Nov 29, 2020 | E032 Science Writing PhD in the National Cancer Research Center

Dr. Nadia Holden is a cell biologist by training. In 2015, she earned her PhD from Stony Brook University, New York. She studied the role of lipid kinases in endocytosis and autophagy.
During graduate school, Nadia had a “mid-PhD crisis” when she realized she wanted to leave academia but didn’t want to leave science. Finding a lack of good career development resources for PhD students at her university, she decided to create her own. She designed a 9-step career development program for busy graduate students, called the PhD Career Ladder Program. In 2014, Nadia gave a TEDx talk called “Reimagining the PhD” to spread the idea that PhD training can no longer be viewed as a one way ticket to tenured professorship. The talk was watched over 250k times to date!

After graduating, Nadia transitioned to a career in science writing. She is currently a science writer/editor for the National Cancer Institute, where she writes about advances in all fields cancer research. She also helps create videos, graphics, and other educational materials dedicated to this topic.

Nadia’s TEDx talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rHItLGBPsJ8/

Nadia’s LinkedIn profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/njaber/

The episode was recorded on November 28th, 2020. This material represents the speaker’s personal views and not the views of their current or former employer(s).

Natalia 00:00 Hello guys, a little disclaimer before the episode starts. Apparently, my neighbor has just got themselves a new dog, so if you hear it barking in the background. n My apologies. Enjoy the episode.

Nadia 00:22 Hello everyone. Welcome to, yet, another episode of Career Talks by Welcome Solutions. In these meetings, we talk with professionals who develop successful careers outside of academia, and are willing to share the experience and life hack with us. And today, I have a great pleasure to introduce Dr. Nadia. Nadia is a molecular and cell biologist by training. In 2015, she earned her PhD from Stony Brook University in New York.

Natalia 00:51 In her PhD she studied the role of lipid kinases in endocytosis and autophagy. During graduate school, Nadia had a “mid-PhD crisis” when she realized she wanted to leave academia but didn’t want to leave science. Finding a lack of good career opportunities resources for PhD students at the university, she decided to create her own.

Natalia 01:14 She designed a 9-step career development program for busy graduate students, called the PhD Career Ladder Program. In 2014, she gave a TEDx talk called “Reimagining the PhD”, to spread the idea that PhD training can no longer be viewed as a one-way ticket to tenured professorship.

Natalia 01:34 The doc was watched over 250,000 times to date! After graduating, Nadia transitioned to a career in science writing. She is currently a science writer and editor for the National Cancer Institute, where she writes about advances in cancer research. She also helps create videos, graphics, and other educational materials on this topic.

Natalia 01:58 Thank you so much, Nadia, for accepting our invitation. Great to have you here and I would be most happy to hear about your story from your own perspective.

Nadia 02:09 Yeah, glad to be here. Thanks for having me. Alright, so I went straight into graduate school after college, I always knew that I wanted to study science. It’s really been my only interest in schools since I was little, so it just was a natural transition for me. And I started, you know, working on my PhD thesis, joined a lab and was doing well in my classes.

Nadia 02:38 But I get to just sort of absorbed a little bit more of the academic life. And so, what my advisor did every day, and I just realized that it just didn’t appeal to me. That was, as you mentioned, I call it my “mid-PhD crisis”, because it was a really hard time to grapple with this fact that I really loved science and I liked research.

Nadia 03:07 But I just really didn’t love being in the lab, and I couldn’t see myself continuing on and doing what my PhD advisor was doing, you know; being in academia for the rest of my life. And at that time, I didn’t know anyone who had transitioned out of academia. I didn’t know that there were really other options besides industry research.

Nadia 03:31 It was for, you know, I’d say maybe a couple months just to like an internal struggle and not knowing what to do. And I think what happened was I just started talking to my classmates about it, and they were going through the same thing. That made me feel a little bit better. And I thought, you know, like, ‘What can I do about this?’

