Alice Barbaglio

Research advisor, Università degli Studi di Milano (Milan, Italy)

Former researcher in marine biology and bio-inspired materials

Alice BarbaglioAcademic research experience

When you leave academia, the commonest reaction among your former colleagues is: ‘Why are you doing this?!!!!’ That actually means: ‘Are you crazy?!’ That was clearly my concern as well! Am I going to regret my decision? I still do not have a final answer, but things started going better when a wise professor told me: ‘You are never going to stop being a researcher and a scientist!’ When she said that, I realized she was right. I was a researcher well before entering academia and I will continue to be so, no matter what job I do. Being a scientist is a state of mind.

Officially, I worked as a researcher for 10 years, mainly at the Università degli Studi di Milano. More than 5000 people; a lot of hopeful and enthusiastic post docs; very few faculty positions. I started as a functional morphologist of echinoderms (starfish, sea urchins, etc.) and eventually shifted to the field of bio-inspired materials. Super interesting and completely open to new discoveries. I had lots to do, with many difficulties, but the challenge led to several international and multidisciplinary collaborations. I obtained fellowships, published in good journals in my sector, helped obtain funds and was asked for help from colleagues. I tutored students who are almost all continuing to do research around the world; many of them I am still in contact with. So, why did I leave?

I decided to leave after an unsuccessful application for an internal faculty position. I was certain I deserved that position. But when you apply for something nothing is certain. I didn’t perform well at interview and other candidates had better CVs, or were simply more convincing. Anyway, faculty positions in Italy are so scarce I suspected I would never have another chance. Final try: I put my all into writing a proposal for a prestigious Italian grant. I obtained a good evaluation, but no funding. Completely demotivated, I decided it was time for a change. Friends working outside academia had permanent positions, higher salaries and more career opportunities. I’d often had other jobs (dance teacher, school teacher, receptionist, etc.) during my research career, so I knew there were sectors where working conditions were different. Academia is a wonderful world where you are free to explore your interests. But it is also a world of burdensome people where it is difficult to succeed even if you do your best.

Transition from academic research

Time for a change means potentially a lot of things. I could have looked for another post doc outside Milan or beyond Italy, but I had a one-year-old little boy at home and my husband’s work was tied to Milan. I did not have a technical background suitable for the few research industries in my region and I was too old for a junior position in a completely new environment. I had tried school teaching in the past, but it was not my niche. Then my university issued a call for applications for Research Advisors: PhDs keen to support researchers now that funding is becoming ever more difficult to obtain. I did not know exactly what the job meant, but it sounded something new and evolving – a job that could attract the interest of both academia and industry. It was so, and thanks to this experience I think I am a more complete researcher now than when I was one officially!

I would definitely suggest all researchers try working outside academia for a while, even if they want to stay in academia. I think most post docs live in a sort of bubble, so the most challenging part of leaving academia is to figure out the working environment outside. In my case I was also held back by the fact that doing research I felt I was contributing to Knowledge and Society. I was doing my tiny little job as best I could to make the world more inspiring. But at the end, inspiration, knowledge enrichment and a fantastic new group of colleagues were just outside the door waiting for me.

Current job – and how it compares           

I am still linked to research and I do my best to get promising projects and researchers funded. I scout calls for proposals tailored to scientists from life science and biomedical departments of my institution. I help them with clarifying guidelines, setting the timetable for proposal writing, looking for partners and editing their proposal. I organize briefing events about the main funding agencies. I train young PhD students and post docs on proposal writing and CV development. I read and contribute to European surveys in order to understand the environment where calls for proposals are set.

Creativity, competition, precision and meeting deadlines are still part of my daily job, as they were in the lab. But now I also have the chance to exchange ideas with people from extremely different backgrounds (my colleagues are PhDs from medieval history to organic chemistry). I can also look behind the scenes of a call for proposal. I see every day how many people believe in the disruptive potential of research. Sometimes it feels as if people working immediately outside research trust it more than researchers do. Scientists sometimes need encouragement; I am there to offer it. So I still feel I am doing my tiny little job to get the world more inspiring!

I do miss some things. I miss being able to follow project development from beginning to end: proposal writing, funded project, kick-off meeting, experimental design, data analysis and publication. I miss ‘getting my hands dirty’ in the lab. Being free to test your hypotheses is a priceless freedom of researchers. Outside academia you are not allowed to adopt the trial and error method daily.

I do not miss the enormous effort required daily to be able to do your research job in the Italian environment, where academic research is so poorly funded and (this is researchers’ fault as well) little understood.

Competencies old and new

Being a researcher in academia prepared me for the high and lows of daily working life. It enabled me to express my opinion and listen to that of others’ (you never know who could give you the right experimental advice or an unexpected point of view – it could be a master’s student as well as a professor). I learnt how to present in front of an audience. I am trained to work hard, not in optimal conditions; to solve problems; to manage a lab; and to train colleagues. I can multitask and I know how to set timelines.  All these are essential skills, no matter what kind of job you do.

Nevertheless I had to gain new competencies. And that’s also the good part. Learning something new is always worthwhile. Carefully reading the guidelines is something every researcher should master...actually I’ve learnt to do it properly only in my new job. Understanding what your funding agency wants is essential to be able to get what you want.

Then I had to gain new communication skills. Do you want to be funded or simply to keep your audience’s attention? Mould yourself (your talk) to your audience’s interest and understanding. Properly simplifying a difficult topic is an extremely useful exercise that tells you if you really know what you are talking about! Getting out of my niche and facing different environments was something I’d had to deal with in multidisciplinary research projects, but I had to consolidate these skills for my new job.

Reflections on my career path

I wish I’d known that it was better to be prepared for a career change when I was in academia. Management and communication courses are often absent from life science university CVs and now I realize their importance (also if you are going to stay in academia).

If I had to do it again, I would try to make clear to myself what opportunities I had and where they would take me. When I decided to leave academic research I did not have a clear understanding of opportunities outside my environment and I wasted a lot of time applying for jobs for which my CV was unsuited.


So, try to be aware of what you would like to do and of your skills. Be true to yourself and be realistic. You know what being a researcher means. If you are not happy with your daily life, look for a change. New lab, new research topic or new job. Do not look for the perfect change. Follow something that is able to bring back your enthusiasm. I do not know if my new job is my definitive job. I realized I would like to continue to write, to be updated on research developments and to manage a team. And that I could do it without being an official researcher. I’ll let you know ;-)

Good luck, career changers!

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