E045 How Can the Agile Approach Work in Research? Between Academia and R&D in Agriculture

March 28th 2021

Dr Laura Pirro is an Italian chemical engineer, who obtained her PhD at the Laboratory for Chemical Technology of Ghent University at the end of 2020. Currently, Laura works as an R&D engineer at Yara Sluiskil, in the Netherlands, in the field of agricultural products.

In this episode, she will tell us more about several aspects which characterized her professional life choices so far and some lessons learned along the way.
Here are some highlights:

(1) Not everybody is ready to start a PhD at the same time. After obtaining her master’s in 2014, Laura decided to work in the chemical industry for a couple of years, to get a taste of the ‘world outside of academia, before deciding whether to commit to a post-graduate study. During this episode, we will discuss the pros and cons of such a decision.

(2) Your PhD is not only about your own research. During her doctoral studies, Laura got engaged with numerous activities which went beyond her specific domain of study, including an initiative to bring the Agile philosophy for project management into academic research projects. We will ask her about how this initiative developed and what added value Agile can have for doctoral and post-doctoral researchers.

(3) Finding two jobs in the year of the pandemic: mission (im)possible? As the end of her PhD was approaching, Laura had to search for her way back into the chemical industry… but a few pitfalls came across, including getting fired after only three weeks because of the financial instability of the company that hired her. We will explore with her how to evaluate the options at the end of your PhD, and how to get back on your feet if the professional world punches you in the face.

Laura’s LinkedIn profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/laura-pirro/

The episode was recorded on March 20th, 2021. 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 meetings, we talk with professionals who have interesting career paths and who are willing to share their awesome life hacks with us. Today, I have the great pleasure to introduce Dr. Laura Pirro. She is an Italian chemical engineer. In 2014, she obtained her master’s degree and decided to work in the chemical industry for a couple of years to get a taste of the world outside of academia before deciding whether to commit to a postgraduate study.


She went for a PhD and laboratory for chemical technology before going to university. And at the end of 2020, she successfully graduated. Currently, Laura works as an R&D Engineer at Yara Sluiskil in the Netherlands in the field of agricultural products. Great to have you, Laura. Thank you so much for visiting us today. And I’m most happy to see you. I have to say that this topic is a little bit out of my comfort zone because I do not know agriculture. But I’m very curious to hear more about it. And I’m very curious about your story, given that you went to industry and then to academia, and then back to the industry. I will be most happy to hear how it all looks from your own perspective.

Dr. Laura 01:38 Thanks a lot for the invitation. It’s always interesting when other people tell your story. You started from the very end with agricultural products which are something relatively new in my life. I will go a bit back to the origin. Since this interview is about people who transition from academia to industry, in my case, there was a double transition. We can divide it into three periods, the pre PhD, the PhD, and then the post PhD which is quite recent. As you mentioned, I am Italian from Naples in the south of Italy. And that’s where I spent the first 23 years of my life. I studied at the university, Federico Secondo Napoli which is certainly in southern Italy, probably the most important institution for chemical engineering. 

And my academic story was quite normal. I would say, I was a good student. I graduated on time with good marks. I did an interesting thesis project because it was a collaboration with the National Research Council of Italy. It was a one-year project. After that, there was a possibility of staying for a PhD, either in Naples or somewhere else abroad. But I know that this’s not for me. I liked the university but I’m done with being a student. I want to go into the real world. At that time, I think I didn’t know well, what a PhD would entitle me. For me, it was more like a prolonged study. And I was done with that. 

And that’s why I moved to Milan, in the north of Italy, immediately after graduation to work first as a process engineer in an engineering company and later for a shorter time as an Account Manager in the field of water treatment. I change two jobs in two years. Because I was searching for something. I didn’t know what I was searching for. But my first job was a really good experience with very nice people. I could learn a lot from them but it was quite a classical engineering job. Some simulations and some datasheets are the things that chemical engineers can relate to but they felt not very applied. 

I felt it was not what I was searching for. And that’s why I had this other kind of experience where account manager when I started, I even didn’t know what that means. I just jumped into that. And then it was a combination of sales, engineering, and field service engineering. You had the selling part of products for water treatment in chemical plants. They also had the field service part which means some maintenance and quality checks in the plants. It was a shorter experience only eight months, quite intense because I was on the road all the time, every day a different customer. And it was positive from certain points of view because I got that hands-on experience I was searching for. 

But also, on the other hand, you had the sales part and that was not something I was ready for. At that moment, I enjoyed the technical aspects. And it was too early for me to focus on sales. A combination of personal life factors brought me to Belgium. And that’s why, let’s say the PhD life started, I wanted to move to Ghent to follow my boyfriend. And the problem was, again, this in Flanders in Belgium. And as a chemical engineer, when you want to work in an industry, you need to know the language of the place you’re working. It depends on the job. Not for every job but for many jobs in chemical plants, you need that. And I didn’t know any Flemish, which is a sort of version of the Netherlands. 

I had some options. I could study Dutch in Italy and then try to move but that will take quite some time. I was also not very experienced. Nobody will really hire me for my experience. And then I went back to the idea of the PhD, because a PhD in university was in English. The language requirement was not there. And throughout the time, I kept it in the back of my mind because many of my most brilliant colleagues from the University of Naples did a PhD. I felt like, I still wanted to give it a try to see if I could do that. If that kind of challenge was something I could face. 

I told myself that if I find something that I like, I will go for it. And there was this project which was with Ghent University but also with Total. Before you will recall the oil and gas, it’s an energy company. They’re also transitioning. It was industrial and academic collaboration. And for me, that was ideal because I knew that I wanted to go back to the industry at some point. To have a sort of industrial PhD, was interesting. In the end, I performed all my work at the Laboratory for chemical technology but just the six months reviews with the industry or the monthly update gave me a feeling of okay, there are people who want to know something from me.