Nadia 03:54 And just kind of started searching online and ended up finding different blogs and you know, accounts of people who have transitioned out of academia and have all these different various careers. And started finding seminars and workshops to go to on career development that was specifically suited for PhDs.

Nadia 04:20 You know, just discovered this whole world of career development for PhD students that I didn’t know existed and started to explore this and, you know, started to build something for myself so I could learn, you know, what I was going to do after graduation.

Nadia 04:39 And in doing that for myself, I realized, you know, there was all these classmates that I’d spoken to who were going through the same thing and, you know, I asked them, ‘Do you want to do this with me?’ And they said, ‘Yes’, so we had a small group of students and put together what I was calling “The Ladder Program”, that I had split into 9 steps of career development.

Nadia 05:04 We met once a month, and we did one step at a time. We had homework to do every meeting, and we’d come back the next month and talk about it, and share what we learned. You know, we didn’t have anyone guiding us. It was just kind of me and one of my lab mates, we were putting this together, just googling things and figuring it out and going to these workshops outside of our campus, like I said.

Nadia 05:34 That’s how I found my path, I realized that I liked talking about science. I would love when my friends, or my family would ask me about my research or something they had heard on the news, and could I explain it to them? You know, and seeing that moment of connection when they understood what I was, you know, explaining to them, I think, was always really exciting to me.

Nadia 06:02 I started exploring that path. And doing a little bit of volunteer writing, blog posts, you know, volunteer blog posts, or guest writing. I started to try to boost up my oral communication skills as well. You know, we give seminars a lot as graduate students, but I would volunteer for other things, and different speaking competitions, to try to get all different kinds of experience of communication that I could.

Nadia 06:36 And I really enjoyed it. I also took some courses at Stony Brook; they are offering science communication courses. I was doing that on top of my lab work. And you know, it’s challenging to convince my advisor to be out of the lab for a couple hours a week. But I really, really loved the courses. I even took like public health class, which just opened my eyes to a lot more than I had thought about, you know.

Nadia 07:05 Studying cancer in the lab and then thinking about public health is just completely different. I was learning a lot and getting a lot of experience and I knew that, you know, this is what I wanted to do. After graduation, I ended up getting an internship with the National Cancer Institute. They have a, … It was at the time called Health Communications Internship Program (HCIP). It was mostly tailored for master’s students, but they did accept PhD students. I applied and I was accepted.

Nadia 07:37 I went to Maryland for this internship, I ended up staying for about eight months. And then I was offered a full-time position with the National Cancer Institute. That’s where I’ve been for the past four years. And I really enjoy what I do. I get to write about all different kinds of cancer research, from basic science to clinical science to the patient experience, you know, insurance coverage, everything.

Nadia 08:09 I feel that I’m learning every day, which is what I love doing about research, I love learning. And I’m learning so much broader, I feel than I was in the lab when I was focused on like one protein, one gene in one pathway. I really love that and, you know, getting to share with people. And again, my friends and family still come to me and asked me, you know, we’ve heard about this cancer treatment or you know, the COVID vaccine stuff, so I still get to speak with them. And yeah, that’s where I am.

Natalia 08:52 Fantastic. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. And I have to say that, I feel that since you already discovered that academic career is probably not for you, half-way through your PhD; I feel it’s a blessing. And for me personally, it took me a lot more time than necessary probably. Because even after my PhD contract expired, I still had those thoughts.

Natalia 09:17 I first took a gap year to think about my career, but I still had a very strong desire to come back. I treated it more like a break from academic career. And it took me another two years to finally give up on this childish wish to become a professor. And now, when I think about it, I could have spent this time better from the very start. If I ever took this possibility into account during my PhD that maybe I do something else for a living during that time.

Natalia 09:46 I never really thought about a plan B. I was leaving more like, you know, Arnold Schwarzenegger style. His life motto is no plan B. Like no plan B, I want to be a university professor and that kind of backfire later on. I think it’s very good what you did, that you consider an alternative career very early, and that you could give up on this initial plan so early.

