E035 From PhD in Biotechnology to European Commission & European Food Safety Authority
December 20th 2020
Aleksandra Lewandowska is a PhD candidate at Universiteit Gent and Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Her joint PhD project combined genetics, plant physiology and biochemistry to understand how plants react to stress. After four years and long hours in the lab as well as in the greenhouse, she came to the conclusion that it was time to look beyond the wet lab careers and think about the next steps.
Without even having to move countries, after her PhD funding finished, she was lucky to secure a place in the Blue Book traineeship scheme at the European Commission. While working in the Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, she had a look at the process of science-based policymaking, particularly related to the Circular Economy. She now continues her EU institution journey during her internship at the European Food Safety Authority in Parma, Italy, where she is a part of the Emerging Risks team.
Aleksandra has been involved in various science outreach and communication activities since 2005. While she contemplated a full-time SciComm career, she now believes that any science-related job should include a communication component.
All the Aleksandra’s activities: https://linktr.ee/tervetuola
The episode was recorded on December 18th, 2020. This material represents the speaker’s personal views and not the views of their current or former employer(s).
Natalia 00:09 Hello, everyone. This is yet another episode of career talks by Welcome Solutions. In these meetings, we talk with interesting people who have interesting careers and are willing to share their life hacks with us. Today, I have the great pleasure to introduce Alexandra Lewandowska. She’s a PhD candidate at Gent University and Vrije University Brussel. Her joint PhD project combined genetics, plant physiology, and biochemistry to understand how plants react to stress.
After her PhD contract came to the end, she secured her place in the Blue Book traineeship scheme at the European Commission. While working in the Directorate General for research innovation, she got a look at the process of science-based policymaking, particularly related to the Circular Economy. She now continues her EU institution journey during her internship at the European Food Safety Authority where she’s a part of the emerging risks.
Wonderful to have you here. Thank you so much for being with us, Aleksandra. Thank you so much. Now, I would be very happy to hear what your story looks like from your perspective.
Aleksandra 01:28 Thank you very much, Natalia. Thanks to everyone who is listening to me now. I would like to talk to you about how I ended up being in the EU bubble which was quite an unexpected turn of events for me. Now, when I look back on it, it seems I should have been thinking about it from the beginning. I am a biotechnologist just as Natalia has said. I studied in Poland first in my home city in Krakow.
My background is actually quite practical. I studied at the Technical University first. The aim was to secure a good job after my studies. I was convinced by my friends and family that would be a good way to go. Because biotechnology is still considered one of those future-oriented careers. Then I had a very nice run at some traineeships and internships during my university studies and I thought, okay, basic research seems like a lot of fun, maybe I should pursue it further. The logical step for pretty much everyone seems to be a PhD.
And I was lucky enough to secure a position in a traineeship program in Belgium which basically the primary aim is to combine two fields into one PhD project. That was the whole idea. And every two years, they accepted eight PhD students who did this joint PhD. That seemed very interesting. That was a chance to expand my skills further. I would never have a chance with just one lab. I really liked the topic of my PhD project which was quite practical oriented because I studied how plants react to stress, and stress means drought, high temperature, flooding, are all those events that are becoming more and more frequent now. I was really excited because it seems like this project might really lead to something that everyone can enjoy using in the future that the agronomist will use and the farmers will use.
You have all those dreams and aspirations which are great. But then you realize that when you are a scientist, you are really far from the point where you will see those applications. And I had this practical outset from my previous studies but also from just my personality I like to see where things lead to. I like to know that what I do that’s needed and useful. And while working in the lab, I had this feeling that while the project is very future-oriented, it might lead to great things.
The lab work is actually quite far away from the point when you start to see the results. I started feeling that I appreciate what I do. And it’s a lot of learning and it’s a lot of new skills and opportunities. But I think I should be more involved in the later processes of this science-to-life stage. And there were some points that when I was in the lab and I was getting really frosted aided by the fact that I’m so far away from seeing the results in terms of people actually benefiting from my work.
And people were saying to me, okay, but you should think about maybe doing a postdoc because we’re doing a postdoc and then you can think about rebranding. But in some aspects, it’s good. It’s a fair point. And I know people who do a postdoc in the industry and that gives them an additional set of skills and then they can use those skills.
But when I thought about doing a postdoc which meant in my case, spending more years in the lab, I thought, should I really be doing this because in the end, I’m in my 30s, this is the supposed to be the prime time of my life, and you spend more than eight hours per day at work. If you don’t like the wet lab, is this the right choice? Is it bringing me further in my career and in the direction that I want? I was always doing some things on the side, things like science communication, helping organize some events, and working with the organization of science events, like conferences. That was also hard work. But it never seemed like work. To me, it was just something I enjoyed doing.
Of course, I was tired at the end of the day because it was a lot of hassle. But this seemed more fulfilling somehow. I could see that I was doing something I could immediately see the outcome. I could see people enjoying what I do or understanding something. That already gave me some indications that maybe I should try to find a job that will be more oriented towards those things that they actually enjoy doing on a daily basis. I started looking for those kinds of positions.
Of course, as many scientists I was considering, maybe I should start doing some science communication because this is what everyone considers at some point. I helped out with some events which were greatly enjoyable and I liked them a lot. But I considered it more as a networking activity, more than actually the job that I want to pursue doing.
And somewhere in the process, I was talking to someone and they said, Hey, but maybe you should try for the European Commission because they have the traineeship scheme. And I know someone who was there and was working in a science department and they enjoyed it a lot. I thought, okay, why not? I was anyway applying for a position. Among other applications, I filled in the one for the commission. And I will accept that the commission application was just one of my options. I was not aware of how hard it is to get it but I got it. It was really a wonderful coincidence somehow that I was chosen because actually being chosen for the commission is not that hard. It’s not that easy.
