E034 What Is Special about Academia? How to Help PhDs Do Better Science?

Jul 26th 2022

Dr Jonathan Weitzman is a full professor of Genetics at the Université de Paris and the founding director of the Center for Epigenetics and Cell Fate (UMR Epigénétique et Destin Cellulaire). He trained at the University of Manchester and the University of Oxford, UK. He worked at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School, Boston, USA and was a faculty member at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. Jonathan has a background in signal transduction pathways and expertise in gene regulatory networks and epigenetic contributions to disease. Jonathan has authored over 60 research articles and reviews and published two books for a lay audience. 

Jonathan is also passionate about teaching and is heavily committed to training and mentoring young researchers; he directs the European Masters’ in Genetics (Magistère de Génétique) at the Université de Paris and the Ecole Universitaire de Recherche G.E.N.E. Jonathan has led many interdisciplinary initiatives including the Laboratoire d’Excellence “LABEX Who Am I?” a research consortium focusing on questions of identity, the Académie Vivante, an innovative Art-Science teaching initiative and the “Dance Your PhD” graduate project. He is the co-host of the podcast “The Lonely Pipette; helping scientists do better science.”

Jonathan’s Lonely Pipette Podcast: bit.ly/TLPsubscribe Ontology Of Value 1f525 Career Development Strategies E034 What Is Special about Academia? How to Help PhDs Do Better Science? Career Talks From Industry To Academia General Career Advice PhD Careers In Industry

Jonathan’s LinkedIn profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jonathanweitzman/

Jonathan’s Twitter account: https://twitter.com/Epigenetique

Jonathan’s Lonely Pipette account: https://twitter.com/LonelyPipette

The episode was recorded on December 10th, 2020. This material represents the speaker’s personal views and not the opinions of their current or former employer(s).

Natalia 00:10 Hello, everyone. This is yet another episode of career talks by Welcome Solutions. In these conversations, we talk with professionals with very interesting careers who share their life hacks and tips on how to develop a successful career with us. Today, I have the great pleasure to introduce Dr. Jonathan Weitzman. He is a full professor of genetics at the University of Paris and the founding director of the Center for epigenetics and Cell fate. He trained at the University of Manchester and the University of Oxford, UK. He worked at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute at the Harvard Medical School and was a faculty member of the Pasteur Institute in Paris. Jonathan has a background in signal transduction pathways and expertise in gene regulatory networks and epigenetic contributions to disease. 

He has authored over 60 research articles and reviews and published two books for the lay audiences. Jonathan is also passionate about teaching and he’s heavily committed to training and mentoring young researchers. He directs the European masters in genetics at the University of Paris and Aquila University, the research gene, and also lead many interdisciplinary initiatives. Currently, he is the co-host of the podcast, the lonely pipette, helping scientists to do. Great to have you, Johnathan. Thank you so much for accepting our invitation. Now, I would like to give the floor to you so that we can hear your story from your own perspective.

Dr. Jonathan 01:42 thank you very much, Natalia, thanks for the invitation. As you said, I have a long academic career. I did a PhD in molecular biology, a postdoc in the States. I guess the first surprise is that a lot of your career depends on what happens in your personal life. I met a woman in the states and she was French. And so I came to France. This was not part of the plan. But being in science, it was very easy for me to travel. We wanted to come back to Europe and doing a second postdoc was just an easy step. 

I went on to do a second postdoc at the Pasteur Institute. One of the great things about being a scientist is the ability to move from one country to the other. But it was very challenging professionally because I didn’t speak any French. They didn’t understand the system. It took me a long time in France to survive in academia. It took a long time to understand the system. But eventually, I got a permanent job at the Pasteur Institute. And then, recently, about 12 years ago, I switched from the Pasteur Institute which is a private research institute, to the university, which is a public structure. 

Now, I started teaching. I hadn’t taught before but I started to be a teaching professor. And I had the opportunity to set up this new institute and to do lots of new projects. It looks very linear and very easy. It wasn’t that linear and it wasn’t that easy. Often, your CV makes it looks like everything was simple and everything was logical. But that’s not the way careers happen. There were several points, there are lots of things that are not on my CV where I went to explore other things and test other things, either because of curiosity or frustration. We can talk about those as you want. And now I help a lot of students. 

I run a master’s program in genetics. But it’s very research orientated. We’re very aware that many of our students will not end up in lab research in the public sector. We’re trying to think more and more about how to help students transition, using sciences as a start but transition into lots of other careers. And I feel that the most interesting thing things in life are where are interfaces. It’s the interface between black and white that you get gray and gray is much more interesting in black or white. 

It’s those interface careers that I think lots of our students will play interesting roles. There are many interface professions. We are having two skill sets and the ability to talk to two communities can give you an added value and make you an interesting career. Since I’ve stepped out of academia and left this sort of linear path, to interact with business, media, journalism, and other fields. A lot of my research involves interaction with other disciplines. I’m convinced that when you step off a linear path, that’s where it becomes interesting. 

Natalia 05:42 I agree with you. And I think we know history tells us that this is true. I mean, one of the biggest breakthroughs in technology and also in history came from merging two disciplines, like even Steve Jobs, like what did he do, what he did was bringing arts to the IT industry and proving that computers can be beautiful.

Dr. Jonathan 06:16 I’m teaching a class. I have a new teaching module that I’ve been running for a few years which is at the intersection between art and science. We have an artist in residence who comes in and students from genetics and it’s about exploring what happens. It’s not about learning about pain or suffering. It’s about exploring what happens when very different approaches into place and meet each other and that encounter.  I think it is true. You have people like Leonardo da Vinci who was an artist and an engineer and a physiologist, and unfortunately, we’ve separated all these disciplines into separate buildings. And a large part of my career has been invested in breaking down these building barriers and trying to create bridges in an academic sense, but also outside of academia.