Natalia 10:17 In the recent years, last 2-3 years, there was a lot of attention in academia put on post-PhD careers. But in the time when you were running your program, in 2014, I think there was still not much attention around the subject. And I feel that still, there are some academic environments where leaving academia is still perceived a failure.

Natalia 10:47 I can imagine that in 2014, it was more so. Could you tell us a little bit about that? How did your environment react to your decision? And what was the general view of post PhD careers in your environment back then?

Nadia 11:07 Yeah. Yeah, what you say is; I feel strongly with that too. I feel it. An emotional reaction, you have to get used to the idea of leaving the bench and that’s a hard thing to do. At first, it does feel like a failure, you know. I felt like, ‘Oh, I wasn’t good enough to stay in academia.’ I didn’t care about it enough; and I wasn’t going to make it.

Nadia 11:31 You know, I thought like, maybe I should just quit, you know, ‘Why am I doing this PhD, if I’m not going to go into academia?’ But I knew that I was good at science and I knew that I was good at research. And I liked, you know, learning and I wanted to earn my degree. It’s definitely, I think, an old school idea that if you don’t go into academia, then you have failed, and you know, that you weren’t good enough.

Nadia 12:02 But that’s definitely not the case. There are so many people, brilliant scientists, who get their PhDs and leave academia. And they go and they apply their talents and their expertise and their knowledge in another field. And they’re, you know, contributing to society, just in the same way that you know, a bench scientist would.

Nadia 12:27 Like the older generation, there’s definitely a lot of blank stares when I told people what I was doing after graduation, you know. People would stop, professors would stop me in the hallway and say,’ Oh, where are you going to do your postdoc?’ And I would say, ‘I’m not. I’m not going to do a postdoc, I have an internship, you know, at the National Cancer Institute. I’m going to be a writer.’

Nadia 12:47 And they were like, ‘What are you talking about? Why would you do?’ Like, you know, I think, for that generation too, I think that there were so many opportunities to go into academia that they never had to think about alternatives. And like you said, it wasn’t, you know, as popular back then. To them, it was sort of unheard of.

Nadia 13:11 And I know other students who have had different experiences that their advisors were very open and encouraging them to explore other options. And they help them, you know, get different experience and connect with other professionals in different fields. I think it’s; you know … I think it is changing, like you’re saying, and it definitely depends on the university, and the advisor and the lab environment.

Nadia 13:35 But it’s not an easy, … I don’t know, I feel like it’s not an easy transition. It is an emotional thing to sort of say, ‘I’m going to leave this path that I thought I was on and take this other path’, it’s just you have to shift your perspective.

Natalia 13:52 That’s true. And I think, judging from the fact that your professors were so surprised about your decision. But perhaps you’re also a high flyer, maybe you were performing well as a PhD student. And my observation is also that those students paradoxically, those students often have a harder time transitioning to industry.

Natalia 14:15 Also, because their environment treats this decision as counterintuitive and they persuade you to stay or, you know. Given your success in academia, you have that deep belief that you will get by wherever you go, so you don’t really start planning early enough. In fact, it’s a bit counterintuitive. But PhDs who have a very good record in terms of publications, and very good service team as researchers, usually take longer to launch careers in industry for this reason.

Natalia 14:59 I would like to ask you a little bit more about the PhD Career Ladder Program, since it’s such a very interesting idea. And I would like to encourage everyone who is watching this episode to also get familiar with Nadia’s TEDx talk on this topic. And could we also ask you a little bit more about these 9 steps in a little bit more detail about it? And also, could you tell us a little bit about where this program is now? Was this just a one batch of academics that you were working on? Or is it like a recurring event?

Nadia 15:39 Yeah, so I started out with my lab mate; we put these nine steps together. And it’s an exploration of yourself and your interests, and then developing those interests. The first step is to take basically an assessment test, to identify what you like and what you don’t like about your day to day, lab environment and the academic lifestyle.

