Like many high school graduates, my early career dreams--becoming a pilot or a heart surgeon--did not come true. I applied to medical school but didn't get in. So I asked myself, "What should I do now?" Twenty years later, it appeared that this wasn't the last time I'd be asking myself that specific question.
When medical school didn't pan out, I decided to study biology because of its close link to the medical sciences. I have to confess, at that time I saw this as a temporary occupation until I reapplied to medical school. But my second application to medical school was no more successful than the first one. In the meantime, unexpectedly, I had become interested in biology for its own sake, interested enough to continue my studies to a M.Sc. and then a Ph.D. At that point I found myself asking the same question once again: "What should I do now?" And now, funnily enough, after several changes of direction, I've ended up working as a manager of scientific recruiters at Kelly Scientific Resources, helping scientists answer that very question for themselves.
When I was awarded my M.Sc. degree in biology in 1989, I was facing the same difficult decision: "Do I want to stay in research, or should I start working?" I knew I wouldn't fit in the academic research world because I didn't like pursuing knowledge for its own sake. I've always looked toward research as a means to achieving a previously defined goal: turning scientific results into practical applications. Applied research appeared to satisfy the pragmatist in me and to give me the opportunity to work with modern scientific techniques. I decided to apply for a Ph.D. position at Leiden University, where I worked on the genetic modification of the sugar-binding activities of pea lectin, a critical protein in farm-animal diets that causes intestinal problems.
The 5 years I spent on my Ph.D. have proved really valuable. Apart from all the science that I learned, I got the opportunity to attend interesting conferences around the world and to meet a lot of people involved in biotechnology. My work attracted a surprising amount of interest, even among some scientific bigwigs.
But despite all of this, after publishing my thesis in 1994 I felt a bit restless about my future. I liked the academic research environment, but I wasn't sure the world of academia would make me happy in the long term. I felt the urge to work more on the commercial applications of research, and I was ready to join the world of industry. I sent applications to several companies active in biotechnology but was not successful in finding a job I wanted. As a temporary solution, I applied for the most application-directed postdoc position I could find, studying the synthesis of alternative antibiotics at the University of Amsterdam.
In the 2 years of my contract, I continued to look for positions in industry, and pretty soon I got a response from Kreatech Diagnostics, a small biotechnology company in Amsterdam. I started as a production manager, developing, producing, and distributing DNA-based and serological in vitro diagnostic assays. Soon after my first step into an industrial career, I was promoted to a position responsible for the departments of production, product development, and QA/QC. This was quite a challenging responsibility, especially because the company was in a difficult financial situation and could not hire any additional staff. Only 12 people kept the company running, staff worked in several departments simultaneously, and I spent more time in the lab than I had expected to. Although I was in a dynamic environment working on all kinds of applications, I was spending more time than I would wish on operational issues. Therefore, I made the most difficult choice in my career: I decided to leave science.
By the time I left the scientific world in 1998, information and communication technologies (ICT) were fast-evolving areas of business. This was a very appealing world to me. While working at Kreatech, I had noticed that I craved more interaction with people: I like to give presentations, talk to people, and solve their problems. It seemed I had to leave science to find what I was looking for.
I applied to LogicaCMG, one of the largest and most international IT companies in the Netherlands. The systems-development department to which I applied initially was not interested in hiring me; they thought I would be more suitable for a business-development position. Eventually I was redirected to their consultancy department, where I was hired to coordinate the IT infrastructure of one of their clients, the Royal Dutch Airlines ( KLM). Unexpectedly, although I was far from the cockpit, I was finally involved in flying, partly fulfilling that high school ambition.
At first this fast-moving world of systems development, IT infrastructure, and service management was pretty overwhelming. However, the training academy of LogicaCMG allowed me to develop my social, communications, management, and commercial skills, thereby coaching me in my consultancy job. I was also taught how to set up a decent project plan (including planning, budget, critical success factors, and key requirements) and how to analyse both the market and customers' needs thoroughly, which as a scientist I had never done before. I felt that I possessed, in theory, all the necessary skills to be a good project manager. I was given space to make the mistakes that people are bound to make early in a new career. And LogicaCMG gave me the opportunity to put all this theoretical knowledge into practice.
The world of ICT was great, but after 5 years I'd had my fill of a highly commercial ICT working environment. I missed the more down-to-earth and in-depth scientific environment. I realised I was ready to go back to science, but I also wanted to use all that I had learned over the previous years.
Scientists Helping Scientists
So I went back into science but not as a scientist. In 2003 I joined Kelly Scientific Resources ( KSR), where I'm the Netherlands' country manager. KSR is a scientific recruitment agency that helps scientists all over the world find science-related jobs, from biotechnology to cosmetics, from consumer products to medical equipment. I'm responsible for business development and operational management in the Netherlands. This means talking a lot with both national and international scientific companies to obtain information about market trends and career opportunities. On the other side, I also help scientists looking for jobs or facing difficult choices in their careers. My chequered career has also given me a good perspective of what it takes to work in the variety of opportunities that are open to scientists.
Despite, or perhaps because of, my unpredictable career moves, I've managed to achieve a high profile in a commercial environment and to develop a broad range of career-related skills. I would never have had these opportunities if I had stayed working at the bench. I am very happy now, and I plan to stay in my present position for a long time ... as long as I feel that it satisfies all my interests in science in combination with my "business head." One thing I know for sure, though: Once you've been infected with the virus called 'science,' you will never be cured.