Natalia 07:21 I know the most about entrepreneurship because I know it from my own experience. But I can see that researchers have had the edge over entrepreneurs because merging this ability to think logically and planing ahead and diligently executing projects is a big edge in business. I can see that also in the crisis. Recently, I talked to a few friends who also have businesses and we talked for the first time in a few months since the crisis broke out. I can see how much I was able to do. And some friends hold PhDs and we were organized and planned for this year despite the crisis and we could just proceed with our plans and test new solutions and build products.

Dr. Jonathan 8:23 Well-trained scientists should be ready for anything because science is supposed to be about surprise. And you’re not supposed to know where you’re going. We’re supposed to be able to react to the data into what you discover and the things that don’t work. 

Natalia 08:43 Right. We never have a comfort zone. We never have good times. There are always bad times. If you don’t have a 10-year contract, then you always are in the shadow of failure because your contract is short and you will fail. 

Dr. Jonathan 08:59 Failure is not bad. Failure is where you learn. That’s where you make innovation comes from convenience. You quote Steve Jobs here, and he was thrown out of his own company, and then he comes back. I’ve been teaching since I came to university. I created a new class which is called the research and development which is about our students having this very serious heavy genetic score in a very intense genetics program. And then Tuesday afternoons, we have this class and we explore. It’s the only place where we explore other careers. 

We talk about intellectual property. We talk about marketing. We can visit biotechs. And a lot of our students come back and present their experiences. When I sort of saw that the students are very seduced by listening to entrepreneurs, I tell them about creating a company and what it’s like to run a startup. But when I listen to them often, it sounds like they’re describing what it is to run a lab. A lab is a small company. It has a budget. It needs to have funding. It needs to have products. 

They had human resource questions. They had strategic questions and collaborative questions. Running a lab is not just about science. It’s about all the complexity of running this small business. A lot of the skills are similar. I think I saw someone on Twitter, who’s an academic describes themselves as I run a small business that produces papers, in international journals,  that’s what I do. I run a small business which is called a lab. 

Natalia 10:52 I couldn’t agree more. An important part of it is to choose the right people and then motivate them. I think this’s the key to success in the lab and the same to the business.

Dr. Jonathan 11:15 As an entrepreneur, a lot of the experiences of entrepreneurs in small companies is that you need to be a multitasker in the job of the scientists involved. Sometimes, the smaller the lab, just like the smaller the company, the more things you do. I was also involved. I left academia, once as a postdoc, to work for a small company. It was a startup and they hired me because of my strong academic and scientific background. But when you’re in a small company, you get involved in doing lots of things. And you learn lots of things.

Natalia 11:47 I hear a lot from people working in startups that they’re quite drained after some time. It’s indeed very intensive. I myself also had a piece of a startup, maybe 10 years ago, I was an intern for a month in a neuromarketing company, so I could see how it looks. And indeed, it was very intensive.  I can imagine. Tell us a little bit more about these experiences. As you mentioned before that on multiple occasions, you experimented with industry life, and still came back to academia. What made you an addict to academia? Why did you come back every time? What kind of experiences did you have outside academia?

Dr. Jonathan 12:46 Why did I come back?  That’s hard to answer. I guess, at the end of the day, it’s my calling. This is where I’ve had the most fun. I think it’s really important for me.  I mean, I must have used it. You picked up on the word experimenting. And I think careers are not something that you plan, there’s something that you experiment with that. You learn that as you go and you can sit down and say this is who I am. And therefore this is the job I should be doing. You need to test them. 

And you need to take a scientific approach. A scientific approach is that you look carefully at the information. You make sure that you’re well informed. And then at the end of the day, the only way to test is to experiment.  I took a rather experimental approach to test how I was in different environments and the contribution I can make can vary in different environments. I also took some time to travel which is not on my CV. And an important message I have for students is that your CV is just a piece of paper that you use for a purpose which is to get an interview and it doesn’t have to be a catalogue of everything you’ve ever done in life.  

If you want to put down, you traveled around the world, you put it down, and if you just feel that it’s not appropriate, so you don’t put it down. I took a year off to travel which was very enriching. I just feel it’s not appropriate for most of the jobs I’ve applied for. It just isn’t on my CV. But I have at least two years off that I did a traveling one before I went to university, and one between postdocs.  Then as a postdoc, I got very frustrated because I didn’t know what my future whether I have a future in academia, and when you lose your spirit, this job is not much fun doing experiments.

It’s badly paid, the hours are long, and most things don’t work. I just felt that I needed to do something else. I didn’t know whether I would come back or not. But I did feel like I needed to do something else. One of the times that I left was to work for a company I had an idea about it and it was at the time of the internet bubble. I  had an idea of myself about creating a b2b platform for the life sciences. I started to work on this project. And then I saw a job ad to work in a b2b for the life sciences. 

I realized that they were ahead of me, so I applied for the job and went to work with them. It was all the excitement of the internet. And at that time, you had to go out across Europe. We ended up in all countries at the same time. And it was a lot of fun. I learned a lot of things. But the small companies, at the time, grew very quickly and then they shrank very quickly. When I could see that the things were not so good and they started to lay people off, I resigned and worked for them as a consultant for a while. And then I needed a job. 

I went back to the lab because it was a relatively small amount of time. It was then a year that I was away. A year on a CV could disappear. And my boss believed in me. He took me back. And as long as you can find money to come back, you can come back if it’s a small period. I learned that. I doubled my career. I double my salary. And then I have them again when they came back. I bet it but I needed I had a family. I needed this. I needed some security. I came back to the lab and was very successful in the lab and everything worked.

Another time, I didn’t leave. For a lot of scientists, maybe it’s not the case today, but 20 years ago when I was a postdoc, lots of people thought that if they didn’t succeed in science, they could always write and scientists think that they write well and that they could always become an editor or journalist or science writer.  I remember my father. He had come to visit me in Paris and he said, what are you going to do? And I said, Well, if I didn’t get a job, maybe I’ll become a science writer. And he said, have you ever written anything? I’ve said no, but I can write because I’m a scientist. I’ve done a lot of academic writing in the lab but I have written for a non-academic audience.  

