages come from their peers, from someone holding a Phd, the impact is stronger.

Industry and Academia use two different jargons, so that when approaching job descriptions, people might have a hard time understanding whether that’s something they might be doing or not. How to better have these two world talking the same language?

The very basic thing, the one I keep on pointing at, is that self-awareness is really the key here. PhDs need to know what they do. They need to know that they work in a team, for example. That’s valuable in a job interview and they need to elaborate on that. Do not just assume the interviewer knows it or knows exactly in what way you collaborate with team members. So being able to clearly explain what you do, even when it seems obvious, it’s an advantage in order to be able to explain what your skills are to an external observer. Then reading job descriptions, company descriptions and so on is certainly useful too. It’s a world that you might not know, so it takes some studying it.

And once again: networking! By meeting professionals in industry, you get familiar with the vocabulary used in their professional sector. It’s a vocabulary you can then use in your applications and during interviews.

Did you notice something changing in the last years about the relationship between Universities and companies?

It is changing. When we started back in the ‘80s, it was really hard but then politics implemented some incentives to foster the recruitment of PhDs into companies with this industrial PhD, which in France allows student to spend part of their PhD time within a company. Also, some tax cut offs were put into place for companies that recruit PhDs, so that it also became a financial asset to hire them.

What we want to do is also working with this Marie Curie fellowship, that can be hosted by companies too. If you say to a business ”Here’s a highly specialised individual who can work for you without you paying for it”, – as the fellowship is entirely paid – then the companies are more keen to listen and end up understanding the business values of someone with such a know-how within any corporate environment.



http://www.findyourdoc.org/index.php/it/ - Find your Doc – PhDs’ talent for the business world

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