How I Fail S02E02: Natalia Bielczyk (PhD’20, Neuroscience)

Dr. Natalia Bielczyk is an entrepreneur, researcher, author, and philanthropist. She graduated from the College of Inter-Faculty Individual Studies in Mathematics and Natural Sciences at the University of Warsaw, Poland, with a triple MS title in Physics, Mathematics, and Psychology. Thereafter, she obtained a PhD in Computational Neuroscience at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition, and Behavior in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. In 2018, she launched a public foundation, Stichting Solaris Onderzoek en Ontwikkeling, aiming to help early career researchers find new careers in industry. She also owns Welcome Solutions, a company developing new tools and practices to help professionals in navigating on the job market, and in finding/creating their dream jobs. Even though she chose to work in the open market, she is still a researcher in her free time and has a strong belief in the compatibility of science and entrepreneurship. She recently released the second edition of her book entitled “What Is out There For me? The Landscape of Post-PhD Career Tracks”.You can find out more about her on her website or on Twitter.

Hi Natalia, thanks for joining How I Fail! Next to your official bio, could you say a bit more about yourself?  

Hi Veronika, thank you so much for inviting me! 

Well, I guess the best way to start is to say that, ever since I was a kid, I wanted to be a scientist – a physicist at first, and then a neuroscientist for the last ten years. In recent years, my enthusiasm towards doing science for a living started fading away though, and for multiple reasons. I recently reviewed these reasons here. Funny enough, this text probably got more attention than all my research papers combined ever did!

To briefly summarize this process of disillusion, two important things have happened. Firstly, I understood that the rules of the game in science is not what personally suits me. To make it clear, academia is neither better nor worse than any other place; in every working environment, you have some – written or unwritten – rules of the game and you have to accept these rules or you need to go. I felt that entrepreneurship suits me better for many reasons. For instance, I like the fact that entrepreneurship promotes hard work and the sky’s the limit: the more you work, the more functional products you create, the more problems you solve and for more people, the more you will eventually earn and the more colorful people you will know. On the contrary, in academia, and many other environments it’s often the case that while you are working hard and producing ten papers as a PhD candidate and someone else doesn’t publish anything but rather, sips coffee with the boss at lunch every day, they get the postdoc contract and not you. I also highly enjoy the fact that I have the opportunity to meet the beneficiaries of my work, shake hands, and observe their progress in real-time. This is very rewarding to me – especially given that I used to do fundamental research in neuroscience and I never had that opportunity.

Secondly, the fierce love for neuroscience that I felt in my twenties, slowly faded away. I realized that I’m like an onion – I have layers, and that somewhere deep underneath, I always had yet another interest, namely, interest in people and in their decision making, their choices, and life trajectories. Now, this hidden passion came to the surface and I pursued it.

You recently published a book on careers after a PhD entitled “What is out there for me? The landscape of post-PhD career tracks”. Are there some lessons about failure that you have learned from the people you interviewed? 

Yes, indeed! While collecting materials for the book I interviewed many researchers who moved to industry (as well as a few researchers who made a journey in the opposite direction and migrated to academia to industry) – their testimonials are included in the book as well. What I learned is that the vast majority of these people don’t perceive their previous career choices – including a large part of their life spent in academia – as failures. I actually asked this specific question to every interviewed person. It turned out that only one among over twenty participants had an opinion that the decision to do a PhD was a mistake. This was a very optimistic result! Indeed, it’s better to treat our previous choices and their consequences as lessons rather than failures.

Can you tell us more about your book?

Sure. I wrote this book because over the last three years – ever since my PhD contract expired – I learned a lot about the job market for PhDs. I have a very broad academic background, as I was trained in Physics, Mathematics, Psychology, Economy, and Neuroscience, which is in itself a combination of multiple disciplines of science. I also have some personal interest in sociology, mentoring, self-development, business, and IT. Therefore, I was trying a ton of things and testing myself in multiple roles. I was coordinating a huge online mentoring program for the Organization for Human Brain Mapping, I was trading cryptocurrencies and other speculative assets (and I got completely bust but that’s a material for yet another blog post :)), I was writing white papers for blockchain projects. 

At some point, I decided to find a “normal job.” So, I started applying for jobs to corporations, smaller companies, public institutions. At some point, I realized that my knowledge and experience are not properly valued in the job market. At the same time, wherever I go to the job interview, I never really have the feeling that I’m in the right place – I feel that mentally, I’m very different from people interviewing me. I started analyzing this problem. Since no official textbook about “how the job market looks like” seemed to exist, I went “to the street” and I did a lot of field research by myself. I was talking to people in large organizations, corporations, startups, startup accelerators, consultancy companies. And I started noticing patterns as these people were reporting very common problems. For instance, pretty much every corporate person I talked to, complained that they have too many meetings which often prevents them from completing the actual tasks. After over a year of working full time on this know-how, I decided to wrap up what I knew and give this text a shape of a book. 