Nadia 16:10 It’s called myIDP. It’s available online; I think it’s hosted through Science Careers. And I think it’s a very nice test. That was how I identified for myself that I was interested in science writing, and communications, you know. Before that, I didn’t really recognize that in myself. I think it’s of great value. And then the second and third parts are exploring careers that align with your self-assessment.

Nadia 16:45 And looking at what those careers are, what that day to day looks like, what the salary is like; looking at what skills and experience are required for those kinds of careers. Evaluating whether you have those skills and experience and thinking about how you can get those skills and experience or build them if you don’t have them.

Nadia 17:09 Talking to people. One of the steps is informational interviews; which I also found highly helpful. Reaching out to people in those careers and you know, asking them, what do you like about your job? What do you don’t like about your job? How long have you been there? Where do you see yourself in 5 years? all that kind of stuff.

Nadia 17:31 Looking at videos like these, you know; finding out about all these various career options that might be of interest to you. One of the steps is also going out and getting some of those skills that you need for the career that you think you want. You know, for myself like I mentioned, I started to do some guest blogging or doing some public speaking opportunities that came up.

Nadia 18:02 Looking for, like internships, or volunteer or any kind of short-term opportunity to kind of get some experience in the career path that you’re interested in. And we also talk about … One of the steps is, you know, working on your resume, working on your LinkedIn profile. All these kinds of things that you would need to set yourself up.

Nadia 18:32 We met once a month, and we did one step per month. And the students, you know, our lab mates and classmates felt that that was very manageable. You know, there’s obviously a big expectation to spend so much time in the lab and you might have coursework and family responsibilities. It’s hard to find time.

Nadia 18:52 I think we met for an hour, maybe two hours once a month. So it seemed fine, you know, manageable for everyone. We had pizza, so that was an incentive for people. In each step … We set up so that each step builds off of the previous one, so that you are kind of like building and building and building towards the final goal, which is obviously to land a job and the career that you’re interested in.

Nadia 19:22 You feel that you’re working towards something and it’s not just like haphazardly, doing this and then doing this. And, you know, if you feel that you’ve chosen a career that turns out you don’t like, you can go back to one of the previous steps and explore something else. The other thing that we liked about doing it as a group was that we shared everything that we were working on.

Nadia 19:47 If I went and explored careers in writing, I would come back to the group and I would tell them a little bit about that. And you know, some of the other students were also interested in careers in writing so they got to learn about the research that I did in these careers. And I got to learn about the research that they did on to Regulatory Affairs or Industry Science or publishing, you know, any other kind of career.

Nadia 20:11 I feel that we were all learning a lot more than if we had just been doing this independently on our own. We had a small group. When we first started, I think it was five or six students the first year. And then we did it again, the second year, while I was still there at Stony Brook. We had a little bit bigger group, I think, around 10 students; and then I graduated.

Nadia 20:37 I left everything, you know, with my friends and my lab mates, and they continued the program; it’s still going today. And the Graduate Career department has adopted it, and now they’re doing it university wide. Initially, we had just started and it was just with our PhD department, molecular biology department, and now they’re doing it throughout the university. Any graduate student, you know, can join a group in their, you know, their area of research.

Natalia 21:14 That’s fantastic. And I especially like the fact that you were doing it in a group from the very beginning. Because I feel that this is one of the major problems that PhDs usually just take that burden on their own shoulders; on their own. The best they can do is to basically do networking fully. But this will never replace creating a mastermind group and really supporting each other. Especially, if this can be done face to face, just as you did by meeting and discussion.

Natalia 21:48 That’s the best way. And I think, indeed, what I see is also that … The one problem that I see is that most people under value the time that you spend on investing in your professional skills, and also in career planning. As a rule of thumb, you perform best if you spend 10% of your working time on planning on self-development courses on this type of activity.