I had an opportunity that the head of the lab had a paper to review for nature. And he didn’t have time. He asked me to help him review the article and it was a very important landmark article. I learned to review. And then I asked nature, the news section, whether they would like news and views on this. And they very kindly said, yes, so I wrote news and views which is a way of turning a scientific paper into something a bit more accessible for the scientific community. And then I thought naively that this may be the only time in my life when I know what’s going to be in next week’s nature before it’s published and which is really stupid because all journalists have access. 

But I didn’t know how these things work. I wrote to the newspaper editor saying, I know what’s going to be in next week nature and I know the paper, would you like an article on that? And they must have laughed, but Cookson, who was the scientific editor of the Financial Times, which is a big British newspaper, not a scientific newspaper, said, I don’t know who you are, and you’ve never written anything. But I want to give you a chance.  Why don’t you write 400 words? 

And if I like it, I’ll publish it. And if I don’t like it, we haven’t lost anything. I wrote him 400 words and he liked it and he published it.  My first newspaper article was published in the Financial Times, and then he sent me a check. And I was like, wow, this is amazing.  I could do this all the time.  He was very kind. He helped me by giving me this opportunity. And then I published it in the Financial Times. And then I got more confident. I published an article in The Times of London and it was shortlisted for an award. 

And I was like, wow, this is amazing.  I did a lot of writing. And I realized very quickly that even though he had sent me a check, I could never live off this. I couldn’t be a freelancer. But it got me over the barrier that I could write for a non-scientific audience. Over my career, I’ve written an enormous amount for different audiences, taking very complicated science and turning it into either simplified for a scientist or simplified for a non-scientist. You probably heard about Malcolm Gladwell who always talks about the 10,000-hour rule. To be an expert at anything, you need to put in 10,000 hours. 

I put in 1000s of hours writing for different audiences with different types of deadlines. I used to have a blog where I would write a post every single day.  I got to write quickly. This has become extremely been very useful. It’s very useful for writing grants. It’s very useful for writing papers and recommendation letters. I published a book. I published two books for a broad audience, one is a series and one’s a dictionary. I’m the editor. I didn’t actually write it. The other one is genetics for a popular audience. 

And again, it’s this interface. It’s about taking science and translating it into a language. It’s accessible. And this doesn’t come naturally to anyone. It’s what I put in my 10,000 hours. But it’s 10,000 hours that were very well invested. This’s the other thing. I don’t think you need to put in 10,000. I think you need to put in 10,000 hours during your whole career. As a scientist, you do a lot of writing. And that’s how my teaching has helped my writing. All this investment helped me talk to different audiences. 

Natalia 22:55 One of the things I like to do is translate science verbally and written for different audiences. That’s amazing productivity if you are a university professor and publish books. Next to that, I started writing books recently but I don’t think I could ever do this next to next to having a university professorship and family.

Dr. Jonathan 23:16 The fantastic thing about academia is that you are incredibly free. I worked for a year in business development at a research institute. This was, again, an interface job trying to turn science into patents and trying to turn those patents, generous patents into contracts. And again, I used my sign. I wasn’t doing science but I was using my science background and I was translating. It was really interesting. But I worked at the time for someone who didn’t give me the flexibility and independence that I have got used to in the lab. I found this difficult. The wonderful thing about academia is you can do what you want, when you want, as long as it gets done. I have to teach at the right time but I can teach whatever I want. And while I’m teaching, 

I think the other thing also is to invest in ways that help other things that you’re doing. When I’m teaching, I’m also thinking about the research in my lab. And when I’m doing the research in my lab and presenting it in meetings, I’m also thinking about how I present for teaching. And the teaching is fed into the book. The second book that we’ve just published in French came out of an interdisciplinary research project.  Things feed in all the time but you’re doing a lot of things. I also mentioned that I have a family and I do lots of things out of the lab and that’s really important. I draw and I paint and that’s important to have all these things. It does make a very busy life. 

But that’s good, who doesn’t want a quiet life. If you want a quiet life, you want to do something else. If you choose this career, if you choose a career in science or as an entrepreneur, it’s the same thing. No one chooses to be an entrepreneur because they won’t have an easy life. If you choose this, then you’re going to do lots of things. And that’s what makes you only have one journey through this life. You want to make the most of everything. The only bad thing is that you need to balance with family support. 

I just went running this morning, thanks for having a late start so that I could get it running. You need to get your balance and everyone gets their balance, right. I don’t work on weekends. I try to take a day off a week. I think it’s really important to take a day off a week just to disconnect. I do that once a week. Then you have to accept that when you do lots of things, you don’t do them all well. I am never as prepared as I could be to teach. My research isn’t more in the journals than I would like it to be. I’m not the best father in the world. You don’t do everything perfectly. But I do lots of things and they all feed into each other. My life isn’t compartmentalized. It’s a mixture.

Natalia 26:35 I think there is a big difference between being busy and being productive. Busy life and difficult life are two different concepts. I feel that at the moment, as an entrepreneur, I have a busy life, but it’s not a difficult life. For me, I think I have a bit different experience. My experience with academic life was that life was very difficult. Because my projects were blocked by people I was working with and I was doing impossible projects. And I always had the ceiling effect. I could not force through and I didn’t feel that I could express myself. And I felt mentally oppressed in many ways. I didn’t feel that I could develop myself in the ways I wanted. 

It was complicated because I had many different things to do. I had a lot of things to do, many different tasks, and many different roles to play. But at the same time, it was difficult. I didn’t see any clear way of developing myself so that I can reach my potential. Whereas now I see it, so all these blockades disappeared. I can just choose and make my own decisions. And even though I don’t have that obstacle anymore, I think there is a big difference between a busy life and difficult life.  It can be busy but still easy. 