The main message of this book is that, 80% of the effort while looking for a job, is to get to know yourself very well – with your values, habits, strengths, and weaknesses – and find a group of people on the job market who think alike. Then, finding a fulfilling job will be only the remaining 20% of the work – learning how to draft a CV and a cover letter, and how to prepare for the interviews, is almost algorithmic. Therefore, in the main part of the book, I highlighted and characterized 8 tribes where PhD graduates typically go to, together which the perks and downsides of each one of them. I also included a lot of self-discovery exercises that will help to better discover where you mentally fit. The second edition of the book with 30 pages of extra information, has just come out on Amazon!

I also eventually found my tribe, and it turned out to be the tribe of entrepreneurs. When I’m among other company owners, I feel supported and understood. And I laugh a lot. Since I wanted to solve the problem associated with academics looking for their first jobs industry, I decided to create a company dedicated to this particular problem.

Are there any lessons or failures you can share about publishing a book in general? 

Ha, that’s a very good question! Even though I wrote one unofficial book as a kid (which was about adventures of my plush toys and it was a bit of a Sin City-style parody of Winnie the Pooh), this time I released my first official book. And this was a major learning point indeed!

Firstly, I decided from the very beginning that I would self-publish through Amazon. This was because I chose for the entrepreneurial way of living for the sake of personal freedom it offers, and after years and years in research, I couldn’t imagine handing my work to the army of editors and reviewers all over again [laugh]. I also knew that given the audience, i.e., researchers scattered across the world, this was the easiest and the most straightforward way to make the book quickly available to those who need it. Thus, I informally asked many people close to me to critically read the material before publication, and I pressed the “Publish manuscript” button on Amazon! 

So, one surprise that I got out of this, was that the whole process went relatively smooth. Since I had all the concepts I was going to cover in the book, planned out and on paper, converting this list into a full length book took me a few weeks of full time work, and I loved it! Publishing on Amazon is also very convenient and user-friendly. I was always wondering how it feels to be a book author, and now I know – it feels just great! It feels like doing something really useful; much more useful than publishing my theoretical research papers has ever been. It’s also good for a very practical reason: I often get repetitive questions from PhDs looking for their way on the job market, and now, instead of repeating the story every time, I can just point to my book where the topic is well explained. I think if you have that itchy thought in the back of your head for many years telling you that you’d like to try something, you should just try and see how that pans out.

But one thing also learned, was that it’s true what they say about sales – namely that it’s a very important part of entrepreneurship if not the most important. Without mastering this skill, you won’t get far in any area of the market. The same concerns writing books: even if you have good quality content, no one will notice your book without the proper online promotion, recommendations, and the exposition effect. And, it’s very good to promote a book without having a big publisher standing behind you, planting your book in stationary stores to expose it to customers and organizing meetings with the readers. I’m still working on mastering the skill of sales and there is still a long way for me to go! The good side of it, is that it’s actually a nice game to play: instead of staring at the charts and observing how some stocks jump up and down, you look at the charts showing the distribution of a real product that represents a real value. 

What’s a memorable failure for you? 

Where to even start! I will let myself skip the obvious, clear, binary failures such as rejections of all kinds, from paper rejections, through a ceased PhD project (yes, I had to reboot my PhD in another lab and start all over!), broken engagements, to rejections from dozens of jobs. I was thrown out from many places; I was even thrown out from MENSA Association for skipping the annual membership fee! I could write the whole book about all these formal failures. 

But I think what is more important, are these little, plain bad or a bit suboptimal, everyday choices that are not obvious failures at the first glance – but in the long run, they add up and can end up in a disaster. Life is an integrative process where not only strategic decisions when life takes a turn, but also everyday little decisions matter. It’s a position game, a bit like chess. That’s why most careers and relationships fall apart – it’s not an outcome of just one mistake but rather, a joint impact of multiple little missteps and misunderstandings on the way.

