Symposium SB12: Novel Soft Materials and Systems for Artificial Skin, Soft Robotics and Haptics
2022 MRS Fall Meeting & Exhibit - Graduate Student Awards

What’s next after my PhD?

This year’s symposium on broader impact (BI01) addressed early career development. Some presenters talked about their experience moving from industry to academia while others moved from academia to industry. Jina Ko, an assistant professor at Pennsylvania University, said the top advice she had received from her supervisor was to do what she wanted to do and not only the things she was capable of doing at any given time, with the logic that this is how one grows and evolves. Martin Wilkovitsch, a postdoctoral researcher at Technische Universität Wien, echoed Ko on the importance of guidance from a strong mentor.

After obtaining her PhD degree, Ko held a position as a PhD bioengineering intern at the life science company Verily and she did postdoctoral work as a Schmidt Science Fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital and Wyss Institute at Harvard University. After significant soul-searching, including guidance from a mentor on her career journey, Ko ultimately decided that she cherished the freedom that academia gave her to generate and pursue novel ideas. This prompted her to pursue a career as an assistant professor, ultimately leading to her appointment at Penn State. Ko stressed the immense importance of knowing what you want to do when choosing a vocation, emphasizing that deliberate exploration leads to better outcomes than aimless wandering.

Wilkovitsch provided an alternative career path post-PhD, describing how he spun his PhD work into a biotech startup company. Also emphasizing the value of a good mentor, Wilkovitsch said it was his supervisor who agreed to support him in starting his company. Prior to starting his company, however, Wilkovitsch pursued a postdoctoral position to further grow and expand his network. This is an important part of the academia-to-tech transformation, he said. Wilkovitsch then provided advice on the importance of choosing the “right people” when starting a company, recounting the cautions he received when he decided to co-found his company with his friend of eight years. It was important in such a case, he said, to communicate clearly and to delineate roles. He suggested that those looking to co-found a company should split their workload between the technical and business side of things, with either co-founder focusing more on either side of the enterprise. Among a number of key learnings from starting his company, he said, is to generate and patent useful IP to increase the attractiveness of fledgling tech startups to investors.

 Jonathan Fauerbach of Miltenyi Biotec in Germany and Aaron Franklin of Duke University provided “how-to” advice on transitioning from one type of institution to another. Fauerbach, who moved from academia to industry, alluded to the importance of reading job postings carefully in order to tailor each application to the job in question. He provided tips regarding the job application “vocabulary” for PhDs and postdocs, mentioning that PhD jobs typically have obvious titles such as “Scientist,” but also less obvious titles such as “Project Manager” or “Team Coordinator.” To be most successful, he said, it is important to highlight hard (technical) skills as well as soft (people) skills. The best way to convey soft skills, he said, is through stories and that this required a significant degree of self-awareness and self-reflection.

Based on his move from industry to academia, Franklin gave powerful insights into the faculty recruiting process, and what faculty look for in unconventional candidates, such as those coming from industry. “Knowledge transfer” is important, he said, both in finding a mentor and in serving as one. Aspiring industry professionals looking to make the jump over to academia should keep one foot in each door in terms of networking, he said.  They should also maintain a visible track record of innovation by filing patent applications and publishing articles.

According to Gopal Rao, Chief Editor for Technical Content at MRS and editor of MRS Bulletin, the importance of publishing one’s research cannot be understated, for scientists in general, but for early career researchers in particular. When it comes to the actual writing, rather than start from beginning to end, Rao suggests a different approach. Begin with the title, then write the conclusions section. Think of the conclusion as your destination, Rao said. It then serves as a map for the article. Next, write the abstract, which then serves as a mini-version of the outline for the paper. Next, prepare the figures and captions. Readers often look at figures after the abstract and conclusion and before reading the actual article. Rao acknowledged that not all researchers like to write. What is important, he said, is not to be a “great” writer, but to be a careful one.

Remember: You can access presentations on essential content through January 31, 2023.  

Bloggers: Mohamed Atwa and Judy Meiksin


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