Dr.Jonathan 28:12 There’re several things. One is that I heard someone say the other day that there’s a sort of obsession with being busy. And being busy isn’t being productive. We have a lot of people who think it’s important to show other people that they’re busy. That’s not why I’m busy. I’m not busy because I need to show people that. But I’m passionate about a lot of things. And I want to do a lot of things. I only have one life and I want to do a lot of things. And  I want to make a difference.  I don’t think there’s any value to being busy. I’m not impressed because someone’s busy. I’m impressed because they’re productive. And some of my colleagues are extremely focused. 

This is the advice I’ve always got from my mentors that you need to focus because I’m all over the place. And I’m very lucky that I have a permanent position so I can be all over the place. That’s my style. That’s my contribution. Other people are extremely focused on one protein or one gene all their life and do fantastic things and other people might go from one to the other and do fantastic things. Everyone has their own style. 

The other thing is you said you did and what I do, you didn’t like it. This is important. There’s no answer. Everyone needs to find a way to do it. I can’t say science is the thing to do. I can say that I find it extremely stimulating because I haven’t encountered what you encountered. I have been with people who have mentors and this’s very important to choose the people you worked with. I’ve had mentors who I’ve had enormous respect for and who have understood that the more freedom they gave me, the better for them and me. And that’s the way I tried to mentor. I try if my mentors are listening. 

He sounds so nice but he’s over in the lab. I probably get it right some of the time and wrong some of the time. But I do try in the lab and the classroom and even at home to give freedom because I think people need to feel that they can find a way to feel that they’re not blocked. In many things I do in my career, even the interrelation in the relationship, where we’re building around the workshops, I try to help people fulfill their potential. I can have an amazing student who has amazing potential or a student who has very limited potential. It doesn’t matter. The important thing is to give them the opportunity, the space, and the confidence to fulfill their potential. That’s what you can do professionally and not block.  

People who block other people’s careers, this is a horrible way to behave. And often people do leave science or academia just because they had a bad interaction. Not everyone, some people in academia, have everything. We have nice people and horrible people. We have supportive mentors and horrible mentors. It’s a community. We have everything. A lot of people leave science because they had a bad experience. And often the people who stand for it because they just got lucky. They have a good experience. But you do have to look carefully at the way you choose people. 

And the world has changed. We now live in a post-me-too world where we have encouraged people to say that doesn’t work for me to find the courage to say, that’s not why I’m here. I want to be in academia but I don’t want to be treated like that. And that’s not the way to treat me. The system is beginning to listen to those people who say that this’s not acceptable. This’s not the way to be treated. And that’s just humanity. You need to be an honest person. You need to know that you did your best to help the people around you to fulfill their potential.

Natalia 32:34 In my case, this decision I took was very complex. It was not just because of the difficult experiences during the PhD but I think  I always had that entrepreneurial soul. I just ignored this for a long time. I think when I look back, there were some signs throughout my young life that I might run a company one day. I just didn’t listen to my intuition. And I think now I see it clearly. It’s also, entrepreneurs are a minority, like, I don’t have any in my family.  Many people have that problem that even if they are talented for it, no one will tell them to go start their own company because they don’t have anyone around them who would be their mentor and took that path before who tell them they can do it too.

Dr. Jonathan 33:29 I mean, it’s the same thing in academia as well. A lot of our students are the first people to do a PhD in their families. And I think that that’s very brave because it’s hard to explain to your family what a PhD is in this whole weird career structure. I was very lucky. My life has been busy and complicated. But I’ve been very lucky. And my father was an academic and he inspired me and showed me that you can do this as a professional and still have a family and still afford to buy a house and those things. I had a role model at home. A lot of my students are the first person to do a PhD in their families,  I think that’s brave. As you say, if you don’t have entrepreneurs around you, you need to be brave to set up a company by yourself.

Natalia 34:26 I would like to refer to what you were saying before about your style of doing science versus some of your very focused colleagues.  I’m currently working on a battery of aptitude tests but how do people decide where they should go on the job market. And  I analyzed academia and I came up with a few different ways to become a university professor successfully. And I think, as you said, professors also have their styles and there are these three different ways to get there.  Some people or craftsman does what you mentioned. They’re very focused and build a career very systematically around one topic. And some people are artists and they experiment a lot. And they emerge with knowledge from different disciplines. And some projects will eventually work and some projects won’t. But such people are also often successful because that’s where two innovation comes from. It comes from experiments. 

Dr. Jonathan 35:25 I think, in any research, in any career decision, you have to know yourself. You have to be convinced about where you fit in. Sometimes, I’m jealous of those colleagues who have focused because they publish these beautiful papers and I’m impressed. I can just stop everything else and do that. But I think everyone contributes in different ways. Some people who contribute has been a parent. It’s a great contribution to humanity. But it’s not valued by all societies. 

And some people are writers and artists.  I found it very late.  I was very advanced in my career. I was already 40  when I became a teacher and hadn’t talked before that, formally. But I discovered that teaching was just satisfying for me and  I liked balancing the teaching and the research. I’m doing both. My colleagues who don’t do teaching have more time for research. I’ve got to do more teaching and less time for research. 

I like to find the balance between the two. And  I always need new projects to the latest project. You might have heard them in a podcast. And you would say, why that podcast doesn’t make the point? The podcast is called the lonely pipette. And its byline is helping scientists do better science. And that’s my career. I think whether it’s in the lab or the classroom, or the books. I have been committed for many years to helping scientists do better science. And that’s my footprint. That’s my contribution. Instead, I could have just done the best science I could in my lab.  We have tried to do the best science and we tried to publish in the best journals and make a contribution. But all the scientific contributions are very small. They’re all tiny even the Nobel Prizes are making tiny contributions. We’ve contributed to the lab. 