Natalia 22:22 90% of the time on doing the actual work. And 10% of the time on conceptualizing what steps you need to take with your career to best utilize what you know, and to steer yourself on the job market. But again, what I see is that most PhD candidates who come to the end of their PhDs, they fully focus on their thesis, as you said. And it’s really difficult to persuade them to really take that effort to invest in their professional development.

Natalia 23:03 And maybe, you know, partially it’s because I think the quality of services for PhDs went up in the recent years. But not every course in professional development that’s available. That’s a general rule. There are lots of courses that are not really, … they don’t give you many tangible skills. I myself, from my graduate school, I remember courses that were very good. And I remember courses that didn’t really advance my career opportunity as much.

Natalia 23:41 Since there is such a choice, and there are so many courses that … There are these feel-good courses that leave you with a good feeling about yourself and about your opportunities, but they don’t give you the right contacts or the right take home messages. This is a huge investment of time and many people don’t take it.

Natalia 24:09 My next question for you would be, so now you’re … It’s 5 years, over 5 years, since you graduated. Do you still feel that PhD is a large portion of your identity as a professional? Do you really feel that the fact that you did a PhD this whole time before? Does it still influenced the way you think, and the way you develop your career today?

Nadia 24:39 Absolutely, a 100%. I mean, just the way that I think, like you said, that critical thinking skills that you learn in your PhD I mean, that’s I feel important in any career. I think that I use that every day and looking at the types of communications that we’re doing or the way that we do where I work and say, ‘Why are we doing it that way? Where can we use data to inform our decisions?’

Nadia 25:06 You know, so thinking a little bit more critically, I think, I feel that that brings a lot to the table. And also, for what I’m doing, you know, I’m writing about science, I’m writing about clinical trials, I’m writing about studies. I have, I think, a little bit of a deeper understanding of how those studies are done, and what the experiences of the researchers doing that work.

Nadia 25:31 I feel like I have a little bit of a different perspective than maybe someone who hasn’t gotten their PhD. I think the ability to learn very quickly has helped me a lot. Like I said, I’m writing about all different kinds of topics related to cancer. I might get an assignment on something that I’ve never heard of, and I have to spend a little time to read a bunch of review papers and research articles and you know, become not an expert.

Nadia 26:03 But well versed on this topic, so that I know how to interview the person that I’m going to be speaking with. And I know what questions to ask them, you know. Being able to converse with scientists. And I think they’re being a scientist as well myself, they feel more comfortable with me, because they know that we have a similar background. I think that helps as well.

Nadia 26:29 I also go to conferences, usually once a year. I go to conference and you know, pick up on what’s going on in the cancer research world. Being able to walk into, you know, any seminar and understand what’s going on. I think it has been helpful as well.

Natalia 26:49 Okay, great. And I’d like to ask you a little bit more about your current job. Since our viewers are interested in post PhD careers, I’d like to ask you, how your typical working week looks like today?

Nadia 27:07 Sure. I’ve been working remotely for three years now. I’ve always been working at home, not just in the pandemic. But my typical work week, every day I typically have at least one meeting, which is usually with the other writers and the editors who are usually just trying to check in and planning our communications that are coming up.

Nadia 27:36 The bulk of my work is spent writing blog posts for the National Cancer Institute’s blog, it’s called Cancer Currents. We have one meeting a week, where we get our assignments we report on where our current assignments are. We talk about what’s being published that week, what’s going to come up next week. It’s a little bit of a planning meeting for the blog.

Nadia 28:01 And then, we have another planning meeting for all of the other sort of communications that are going on. I write a little bit for the general website content, which is more patient oriented. For instance, I’ve written a page about tumor sequencing or tumor genetic sequencing for patients. I also work with the multimedia team, so with the graphic designers, to come up with videos to help explain certain key concepts that patients or caregivers or even doctors need to know.

Nadia 28:46 I have some meetings, but not a lot. Most of my time is just spent on my computer writing, editing my drafts. Or like I mentioned, you know, reading papers doing research. I also interview with the scientists that are doing the work that I’m writing about. Every now and then, I’ll have a phone call with a researcher; you have to set that up with their university.

