What at first looks like a setback may be an opportunity in disguise, says Flavia Scialpi
I keep my business cards in the top drawer of my desk at work. They are in two bulky boxes and take up a lot of space, but I like them there because I can see them every time I pull out a pen. They are a memento of how very often you can’t foresee where an opportunity lies – and therefore to seize each and every one of them.
I have been in academia for almost half my life, and I am now engaged in my first position in industry at Synpromics, a biotech company. It is the first time in my professional career that I hold a position that requires and provides business cards.
A few years ago I thought I wouldn’t have any chance to land a job in industry. Nor was I very interested in it, to be honest; I was content with academic research, greatly enjoying the highs and bitterly venting about the lows. I went for a well-trodden path; I got my PhD in Italy, where I’m from, and then ventured abroad for a postdoc. I felt the world was my oyster and I found a second home in beautiful Scotland.
But one constant in academia is the instability that comes from staying on temporary contracts. Your future hangs on the outcome of one grant to another. Eventually I found myself writing a paper with my contract close to expiring and nothing new yet in sight.
I started looking for postdoc ads almost obsessively. I sent many applications for a wide range of positions in academia as well as other spheres like public engagement and editing, but I got only a handful of interviews for postdocs.
Eventually, I was invited to interview for a very interesting postdoc position that looked great: it was at Cancer Research UK, in collaboration with a biotech company. The group was prestigious, the project was exciting, with the bonus of having the opportunity to get a foot past the industry door.
I got invited to give a presentation of my previous work. I prepared like never before (nor after). I polished the presentation to the finest detail. I read papers and papers on the project topic. It ended up being not my best performance — I was too nervous — but I was very happy with it overall.
A couple of days later, the principal investigator emailed me to let me know that she had chosen another candidate. I was utterly disappointed. She added that another investigator suggested I may be interested in a position in his high throughput facility. To be completely honest, I couldn’t care less; I wanted that postdoc position and a job in a facility had never been in my professional plans.
But the disappointment came with the room for some self-reflection; I started thinking (probably correctly) that I needed to start managing my expectations and tune my ambition accordingly. So I got in touch with this investigator and asked after his open position. It turned out he was in the audience during my presentation and thought I might have been a good fit in his team.
A few weeks later I started working in the high throughput facility. I learnt new skills, as well as a new appreciation for the quality of my work. I learnt how to think with a different mindset and how to use new equipment. More than everything, I discovered that my interests are much wider than I thought, and to seize every opportunity.
Around a year after I left the facility, this professional experience in my CV caught a recruiter’s eye and I got an interview at Synpromics. The interview process was different from academia, and some of my skills and achievements were considered from a different point of view. In particular, they were interested in how my knowledge and experience in the different areas I’ve worked in could be applied to something new. They prioritised my ability to learn and adapt over my knowledge of the research topic I’d been working passionately on for years. Overall, I am sure that having some of the skills I developed at the high throughput facility was crucial in landing my job in this company, where I found new challenges and great career progression opportunities.
Nothing of what followed that rejection in my career path could have happened if that investigator didn’t attend my presentation, and if I hadn’t sent that email. That’s why my business cards stay in my top drawer — a reminder to seize every chance.
Flavia holds a PhD in the Biology of Human Health from her native country, Italy. She has worked in the UK at the universities of Dundee, Edinburgh and Oxford, and at Cancer Research UK in London. She is now Head of Biology at Synpromics.