Your professor wants to know something from you. But PhD is by definition can be a lonely job at times. And I need this kind of interaction with people and have not only people at university but also people in the industry. I could talk to them and that was very good. And maybe later I can tell you more about the PhD experience but that’s been great. There were a lot of ups and downs. But it has been four super enriching years. In the end, I had to decide a bit about whether to stay at university or go back to Italy or not. But then yes, there was also the pandemic. It’s been quite a difficult year to make life decisions. 

My partner and I decided to stay in Belgium because it was easier to stay here than to go back to Italy, for instance. We like it here. We’re quite happy here. Then we both search for a job. 2020 was quite intense because we were both writing our thesis, trying to finish more or less at the same time, searching for jobs or interviews, and the lockdown and everything. I found a job which I thought I would like. And I started that mid-October last year. But that experience lasted only three weeks because the company was facing some difficulties and had to fire some people. After three weeks in this job that I’d been waiting for, since June, I signed in June, I started in October, and by the third of November, I had been fired already. 

It was quite a harsh start for my industrial career after the PhD. There were a couple of difficult months because I was doubting my decisions again. I thought, okay, maybe it’s a sign that I should stay in university. There were some possibilities of doing some nice things there. And I also started reevaluating everything I wanted. But I’m happy that in the end, I went back more or less on the same path that I had chosen, meaning an R&D job in the industry, in a company. That’s where I started in January. It’s a good place to work in. It’s a happy ending. But I can tell you that November was not the easiest month. There were three parts. And the final part, the post piece of life has recently started and is quite rich in emotions.

Natalia 11:26 I mean, it ended up well for you. In the end, you found the job in a good place. Can you tell us a little bit more about this experience, in your first job after PhD? Like what happened? Because I live in the Netherlands and I think here in Western Europe, it’s quite unheard of to lose a job after three weeks. What happened?

Dr. Laura 12:00 I still don’t know about how easy it is to fire somebody but it really has to do with when you’re for a very short time in a company, it’s very easy to fire in the very beginning. For me, the trauma was a bit that I grew up in Italy with the idea of a permanent job position which is very difficult to achieve at least in Italy. And so after my PhD, I signed a permanent job contract and I felt like, okay, now I can relax. I don’t have a very short limited time horizon. I have a career in front of me. I will take it slower but deeper. I felt like okay, and now I want to commit to this company. I’m not going to mention the company. And I also removed it from my LinkedIn profile. 

Because my purpose is not to advertise the company. There are still people that work in that company. My purpose is not to harm them. But it’s been traumatic because it was an interview process, which started in March and then in June, very long with very many steps. They could have stopped it at any time. You know, like I was having other interviews, which were frozen because there’s the pandemic. But they went ahead. And we went till the very end. And I could sign the contract in June, for October, because I first wanted to finish my commitment at university and not leave things open. 

And then I started and it was only three weeks but I was already feeling good there. It was an R&D job on product development. Even though there was a pandemic and since I was new, I had to learn. I could go there on the productive side every day and started meeting my colleagues. And so it came unexpectedly. I have the weekly call with my manager to see how things were going. And when I opened the camera, also the HR manager was there. And that was a bit surprising. The reason was that the company had very bad financial results for quite some time even before Corona. 

But you had the sort of kept ignoring it. And in R&D, they hired four people in 2020. And in November, two of us had to leave so I had just started this other person was much more experienced than me but what’s new in the company since March, she also had to go and there was no good explanation. What I learned a bit afterward is that in August, the CEO had been fired. And I had read that. I had even called the manager to ask, like, is everything okay in the company because I’m going to start in October when a CEO is fired, something is wrong. I was reassured. And I’m sure my manager meant well because she was really confident that R&D will not be impacted. This position was really needed. 

I remember she told me, we’re waiting for you, there’s so much work. I got even more excited after that call. But then, let’s say the interim CEO in October was not confirmed. There was a second change. And the second change in all the executives. The first action was to cut costs. And of course, R&D is not like operations in the chemical industry. Productive people who really make the product are very important. Otherwise, you don’t sell. And companies that are a bit short-sighted such as this company cut on R&D. I would say a company which is facing troubles should invest even more in R&D because something new can come which might even save your company. 

That’s been quite a trauma for me. But there have been even crazier stories in this company. A friend of mine got promoted. And after five days, she got fired and people who are making the budgeting where the budget didn’t reflect the real financial situation of the company and all this kind of stuff. I didn’t know that during your PhD, you’re in this bubble that has a lot of negative aspects, but also some positive ones. You’re a bit protected by this real-world experience where I ended up just being a number on a budget. At least they had to be cut. That was the shock. 

I knew I could recover because of all the support I got from people. It was very nice. I just wrote one LinkedIn post a bit sentimental. But it was a call for help. Because I had lost my job. And I needed help to find another one. The number of reactions I got and the quality of those reactions have been really amazing. And I don’t mean only on LinkedIn but people who asked me for the CV sent it to their bosses. I realized that even though PhD can be a bit lonely at times, those four years of building networks here and there, in the end, paid off because I felt so much support. I’m even slightly grateful for this trauma because it helped me rediscover all the network of people who were there for me. 

That has been the positive side. It doesn’t matter how difficult your research is and how much you need to focus, always try to save some time for getting out or going to events or going to things that are not even necessarily in your bubble. It can feel like a waste of time sometimes. But I’m 100% sure it would pay off. I thought that even before but then I had really good proof. That’s a bit how it went.

Natalia 18:56 You covered a lot of important aspects here. I think, first of all, from what you said it felt like the company that hired you was really scrambling and they were on the edge of their financial capabilities at that point, and possibly some bad financial management in the process, and miscommunication. Was it a large company? And what could you reveal more or less what the headcount was?

Dr. Laura 19:24 I don’t think there’s one of those brands that if you read it, you recognize it but it’s a company which produces for many important brands. It’s a Belgian company but with a very international footprint. There were many people affected by this. And it’s not the small local company that has not focused on budgeting enough or a startup that’s scaling up and gets in trouble now. It’s a very well-established company, quite old. And I still don’t understand how that is possible.

Natalia 20:08 I mean, it’s Corona time. 