Also, because a lot of people’s CVs seem to look quite the same. And it’s just a tiny detail that might attract some recruiter’s attention. But when I was there, I started seeing something that I was not immediately thinking about. The policymaking world was a great fit. Because I was still rooted in science. I was working in the Directorate General for research and innovation. I was surrounded by scientists but in a completely different context who were trying to influence regulations and rules that the whole of Europe should be obeyed so that we will live in a more healthy or environmentally friendly society.
When I was there, I already was starting thinking about what comes next because staying in the commission, for many reasons seems like a good choice. But also, the Commission job is something that it might be considered as this kind of position that you will help till the rest of your job life. Once I’m there, I was aware that I might actually spend the rest of my career in the Commission, which is great but I was not ready to settle down yet.
I was thinking about another thing. Then I came across this traineeship scheme in the European Food Safety Authority which is an advisory body for the European Commission. This’s a science-based institution. We generate reports of data analysis, and we help scientists collaborate so that they assess the risks related to food safety and then the commission makes decisions based on what we advise. It’s still very much science-related. I couldn’t imagine working there if I was not a scientist by training. And I feel like this job where I am now is really a good fit both for my scientific skills because as I say, I cannot imagine being there without being a scientist, but also I am more involved in the process of helping scientists collaborate to help translate the findings of basic research into that it’s more tangible because we helped to make rules that keep Europeans safe. We say how many foods of a certain sort they can eat or what is the risk of contamination of infections that are brought about through food. This’s something that touches everyone.
This is something that I look for in my job that is meaningful and that contributes to something bigger than myself. I would really hope that I can keep being in a career like this because to me, from the very beginning, the choice of my PhD project being useful or being relevant was one of the main drivers. Now, I can feel that this is something that I have successfully achieved to a certain degree.
I am still a trainee and not a full-time scientific officer. But I can see that the expertise that I have and the age that I have, are really well correlated with what the institution is doing which gives me a sense of being where I actually need to be at this point. This’s something that I wish for everyone in a way to be able to find their own piece of work that they will enjoy doing. And I would say not enough people actually consider a career in the institutions like this as a choice for a scientist. I think, before getting into the EU bubble, I was not aware of how much science the European Commission and the related bodies are actually making. And if I can relay this message to you guys that you can be a scientist and work for the public sector and have a really successful career here. I will be really happy if I managed to get to this point.
Natalia 11:56 Fantastic. Thank you so much for your story. You already answered many of the questions I have for you. My first question would be, so you were saying a lot of you were talking a lot about the fact that in these two institutions in European Commission, and in the European Food Safety Authority, you found your purpose, something that you are willing to work for work on right now and it makes you happy. But I would like to also ask you about the working style. How does your typical week look? Is there anything like a typical week? Or is it very different? And do you think that the way you are working right now does it align with the way you prefer to work?
Aleksandra 12:45 Let me just say first, that just after a month of being employed in EFSA, the pandemic started for good in Italy, because at size based in Italy, so after one month of coming to the office then I was back in my apartment, so of course, you have to take into account that my story might be biased but it’s an office-based job. That obviously has changed and now it’s my bedroom-based job. But what we do in EFSA is actually quite a lot of negotiations or facilitating discussions or having meetings with experts. I would say it might be a bit better suited to a person that actually likes this kind of interaction. I know a lot of people who find networking, quite exhausting. This obviously is a part of this job. You have to have some people skills to do that.
But I think everyone to a certain degree can be successful in this. It also takes a bit of practice. We have a lot of groups of experts that we work with because EFSA does not do scientific assessments alone. We ask experts who collaborate with us to discuss a certain topic to draft the paper or a review or a technical report. And we help them do this. We coordinate with their work. What we do is we participate in a lot of international events. We have ties to World Health Organization. We have ties to the IPCC which prepares their climate change reports or their regional institutions that for example, now are handling the COVID pandemic because there are also food or animal health compartments to it. We also have meetings on that.
There’s quite a lot of data analysis. We also have quite a lot of departments that are involved in data analysis because now we really are moving more towards using AI or using machine learning to analyze this whole huge amount of data that’s being generated. If you are a data scientist, you might consider trying to see what jobs there are because the data unit is expanding and for sure would be needing a lot of hands-on board. There are a lot of projects going on at the same time. I guess we are feeling a bit overwhelmed by the number of tasks to be done because we need to monitor a lot of risks that are coming to Europe.
It might be at some days quite hectic because there are really a lot of things that have to be urgently done. But I would say that the working life in EFSA is also not there is no culture of staying at work long hours, there is no rushing through the weekend to have the job done. I must say if I would have to describe it in one word, I would really say collaborative because we do spend a lot of time doing things together.
Even though now we are locked in different slots in different countries but it’s a team job. Of course, everyone has different responsibilities but you are a part of something you frequently collaborate with your colleagues. But there is if I would compare it to other work environments that I know, I will say it’s not competitive at all. There’s a degree of competition, for example, if there is a job opening, then you obviously have to compete with others.
But on a daily basis, you are playing for the team in many ways. You are involved in a lot of things that your colleagues are doing. They do look out for you when you begin. That’s something that everyone has been talking about also. New colleagues have joined my team this year. People really do make sure that you are not left alone, that they explain your tasks, they are always there.