But the idea of the podcast is that not everyone gets lucky with the mentors, they get. Some people end up in labs with people who are not great mentors. But there are some amazing mentors out there. How can we offer mentoring advice to people, to everyone,  for free from people that you might never meet? We’ve had scientists around the world, men and women in very different situations, some just starting their lab, some are at the end of their careers, and some are directors of big institutes. 

And we just wanted people to have a chance to hear them as if you met them in a bar at a meeting and hear not about their science because you can read science in papers. That’s all published. We want to hear about the person and how they make decisions and we wanted to ask them about things that you may never talk about failures and fears. We want people to realize that they are just people like me and that there’ll be something that will resonate and help them. 

Some of them have had very different careers and moved around a lot and some haven’t. And we just want to get offer an archive of discussions with scientists about what it is to do science. And in the next season, we’re also going to have some people who have left academia. We want to talk about that. We had the editor of nature.  She is someone who started as a scientist and now isn’t in publishing. For the next season, we have some other ideas about different careers. It’s about mentoring. It’s about listening to people who have succeeded and their failures. I’m hearing that a little bit like what we’re trying to do here.

Natalia 40:08 Okay. Guys, check it out. It will be linked in under this episode. And can I ask you for which scientist is lonely pipettes?  What’s the target audience?

Dr.Jonathan 40:26 The target audience is life sciences for the moment because the pipette is something that’s used in labs. My co-host was a student of mine. He’s at the beginning of his career and he just finished his PhD and is very interested in science communication. I’m more towards the end of my career. And it’s about the bench. It’s about people in the lab. The pipette is supposed to give people an idea about molecular biology. 

Most of the people we’ve interviewed so far are in the life sciences but we’re having people signing up from an amazing response on Twitter from all sorts of fields, including the social sciences. And people have been asking me if I would interview chemists and physicists. We want to talk to anyone who has an interesting story to tell and certainly will inspire young people in whatever careers. We’ve had people listening who are not scientists and they found it interesting to listen to scientists talk about their jobs.  

The audience at the moment is PhD students, postdocs, PIs, and group leaders. And we hope that everyone will pick up something different from the discussions, just a chat with a famous or not famous scientist.

Natalia 42:08 My experience is that sometimes you just have to do it for a certain amount of time to see the results. Every single conversation is interesting. It’s in its own way. But after some time of doing this, I recorded over 30 episodes so far.  it’s been over 30 hours of talking to very interesting people and  I can see patterns but I can only see them after like 30 plus hours of talking. I guess the more I do this, the wiser I will become. And I can see that there is some added value in doing such an initiative for a long time. 

Dr.Jonathan 42:53 I have to see how long we keep it up. We finished season one. But I listened to a lot of podcasts. One of the podcasts I listened to is someone called Tim Ferriss who just interviews interesting people and his idea was that by just talking to people who have been successful in any field, he would be able to distill out some common aspects. We’re not quite there yet. I thought we might be interested. We asked some of the sorts of questions he asked. We asked people for a morning routine. Is there something about how they structured the day? We’re gonna be creating a blog that will try to summarize some of these things. We distill out. And I think you’re right that there are some common things.

Natalia 43:48 That’s interesting. I mean, I would like to hear your opinion about the daily routine or morning routine because I heard urban legends that this is a myth. There is no common pattern. What’s your opinion here?

Dr.Jonathan 44:05 There isn’t a common pattern. One of the things that Tim Ferriss and Chase Jarvis and that crowd of people after a lot of these podcasters who are interviewing famous and successful people, one of the common things, and I don’t know, again, it could be a myth, is the idea of having a meditation practice or having some moment in the day at the beginning of the day, or at the end of the day, where just you have quiet personal time. 

And I saw I have a meditation practice. I try and just have a few minutes every morning to meditate. I think this’s becoming very popular. I think that’s important. And that seems to be a kind of common thread. That’s part of the mythology of morning. I think it’s important to have a gratitude practice. Every morning, I write down three things that I’m grateful for. I didn’t make this up. But I had this and I do it every morning, I have a little notebook. And every morning, I write three things that I’m grateful for. 

I think gratitude is important. There are two things, so quiet time and gratitude. I don’t think it matters what you eat.  I get up in the morning and I drink half a liter of cold water. You know, I also take cold showers because I’m trying everything.  I think sport is important. We love the people. We’ve interviewed that. And I think for me, creative practice is important. To do something creative every day, it can be cooking, which is I think is creative, it can be drawing, can be photography. I do that. 

Every day, I have a little bit of time for creative practice. And I think creativity, gratitude, and timeout, are very important. And the other thing I think that we will see is to have something that creates balance in your life, whether it’s family time, sports time, or music, something that takes you out of the lab and gives you a balance. The wonderful thing about being a teacher-researcher is that when you’re teaching, you have to leave the research behind, there’s no way you can teach and do something else at the same time. 

It’s not about sitting and doing nothing. It’s just about breaking up the rhythm of the week. If you just have some time when you do something else, even if it’s something else sounds as great, you know, even if it’s rock climbing, which sounds more intense than that, but just to have. And it’s really interesting. Most of the people entering a vet are very busy but they all got something that they do just to take them away. We’re asking that sort of question. And that’s what we’re hearing. It’s not about sitting down and doing nothing. It’s about creating breaks and dynamics that allow you to go and come back. Does that answer your question?

Natalia 47:48 I couldn’t agree more. You have to disconnect to reset your brain. I do it too. 

Dr.Jonathan 48:02 In labs in PhDs, for example, we don’t say this enough. We don’t say enough. You got to take the weekend off. One of the best students they had, she never worked weekends. She was productive. Because when she was there, she was really working. And when she wasn’t there, she was doing something else. And that’s healthy, I think.

