Workshop 'Careers at non-profit organisations'

Insights into careers at four non-profit organisations - Utrecht, 29 January 2010

Non-profit career workshopWhat is it like to work for a non-profit organisation as a PhD? The non-profit organisation is a fairly unknown career path, while interesting positions for PhDs can be found at this branch. PCDI invited four PhDs from four different non-profit organisations over to speak about their career and the choices they made, their daily work and future perspectives.

Insights into careers at four non-profit organisations - Utrecht, 29 January 2010

What is it like to work for a non-profit organisation as a PhD? The non-profit organisation is a fairly unknown career path, while interesting positions for PhDs can be found at this branch. PCDI invited four PhDs from four different non-profit organisations over to speak about their career and the choices they made, their daily work and future perspectives.

First speaker was Nanna Claij, a research officer at the Dutch Heart Foundation (Nederlandse Hartstichting). As a member of the Research Team, she is responsible for effective distribution of 14 million – about a third of the budget – towards scientific research. No, she is not  the person performing the actual evaluation, but she manages the application procedure: identify relevant referees to review applications , arrange meetings of  the scientific advisory committee, prepare all required documents, progress and final reports. Besides that she also organises courses and meetings and works out changes in funding policy: re-structures and revises documents, so that the changes can be implemented.
Her organisation employs about 130 persons, Nanna shows us a picture of her team and indicates that besides herself and her direct colleague, another 4 of the 17 people have a PhD: the team leader, two policy advisors and a communication officer. Nanna enjoys to work with researchers but no longer feels the need to do research herself.  That was one of the reasons why she choose to make a side step in her career.  Organisation and managing the procedure is what she is good at and enjoys to do. Apart from the team leader position, career prospects are limited within her department, but she is sure that enough other challenging opportunities can found at due time.

Freya Senf, the second speaker, works at Technology Foundation STW, an organisation which mission is creating opportunities for innovation in science, technology and society. In order to achieve this STW liaises researchers with potential users and finances excellent research projects. Freya works at the Life Science and Technology division and has three responsibilities. As a programme officer she carries out tasks comparable to those of Nanna Claij, but she is also involved in technology transfer: protection  of intellectual property, contract negotiations, supporting the start up of spin-off companies. As programme coordinator she is involved in policy and decision-making at STW. Her third function, minority officer, is in development. She will investigate issues for minorities (e.g. women) and will develop and implement policies to make subsidies more attractive to minority groups.
Freya left academic research after obtaining her PhD . She loves scientific research but not doing research herself. A consult at the career advice centre at her university made her realise that she likes to manage and to organise, to be contact with people and maintain a link with science. Her first job as a PhD was at Hezelburcht BioTop BV, where she acquired funding for (academic) research in the Life Sciences. She enjoyed using her organisational skills, but the acquisition of new projects was not really her cup of tea and she wanted to be more involved with science. She came across the job opportunity at STW by chance.  She was hired because of her relevant experience in the Life Sciences, in IP protection and knowledge transfer, her excellent communication skills , her independence, for having a pro-active and results-driven attitude and because she showed she was really passionate about the job.

 

Marjon Troost-Roos is a regulatory affairs officer at the Plasma Products division of Sanquin. She is responsible for the availability of safe and effective medicinal products. In order to do this, she composes files that ensures that procedures complies with legal regulations. In practice, she communicates with different compartments at Sanquin and obtains information about e.g. manufacturing processes, checks for impurities and pathogen contamination (viruses, prions!) and storage conditions. The files she prepares consists of five parts, 1) administration, 2) expert reviews, 3) quality control 4) non-clinical safety data and 5) clinical efficacy data. To illustrate this rather abstract information, Marjon talks us through a file she composed to change a procedure to remove ethanol after use to fractionate proteins from blood. The language used for regulatory affairs may sound difficult, but Marjon assures us that one gets used to this fairly rapidly. The requirements for her function were among others, good communication and coordination skills, good knowledge of English, knowledge of immunology/pharmacy/biochemistry. The advice she gives is that if you do not possess all the required skills for a particular job, you can underline that you are able and willing to learn. She did not have all skills listed but Sanquin was still eager to select her because she was able convinced them that she had the right basis and the rest would soon be complemented

The final speaker of the workshop was Carine Stevens, team leader at the Diabetes Foundation (Diabetes Fonds).  After her PhD Carine briefly worked at an orthopaedic company and at an ICT company for four years. She greatly enjoyed organising and managing projects but after a while she felt she needed a more challenging job as she felt like she was not sufficiently using her brain. She started to work for the Diabetes Foundation in 2002, which mission is communication about and prevention of diabetes and it also accounts for 80% of the diabetes  research in the Netherlands. Her organisations consists of the divisions Communication & public relations, General affairs and Scientific research & prevention. To illustrate her duties she gave an overview of her activities of the past week: text writing for fundraiser, visit of UMC Groningen, select a supplier for their new website, compose grant database... A lot of communication via email, meetings about grant procedures, with head of research, members of her team and scientific advisory board, external presentations, a lot of organising and coaching and leading her team. She does not write or evaluate grant proposals, she is not doing science anymore and no she is not an expert in the field. A PhD is not a prerequisite at her organisation. She has two messages for the young scientists: ‘Do not overrate  knowledge’, she says, ‘Knowledge is nothing more than a tool you need to properly do your job’. As PhD you have not only acquired knowledge, you have also developed many valuable skills ‘Do not underestimate your skills, make sure you identify them and know what you are worth’.

The presentations were followed by a discussion. It was clear that functions at non-profit organisations were more heterogeneous than most of the participants thought. Also, it involves more than fundraising and distribution of funds alone. The presentations gave an insight into different daily duties at non-profit organisations. Although it is a lot about organisation and management and less about specific scientific knowledge, having a scientific background was a prerequisite for all four speakers to do their job.

The speakers insisted everyone to be aware of the valuable transferable skills one acquires while working as a researcher, a PhD is an excellent basis. PhDs somehow tend to underestimate their abilities. It pays off to take the time to identify your strengths. And should you identify skill gaps, well then it is about time to tackle them! More questions were asked during the networking session. The opportunity to gain insight into careers at non-profit organisations was well appreciated. After all, you have to know what your options are in order to make a well-informed choice for your career.