Dr. Laura 20:14 That’s true. That would explain it. But I think this was deeper. Because also, it’s a company selling consumer products. Consumer products went up because people during the pandemic got a bit crazy. And we started buying more in the supermarkets. And so the competitors of this company can gain profit during Corona because of our crazy behavior in buying as much as possible. 

Of course, Corona could have played the role. But that felt deeper. And that’s also why I’m so surprised they didn’t stop my application process earlier. It would have been so easy to stop it and say, Look, we’re facing some issues. I would have understood, so the pity was for the lost opportunities.

Natalia 21:13 There are many ways of making mistakes in the process. You can fall off from building a good income stream in many different ways, for instance, by just misjudging the situation and not adjusting the way you advertise your products or services and just slipping over when the opportunity comes, or in many different ways, and maybe someone made strategic mistakes in the process. Not every company will benefit in the same way because some of them are better prepared than others and act faster.

Dr. Laura 22:01 But that’s also why I prefer not to say the name of the people who know me already. But I don’t want to say the name because there might be a lot of aspects behind that. I don’t know. And I don’t understand. I can only tell facts from my perspective. And a company that seemed quite solid and established and had no clear reason at least from the outside was sort of collapsing inside. The company is still operational. I wish them to recover for the people who work there. 

Natalia 22:42 But it’s also true that if you come to the company, then you were on the outskirts. If there is a financial crisis, there will be people who came last and will be the first ones to go. That’s also true. You’re protected yet. And they didn’t build bonds with you over the last few years. You’re the disposable one. 

Dr. Laura 23:10 But it’s also true that my friend who was fired after getting promoted should be in the company for a few years already. And they also cut a lot of management people. The trauma was also because, in your PhD, there are a lot of difficulties but you are the owner of your story. You can’t always influence everything you do. Sometimes things just don’t work out. But you feel like you’re in charge. You are in charge and nothing will happen if you don’t do stuff. I didn’t realize it at the time of the PhD. But I felt more powerful because I was in my own company, basically, with my professor, the other supervisors, and my colleagues.

But that was my work and I could lead it. And then I had this experience when I was just a number in a budget list. And that was crazy. And in this new job now, I even told this during the hiring process to my current manager. I told him this story because I felt it was important for him to know that I’m aware. I’m just a number but I don’t want to be that. It also played an important role in choosing this new job. The fact that he understood that and that he was already sure that this position will be okay. But he even went to his boss to bring my story to say, look, we cannot make mistakes with this girl. I’m sure many companies work differently whenever possible. I’ve never been in the position to choose who has to go and who has to stay. I don’t judge. I can only tell the story from my perspective. 

Natalia 25:09 You also touched on another subject that is, I think, really important, which is that the job search process is also very energy consuming and it’s unpaid time that you have to spend and stress that you have to take on your shoulders to land a position. It takes long weeks or even months and often preparing for multiple interviews without any guarantee that it will even pay off. Even if you land the contract, it can still happen to you.

Dr. Laura 25:43 Having to do that twice in six months was not the nicest. But I was also lucky because there are many people who experienced the same thing. And the outcome has not been as positive yet. But yeah, searching for a job is the one thing I had to do when I had already a job. That means waking up very early or working till very late to make things meet because there’re assessments, logical tests, and presentations. It’s all different. And sometimes, you don’t know exactly what you want to do. You even apply for different kinds of jobs that require your story to be told differently. 

If you want to do R&D, you have to bring your story from your R&D perspective. You want to do operations. In my case, as a chemical engineer, you have to highlight either other things or project management. You have to highlight other things. All those really require you to manipulate your story every single time. And it was very intensive. But then the second time, I had to search for a job while not having a job. And that also took my whole day. 

My boyfriend used to tease me and say, Okay, you’re the busiest unemployed person I know because I got my desk in the morning. And I started going through potential positions. I had my Excel spreadsheet with the position I was interested in, a link, a reference person, and a sort of status of, okay, did I send the CV, did I send the cover letter and I didn’t do it the first time. 

But now, I had more time. I did it more structured. And to be honest, it was much more efficient if I could do it full-time to search for a job. It was much more efficient. But it’s also very tiring, indeed. And many of those conversations led nowhere. I have to admit, especially with consultancy companies, I’m not talking about big consulting companies, maybe more local ones, but having to go through those interviews, and then at the end, you’ll find out there’s not even a position and it’s just to put your CV in a pile and to have a database, for whatever reason in the future. 

I understand. But it should be very clear from the beginning that this is the purpose of the conversation. Otherwise, you invest a lot of energy. And then at the end, you find out that they didn’t have a position for you. But okay, it was good to get to know that. After the first two or three times, it happened. I started to ask even before taking the call because it was not that my time was too precious but my energy was precious and you have to balance that. It’s quite fair for people out there who are searching for a job and it’s stressful and tiring. I feel you. And I can just wish for a good outcome.

Natalia 29:11 That’s, unfortunately, a part of the process where it happens to everyone. And even people I know who have the best education along with professional history, usually have to try multiple times before they find a position that is mutually satisfactory for them and the employer. Unfortunately, this is the case. But I think it’s a very good strategy what you did. Planning and treating this also as a task to do. It’s a job in itself to apply systematically. 

That will also prevent you from making mistakes because if people just keep on applying randomly without having this spreadsheet and registering every application, then it often happens that after some time they start reapplying to the same company, but for a different position. And then the same hiring manager might get two completely different motivational letters from the same person.

Dr. Laura 30:20 But also what happened was not this time, because this time I was doing it super tidy and organized. The first time you send a CV and you, especially with the LinkedIn direct applications with just a click, most of the time, it doesn’t work, because you have not put enough effort into personalizing your CV or sending a motivation letter. But sometimes it still works. And they give you a call. And maybe you’re in the middle of something else. And you don’t even remember what it is about, which position and which company, and what you wrote. That is not very successful. 