Natalia 48:28 Human brain is like a computer and you have just to plug it out once in a while, otherwise, it will get a reboot. And I can tell you about one thing I noticed, from talking to successful people, which is, I think, not a secret that’s quite, one thing that is known about successful people that they tend to live an abundant life. They are not afraid of taking risks. 

I think it’s also true about you because you didn’t mind stepping out of academia without fears a few times and every single time you were able to come back. And I think this is a field as so leaving without this fear, what comes next. I think it’s very important. And many people have that fear and they are mind wondering if they should try careers outside academia because they have this anxiety that they will never be able to come back. My question for you would be what would you advise to those people like how would you encourage them to try?

Dr. Jonathan 49:48 There are a lot of myths that the only way to do research and academia is to spend 24 hours a day and weekends in the lab and just do that. And this is not true. And that’s one of the things we wanted to share with the podcast is these people who are running institutes didn’t decide they wanted to run an institute. They just were passionate about what they do and curious. And then opportunities came up and people push them to take on responsibilities. When you look at other people’s lives, they look so planned, and you think, Oh, my life is such a mess. But everyone’s life is a mess. 

The very important thing is to enjoy the journey. It’s just the journey and you only get one way through. From the early in your university training, we’re giving the idea that it’s about getting a degree.  You go to university to get a degree. You don’t go to university to get a degree but that’s the story we tell people. When you go to graduate school to get a PhD, it gives this idea that there’s a goal. But in life, there’s no end goal, it’s just about enjoying the journey. 

I don’t think you go to university to get a degree. You have three years at university experimenting, exploring, and working out who you are and who you would like to interact with and what you want to do, and how to contribute. And the same thing goes for most people who start a PhD in biology. They finish a PhD, so they get a PhD. Once you sign up, you’ve already got the diploma. It’s not about the diploma. It’s about what you do in between starting a PhD and finishing a PhD. 

And that’s, I think, once you have that, then it changes. You mentioned Steve Jobs. He says that you should look in the mirror every day and say if this was the last day of my life, is this what I’d want to be doing. And that’s hard to do. But in the end, he said, if three days running, the answer is no, then you should go and do something else. In the times when I’ve looked in the mirror and said, is this what I want to do, the last day of my life, when I found that it didn’t work, that’s what gave me the courage to go and look for something else.

On the day, Steve Jobs died, I was teaching and I said this to my students if today was the last day of my life, I’d be thrilled to be spending teaching epigenetics because that way you give a legacy. You’ve got something to give back. That will exist beyond you. I think you shouldn’t be scared and you shouldn’t look at other people and think it looks so linear and simple. Nothing in life is linear and simple. And also you don’t know what’s behind it. That’s one of the questions we’re asking about fears and failures. 

And what you discover is that all these famous people, their life is full of fears and failures. And it just, they don’t show it. It’s not on their CV. One of the things is heavy. In one of the podcasts, he said maybe it’s another section on your CV failures, in the lab in the industry, where I have last Christmas, we had a competition to make a poster to sum up the year 2019. And each team made a poster. And I said to my team, why don’t we make a poster with the failures of the year, okay, or the experiments, the articles that we send to editors and they came back. 

We made a poster of failures of 2019. I think it’s good to just admit failures and learn from them. And you shouldn’t think that everyone else’s life is easy. What we’re trying to teach to young scientists is to have the courage to go and experiment. I mean, you’re an example. You don’t know quite where you’re going. But you’re out there doing stuff. And there’ll be opportunities. Some of them will be successful. Some of them are not. And that’s what we trained you to be ready to approach anything experimentally and test, try, and measure. And that’s it and then you need a bit of luck. 

But I always said the thing that luck is great because if it wasn’t for luck, then I wouldn’t be a scientist. After all, all my colleagues are much smarter than I am. Okay, so if it was just about intelligence, I wouldn’t have survived. But luckily, I can be as lucky as they can be. Luck is great. It helps everyone. And it means that life isn’t about who’s the smartest? Or who’s the most beautiful? It’s about who uses the skills that they have to enjoy the opportunities they get.

Natalia 55:21 I think that you can foster luck. It’s not that luck is a combination of the network. You have your attitude, and the way you interpret events, many things happen to you that you can interpret as lucky or unlucky, depending on how you look at them.  You can, for instance, say that you left academia for a year and it’s quite unlikely because, in the end, you didn’t build your new career and you had to come back and you had one year less than your university curriculum, so it’s unlucky. You could say it’s extremely lucky because you still found a job back in academia after a year. It’s the same events that you can interpret in different ways. That’s a major contributor to whether or not you perceive yourself lucky as well.

Dr.Jonathan 56:12 I think I have been lucky. I think it’s Mark Twain, my mum always used to quote, I believe in luck, but I find the harder the work and the luckier I am. At the end of the day, it’s about hard work. If you don’t put in the work, you won’t succeed. You need to put in the work somewhere. But you need to realize that you can benefit from all the work you’ve put in before. I’m sure now that you’re using things you learn intuitively through your PhD, even though you’re not learning using the neuroscience or whatever, but you learn it using things that you learned and that you’re using now, whatever you’re doing now, you’ll learn things that you’ll be able to use wherever I’m not sure where you’re going. I think we’ve talked about this. Most of you’re where you’re going, but that’s when it’s exciting, right?

Natalia 57:02 I definitely use the same skills. And especially I think, what’s important when you start your own company is to start learning this accountancy of risks and reward, so making a portfolio of projects and making sure that some of them are high-risk, high reward type projects and some of them are more like low hanging fruit. And the rewards are not proportional.

Dr.Jonathan 57:35 It’s good to have that analysis but there will always be surprises. You have to be always willing to readapt. We talked about writing, so I was excited to be able to write for the Financial Times and The Times. But I realized that actually, I could make more money writing for less prestigious. I did a lot of writing for the less high profile but the places that could pay for it. You have to be willing to adapt when the opportunities come about. That’s what I gave a lecture yesterday to undergraduates. 