And especially during COVID, it was very much appreciated because I was a part of the group of 70 trainees who came to Italy and we barely knew each other. And then after one month, we were locked in our flats without an opportunity to even meet and talk to each other. But EFSA has this approach of really providing a lot of information about what’s happening. There’s a lot of clarity.
Also, when we had the COVID pandemic in Italy in the first full swing, because Italy had the biggest impact of COVID, in March and April. We got newsletters almost every day. We really were informed about the things that are going on. And we were giving also a lot of flexibility on how we conduct our job. Of course, we have core hours like in every big institution, there are hours that you have to be present at work. But they are more or less flexible. There’s this window that you can adapt to yourself. You can tweak it a little bit. Some people prefer to work earlier. Others prefer to work late.
But there is this window that we all have to be there because if you organize a meeting, everyone has to be there. Nevertheless, it’s a job that can be adapted to your needs. Because especially if you stay there for longer, there are a lot of possibilities to take good childcare leave. People who have small children were allowed shorter working hours. It was not a reduction in their salary but it was the reduction of hours just because their kids are very small.
And there was no daycare that they could send them to. It’s an employer that, in one way is a typical office employer which has its drawbacks for some people who have very flexible daytime routines. But there are a lot of ways in which you can always talk around some roles. It’s a human side to this big corporation aspect which I actually appreciated because in difficult times like now, I think that having some sort of structure is helpful because you have at least a little bit of stability.
You know that you can count on your employer in many ways. And the employer also will take your needs into account. Most of us were able to work from our home countries. This’s really greatly appreciated because some people got really stuck in another country during 2020. And our job didn’t suffer from it because a lot of it’s being done remotely. We switched all of the meetings to remote mode. We have access to all the documents, so there is basically no need to be in the office other than meeting your colleagues which is just this one aspect that I really miss because I have really a lot of great things to say about my colleagues and I just missed them as people but I’m able to do my job from home.
And I actually enjoy that as well because I am a very social person but also the home office has its obvious advantages and you can be a little bit more relaxed. You don’t have to follow the dress code. And there are all of those benefits that come with a home office. I think EFSA in the future is anyway going to be more flexible with it.
When the pandemic is more or less over in a year or two, we don’t really know. I think some of those things will be there to stay, there doesn’t seem to be this push for coming back to what it was before. I think a lot of people appreciate the home office and they are given an opportunity. They will be given opportunities to stay this way unless there is a need for an in-person meeting. If you also for some reason want to have a job that allows you to stay home a couple of days a week, I think that is something that you can consider. I have my experience in EFSA and it has been really good in this aspect. And for COVID times, I will say it’s a perfect employer because they were happy to adapt and help you. But the job itself is very different, though it’s just an office job.
The topics are different from each other because we have a lot of ongoing things that are brought to our attention. You learn a lot just because of the topics of your job. And also the techniques that you have to learn because we are now switching more to the machine learning phase of risk assessments. There will be lots of things to learn and also a lot of communication skills to gain because we are at the bridge between scientists and citizens. We also need to explain things to people. This’s something that personally I’m really interested in. I’m happy that I can learn how to do it effectively here.
Natalia 21:52 Referring to what you just said about working style and how it might change after the pandemic, I’ve seen a lot of service on the topic. And they show that for the vast majority of professionals, the preferred working style is actually partially home office and partially office hours, so the combination of the two. I think that might be more popular in the future and there will probably be still a lot of companies and institutions that will go fully online.
That’s also why we have a major crisis right now in the rental market, especially office rental. I think the crisis is there to stay. I think that there will be a dramatic reduction in the amount of office space that companies and institutions rent. But indeed, I think that after the pandemic, employers will also be more liberal about working from home during the week which is good. In the end, I can also say that I was used to working from home before the pandemic started.
Before the pandemic, I had to take a train every single time I was going to a business meeting because I live away from Amsterdam, everything that happens in the Netherlands and business-wise happens in that area. There are four major cities and almost 100% of all businesses are actually happening there. Every single time, I had to just walk to the train station, jump on the train, and then run back for the last train in the night. It was hectic. And now this year is very peaceful.
I can also see that in many ways, I became more productive because I have a very stable working style. And I can decide when I’m done for today and when I’m tired. And that’s it. I think many people also discovered that. After you get used to it working from home, you can be more productive and it’s also healthier for you.
Aleksandra 24:11 It brings down a lot of barriers. Also, because I work in my job, I talk to a lot of experts from different countries. And before COVID, they normally came to me twice a year, for example, for a big meeting. And they enjoyed it. They say they missed it because there was this networking component and they went out for lunch or they went out for dinner. And of course, this is something that they miss. But otherwise, it’s much much easier now to participate in a high-level meeting that is happening on the other side of the globe. I’m really glad to see that happening.
Of course, we all have zoom fatigue and we cannot really stand to listen to a lot of webinars these days because we jumped at the opportunity and everyone was trying to listen to everything and after a while, we gave up but in general I’m happy that I can tune in and just listen to top-level officials discussing some subject which before was done behind closed doors and you had to go and you had to set up this travel allowance and endless paperwork. Now you can talk to a really high-level professor who is sitting at their home on a couch which is great. And I feel like a lot of things have become less formal in this environment of the EU bubble. Because you can see them sitting at home.
It’s a bit ridiculous sometimes when you think that this is a really important person but you see the living room that did bring us a bit closer together in many ways. I was quite surprised about my experience in those EU institutions that people are quite ready to help or quite ready to collaborate informally on in a lot of ways. This was something that I was not fully expecting. I think that people really do look for ways to do stuff together. I was talking to some officials in Canada and now they are doing some things that are similar to the things we were doing here at EFSA. And I was not expecting it. I think that a lot of things are really being discussed quite informally. And a lot of important developments happen because people decide to team up together without any big official frameworks.