Nadia 29:14 I have to, you know, take notes on that, and then work that into my draft. And then building it into the website, I have to find images to go with the post or create images or work with the designers to create images sometimes. And then, about once a month we get like analytics back on the blog posts.

Nadia 29:40 And you know, we tried to take that into account and see what’s doing well and what’s not doing well. And what topics people really liked and what topics people aren’t really interested in and, you know, plan going forward, what to do with that information.

Natalia 29:55 What do I need to know to be able to read your text? Are your texts meant for anyone with higher education or for anyone, like for the broad public, for whom do you write?

Nadia 30:08 Yeah, we try to write at a level that anyone can understand it. We try to write for the “lay” audience. We know we have a lot of patient readers and caregivers who are reading our content. I’d say, you have to be a little bit science-minded for some of the content because some of it is more basic research. You know, the Cancer Institute is one of the biggest funders of cancer research in the world.

Nadia 30:36 A big part of what we’re writing about is basic research. Some of those writings are, I’d say, probably a little bit more of interest to someone with a science background.

Natalia 30:53 And what do you think is the best entry for PhDs who are now considering this type of career? What would you advise to someone who would like to try to become a science writer?

Nadia 31:07 Yeah, I would say get as much experience as you can, as a graduate student. We do a lot of writing as graduate students, but it’s an academic style writing. I would try to get experience doing different kinds of writing. There are plenty of science blogs online that do accept guest bloggers, so you can, you know, come up with a topic that you find interesting, write a blog post and submit it to them.

Nadia 31:32 There’s also sometimes opportunities like if you go to a conference, you can write up a summary of the conference for, you know, the conference website or some other platform. A lot of people now just use social media and they’ll, you know, share something on Twitter. You can write on Twitter. Essentially, you can do a Twitter feed on something; that’s a great form of communication.

Nadia 32:02 You could start your own blog. I see people share a lot of stuff on LinkedIn too, I think that’s a good place to get visibility. Just try to get experienced in, I’d say, a variety of platforms and different kinds of writing than just the academic style. You know, I was fortunate to be able to find an internship; where I wanted to be at the National Cancer Institute.

Nadia 32:31 I don’t know how common that is in other places. But I think one of the greatest lessons I learned in my career development was like, how to sell yourself, and how to communicate that the skills that you’ve learned and your PhD can really be applicable in any field. Because your employer or your potential employer, might not know everything that’s gone into that PhD degree.

Nadia 32:59 They don’t know that you written a PhD thesis that’s 100 pages long. They don’t know that, you know, you’ve written this and that or that you’ve given talks, and that you’ve gone to conferences, and that you’ve stood up in front of a panel of, you know, experts and defended your work, you know. They might not understand all of that. To be able to explain that on your resume or cover letter and say, ‘These skills are going to, you know, make me a good asset to your team.’ I think that’s really important. I think that’s another concept or idea that students should really take to heart.

Natalia 33:42 Great. And if you could tell us also briefly about, how does a career path in science writing look like? What are your plans? How can you potentially evolve? Do you have any plans for your career development? Or do you just let it be and you have an open mind to whatever comes next?

Nadia 34:11 Yeah, that’s a good question. I wish I had a better plan. I think I am sort of letting it go for now. I feel that I am still getting a lot of experience and learning new things where I am. I could see, you know, right now I do mostly writing. I think there’s an opportunity if I wanted to, to transition to more of an editing role.

Nadia 34:36 Or more of a managing role where I was sort of giving out the assignments and deciding, you know, what topics should be covered in a blog or in a website, rather than just doing the writing myself. I could see that as the next step. I’m not necessarily sure if that’s something that I’m interested in. But I could see that being a path forward.

Nadia 35:02 I think there are other opportunities, you know. The National Cancer Institute is a huge, huge Institute. And so, our communications department is like 60 people, I think, so all of the communications have really spread out. You know, I don’t do any of the social media, I don’t really do any of the planning. I think if someone was interested in communications, they could go find a position in, maybe, a smaller organization that they would do different kinds of communications.