I like to encourage them to follow our master’s program. And a lot of them don’t come because they think it’s only a program for research. And we’re trying to make the argument to our students but also employers that research is just a fantastic training for anything because researchers are not scared of the unknown. They’re resourceful. They can adapt to surprises. We see French path research, training by research, not necessarily for research. I think when you have some distance between you and your PhD, you realize that some of it might have been a bad experience. It just really helped you learn a lot. Sometimes, it takes a few years to realize how much you learned during a PhD or from a research expense, even when it’s a bad research experience, you can still learn a lot.

Natalia 59:16 It doesn’t matter that much. What happens to you during your PhD just matters and what you do with this. I agree with that. Even the most successful people have lots of failures. But it’s something that is still a major difference between the academic world and business because, in academia, I think many things went wrong in academia in the last decade or two, but this is something that I liked that went well and I think that there’s increasing acceptance of cultural sharing failure but this’s something that’s still not present in a business. You’re not welcome to share your failures. 

I mean, everyone likes these stories of success. You know, when Elon Musk is talking about the past, or other successful entrepreneurs are talking about the hard times in the past when they were almost broken. But these stories always only sound good in retrospect, in the past tense.

Dr.Jonathan 1:00:16 There’s a little bit of survivor bias mythology. It’s easy for Elon Musk. But how many people felt like Elon Musk and didn’t become Elon Musk? The thing about academia is rather unforgiving because, in the academic, the tenure track system, or the core system in finance, you need to be at the right place and at the right time. And  I think business is more forgiving. A lot of VC companies say that if an entrepreneur fails, that’s a good sign. Whereas if you set up a lab, and it doesn’t work, it’s really hard to survive.  If you get scooped, if someone else publishes before you, it’s really hard to bounce back. Academia is relentlessly unforgiving. 

And you can be 60 years old, you still have to get money through a grant, you still have to have a good idea.  You never make it enough that you can relax. Whereas in business, you make a lot of money. We have these entrepreneurs who come and you do hear that in the entrepreneurial culture, failing is more accepted. You can still get financed. If you failed in science,  it’s really hard to get money and it’s a bit of a spiral down or a spiral up. The more success you have, the more money you bring in, the more success, the more failure, and the less money that is.

Natalia 1:02:05 I think there’s a difference between talking to investors when you show them your whole curriculum and the projects you did before and you can explain why they didn’t work. But when you talk to the public and your potential clients, then you have to appear successful. What you see when you see entrepreneurs on Twitter, on social media in like public appearances, they always, even if they talk to investors, and tell the truth, they still try to appear successful in the public. And this’s also what my entrepreneurial friends told me that you should not ever mention if you have any doubts or hard times. Just don’t mention it on social media. That’s what people don’t want to hear from entrepreneurs. They want to see a leader. They want to see someone strong. 

Dr.Jonathan 1:02:57 A leader is someone who can admit when they made a bad mistake or change their opinion. I think it’s really important. Someone who can admit that not everything works, I think it’s getting the right balance. But we hope we are creating a culture where people can talk about things that didn’t work and talk about their fears.  

Natalia 1:03:36 I hope so I just see that. Academia is already much farther with this development than business and in business, showing your weaknesses is like, especially if you have doubts of any kind, it’s still seen as a negative thing.  I can see that symmetry when I talk to academics. I can talk about my failures openly. But when I talk about my business to the public, I have to really keep the happy face, you know, and just wipe the things that don’t work under the carpet, thinking okay, one day I write my biography down and I just list all these things because 90% of all the things I’m trying, don’t work. 

Then I’m just recording like I’m just writing down all the things that do work, thinking that one day I will make a story out of it, but for the moment, I just wiped them under the carpet because this’s hard to know for a lot of people. This’s hard. This’s a mental burden because you have to keep this persona online where everything works perfectly. And you can only share with your closest family and friends, all the things that don’t work.

Dr.Jonathan 1:05:09 It’s a shame because when you share the things that don’t work, then there’s collective learning.

Natalia 1:05:15 But that’s also the point you don’t want your competitors to learn that. That’s why business is different. Could I ask you what type of life advice would you give to your kids? You have five kids. And I’m curious, how do you prepare them for adult life? Are they already adults?

Dr.Jonathan 1:05:42 Two of them are at university. My kids are quite different. I have encouraged them that they shouldn’t go to university to get a degree. But they should follow things that they’re passionate about and interested in. And that hasn’t been easy for them because they’ve all started things and then changed to something else which might look like they failed. But we encourage them. 

Because we can afford to. We supported them financially. They’re very lucky that they didn’t have to worry about earning money yet. But we wanted them to feel that they know why they’re doing and what they’re doing. And if it wasn’t right, they should change.  My two oldest ones are very talented, more talented than me. Both of them are very good academics. They started university and then changed to something else. You can’t keep doing that. I think we allowed them to change. Once we said to them, you can’t keep changing every year, you need to finish things. 

I think that’s it if you’re not in the right place, you need to have the courage to say this is not the right place and I need to be somewhere else. But you need also to create a crack. And it’s fine. You can do that once a year on your CV. This thing I have said to my kids one year on your CV, you will find a way. They did something that they didn’t finish. They present it positively. I’ve seen the way they present it in their letters and they present it as if it was a plan which it wasn’t but showing that they learned something from that year, even though they didn’t finish what they started. And then the second step was once you change, then you need to finish. And even if it’s not what you want to do for the rest of your life, you need to show that you did it well. 

You need to show that you need to develop credentials that you can change but also you can do things and finish them well. That’s what we’re trying to encourage them. I’m also trying to encourage them to be at the interface to use the skills that they have at the interface between fields,  between maths and computing, or between engineering and biology, and that’s what they’re doing. 