But I also understand that when you don’t have all your data to do that, you do it like this but I’m happy that the second time, I could do it differently because he was much more efficient and also a bit less stressful. When I got a phone call, in the beginning, I was not answering the phone. Because I didn’t have access to information. And what if they asked me about whatever position that I remember. This time, I was more confident. I could answer the phone maybe with a click and I already had on my screen, what it was about and it could work much better. 

Natalia 31:42 It’s a very important thing to do. Whoever watching this episode, just be systematic about your job search, if you’re in this process of the moment. I like to ask you now a little bit more about your experience before and after PhD, as you know, how it differs. And also referring to what you said before, I think that, like from what I also see, talking to people who have different types of PhDs and different in different settings, you chose for industry PhD, which has its upsides and downsides. On the one hand, it’s more practically oriented which is good

But on the other hand, sometimes you have to play a game because different parties with different goals, and your professors want you to publish and the company that hosts you or collaborates just wants to have commercially-oriented projects. What I also feel like talking to people who have this type of PhD, sometimes it’s hard to play this game to satisfy everyone at the same time. Because academic lifestyle and academic way of building and releasing project is common property. You know, the IP is kind of public. You have to publish your work. Your whole pipeline should be presented and reproducible to others because it’s the society that pays for it.

Whereas in companies, of course, the IP of the company is a well-kept secret. There is some conflict of interest. And sometimes, it’s hard to play this game to make both sides happy at the same time. I like to ask you, did you also experience this type of issue? Or for you, it went rather smoothly, and you could easily manage on both sides?

Dr. Laura 34:01 What you describe is true and I saw it happening with a lot of people. I have to say my case was easier because it was a confidential project but the level of confidentiality was not so high. And the company also had a bit of interest in publishing to show the outdoor world they’re working on that. Of course, you know, for me, it was quite smooth. I always had to ask for approval and this and that and always check many times if this was okay. It was still quite an easy process but you lose a bit of freedom. For example, in my case, I had a very big advantage that the company was quite clear in the beginning about what they wanted. 

You feel a bit less lost. You know where to go. And in the beginning, it helps a lot. There are some clear deliverables and you know where to start. But the more experienced you become, the more you would like to have your academic freedom to explore other things which are not in the deliverables. And it’s still interesting for you. But I was lucky because I got the chance to do that. The company was also okay with me working on some other things. As long as everything which was in the project was on track, I could explore some other aspects together with a couple of colleagues. 

While in my activities, of course, I was the leader there. In other activities, I might be more of a support person but I could do something else on top of the project. I had the freedom to experiment. And that was very important. That’s why I’m really grateful to all the people around me. First of all, my professor made it possible and then my colleague. I worked with one colleague on these other projects. My co-supervisor understood that I needed that freedom. As long as everything was always on track on the project, this was not an issue. 

What I’ve seen with some other colleagues is that things get more difficult because you cannot publish, for example, Ghent University requires a minimum of two published papers in first order to allow you to submit the thesis. It’s doable. But if you have any confidentiality issues, then it starts getting tricky. As an alternative, you could apply for a patent. This also counts. 

I think it’s very smart for Ghent University to valorize patents in the same way as a scientific publication in a journal because then it’s much easier to work with companies. One less paper but one more patent, we want to value them the same way. That’s a very good strategy to start overcoming these issues. But patenting is a very long process, much longer compared to journal publications. In some cases, it still creates issues. But it’s a big step forward that says, we value a patent almost at the same level as we value a journal publication.

Natalia 38:01 It sounds like I didn’t patent anything to date. But it also feels that it’s much harder because you have to have proven ownership of some intellectual property or some new device that no one else ever proposed in the history of humankind. And indeed, it feels so much different from writing yet another journal publication where I know if you don’t have enough publications under your belt, you can always write a review paper or you can always write.

You know, you can wrap up your new results even and just go for one of the low-key journals. You can always save yourself in some ways just to graduate but with a patent, there are no easy solutions. It’s either that you’re the creator of a new method or a new device or you’re not and there is no middle ground.

Dr. Laura 39:07 I’m not an expert. But I think the real requirements are novelty and inventiveness. It has to be new but it also has to be inventive. It’s not just like, Oh, I found something, it’s new. I can patent it. No, you have to show that you could invent that and somebody else couldn’t before you. But I’ll be honest, the research which is done at University is so high level that it can happen quite often that these kinds of super innovative things come out from universities.

Natalia 39:40 In the European Union, a Patent is not packed to any hardware, so if you discover a new algorithm or a method, something that is a piece of software, it’s very hard to patent it. If you work more towards engineering, then it’s easier because you always have some piece of hardware next to it. And that’s much easier.

Dr. Laura 40:06 It’s a very specific kind of situation. And for engineers, I think it’s one of those which comes up more often. But like, I have a colleague. He struggled a bit through this patenting process. But now, thanks to this experience, he’s still in university but as a sort of technology transfer manager. Now, he’s in this job where he helps students who are having issues. It can be easier for engineering or chemistry now because maybe it’s a molecule, or maybe it’s a piece of equipment. But I’m sure also the universities are doing it. 

And they’re now putting these systems in place to help the students with these kinds of issues. These technology transfer systems inside universities are really good support for people who are struggling with these kinds of aspects. I’m not sure about the software, as you said, but they also have a lot of software valorization. It’s not via patenting, maybe it’s via licensing, and then you start ending up in a different kind of world is a licensed piece of software as valuable as a journal publication. 

I don’t know what the status is today but probably it should be. Because, as you said, it is as if I could patent it, but then I can license it, and it should have the same value. It’s a very active and current topic. And it’s a hot one. It’s important to talk about it. It’s not my expertise but I’m happy you brought it up because I saw many colleagues struggling with that.

Natalia 42:00 I mean, it’s good to learn about intellectual property as soon as possible, like, early in your education process as possible. I would start with copyrights. Because I think this is the biggest problem in the industry that there is a big violation of copyrights often. And then, get to patents and trademarks. But if you have an opportunity to learn about patent law early on, then probably it’s also a good part of the education. 

