Swapping research training for training researchers

Anethe Mansén is one of my closest colleagues and a familiar face at Career Service, part of the staff for more than 9 years. Since I work with “careers” all day long, it is a bit amusing how little I know about my own colleague’s career.

Parts of the course Career Skills for Scientists, which is run by Anethe and my other colleague Kerstin Beckenius, involves writing a career portrait about somebody that performed a PhD more than 5 years ago. As the newest member of the staff, and “taking the course” myself for the second time, I thought this was an opportunity too good to miss, so I decided to go “all in” as a course participant this time, and I booked an interview with Anethe.

Anethe’s LinkedIn profile gives me some background but also raises questions. Why research at all? How come she switched labs during her PhD studies? And how come she finally ended up still within academia, but in university administration?

Follow the fun
“I developed an early interest for biology, thanks to a very inspirational teacher in elementary school, and the interest stayed with me through high school” Anethe tells me. When she started thinking about university studies, science was still her main interest. Anethe applied to the medical study programme twice without luck and ended up taking freestanding courses in biology and chemistry at Stockholm University.

“This is where I really came to understand that my main interest was in the ‘white biology’ instead of ‘green biology’, Anethe explains.

In one of her final classes, Biochemical Toxicology, a teacher with a connection to the department for Biosciences and Nutrition at Karolinska Institutet (KI) offered her the opportunity to do her master’s thesis at KI instead of Stockholm University. At KI she realized that she really enjoyed doing research. She got her first article published soon after having done her thesis on nuclear hormone receptor proteins. The thesis was the entry ticket for a PhD position. However, when her PhD supervisor got a position outside academia, she transferred to a larger and more established group at the department of Cell and Molecular Biology. This group suited Anethe much better, since it was a multicultural environment, much more team oriented and they all studied the same field, and had the same enthusiasm.

“I just loved it: doing research and going to conferences with people sharing the same genuine interest as me. Or coming back from conferences to the lab having interested colleagues willing to discuss new exciting findings” Anethe says when she recalls her best memories from her PhD studies.

Industry vs academia
The academic career track never really appealed to Anethe. In retrospect she reflects that this could be due to do the fact that she had very few female role models in academia. The women she met during her studies all went into the life science industry, so for her that was the natural path. Already as a PhD student she also understood how much time that had to be spent on finding research funding.

“I really preferred the handicraft of research over the pitching for money”.

Maternity leave gave Anethe a break after her dissertation. The job market was getting tougher and, out of 400 applicants, Anethe was selected for a substitute position at Affibody. Contacts from academia that had gone to industry had given her some idea of what working in industry could be like. Still, Anethe was surprised by the great resources, the high pace and how the working climate differed from academia.

”Industry was very different. From having been very lonely in the first group, coming to a more team-oriented way of working in the second lab, industry was an even more team-oriented environment. I had to collaborate with lots of people in many projects in parallel, and I had two heads to report to.”

Anethe enjoyed the work, however Affibody went through reorganization and many positions were cut off, including her own. Thanks to contacts Anethe got information about an open position as project leader at Stockholm University combining research and teaching. Even though teaching was rewarding, Anethe soon got frustrated with the limited resources for research, having the great conditions from Affibody in mind. After 1 ½ years the project ran short of funds and Anethe was looking for new opportunities again, hoping to return to industry somehow. This was in 2008 and Anethe attended a dissertation where she learned about the early development of Career Service at Karolinska Institutet. She found out that there was an opening with a deadline closing on Monday. This was a Friday. Anethe went home, applied during the weekend and got the job. Since then she has been the core of the career service at KI. Until 2010 the job was on project basis. “So I was over 40 before I finally got my first permanent position” Anethe says laughing.

When Anethe compares working in academia as researcher and in the university administration as career programme manager the two factors that differs the most are working hours and resources.

”It is two different worlds in many ways and I value the fact that I have had the research experience so that I can have a greater understanding for the researcher’s conditions and challenges”, Anethe explains.

The art of networking
The key person in Anethe’s career is her master thesis’ supervisor, Christina Branting. Anethe was always a bit annoyed when her supervisor constantly introduced her to people, mentioning their skills and positions for her to remember. Now Anethe sees how this laid the foundation for her own network. She is grateful that she had somebody introducing her to the “art of professional networking” early in her career.

”Knowing people and where to turn to get support from people that have the skills you lack will build success in your own career. It made a difference in my own PhD education and also today when I teach the same message that my own master’s thesis supervisor did – the importance of networking!”

Networking is one of the most important advice Anethe gives to students and researchers along with the advice that they should research their own career opportunities. They definitely have the skills, so they only need to use them in a different field, in their own career development!

/Emma Hägg, Career Service

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2 thoughts on “Swapping research training for training researchers

  1. What a great portrait of Anethe, thanks for writing this, Emma! Funny how Career Service does so much for our careers, but we know so little about your own paths. You and Kerstin up next? 🙂

  2. Thanks Federica! Glad you enjoyed it. Me and Kerstin come from other backgrounds than science and are not PhDs but you never know what blogs could come next…there are things to learn from career stories indeed./Emma, Career Service

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