And encourage them not to worry too much. You have to ask them what they think. But we’ve tried to wait. I mean, we’re very lucky that they don’t have to go out and get a job. Many children in the world have to go out and get a job and can’t have the luxury of asking what they want to do and what they want to study. In the West, we’re very massive, you know, the massive privilege to be able to go to university and to have that time to explore the university and explore who you are. 

That’s what we’ve tried to encourage them to do. And do well just to show that as well as exploring I got good grades. And the other thing that we were encouraged from a very young age was to have an internship in experience.  Sometimes, they got paid for it. Sometimes, they didn’t. I think you shouldn’t be embarrassed using the event’s network. We help them with the friends and network that we have found summer jobs. 

We help them because we’re quite international and have international summer job expenses. For example, my three big kids have all been to Australia for the summer. They did an exchange program. I’ve never been. But another opportunity when you’re 14, and you go to Australia for the summer, that gives you amazing independence and it makes your outlook on life very different and makes your CV look different.  We’ve encouraged all of them to do something every summer, some kind of internship, different things, maybe it was things they wanted to do or not, and to not be embarrassed about using our network to do that. Now, they’re using their own network to do that. 

Natalia 1:10:39 Okay. Lastly, perhaps some of the viewers would like to work with you in the future after seeing this episode.  In what ways, can people contact you? And do you currently have any vacancies in your lab? You’re definitely a good mentor. Maybe, there are people out there who would like to join your lab or some of your other initiatives? How can they contact you?

Dr.Jonathan 1:11:09 I’m easy to find. You can find me on Twitter at epigenetic in French. You can find the lonely pipette on Twitter at lonely pipette. If you just type my name, Weitzman, and epigenetics, you find me. Be a little bit careful because I have a twin brother, who is also a scientist. If you want to go to his lab, he has a fantastic lab in the States. Be careful as some people are a little bit confused. What I do is create opportunities for people to learn and train.  Those opportunities start at the master’s level. 

I created a fund that offers Master’s fellowships to foreigners coming to France for the second year. My master’s is in English. We have fellowships, quite generous to come and study in France, then I’m always looking for people in my lab. My lab is called the plasticity of cellular filters. But anyway, it’s easy to find, if you just type my name into Google, on Twitter, or LinkedIn. I’m using LinkedIn a lot. 

We take PhD students, often from the master’s programs, the Master’s is the best way to get into a PhD program in France. And then I’m always looking for postdocs. That’s inevitably and then we’re looking so we just had someone who wrote to us and said, I want to be involved in the lonely pipette. And I said, Look, I can’t pay you because we don’t have a budget yet. And she said, No, I just want to be involved in the project. 

It’s just if you have ideas and want to be involved in projects, whether it’s in the lab, I’m always looking for interesting people to work with. And I’m always looking for ways to try and support people who are at the beginning of their careers that I’m towards the end now. I just want to have that generosity to be able to help people. If you want to come to work in my lab, you must look at the papers we’ve written. I don’t want letters from people who haven’t read the papers I’ve written. And there’s no point in coming to my lab because it’s a lab or because it’s epigenetics,  you need to come to my lab because you liked the questions we ask and the way we ask them. 

And the best way to see that is to read the papers we publish.  I like someone who comes to me and says, I read the paper you published. And I liked that idea. And that’s what I want to work on. I’ve collaborated with someone in Sudan. We’ve never met but we met electronically. And I like something that he’d done. And he liked something that we’d done. We collaborated and we published a paper together. 

I want people to come and work on what we work to tell you what we work on. We work on methylation, lysine methylation, epigenetic marks in the context of cancer, and the context of host-parasite interactions. This year, we published a paper with a physicist and with a molecular biologist, and with parasitologist. The projects we do in the lab depend on who comes if someone comes in with fantastic bioinformatics skills, then we’ll have a project for him. I don’t impose the projects. You don’t come to work for me. You come to work with me.  You have to be excited about it. If you’re not excited, go somewhere else. 

You need to never go to randomness. You read the paper that you say, wow, that’s why it won’t work.  You need to read my papers in big journals and small journals. I’ve written a lot and if you read them, you think that’s when you write to me and tell me about your paper and that’s what I want to work on. And then come and work with us. There’s always a problem, how to find the money. This is always a problem. The better your CV is, the easier will be for you to find the money.

Natalia 1:15:14  Fantastic. Thank you so much.

Dr. Jonathan 1:15:17 And I should say, if I don’t reply, there’s nothing if I never reply, just send me a second email.  We get too many emails. I don’t reply to every single Twitter retweet. But as Natalia said, I’m doing too many things. And that’s the same with everyone. You need to be in this world. You need to distinguish yourself from the noise. 

And there’s a lot of noise out there. You need to find some way to distinguish yourself from the personal noise. I gave a class yesterday to 100 students on Zoom. One of the students said at the end, I wrote to you and you didn’t write back. And she said in front of everyone. I said, write to me tonight. And I promise you, I’ll write back.  She wrote to me last night. She just got herself noticed by that email I replied to her last night even though I have lots of emails I’m replying to.

Natalia 1:16:18 Guys, if you’re interested in working with Jonathan, you know where to find him. Thank you so much, Jonathan, for joining us and for sharing all this wonderful advice. I’m sure that it was inspiring to lots of people including me.

Dr.Jonathan 1:16:38 Thank you. I’m sorry, I did all the talking. If you’re listening to this, you are probably already a fan of Natalia and you have to support her, her workshops, and her book. Because she’s out there being brave doing lots of things.

Natalia 1:16:52 Thank you so much. Thank you guys for watching until the end of the episode. If you would like to get more of this type of content, please subscribe to this channel. And of course, also put your comments and questions in the comment section and we will address all your questions. And thank you so much for watching.

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Please cite as:

Bielczyk, N. (2020, December 13th). E034 What Is Special about Academia? How to Help PhDs Do Better Science?? Retrieved from https://ontologyofvalue.com/career-development-strategies-e034-what-is-special-about-academia-how-to-help-phds-do-better-science/

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