Survival Skills for Scientists Summer School
Learning the Rules of the Science Game
“When I was doing my master’s, I had a lot to learn, but no one was there to teach me - I was on my own,” remembers Federico Rosei, professor at Énergie Matériaux Télécommunications Research Centre at INRS (INRS-EMT). This “very negative” experience almost put him off research for good. Fortunately his military service, compulsory in Italy at the time, forced him to take a break, after which he decided to give science another chance. He returned to school to get his doctorate, but with a more stimulating team this time. There are still too many budding scientists who go through this type of experience, putting their science careers at risk. That’s why Federico Rosei and two colleagues from Énergie Matériaux Télécommunications Research Centre, Alain Pignolet and Fiorenzo Vetrone, have organized a summer school on “survival skills for scientists”.
On June 26 and 27, students, postdoctoral researchers, and graduates from all backgrounds and fields in the natural sciences are invited to École de technologie supérieure (ÉTS) to attend the event. The summer school will take the form of presentations by speakers who have had inspiring experiences followed by discussion sessions. A number of themes will be covered: career planning, the importance of finding a mentor, industrial research, university research, entrepreneurship, intellectual property, research ethics, and much more.
The importance of knowing how to communicate your results and build a network of personal contacts is also on the menu. “Many graduates have excellent technical skills, but they lack “soft skills,”which are essential to success,” explains Alain Pignolet. When he launched the course with his colleague Federico Rosei in 2003, he was also taken aback by the attitude of graduates who were brilliant, but very needy. They were coming to their professors, asking, “Now what?”
What Can You Do with a Science Degree?
The scientific world is vast. Of course you can pursue a career in academia, but there isn’t enough room for everyone. “Oftentimes young researchers are not aware of all the options they have open to them thanks to their personal baggage and scientific training,” notes Professor Pignolet. The goal of having a variety of guest speakers at the summer school is to present some of the many possibilities available. Speakers will include Stéphane Bédard,CEO of B-Temia and founder of Victhom, a robotic prosthesis company; Mathieu Miron, who works in an intellectual property agency; Cedric Bisson of Teralys Capital, a large investment fund that invests in venture capital funds; and Ashok Vijh of Hydro-Québec’s research institute. Marc Garneau, a former engineer, Canadian naval officer, and astronaut turned politician, will also be there, as will Joëlle Margot of the Université de Montréal Physics Department. “Since the summer school was started, we have made sure to always invite a successful woman scientist to inspire young female researchers,” adds Professeur Rosei.
According to Professor Rosei, it is never too early to participate in the event. “We have postdoctoral researchers who tell us that they would have liked to have had this training as Ph.D students, and doctoral students who would have liked to attend the summer school at the master’s level!” Rosei, who is also the director of Énergie Matériaux Télécommunications Research Centre, stresses the importance of not waiting till the end of your studies before asking questions. Students can make more judicious personal and professional choices when they understand the key aspects of their field and spend time considering their future.
Success story toolbox
The training was offered for the first time in 2001 as a one-session course. Federico Rosei turned it into the book Survival Skills for Scientists with co-author Tudor Wyatt Johnston, professor emeritus at INRS-EMT. Professeur Rosei condensed the content into a talk that he has presented in Japan, Brazil, the United States, and many European countries. The summer school itself has also been offered at McGill University, Université de Montréal, and the University of Ottawa, and even in Australia in recent years.
There is a real need. Graduates may encounter stumbling blocks even within the university system. And you can’t always see those stumbling block coming. “For example,” explains Alain Pignolet, “you have to know that resumes are not written the same way in Europe and North America. Here it’s normal to toot your own horn, but that is much less the case on the other side of the Atlantic, where you have to weigh your words much more carefully.” There are even cultural differences between academic fields. “The biomedical field puts much more emphasis on research results that lead to concrete applications, while in the pure and engineering sciences, we’re often more interested in understanding the phenomenon itself,” explains Federico Rosei. This is essential information for someone who wants to work on an interdisciplinary team!
And the summer course produces results. Fiorenzo Vetrone, the third member of the organizing committee, attended the 2008 training at Université de Montréal. Not only did he learn about networking, he also picked up some useful tips for breaking into the business. “I had never realized how important scientific awards and bursaries are. They make a resume much more attractive,” he points out. He has since worked hard to obtain (and highlight) awards from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (an Innovation Challenge Award and a postdoctoral fellowship), the renowned UK-based Royal Society, and the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry.
He also changed his publishing strategy slightly to target scientific journals that lend more visibility to his work. The result? He is one of the summer school’s success stories because he’s now a professor at Énergie Matériaux Télécommunications Research Centre.
“However, we’re not handing out a ready-made recipe for success, but rather a box of tools,” cautions Alain Pignolet. “We can help, but we can’t do the networking for them. The summer school participants have to put our advice into practice once the sessions are over.”
Today’s students really have to be proactive. The scientific world is highly competitive. It is not enough to have a Ph.D from a prestigious university to be hired as a professor. As Alain Pignolet reminds us, “Those who succeed are always the ones who understand the rules of the game.” ♦