There’s this aspect of big official frameworks as well, especially on the commission level that a lot of things are passing through hundreds of hands and have to get a lot of signatures. But I think it’s an interesting experience just to see how things are done and how those big decisions are made. Because now we are all going to be affected by the European Green Deal. Whatever you might think of it, there are aspects of it that seem really well developed and others that are controversial but it is nice to observe how it is actually being developed and being involved in this. It’s not real policymaking.
But we are really close to policymaking. And I think it makes you a bit less disconnected from what’s happening at the EU level. Because especially in my country in Poland, people seem to be thinking that the EU is some kind of outside player that is trying to meddle with people’s lives but they don’t understand what it’s doing and how it’s working. And being involved in it, you can really see that you as a European citizen have a voice and you are a part of this process. You are affected in many ways. I think it has made me more enthusiastic. It has made me appreciate the EU a lot more than before.
Because we all have this idea of this Brussels as a city where a lot of people seem to be doing no one knows what, just ruffling through a lot of papers. But in reality, this is crucial work. It’s very interesting. It might be frustrating just because of the sheer amount of time it takes to get things done. But you have to remember that the EU’s organizational structure has been pretty much the same since there were only a few countries and now we have 27. Everything has expanded in size.
And there are some obvious organizational drawbacks. But overall, people seem to be driven to make a difference. And it’s a nice environment for people who want to be part of the change. They are not satisfied only with reading things in the newspaper and not being involved. But now you can actually see the people behind those newspaper topics and you can do something that also will be mentioned at some point and will touch people so that’s something I really looked for. But I was not sure how to get there.
And now I can see that during my time there, I’m not the person that actually makes important decisions but I’m involved in this process. I think that it restores your faith in humanity a little bit to be working in an institution that is purely citizen-driven. This’s not a profit-based institution. You are not working toward the financial goal which in itself is great. There is nothing bad about it but it has a different purpose. If you are a person who wants to work in the public sector, I think there are a lot of institutions that could be good employers for you.
Natalia 29:57 Referring to what you said about having, you know, the public reception of European institutions, I think that partially journalists are responsible for this. Because the way they picture European institutions, they always know the stories in the press. What kinds of stories make it to the press? Stories like, the European Commission or the European Union measures the curvature of a banana and things like that. Every single time, there’s some very weird type of regulation. They bring it to light and just put a lot of attention on it. I think that’s one of the reasons why many people including me when heard about the European Union, it also hurts. And I think this’s just the wrong impression that we get from the press mostly. And indeed, as you said, there is little awareness of how these institutions work.
This’s also what I would like to cover next because I allowed myself to look into the glass door and to read what states are there I was very curious about what people say about working for European Commission. Because I also wanted to hear the dirty stories. And I found out that European Food Safety authorities actually rated it very well. It received a 92% of votes in terms of whether or not you would recommend it to a friend. I think it’s much better than CD Project RED if you know what I mean. We are both Polish news writers. It’s all over the news now. It’s actually quite a big bomber, the famous Polish, a video game producer for the Projekt RED just released, the long-awaited like eight years awaited game, cyberpunk in 77 last weekend.
Then it was a major flop because of the quality of consoles and then people started digging into the quality of management in that company and turned out that they have great developers but the management is completely dysfunctional. And also, it is reflected in Glassdoor as well. You can read how managers or employees simply regret. But anyways, the ratings are very good. Let me just read a few comments that I found that are not as positive. I would like to ask you about your opinion here.
One comment that I found and that was actually coming up relatively often was bureaucracy not too much to learn too many meetings, writing is not very precise. But one thing that was also coming up very often was that it’s hard to get a job after an internship. This was also the same that people were saying about European Commission and many other public institutions.
What is your perception on this? Because in my view that traineeships are treated in the private sector, in companies a traineeship is some state of recruitment. When you are accepted as a trainee, normally traineeship requires some planning process and requires engagement from other employees to actually get you accommodated to the company. This’s not done unless the trainee is a potential employee because it’s a cost to the company. Once you get accepted for a traineeship in a company, by default, It means that you will be an employee if everything goes well. That’s typically how it looks but from what I read from Glassdoor it seems that public institutions treat traineeships very differently. I would like to hear your opinion about this and how it really looks and what are your chances of getting a job after a traineeship?
Aleksandra 34:20 Okay, so coming to the traineeship, I can talk about the two that I was participating in. I have the blue book experience and then I have the now this EFSA experience. They are quite different. One thing that I have to say is that it’s quite important that both of them are paid and paid in a way that it’s a livable wage which is not a standard and if you compare it to the United Nations, it’s a huge difference in the EU when you don’t get paid for a traineeship which biases the pool of applicants because only people who can afford it will go for it. The Blue Book is a huge traineeship program. Now, I think they expanded it to maybe I wouldn’t like to lie, but it’s surely over 1000 trainees that are entering there every six months. Not all of them will find a job in the European institutions.
That’s to be expected and no one is giving you a promise of being accepted to the Commission afterward. It’s absolutely not how it works. But when you meet people working in all the institutions surrounding the commission and the Parliament, the young professionals, when you talk to them, it will turn out that most of them have been the trainees. This’s the first step into European policymaking in many ways. The traineeship is not giving you a promise that you will be employed after that.