Nadia 35:38 There’s also press, like, you could write press releases. You could write for the media, that’s not something that I do a lot right now. Someone could, you know, transition to something like that, where they do all of the communications rather than, you know, just to what I’m doing is sort of one piece of the pie, I think.

Nadia 36:03 There’s also an option for freelance writing. I know some people who have transitioned to that as well. Just you’re getting all of different kinds of writing experience, and you’re going and searching out for jobs that you’re interested in, or assignments that you’re interested in, or coming up with ideas and submitting them to different publication outlets. I think that also could be an option for me down the road.

Natalia 36:31 It sounds very exciting. I’m looking forward to see what you do next. Could I also ask you a little bit about your TEDx talk and that experience, because it’s an amazing talk. Again, I would like to encourage everyone who is watching us to also check it out. But, how was this experience for you? How did you get to the idea of doing this talk and how did you prepare? Can you also tell us a little bit about the consequences? Did you get interesting contacts later on? Maybe it led to some new initiatives? Tell us the story?

Nadia 37:13 Sure. Like I said, this came up when I was doing, you know, exploring some career options. And I had found out that I was interested in science communication. I was trying to get experience doing different communications. And I was trying to also build up my oral communication skills as well as my written communication skills.

Nadia 37:35 I was looking for different opportunities to give talks. Stony Brook was hosting a TED event and they were looking for a speaker. I thought, like, ‘Oh, this would be a great opportunity, I should do this.’ And initially, I thought, like, ‘Oh, I would talk about my PhD research.’ And then I thought, ‘Well, I don’t know if that’s an idea worth spreading, you know, is someone on the street really going to be interested in this?’

Nadia 38:06 I thought, ‘Well, this PhD Career Ladder Program that I’ve just put together’, you know, there’s been widespread interest in this. I know that there’s other, you know, classmates in my university who are interested in it. I’m sure that there’s other students at other universities who were going to be interested in it.

Nadia 38:30 I submitted an application to talk about the Ladder Program, and it was accepted. And then it was like, ‘Okay, I have to get on stage and do this talk now.’ And I should mention that I was, like, extremely shy. I did not like giving talks. I really didn’t like being a public speaker. I didn’t like being on the phone with people. It was just like, social anxiety and shyness, nervousness. But I’ve just forced myself to do it. I said, ‘Okay, I need this skill. And I’m going to learn how to be good at it.’ And that was what I set out to do.

Nadia 39:14 Thankfully, they had a team that was working with all of the speakers to kind of develop their talk and the visuals, and kind of coaching us along on how to have stage presence and all that kind of thing. I think that really was a nice polishing, where to give this talk. It was definitely scary. And it was not only you know, knowing that I was in front of an audience of a couple 100 people, but that the talk was being recorded. I think it was streamed live.

Nadia 39:53 I was like, ‘Well, there’s people at home watching me and this is going to be on YouTube and you don’t know how many people who are going to see this.’ It was definitely, definitely nerve wracking. But I’m really, really glad that I did it. I get people contacting me all the time through LinkedIn, or I set up a little website for the PhD Ladder Career Program.

Nadia 40:19 People send me messages on there that they found the talk. And they really identify, you know, like you said, with that moment of feeling like, you know that you don’t want to go into academia, but you don’t know what to do and you feel lost.

Nadia 40:34 And you know, so I’m really, really thankful that more people are able to find this talk and find this idea, and know that there is a path for them, and they can figure it out. I know that some people have found the program and they’ve implemented it themselves at their university. It is a little hard because you have to take all those first steps yourself.

Nadia 41:00 And I wish there was a little bit of an easier way for me to help them do that. But I think that just finding the talk and finding the website, I think has helped a lot of people. I feel very fortunate that I was able to do that.