People in the industry sometimes don’t realize that copying even one paragraph of text is already plagiarised material. Mentioning even one sentence is plagiarism and you can’t do that. And I can see that a lot. I think coming from academia, we also have a more natural recognition of what plagiarised data means. 

Dr. Laura 42:59 References are also a part of academic work. You always reference and you always put the source. And I think it’s also an added value of hiring PhD people who have this attention for searching for sources, first of all, and also mentioning the sources which are important for two reasons. First of all, people can verify what you said. And secondly, you’re acknowledging and giving visibility to the work of other people. These are things that maybe even for my PhD, I would not even think about that. I was much younger but it’s not really a matter of age. When you start experiencing these things, you bring it with you.

Natalia 43:50 But maybe it’s also a cultural reason. In academia, we take care of who owns what and who altered what because the authorship of research and publications is a currency. 

Dr. Laura 44:08 Yes, too much.

Natalia 44:11 We have to track who puts their name on our text. That then we become very territorial about our text. That’s why we care about copyrights much more probably than industry people. Because in industry, the thinking is, you know, the team creates the product. Whatever document comes out, it’s everyone’s property and it’s not yours anymore. I think that’s why there is less understanding of what copyrights mean. Anyways, I like to also ask you about another aspect of an industry PhD that you mentioned before. 

What you mentioned was that when you were starting your PhD, you didn’t have high expectations. You didn’t have expectations that you will end up with a tenure track position. You treated this as a four-year adventure. And from what I see, these expectations set the tone for the whole PhD and undergraduates who had that plan to do PhD as a standalone, like four years of study. They had that plan from the very beginning and usually come out happier than those who had those high expectations from the very start. 

And taking a PhD as an entry point was a lifelong career in academia. I think expectations really influenced your experience during a PhD. Do you also see that phenomenon around you like, among your friends, that whoever takes PhD, as you know, treats a PhD like a four your journey, their academic career is usually happier after graduation?

Dr. Laura 46:21 It’s difficult to tell because many people when they start, don’t know. I mean, some people are sure about what they want, more or less. In my case, I was sure that it would be a four-year experience or a limited period of time experience. Let’s say, in the case of my brother, he started his PhD knowing he wanted to be a professor. And if I compare the two of us, now, he’s going to graduate soon and he’s starting his postdoc. We had different kinds of frustrations but with the kinds of positions he had. I don’t envy him. It’s really this idea of, Okay, what about my future? I knew my future would be somewhere else. 

I took everything I could from it. And I tried to give as much as possible. And then it was over. For him, there’s still this dragging off. I need the link to this university. But then I need to expand my network. Otherwise, I will not become a professor. I will need to go abroad. He’s still fighting for that. And I wish him to succeed the same way, I wish it to some other colleagues who know exactly what they want. But they also talk to many people who change their minds in between because they realized it was never going to happen or it will take too much of their personal life to make that happen and they simply had to admit it.

I can’t do this. I cannot put my whole life at stake for this. I think you’re right, maybe in my case, it was just easier knowing that it was a limited-time experience. But on the other hand, we need professors. We need people who stay in university to teach the next generation. We also need to make sure that those professors in the future will be the best. With my experience, I don’t want to discourage anybody from trying the academic life because we need good university professors. It’s just a tough choice which can be very rewarding when you get there. And I wish my brother to get there. But it was not for me.

Natalia 48:53 I also think that some people start, like, it’s also that PhD is very different from Master studies. And it’s really hard to tell if you’re material for a professor or before you start your PhD because it’s just a very different way of working and some people didn’t really get good grades during master’s studies and then all of a sudden when it comes to solving problems, they flourish because they were bored with learning just for the exams, to do repetitive assignments, and have these closed forum tasks during studies. 

But now what do you do when it comes to open problems? They doubt the creative types. They actually start feeling the power and feeling the energy to do it and all of a sudden become really good PhD students. They’re also people who go exactly the other direction. 

Dr. Laura 49:54 It’s also, the opposite happens. The thing is being a good student doesn’t guarantee that you will be a successful PhD student. From my experience, remove the word PhD student, and call it something else, PhD candidate or PhD researcher. I called myself a doctoral researcher because it’s a job. And nobody is going to tell you what you need to learn and why you need to learn it. 

It can be a bit difficult for very good students when they started a PhD. They start facing more difficulties than ever before. I had it a bit. But having had two years in between my master’s and my PhD, I felt that two years, I really needed them. And I could start with a bit more maturity. It was not such a big trauma.

Natalia 50:56 And how does it feel now after your PhD, to work in the industry compared to before your PhD? What types of changes did you observe in yourself? And how did your working style and how did your values change in the process? And is it now easier or harder to be an R&D researcher than before?

Dr. Laura 51:19 The thing is slightly difficult to compare because the job I was doing before my PhD was completely different. First was process engineering, and then sales, then what I’m doing now, but I can tell you, I’m much happier now for two big reasons. The first one is, I think I found a job which is good for me. To do research and development, so to constantly be faced with new things, so everything has to be new in research. When it’s not new, it means there’s a problem with the current status. And so it’s problem-solving. I like what I’m doing now. And it was not the same before. 

But the second reason why I’m happier now is not only because it’s different, but as you said, I’m different. I’m older, maybe wiser but before I was very impatient. For me, everything had to happen immediately, super fast. I was really craving for things to happen. And now, I’m still a bit like that. But you start to realize that some things take time. It’s physiological. Even building relationships building trust and mutual respect with people take time. And you cannot force it. That’s on the human aspect from the technical aspect. You can read and do as much as you want. But your brain has a certain capacity and you need to give it time to adapt to learn new things. 

And on the process side, big organizations have a lot of advantages but the changes can be slow. And now that I’m embracing it. I feel better because I was much more impatient and frustrated before. Now, I’m still very accelerated. But if I have to wait. I will wait without getting too stressed. And PhD was a really good exercise. From this point of view, it was much more than that. The kind of things you learn about how to deal with yourself and deal with others, it’s invaluable. I’m happy that I did it.