But if you add it to your CV, it will open many doors. And it’s treated as some kind of training in European policymaking. If you have been training, people will assume that you know how it works, how this whole EU machine works. It also depends hugely on who you are working with because every traineeship is different. There are 1000 people starting each semester and all of them will have a different experience. I was in DG in RTD, so research innovation and most of my colleague trainees were also scientists or had some science background. We were given relatively similar tasks. But if someone was working in the law department, they were doing something completely different.
And supervisor is the person who is responsible for allocating tasks to you. I was given more or less independent projects when I was a trainee. My supervisor trusted me to do some analysis myself. And of course, he was always available there to help me. But he also told me that I can, in many ways, do what I want which meant that if there was an event that I was interested in, I could go. I just had to tell him today there is this conference that I want to go to. And this is something that always should be done on such traineeships. It might be similar to your Erasmus experience and that’s fine.
If you are there to do the bare minimum and then party a lot. This’s something that people do in Brussels. You can see crowds of people. I mean, not now because of COVID, but a year ago, Brussels was crowded with the trainees and the young professionals just being there to enjoy it and have a good time. And that’s fine. Some people treat it as a kind of extended five-month Erasmus part two. But if you want to stay, you cannot actually see people who are there to stay from day one. They have a different outset already. And you can see them frantically networking with everyone and asking around what there’s to do.
And you probably will have to have a different approach. There are courses and study groups for the exams, the Epso exams that you have to take to be an EU official. People who are there to be commission employees think about it from day one of their traineeships. Not everyone will get it. That’s correct. You have to take it into account but this’s something that people do for their personal development to gain some new skills because a lot of Brussels jobs require some experience in policymaking and the traineeship is this experience.
This’s how it looks like and then in EFSA, the traineeship lasts longer. It’s one year which means now I’m reaching the end of my year of traineeship more or less. After a year you really are in many ways treated like an independent employee of EFSA. From the very beginning, people will give you quite a lot of tasks that are not operating the photocopier but are actual tasks that are important and have relevance so they do trust you with a lot of stuff that I have not heard of a trainee who has been treated like a baby, who needs to be guided by their hand. This’s absolutely not the approach. EFSA is a very nice working environment and people are there to help you but just as in the commission to a lower degree, they count on you to be proactive.
It’s always the case that you are given a lot of things to do but you are also given a lot of choices and if you are there talking to people and they are doing something that interests you, there is no problem in participating in it and trying to make yourself known because it is also about getting to know people and being involved in the projects.
And there’s a chance to stay after the traineeship. There is the most obvious in-between position. It’s being an intern. This’s slightly better paid than being a trainee but then still you are in this transitional period between being a trainee and being an employee but there are also open calls that you can apply for. Now, this’s expanding in size number of people.
You will have quite a significant rise in the number of people, so there are opportunities but again, the idea of the traineeship is not to give you a surefire position just after that if you wish there are opportunities to stay but also after the EFSA traineeship, it will be much easier to find a position in your home country in a similar authority because EFSA collaborates with institutions in every member state. If you have been on the left side, it’s much easier to find a job in a regional authority. Also, quite a lot of people do the traineeship in EFSA between their masters and PhD.
We have quite a lot of PhDs. I treat both traineeships actually as some necessary stages if you want to branch out. If you don’t want to stay in academia, you have to remember that for a lot of employers, your academic experience will not be exactly relevant. If you want to do a regulatory job or a policymaking job, traineeships might be essential just to introduce you to another field. I consider it as my chance to gain the necessary skills to have a career in another field because I cannot imagine how else you would be able to enter this kind of position. It’s relatively hard to get employed in the commission without having any links to it before and the traineeship is quite a broad program.
That’s one of the ways. And the traineeship itself also is an opportunity just to get to explore the job market in general because both the commission and EFSA have a lot of stakeholders that they collaborate with. Through those traineeships, you can also try to make yourself known to some other institutions. And this really expands your possibilities. But you’ll get to know about a lot of employers that you did not know before. Because it might not be immediately apparent to everyone after a PhD that there are so many consultancies or lobbying organizations or NGOs or all those other actors that are active in Europe or in the world in general.
We don’t hear about them as much in academia, I guess. But these are all potential employers that are interesting. And their profiles might fit you in many ways. But a traineeship is just something that allows you to get to know them. Sometimes during those networking events or informal conversations, you just know what’s in there. Because not every university will give you good career guidance, guidance course, or any guidance course actually. If you are considering changing your career, that’s what a lot of listeners are considering. I’m assuming that this traineeship is something to consider because you also will have a chance to confront your preconceived notions about the public sector with reality.
I did not think about it much before I joined, of course, I was aware of them but I did not know what they do or how they operate and how they work. And though the traineeships give you enough opportunities to actually understand it. And then you can actually make an informed decision if you want to stay or not about the bureaucracy because it was also something that you mentioned on the glass door. I would lie if I said that there is no bureaucracy.
Of course, there is, especially in the commission when it has to pass through an institution that employs 30,000 people. But I think I understood the bureaucracy a little bit more now that I’m in EFSA because bureaucracy is there and you cannot really skip it because it gives you a lot of transparency. We have this responsibility to the citizens that if they wish to, they can follow what we do in detail. As painful as it might be, sometimes to take minutes of every meeting, it’s then important that the citizens if they are interested, can have a look at what we actually do.
And we are working on very sensitive topics, GMOs, vaccines, and pesticides. Some people are interested. We have this obligation to be clear about what we do. This generates quite a lot of work which is maybe not immediately appealing. But I don’t know now, maybe with automatic transcripts from the meeting, we have those voice recognition techniques, maybe this bureaucracy will be done by someone else rather than a system. That’s fine. And some of the bureaucracy I think might be avoided. But in any case, I wouldn’t try to say that it doesn’t exist. It’s there. Some of it’s there for a reason.