Natalia 41:19 Fantastic. I would never guess that you were stressed, because we have a very good stage presence. That comes as a surprise, I would say. Yeah, it’s a great talk. Again, guys, please watch it. That’s the homework from this episode. Now let me ask you this question now. What is your general advice for PhD candidates who are now considering leaving academia on behalf of some new career? You already gave us a lot of great advice. But if you could think of just one more thing; just some words of encouragement maybe for the people who didn’t decide yet what to do next?

Nadia 42:11 Yeah. I would say, to put in the work now is really important, even if you’re a first year or second year student, and maybe you haven’t had that crisis moment yet, but you’re just kind of thinking about it. Don’t wait until the last minute, you know. We had a lot of friends who graduated and didn’t know what they were doing. And you know, they were lost, or they just went and did … They went, you know, after their PhD and kept going into research and they were miserable.

Nadia 42:47 But that was just the path, the only path that they had open to them. I think, as a graduate student, is the perfect time for you to put in the work and do this exploration. And I think it’s really important to, I know it’s going to sound cheesy, but believe in yourself, you know. It’s hard if you have an advisor who isn’t encouraging this exploration, especially if it’s, you know, you’re thinking of leaving academia.

Nadia 43:14 You have to be your own best advocate and you have to say, ‘I want to take this class or I want to take this internship, you know. I want to do this or that, and this is going to help me in the long run.’ You have to really stand up for yourself and what your interests are. I think another good thing, piece of advice I can give is also to involve other people.

Nadia 43:15 Like you said, ‘If you try to do it in a silo, it’s lonely.’ And I feel that when you bring other people in, and you ask for their reflections and their advice, you might learn something about yourself that you didn’t know. And that can help you realize what your strengths are, what your interests are. And you might never know, honestly, who’s going to open that door for you.

Nadia 44:12 You know, or who’s going to give you that piece of advice or that reflection that’s going to set you on the path that is really right for you. I wouldn’t discount any connection either and just try to talk to a lot of different people. And like I said, you know, take the strengths that you have from your PhD training and learn how to communicate that. Those are great skills in any career and you really have to learn how to talk about yourself and brag about yourself. You know, that’s how you get a job. If you don’t think that you’re great, then why is someone going to hire you.

Natalia 45:01 That’s a great advice. And I think that’s a great advice. Although I can imagine that for us PhDs, this is the hard part like self-promotion and developing that self-confidence. This is one of the biggest bottlenecks, I think when we start new careers. But I totally agree with you. That’s the homework everyone has to do. Personally, I am an Adler-ist. I follow Alfred Adler in terms of, you know, what are the routes for human motivation.

Natalia 45:37 He started also a friend of Sigmund Freud, and they had discussions on what is the real, you know, underlying motivation in humans. Alfred Adler, he believed that we all are born in some inferiority complex, so we all are born insecure and we have to prove ourselves. And I feel that this is true. Everyone … We all have this homework that we are born with some inferiority complex, and we have to build up our confidence.

Natalia 46:08 This is true for everyone. Some people have, you know, a longer way to go than others. But we all have to do it, that’s our homework. Just as you said before, we are able to accomplish this task, like no one will believe in us. And that’s totally, totally true. Okay, fantastic. Thank you so much, Nadia, for all your insights and for sharing your story today.

Natalia 46:35 And I’m looking forward to hearing what you do next in your career. And thank you so much for your contribution to the PhD community worldwide, because your story is very inspiring. And I’m very happy to hear that the PhD Career Ladder Program is still active, and that it still improves and helps PhDs in building their careers.

Natalia 47:00 And thank you so much. And guys, if you would like to get more of this type of content, then please subscribe to our channel. And of course, if you have any questions about Nadia’s work and about this episode and the material presented here, then of course, please also ask us questions in the comments. We will attempt to answer all your questions. Thank you so much for getting to the end of this episode and goodbye. Thank you so much.

Nadia 47:37 Thank you so much, and good luck everyone. 

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