So, related to this point, I guess throughout my twenties, my biggest sin was always wishful thinking. For instance, I used to choose many subjects during my undergraduate studies solely based on the fact that my high school teachers praised me for my school test results (which I used to interpret as a “talent”), and based on the fact that I had a belief that this particular knowledge would lead to better jobs in the long run. I mean subjects such as programming, theoretical physics, or the most abstract branches of algebra. Whereas in fact, I didn’t really enjoy the process of learning these things… I would rather say it was very draining and frustrating to me. But I was telling myself, “come on, it’s going to be fine one day!” No, it won’t… If from the very beginning I had oriented myself at doing what I really enjoyed – such as writing, teaching, talking to people, building projects, researching people’s motivation – I would have been in a much better position right now, professionally. Not that it’s bad right now! It’s just that I feel that my development is now much faster than it used to be in the past, namely in the times when I was torturing myself in the name of what I thought other people expected of me. Going in the right direction for one year will bring you much further than going in the wrong direction for fifteen years.

Is there anything that you considered a success in the past, but in retrospect is a failure? Or the other way round?

Ha, another really good question! We often get stuck in the local maximum of our landscape of potential before we reach the global maximum. What I mean is, if you are really good at something at school, you might go in that direction just because no one ever told you that you are even better at something else that happens not to be a school subject. So, I was always good at maths at school (and in many other subjects, but I was guessing at that point that maths would give me the most transferable skills), so I went with that and studied maths instead of going for economics or straight for business as I probably should have. No one ever told me at school that I might be a successful company owner! In a sense, I could interpret this lost time as a sort of failure as most probably, I will never use the vast majority of the knowledge gained during my undergraduate and graduate studies in my future projects. And time is everything; time is money, time is life. 

Is there anything you regret not trying, even if you had to add it to your failure CV?

Hehe, I regret that I didn’t attend the FYRE festival 😉 I have a really weird sense of humor, and instead of being angry that my money just got bust, I would have probably had a blast watching all the chaos around me. I’m generally interested in crowd psychology (a.k.a. sociology) and I think that watching thousands of panicked millennials running around in mayhem on a deserted island would be just worth the money. 

But now seriously, I think that I didn’t spend enough time on music in my life. In fact, music is my respirator and it always has been. It pulled me out from the deepest ends, and it always gives me energy. So, what I regret not trying is that I didn’t dance more – especially when I was a teenager. I was raised in Poland which is still very judgmental towards females and female bodies, and this highly affected me when I was very young. I was so shy that I could even imagine getting onto the dance floor. Only after I went for studies, I discovered hip hop, street dance, salsa and other dance styles, and I discovered that I’m actually good at it, especially if I have autonomy and some space for improvisation on the floor. So, I regret that I lost the battle with my complexes. If not that, I might be a really good-class dancer now. Who knows, maybe I would have been a professional dancer and not a scientist today! 

I also keep on promising to myself that one day, I will go for a course of DJ-ing and learn how to make my own music but so far these plans always lose a competition with more urgent everyday matters such as running the company or releasing research papers. But my strong resolution is that in the future, as soon as the situation is stable and I can afford this time-wise, I will dance much more and go for my DJ-ing ambitions!

Can you share a success that traditionally would not be on a (regular) CV?

Hmm, I think what I succeeded at so far, is keeping good faith no matter what. Of course, there were dark times on the way, especially at the end of the undergraduate studies and at the end of graduate studies, when for a long time I wasn’t sure how to proceed further and I had to face a lot of insecurity. I had periods of depression and multiple neurotic phases when I saw the world in black colors. But, even in the periods when I felt very unwell and I looked miserable on the outside, I never lost energy to stand up in the morning and proceed with my plans and projects. Deep inside, I always had faith that I have a huge potential and a lot to offer to society, and that in the long run, I will get far and thrive in one way or another. I didn’t really need to hear this from anybody else to know that.

Is there anything that you are still failing at yourself?

Sure, many things! I definitely fail at telling people whom I value what I value them for, specifically. I somehow always assume that the fact that I choose to talk with them on a regular basis automatically means that I value them – but they just don’t know that 🙂

I also fail at making reasonable plans and I always put way too much on my plate. I made a plan for this year in January and I’m not even close to half of the pipeline while it’s already August. I’m just never good enough for my own standards… – I always have this feeling that I might have just worked harder to meet my internal deadlines! I need to preselect ideas for further execution better, most probably.

What do you think about sharing failures online? Should everybody do it, or are there caveats?

Well, this is a tricky question because this depends on who you are and in what field you work. In academia, we have a culture in which openly sharing everyday struggles, including mental health issues, is welcome and meets with a lot of peer support. But this is not true about some of the other working cultures. For instance, mind that successful entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerberg, never talk about their failures in present tense but rather, they always talk about failures in a form of feel-good anecdotes many years after the fact. Humblebragging, to simply put. This is because as a company owner or a CEO, you need to be a strong leader! You can’t have public doubts or mental health issues as this will sink the image of the company, your employees will stop listening to you, and all your investors and clients will run away. You know, when I set up a company, I promised myself that I would do 100 crunches every time I fail at something. And then, I grew a six-pack after three months! But if you only know me from social media, you won’t have any idea of what mayhem was really happening behind the curtains.