Some of it’s an artifact of the older times when the commission started originally working or people haven’t gotten around those things yet. Maybe someone will be brave enough to do a huge institutional reform one day and it will become leaner and smarter. I hope so. But for now, there are certain ways which we have to accept until someone makes a huge reform out of it. I hope I addressed it, so it was the bureaucracy, the limited possibilities after the traineeship. If you have any other glass door comments, just bring them along and we’ll see.
Natalia 46:59 It’s mostly that in terms of things that people are complaining about. One thing that they often say as a good aspect is that there are lots of intelligent people to work with which was quite surprising. I’m apparently also a victim of these stories by journalists who always picture politicians as not too smart people. It’s, again, kind of shows what’s the difference between reality and what we hear on the media.
Aleksandra 47:33 I would maybe give a brief comment here because we as a commission or EFSA employees are not politicians. You probably have an understanding of the European institutions as the politicians who are actually mostly in the European Parliament. The European Parliament is a great idea but you probably have this experience from your member states as well where the EU or the European Parliament members or sometimes the politicians who for some reason are not willing or are not allowed to stay in national politics. And they have somehow pushed away to Brussels because we don’t want to have had them active in their regional politics.
A lot of European Parliament members are there. Somehow, that’s the way to put it. But most of them are really doing great jobs. But again, in the commission, and in the European agencies, these are mostly the scientists, the officers, and the lawyers. They are not really politicians. There’s this whole body of experts and expertise is really badly needed there. And then the politicians are only the top-level officials actually. These are the ones that are visible. And we have those horror stories of MEPs doing really horrible things sometimes or really ridiculous things. But these are just a small percentage of people who are doing the work that you don’t normally talk about or see the people who are working in this huge machine and pushing it forward.
I think my favorite unsung heroes of the Commission are the translators who are doing an extremely tough job because in the high-level meetings, you have to have translators from every European language and they are working. There are simultaneous translators. These are extremely hard jobs. In the commission and in other institutions, you meet people who are not even translators but they speak several languages. They all have international experience. These are people who have seen a lot of the world and have a lot of experience This is an environment where you can learn a lot in the commission.
I was working in a team that was composed of medical doctors and that had professors of chemistry, people with different levels of expertise. Some of them actually work in the commission but also work at some universities. There’s this overlap. And it is for sure approved. This’s for sure wrong to assume that you cannot meet that this is not an intellectually challenging environment of some sort. This’s absolutely not correct. And there are lack of opportunities to learn. I would say maybe it might be a little bit unique or department-specific because if you work in a department that is related to science, innovation, and research, you have to be continuously updated with what’s happening in the science world because you have to stay on top of the developments.
You might not be doing the actual science but you have to stay on track. You have to at least be on track enough to understand what the scientists are doing. Because if you are going to make decisions based on it, you have to understand it. That depends on what you consider learning opportunities. Yes, you won’t be learning new lab techniques yourself but you will have to understand them still.
Because if you get the results coming from those experiments, you have to be able to critically assess them. It’s a different type of learning. I would say that you might not get hands-on experience. That’s obvious. Because you are not in the lab anymore. You are not doing the science. But science doesn’t stop there. The science is also what you make of those results or how you critically analyze them. People develop all those techniques for combining the data and for visualizing the data.
This’s all developing. And you will be learning that as well. Not to mention communication skills, I think as scientists, we have this preconceived notion that scientists will be good at talking science which is absolutely not correct. This is also something that you have to learn. This’s a continuous learning curve. I don’t think that you ever stopped learning how to communicate science to people. You have to do it all over again for every audience. You have to react to new risks and new pseudoscience stories. Now, we have the stories of microchips in vaccines which came out of nowhere and you always have to learn and tackle the crisis. And in my job, I am sure in EFSA or an authority like this that reacts to the crisis, basically, on a daily basis, every day is something new. There’s no limit to learning in a way because you have to adapt to all those new circumstances.
Natalia 53:02 Right. I have to say that sometimes just looking at the way scientific projects are done from the sidelines is actually better because the rest of the new is not in this bubble anymore. And I have to say, I still review papers in neural imaging, even though I don’t write new manuscripts at the moment. And I can see that when I’m rested and I’m out of it, then I see many more mistakes. I believe in two things and conceptual problems and I used to see my own papers when I was doing it.
It’s also good to have like an independent person in the project that is just like looking over the whole pipeline without being involved in every single step just to have that fresh look at the whole project. That also improves the project for sure. And I have one question about your working style. I’m very curious since you mentioned that some of the initiatives you’re doing are bottom-up, so you initiate by yourself. And then who is actually evaluating your progress? Do you have some formal boss who is basically grading you or what does it look like?
Aleksandra 54:25 As a trainee? Yes, I have a formal boss. Let’s say I have a traineeship supervisor who is responsible for that. At the beginning of my traineeship, we have listed the projects that I will be working on and that will be evaluated if I was successful in reaching those goals. And in institutions like this, there’s a yearly plan of work that you develop and you try to allocate provisionally the time that you would be spending on it because there are certain things that the institution has to do every year.
The progress is being monitored. It’s quite strict about it that you once a year, have a look at what you’ve done and you try to see where it has gone. The project that I was working on this past year which was related to climate change started with my traineeship supervisor talking about it over coffee with someone just informally. Most projects in EFSA originate because the commission or a member state asked us to do something. But this is an example of a project that just appeared in my supervisor’s ideas and he recruited his colleagues from other units.
