zaterdag 17 september 2011

PCD-You: Meet Wia Timmerman


A classical story, about a researcher who loves science, is forced to go to 'the other side' and finds out working for a company is also great!

On a sunny Friday afternoon, I meet Wia Timmerman in her office at the Groningen location of PRA International, where she works as a senior research scientist. Before we start, she mentions that she thinks what PCDI is doing is very important, something she was missing when she stepped out of the academic world. At that point, she would have loved the support of PCDI and fellow PhD’s struggling with their careers.
Wia Timmerman studied biology in Groningen, graduated in ‘87 and started her PhD-research at the department of Pharmaco-chemistry in Groningen. After obtaining her degree in ‘92, she went to Newark for 6 months and obtained a KNAW-grant that allowed her to return to the Netherlands. This KNAW-grant, comparable to the current VIDI, lasted for 3 years with a possible extension to 5 years, and was considered the first step towards a permanent position in academia. So that was what she hoped to achieve from the start of her PhD, to become a group leader. Although she loved her work and obtained quite a number of publications, luck was not on her side.


Too many temporary contracts
With no permanent position available at her department when her KNAW-fellowship ended, she had one short fixed-term contract after another, making it impossible to establish a research group. After a couple of years, with still no permanent position in sight, she found herself demotivated and frustrated. But with two small children and a husband who just obtained a job as associate professor in Groningen, she did not want to leave the region. So she realized that she should give up her ambition of becoming a PI and apply for jobs at companies, which felt as a failure for her at that moment.
 She obtained a position as project-coordinator at Pharma Bio-Research, as PRA was called at that moment. And that was a big change, it took her a while to get used to the different way of working compared to academia. There was much more pressure on projects, with very strict time lines. She had to do lots of small administrative and financial tasks that were never important when she was a researcher. She felt that a part of her academic freedom had been taken away. But on the other hand, she liked working with a group of people with different backgrounds on one goal, and she liked the fact that the clinical studies actually had a clear start and finish. She also appreciated that, in a relatively small company, the lines to the top are shorter than at the university, so she had a better insight in the organization.
All her projects at the university had been preclinical work using animal models, focused on substances that act on the central nervous system. Wia always had been interested in the clinical applications of her research, and in collaborating with physicians and psychiatrists. At PRA, where she now is part of the science team, she works in phase I clinical research, which is just one step further in the development from fundamental research to new drug. She likes being close to her previous research topic, and she even finds the results of studies she previously worked on in academia coming back in clinical trials. She now finds herself much closer to real life, as a PhD-student she spent days at an electrophysiology setup, monitoring a single cell, which made her feel out of touch with the world outside.


The importance of transferrable skills
According to Wia, very important skills needed to succeed in a company are, good organizational and project management skills, and good interpersonal communication. Wia thinks that it is necessary to obtain these skills during a PhD, because they are VERY important in the world outside academia but of course also within academia. And, as only 10% of all PhD-students will obtain a position at a university, she thinks it would be good to include these skill trainings in a PhD-programme. PhD programmes nowadays falling under the umbrella of graduate schools certainly will help this development: for example many students nowadays participate in writing and project management skill courses. Wia is also a project-leader of a TI Pharma research grant and is happy to see her PhD-students going to business and management courses.


A mother and scientist
An issue for many female scientists is how to combine a career with children. Wia never really had problems with this. As long as your employer (and that of your partner) is supportive and flexible, it is manageable. Both Wia and her husband chose to work 32 - 36 hours a week, this combined with being creative with time, there was always someone home to be with the children. She is convinced that it is possible to both have a career, even a scientific one, and have time to spend with your children.


Self-confidence
Wia Timmerman is happy and successful in her new position. It wasn’t easy to adapt to a totally different working environment. But she remained confident in her skills and learned about possibilities to grow and develop in different settings as well. This was an eye-opener for her. So to all PhD-students and postdocs who doubt about the future, she wants to say that a job in a non-academic environment can be as challenging and rewarding as an academic position. Most important is to believe in your own capabilities and find out where your interests are.

This article was originally published on the PCD-You blog of the Postdoc Career Development Initiative (PCDI)

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