Natalia 53:45 It sounds good that you never regretted doing a PhD. But I think it’s also partially due to your attitude.

Dr. Laura 54:00 I don’t regret it. While I wasn’t in it, I was regretting it. It’s important to say, now looking back, I don’t regret it. But when I was in the middle, stuck with something and facing difficulties like anybody else, I regretted it so much. I have to say it’s because maybe there are people who are doing their PhD and they’re feeling just like that. I think it happens to everybody. Now, I’m happy. That’s the important thing.

Natalia 54:33 Now, it’s an interesting one. Honestly, if I’m happy that I did a PhD, it’s like not an easy answer to give because you don’t know the alternatives. Also, it was a few years of your life but you don’t know how you would stand it. Otherwise, if you didn’t do a PhD, you would not be laying on the couch. You would still do something else and be ambitious in a different way in a different field. It’s really hard to compare. I know that this is sometimes expected of me to be super positive about PhD. because I work with PhD students and I’m also a PhD.

Dr. Laura 55:13 I think honesty is more important than just being positive. If there’s no reason, I still don’t think PhD is something for everybody. Because as you were saying, you could be investing your time differently and being much more fulfilled. It’s a really good question to ask yourself. You might not know that in the beginning, maybe at the end of the first year, you know, if things are too much, I’m not suggesting you should give up. You should at least ask yourself, is that how I want to spend the next two or three years or four or five? 

Because the length changes. I am not surprised if many people can be 100% positive. I’m also not 100% positive. But if you asked me now, I don’t regret it at all. If you had asked me two years ago, I would’ve been somewhere there struggling and asking myself, what did I do with my life? I understand the feeling.

Natalia 56:22 I mean, I agree after one year of PhD, you should do a checkpoint for yourself irrespective of whether or not you have a checkpoint at work because many PhD students have that checkpoint after a year and a half. But regardless of that, you have to also do it for yourself because I mean, in the first year of a PhD, most PhD candidates are feeling lost. They just don’t know the story well enough yet. And they cannot formulate their own projects. Because you have to learn to know what is publishable, what is not publishable, and what is already done. And everyone feels lost in the first year. 

But there are also aspects of academic life that you already know about how daily life looks. If you don’t really like your lifestyle and if you don’t really like your environment, nothing will change for another three years. And with time, the number of expectations and pressure from the outside on publications and results will only grow. If you don’t like your life after one year, then maybe it’s indeed a good time to try something else. It’s not about quitting. It’s just changing your decision or coming up with a new plan. 

Dr. Laura 57:51 That’s why even changing the title and saying, Okay, I’m a doctoral researcher and I was a doctoral researcher for four years. And at the end of that, I got a PhD degree. I was a doctoral researcher for one year and a half. And then I realized, it was not something I was gonna do further. And then I changed my job. And it’s not necessarily quitting. You cannot call it quitting. Yes, you’re quitting this educational program which is the PhD but you’re just investing your time on something different. It doesn’t mean I want to encourage people to stop because then it gets so difficult for everybody that you will think about stopping your PhD. 

It’s not like the first time you start doubting, you should stop. But it’s just a very good self-evaluation of do I want to keep investing my time like this? It’s important. And you also have to be like, you’re about where you do your PhD, and which are the opportunities there because I’ll be honest, in the moments where my PhD was becoming very difficult, Ghent University and laboratory where I was offered a lot of opportunities to also do something else. For example, the doctoral school with courses in communication, project management, writing skills, and reading skills. 

It gave a bit of variety when I was too lost in my research, I started looking somewhere else for reasons to stay and I found them. In the meanwhile, I also learned a lot of valuable skills. In the context you’re in, you also have to be a bit lucky and that’s why I’m grateful. I did it here because the opportunities I got from this environment were a lot and not everybody has the same, so I feel lucky about that.

Natalia 1:00:00 There is no one in the world who both did and didn’t do a PhD. No one can know what is the better way? Lastly, I like to talk a little bit more about your experience with management techniques, especially agile because I know that you’re a big proponent of agile in the academic system as well. Could you tell us a little bit more? 

First of all, maybe to some of the viewers, I think agile rings a bell to pretty much everyone today but many of us never really had to do with Agile at work. If you could briefly explain what that means and maybe as opposed to some other popular management schemes such as Scrum or waterfall. Why do you think that Agile is a methodology in management that should be also implemented in academia? How do you think it should be done?

Dr. Laura 1:01:10 It was a very long question. And it will require a very long answer but I will try to keep it to the point. Let’s start just from the PhD because that’s where it started from me, then we can go a bit broader. Your PhD is a project. There’s something you want to do. And you have to do it at a certain time and within a certain budget and with some people who are supporting you. It’s a project, the moment you start putting a deadline or having in mind or deliverable, or schedule, you are already starting project management. Project management can mean many different things. 

But it’s really, how do I get there. You need a plan and you need a way of working strategy. And I’m a PhD in chemical engineering, another project management, or an expert, but I felt I need to keep things tidy during my work. I was searching for some methods to help me work better. And when I start traditional project management courses, I took one basic introductory one at Ghent University. That’s one of the kinds of opportunities I’m grateful for. You hear a sort of more traditional way, like you mentioned, the waterfall approach, which is a very linear way of dealing with projects meaning that you split your work into different phases. 

You will have very detailed planning at the beginning. First, you have an idea, and then very detailed planning, and then you will start executing, and then you will deliver something, and then at the very end, you will check if there are some adjustments to do. That’s why they call it waterfall because it’s one thing after the other very detailed. And it works very well for a lot of very consolidated things. 

If you think of chemical engineering, for example, you always have a sort of feasibility phase, can we do that, then you do something which is called basic engineering design. If we do that, how it will look like more or less, then you go to a phase which is called front end engineering design which is more like, okay, we’re doing it. How does our equipment look and how big it is? 