And he said, it might be interesting to follow it up. There’s this flexibility in what EFSA does. It’s not only passively reacting to what’s happening but also because most of the employees are scientists by training and they follow what’s happening. They also have ideas popping up. And this project was quite unusual because it was this bottom-up approach. And it also did not have a strict goal set. There’s this level of independence, you might say. But once you convince people to do a project, you have to put it in a way of a formal project with all the rules of project management. You have to have a goal in mind. You have to develop some steps. That’s quite useful because it also allows you to monitor your progress. But I wouldn’t say that those ways to monitor progress are very strict or very rigid.
And I didn’t find myself spending too much time evaluating the key KPIs or being stuck on evaluating the project rather than doing the project. There is a certain level of project management that has to be done. And of course, I have my friendship supervisor and I have my team leader and I have all the people operating the management who are looking over this but on a daily basis, I think people trust you to do your job.
They leave you to do it in a way because they trust that you are the one responsible enough for allocating time for it and for being on top of this. I think being treated like a grown-up and as a trainee is a real advantage because a lot of people have this traineeship experience in different companies, for example, that they are not allowed near anything important or they are guided and their time is separated into tiny chunks and they are being watched over their shoulder.
I didn’t have this experience. I think people do trust you that you are responsible enough to do this. But just because of being public institutions, we have to deliver those yearly reports of our work because people pay us money. They want to know what happens to this money. This’s the part of the bureaucracy that comes strictly from being paid by the citizens. We have to somehow prove that we were doing something and not just being paid for nothing.
Natalia 58:54 Bbureaucracy was first proposed at the end of the 19th century or beginning of the 20th century and the purpose was good. It was to prevent nepotism and inequalities in the job market that was present in the Middle Ages when the way you were born determined your whole life. The purpose of bureaucracy and bureaucratic procedures was to give equal chances to everyone to actually start evaluating work based on results and not just assign people with positions based on their lineage. The motives are very positive.
The motives are good. It’s just that too much bureaucracy kills you. I think, most people aren’t fans because sometimes it just goes too far. But after all, biographies are what keeps us apart from nepotism and middle age. Okay, and my question for you would be now, you mentioned that you’re coming to the end of your internship. What is your plan? Is it that are you planning to apply for a job in your current position? Or are you still looking for new adventures? What is your next step?
Aleksandra 1:00:21 My friendship would be ending now. But what was great about EFSA is that they offered all of us half a year of extension because of COVID. We argued as trainees that our learning opportunities were diminished because we will have met more people if we had the chance. And the EFSA was gracious in this aspect that they granted us six more months. We were expecting no more than two more months. We were pleasantly surprised.
And so for now, I’m staying here and I have been exploring possibilities to stay in. At this point, a lot of things are preliminary. I don’t want to jinx anything but there are ways to as I said and there are ways to stay. As trainees, we are not treated as more likely to get a position in EFSA in a way that the process is not rigged but we have this one year of job experience that counts in our favor. All the process is very transparent. We apply for the same openings that appear just on the website.
I would like to stay just for the reasons that I mentioned that it just fits my profile as a scientist but also it fits the way I would like to work. I would like to stay if possible. I think EFSA is a job that fits my idea of work-life balance in a way that this is a job that is where I have a lot of responsibilities and I’m doing something important. But it allows you to have this division between work and life that I enjoy having that my weekend is for me and myself only. When I’m at work, I’m devoted to my job. And I like spending time at work or working but at the same time, it fits with what I imagined the work-life balance to be.
When I’m at work, I’m working. When I’m off work, then I can enjoy being out. EFSA is in a beautiful place. It’s a really beautiful region of the world. It cannot be overstated enough that Parma is beautiful and it has a lot of places around there that are beautiful. For this, it will be amazing to stay and continue living there. For now, I cannot say anything specific but for sure those two traineeships have biased me more now towards the public sector jobs which in the European institutions are quite well paid. You can live a comfortable life without worrying too much which might not be the case in a lot of countries.
Unfortunately, I would have doubts about working in the public sector in my country because of the salary and the working conditions. It’s quite a sad reality that public sector jobs in many countries are underpaid. And I don’t think it should be like this because it doesn’t then attract the best talent to those positions. I’m sure that you will agree with me that in Poland, we have this problem that the public sector is full of people who are there because it was the only thing that they were able to do at some point.
Natalia 1:04:10 I laughing already when you said that in Poland, we have a problem. And I started nodding already because we have all kinds of problems.
Aleksandra 1:04:18 It’s interesting. But in my family, there are quite a lot of people who work in the public sector. I know that there are certain problems just related to being severely underpaid. There are so many things that you are not able to do because of a lack of budget. That makes me quite sad because I would like to work in the public sector in general, but the European institutions have this huge advantage of appreciating your work also in the financial aspect of it so that they know that you have to have good qualifications to get the job there. It only makes sense that you are also decently paid.
I appreciate it. And I think it should be treated the same in many public sector institutions. Because it seems a bit of a ridiculous reality when you think that people who work in the public sector are there not because of their choice but because they run out of other options. That seems to be the case in a lot of countries. That kind of makes me think that a public sector job in a lot of countries might be completely different from what I just described. It’s really unfortunate. I do hope that it will change. And maybe one day, the national authorities will offer job opportunities that are as good as what I have described.
Natalia 1:06:06 It’s actually really dependent on the country and this disproportion between different sectors that are much dependent on the region, for instance, in Portugal, like compared to Poland, or the Netherlands, the salaries in industry are actually lower than positive salaries most of the time. When I talk to people working there, they just look at me very surprised when I tell them, you know, I know that you would like to earn more outside the industry, outside academia, but you have to give it because we have to take into account that you should also choose the right job.