Also, if you work for a private company, sharing your mental health status to the public might be taken as implicit criticism of the employer and result in removing you from the company (usually under some other excuse). For private companies, image is everything and if you share to thousands of your followers that you have yet another frustrating day at the office, it won’t be taken as a positive sign at your workplace, that for sure. You just need to be much more diplomatic when you work in industry.

What about sharing successes? Do we do it too much, or not enough? 

I personally like people sharing their successes and being proud of themselves. I think we would all be better off if there was more pride and fewer complexes in this world. Of course, there is always the question “How large does a success need to be to make it valuable enough for sharing?” Like, if you cook a good soup, should you let the whole world know about it? I think it’s perfectly fine if everyone develops their own personal criteria as people value things very differently. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure 🙂 

Are there any sources of inspiration [people, books, …] who have helped you deal with failure along the way? 

Of course. I would put people over books here and say that at least 90% of my success with dealing with failure is due to the wise and strong people whom I met on my way. I’m not sure if I should start listing names here as it took me 14 pages in my PhD thesis to even list people who influenced me during the PhD not mentioning about all the time before 🙂

About the books, sometimes the simple truths that you can find in classic books such as “Awaken the Giant Within” by Tony Robbins, just work. At the end of the day, everything boils down to whether you do what you really like in life, and whether your intuition tells you that you are going in the right direction. I think some popular books are just popular for a reason and there is no reason to frown upon them just because they became a part of pop culture.

If you’ve been a reader of How I Fail last season, what are your favorite lessons from the series?

I must admit that I didn’t read every single article in the series just yet 🙂 I like the fact that you ask a different set of questions every time! I wouldn’t even imagine that one can generate so many different questions on the same topic! Maybe you should do more journalism.

I see some interesting intrasubject differences here. Apparently, everyone perceives “failure” in their own way. For instance, when talking about failures, I focused on my own bad choices while most of the interviewed guests focused on specific events (such as job, grant, or paper rejections) that made them feel like being treated unfairly. That makes me think about myself once again. I think there were times when I didn’t have this internal sense of control, but I have developed it in recent years. Now I feel that in the long run, everything depends only on me. And all the rest, like rejections from external parties, are just unimportant hiccups whose digesting is not worth my mental capacity to the smallest extent. External evaluation is always a lottery to some extent, so I treat it as such. So, when I get a rejection, I do nothing – I just take a deep breath, keep on working, and put on some Tiesto on the headphones to work faster.

Is there any way we could reimagine academia or perhaps education in general, that would have been a better fit for you, and I think many other researchers?

When I think about this now, I can’t imagine academia or any other system to reshape in a way that it would perfectly fit me as a person. I think I was destined to have my own company and the signs of that were always present in my life ever since I was a child; I just didn’t see these signs or I didn’t want to see them. What I have now is “IT” for me and I couldn’t imagine it to be any better. 

But, academia could definitely reshape to make the lives of researchers who are currently working there, better. It might be less hierarchical in a sense that early career researchers might have more autonomy to propose their own research projects without the necessity to get an approval of their direct boss but rather, of some committee representing the whole institute. Also, to release a bit of the peer pressure and the employment bottleneck in academia, reducing the number of open PhD candidate positions would probably be necessary. 20 or 30 years ago academia was a much healthier place as the disproportion between the numbers of faculty members and PhD candidates was an order of magnitude lower. Now, it’s a jungle where people use elbows a lot just because they feel they need to do that to survive. Other than that, I genuinely don’t know how to improve academia. It’s an archaic, individualistic system that has no right to function in the XXI century when society is becoming more of a cloud and when only well functioning teams survive. I think it will stay more or less as it is, and it will live on only because the tax players are forced to pay for this malfunctioning machinery.

What would a five/ten year younger you think of you now? What advice would you give to that person?

Buy some Bitcoin right now! Also, your life mission of making neuroscience great again is not as important as you think, and you don’t really need to spend 60-80 hours per week working like a maniac. Neuroscience will be doing as well without you. 

Also, pay more attention to the process and don’t fixate on the ultimate goals any more than necessary. At the end of the day, life happens now rather than starting for real once you crawl up to the level of the professorship.

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Thanks again Natalia for joining this season of How I Fail!

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