Where do we put it, and at the end, you go for what is called EPC, engineering procurement, and construction where you buy all the stuff you need and build your plant. And it has been done like that for many plants and it works for many projects. The problem with this system is that they’re not very flexible. If there’s an additional risk, if there’s something that is changing is a bit more volatile, it’s very difficult to change the plan because it all went after each other. And it’s very difficult to come back. 

You have to do a scope change or budget change. It’s helped me and so I thought for university, or research in general, this doesn’t work because of research. It’s a very risky business. You’re always trying to do something new that people didn’t do before you. How can you apply for such a traditional kind of system? It’s better than nothing. I’m really happy that now in proposals, they always ask for a Gantt chart, where you put all your faces one after the other and then you put them all in time.

That’s better than not having anything. But it doesn’t allow for flexibility. I started looking into agile, because agile, I searched for the meaning and it really means able to move smoothly and fast. It’s all about that trying to find ways of working that are flexible and can adapt to change faster where the risk is minimized because you’re splitting your work in a different way, which is not linear.

It’s narrative, especially if you think about Scrum, which is a sort of Agile methodology. And you constantly going back and having feedback moments and always rechecking what you’re doing is it in line with what we need, you can accommodate a lot of change. It’s a very typical example but I still want to give it to people who have no clue. Let’s say you want to build the car, then you plan it, you design it, and you have everything on paper. And then you start building it, first, you build the motor, and then you put the wheels, and then you put the frame. 

And at the very end, you have your car. If the project stopped in the middle because there was no budget or something unexpected happened, you just have a motor placed on some wheels and it’s an unusable car. You could not get there. If you wanted to start with a very Agile way, this is an extreme example, but I hope it’s helpful. You don’t start with that. You say okay, in the first week, I will make a skateboard. Okay, why would you make a skateboard if I asked you for a car you go back to why you want a car. You want a car because you want to be able to move four or five people much faster than walking for longer distances.

Then I give you a skateboard as the first step and okay, it’s not working but it’s able to move one person for a moderate distance a bit faster than walking. Okay, then the second step, I give you a bicycle, the same story. It’s not what you wanted. But it would allow you to move fast for a long distance. And then motorcycle and you’re moving two people for longer distances and then you end up with the car and you end up with your final result. If the budget had stopped earlier or something happened, you might have ended up with a motorcycle that is not what you wanted. 

But at least it can move two people for a longer distance and much faster than walking. You have a bit minimize the risk of having to walk. This is an extreme example. You will never do that for a car that you know exactly, well how to do. But for new things, this can be very useful. Now, this is very easy to imagine for a car. It’s also easy to imagine software because that’s where it started. Agile Manifesto was a group of software developers in 2001 who started saying we want the software, which works and it doesn’t have to be perfect but we need it to work fast. 

We want to prioritize functionality over extensive documentation. And we want to give this software to our customers immediately, even if it’s not perfect because we want their feedback soon. In the case of software, you can see it quite easily because you will have a first release that has only some features, and then you will add more and more. You might get perfect in the end. But you already have something functional from the very beginning. This is a bit of the idea of thinking agile. As I told you, I’m not an expert. I’m not gonna go into tools and methodology and all the perfect terminology but there’s a philosophy of life. 

That’s how I tried to apply. And my efforts during my PhD were on how can we make it work for research. Okay, you understand the software but how about research? That’s why I got in touch with a lot of people. And many people got in touch with me, so I’m really happy that this idea reached them. How can we make our PhD more agile? And we built some case studies, for example, based on small things, for example, writing a paper, you want to write a paper for a journal, you might do it, like okay, I will start from the results, then I will do the conclusions that will do the introduction, then the methodology, and then I will try to make it as perfect as possible. After that, I will send it to my professor. 

That’s the way most people do it. It works. It’s fine. It’s a way of managing your project which is your paper. But the other issue is, can you send a paper that has no introduction, or no methods? No, you can’t. Even if the results and conclusions were perfect, you will still need all the rest. The idea was a key. And I gather all the ideas. I tried to write everything together. But first, I put only titles, then I put only a couple of bullet points, then I add some figures which I think are important. Then I add the important references. And only at the very end, I try to make the text as complete as possible. 

I will try to interact with my professor at every step, so that if already my bullet points are wrong, or another line with what he would want or what the company would want, I find out immediately, and if I don’t find out, I spent a month of writing, writing, and writing. 

You cannot send a paper that is complete but it’s just bullet points. You still have to work on that. But at least you’re assured. You will have something in the introduction, something in the methodology, and something that results in the conclusion. It’s important in the job. Trying to be agile doesn’t mean reducing the quality. In the end, you need your full paper. You need your full car but it’s about minimizing the risks of things going completely wrong. And that’s why I propose the scrum way of doing it with the small sprints. And we can talk a bit more about that. 

But the idea was that I will try to structure my work as small sprints instead of having a huge marathon of work. And so Scrum is a way. Another very popular word is Kanban which is another sort of philosophy. You cannot do too many things at the same time. But Kanban tells you to try to visualize it, put it on a board, visualize your work, and you will realize immediately, in which phase, you have too much work. It’s also about you cannot push work so why you have to pull it. When there is space in the next execution phase, you will pull it from the previous execution phase where you can just push work, like you sending a lot of material to your professor to read it. 

It’s not gonna work. Maybe if your professor has time tomorrow to read your paper. And that’s the moment where you focus on the paper. Many of these things are common sense but put these into a structure. You can think it’s a philosophy. You can think it’s a methodology. It’s a project management technique. But it’s a way of minimizing risk, having more interactions with the people who are involved, and more transparency rules. It was a lot of stuff. But I tried to condense it in a few minutes, many different kinds of things. Maybe if you have some specific curiosity, you can ask but that was a bit the broad picture. 

Natalia 1:14:02 Fantastic. I think if the viewers have more questions, they can always contact you through LinkedIn and ask questions under this episode. And we’ll take those questions. That’s super interesting. And is this your approach? Or is there a larger group of researchers who are trying to implement agile in the practice?