But we are well paid. When we step out of academia, we have to compromise on our salary. It’s exactly the opposite. It’s dependent on the country. I agree with this. In the Netherlands, indeed, there are lots of public institutions. It’s not as competitive to get there, especially as a PhD. I think PhDs have respected. They already have some points at the start. This is one of the areas where PhDs are respected as competent in the top interview, as opposed to corporations, for instance, who don’t care. They just want someone to feed the profile. They don’t care about your titles. But in public institutions, your title gives you some advantage. But one problem I hear from people who work for public institutions, especially for the Chamber of Commerce and in all these big institutions that have 1000, and more people is that they are more actually concerned about the fact that there is a lot of innovation and they talk a lot about innovation but they don’t do innovation.
If you like talking about it, then you can go there. But if you want to have any hands-on impact on innovation, then you have to go somewhere else because it will just end up with talking and writing reports. In the Netherlands, there is a big disconnection between what public institutions are doing and where the innovation is happening. Many people with this scientific mind are just disappointed by the experience. But again, this depends on the institution and where you end up. That’s also something I always have to tell people every institution and every company has a different culture and it’s not algorithmic. You can’t come up with a formula that will tell you 100% that you will be happy in that particular place.
Because every place and even every unit is different. If you had a different supervisor for your project, your experience might be very different. In the same place, it’s never 100% certain. Okay, so I have to come up to the end of this episode slowly. But one thing I still would like to ask you, is there anything that you can come up with when you think about your professional life up to this point, and your career so far? Is there anything that if you had the chance you would do differently given that you ended up doing like working in a very different environment from where you started? Is there anything that you think you might have done more efficiently or differently?
Aleksandra 1:09:43 During my PhD, like in every PhD project, I think there you could find point out a lot of moments when you would have made different decisions in your experimental planning or things like this. I would say, I don’t have any major regrets, like, I regret making this choice or going to this university or anything like that. Maybe I would have been less hesitant to do things outside of my PhD project. In the beginning, I think at the end of my PhD, I discovered that I liked those side activities a lot. And I was not, let’s say hesitating to join them. Of course, as a PhD student, you always have your main responsibilities, your research project, but also at the same time, especially if you feel like you might not be staying in academia, or you have different things in mind as well, then whatever you like doing it, just keep doing it. It’s never a bad idea.
I know of my colleagues who were doing the PhD with me that they were doing, indeed a lot of science outreach or science communication just because there’s something that they did and they felt it was important. But also, they were just in touch with a lot of organizations that are outside of the university.
When I follow up on what they are doing, I think these are the students that have the most interesting jobs now because they just were trying not to focus only on their PhD as they were doing it. It also helps your mental health. It helps your social life if you just live your life alongside your PhD. But I am not a believer in just doing things that might help your CV. I think that it’s equally as important to have hobbies, whatever they are, and keep following them. And I would have started some extracurricular activities earlier during my PhD if I was to choose something that I would maybe have started sooner because it’s just an outlet for you, as a person who is not your PhD or PhD is just a part of your life. In several years, you will not remember the experiments that you did but you might want to come back to this period of your life and remember something else as well.
I might have thought about this work-life balance differently in some aspects. But I don’t think I have any regrets like this, even though I don’t plan to be a scientist working in the lab by just doing the PhD and working in the lab for four years. These are the things that brought me where I am. This was a part of the process. This was still part of your education. It’s good that it counts as experience but I consider it more education than anything else.
Natalia 1:13:11 Okay. My last question would be, do you have any general advice that you would like to share with PhD students who are now thinking of their future?
Aleksandra 1:13:23 I would say, that’s my personal view. Of course, only that is thinking about what fits your personality and your working style. Because this is something that we sometimes end up being tired of just working in an environment that is good for many people but not for us specifically.
And sometimes it just goes to stop and think about what aspects of your current job as a PhD student or wherever you work, what aspects of this job you like and what comes naturally to you, and what is the aspect of your job that you certainly are not good at even no matter how hard you try to be a bit more aware of this because I guess when you discover you’re weakened and the good sides, then it’s much much easier to steer your career in a way that would be much less frustrating and more fulfilling in the end. In academia, you might be surrounded by people with very different outfits and skills but we are measured by the number of publications or by how good we are at doing a certain thing.
We are judged by a very harsh and not very flexible standard there. It’s quite easy to think that because you don’t certainly fit those boxes. There’s something wrong and you just might be fit for something else. The sooner you discover your talents, or however you might call them, I think the easier it gets. And you then have a little bit of peace of mind because you might not be having as many papers as somewhere else but this is because you might want to go in another direction after a PhD.
Natalia 1:15:22 I couldn’t agree more. And my whole book, which I have here, is exactly about how to fit your profession and your job and you’re the opposition to your personality and your values as well and the way you perceive your job because also, for every one job plays a different role in their life. It’s also a very important aspect. Some of us are more associated with our jobs and some of us are more distant naturally. It’s very important to take into account and I couldn’t agree more.
Great, thank you so much for all your priceless advice. I learned a lot. People who watch this episode as well and you guys who came to the end of this episode, thank you so much for watching. It was great having this conversation and if you would like to get more of this type of material, then please subscribe to this channel. And all the best for Christmas time. And hopefully, see you soon. Thank you very much.
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Bielczyk, N. (2020, December 13th). E035 From PhD in Biotechnology to European Commission & European Food Safety Authority? Retrieved from https://ontologyofvalue.com/career-development-strategies-e035-from-phd-in-biotechnology-to-european-commission-european-food-safety-authority/
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