Dr. Laura 1:14:32 I think Agile is popping up here and there. The Agile lab is an initiative in the US. There’s an agile blog from a guy in Denmark. It’s becoming more and more popular. And I’ll be honest, so many people are getting in touch to know how can we do that? I always give the same answer which is, okay, I can help you rethink your work differently. It’s mostly my opinion that your work is not super traditional or very technical project management. But by trying to rethink your work many people are trying now. 

And on the 29th of March, I will give a lecture to seven students at TU Delft about this because there has been this request of okay, how can we do it in our PhD? How can we become more agile and just start thinking about it? That is the first step. And then if you do it with a sprint or you do it with a Kanban board or you do it with dedicated software, anything is fine, you just need to take that step of I cannot let fate decide for me. I have to plan adequately and flexibly not linearly waterful. And everything, in the end, could go still wrong.

Natalia 1:16:06 The comment I have is that to implement the strategy, you also have to have a cooperative boss. You have to have someone willing to take a look at your steps. And I feel there is still a problem in academia that many senior researchers minimize the contact with the students and only look at the final output. Many labs are so huge that you only work with postdocs when you have a draft. 

Then your promoter is looking at it. There is just no way of implementing this strategy in daily life. I hope it will change at some point. But I feel like when I think about the grad school where I was studying, it would be just hard to do it this way. Because it would require discussing the paper every week.

Dr. Laura 1:17:06 I’m really grateful to my professor because he decided to give it a try. And so not in such a structured way. But before he had a monthly meeting with each student for one hour but that took longer. And it was a very difficult meeting because in a month, a lot of things can happen and he was struggling with that. He was quite honest with me. And he told me that I’m struggling with the system. It’s not working very well for me. But he also said I don’t have time to do it differently. 

And so what we changed was that instead of having one hour per month, we had 50 minutes per week which doesn’t seem a lot. But honestly, it gave us some room to talk to him every week. And we always did it quarterly to nine, or at five or close to the lunch break so that we were sure he was not teaching or he was not a meeting. To make sure it was regular, each one of us always got their 15 minutes, then when something very big popped up, of course, you would also plan a bigger meeting with more people in there. But these 15 minutes were just the entry point for him. 

And sometimes in 15 minutes, you can solve problems or you can at least bring up problems. And we always did it standing or walking, you know to make sure it was just 15 minutes and we didn’t get too long. We didn’t bring graphs or a computer and that was okay. That’s what I’m doing. That’s what I want to do. These are the problems we’re facing. And if you realize somebody was doing something that was not in line with what he thought, he couldn’t stop it immediately but wait a month. I’m happy he did that. 

It doesn’t mean we apply this for everything. But this was already something that they still do even though I left all my colleagues. Every morning he has somebody, every lunch and every evening and it’s working. And it’s only 50 minutes per student per week. And I think many people could deny it. But it will be strange. Like you don’t have 50 minutes for your students. That was a way. But what I told a guy who asked me exactly the same question, you don’t have to go all-in, okay, you don’t have to take all the Agile methods and all the ways and go all in. 

What I told them is, let’s say you want to apply Kanban. Kanban is something you could try to apply partially even by yourself. And you put everything on a board with your posts and say this is the stage I’m at. This is the next one. You don’t have to go to your professor and say, this is a Kanban board and I’m trying the strategy, you could just go with this table and say, Look, I have so many things in the pipeline now, and I cannot deal with that. 

But if we did it differently, I could spread it over a different set of times. And so you have to use what you can. And even if it’s not everything, a bit is better than zero. It’s a much more complicated topic then. I’m actually telling it in a simplified way. But there’s a lot of potential for improvement.

Natalia 1:20:38 I think it’s very interesting. We’d like to encourage everyone interested in learning more about Agile, Kanban, and other techniques to explore this topic more. I think it’s also something nice that they see in academia these days that there are more and more courses for PhD candidates in terms of project management. In my time, when I was starting my PhD, we were taking courses in academic writing in our first year, or, you know, presentation skills. 

And I can see that today, PhD students start their grad school by taking project management courses. That’s quite a difference already in the culture. I think it’s a good change. Lastly, I’d like to ask you briefly for some general advice. Is there anything you’d like to tell two PhD candidates who are not decided yet what to do next, and something that you might advise, just from your own experience, to the general population of PhD candidates?

Dr. Laura 1:21:48 One thing I already said, I just want to stress it again, when you are starting to finish your PhD and you need to understand what to do next, take a step back and have a look at the network you have built. Because it’s always a matter of what you want and what opportunities are there. And there might be a lot of opportunities a bit hidden. You might have access to that. And you don’t know yet. Think about all the people I met and all the things I did so far that can help me. That’s one very general thing. 

And another one, which is a bit deeper is that a PhD is a very challenging thing. And it’s tiring. But when you stop it, you will sort of miss it. You will sort of miss that kind of constant push for doing more and challenging yourself. If you are liking it, now, make sure that you have that in your next job. Because not every job might have the same kind of drive. And if you’re sick of it now, it’s fine. But if you’re sort of liking this kind of pressure and high speed and being always at the edge of technology, try to make sure your current or your future job has a bit of that. 

It doesn’t matter how tired you are now, during your PhD, you will regain the energy later. I just want this to be over. It’ll come over your ideas and take you on the wrong path. If you’re liking this kind of drive and push which can come from research, try to keep it there in your next job. Because for me, it’s making a big difference.

Natalia 1:23:38 Okay, perfect. Thank you so much, Laura, for all these great insights and for explaining Agile to us, and for all your great advice. Thank you guys for watching. And if you’d like to get more of this type of content, then please subscribe to the channel. And we would like to welcome your questions and comments here below the episode. Thank you so much. Thank you, Laura, for visiting us today. And have a good day, everyone.

Dr. Laura 1:24:07 Thank you.

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Please cite as:

Bielczyk, N. (2021, March 28th). E045 How Can the Agile Approach Work in Research? Between Academia and R&D in Agriculture? Retrieved from https://ontologyofvalue.com/career-development-strategies-e045-how-can-the-agile-approach-work-in-research-between-academia-and-rd-in-agriculture/

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