Eduardo Troche Pesqueira

Project manager at IMDEA Materials Institute and manager of MATERPLAT, the Advanced Materials and Nanomaterials Spanish Technological Platform

Former researcher in organic chemistry at the University of Vigo, Spain

Academic research experience

I did my PhD at the University of Vigo, focussing on the development of new nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) tools for determining the three-dimensional configuration of organic molecules in solution – a very important issue for the pharmaceutical industry. The singularity of these new tools made my PhD quite interdisciplinary, since, apart from learning deeply about NMR, I also acquired a lot of experience in simulations based on quantum mechanics and molecular mechanics as well as synthesis and characterization of liquid crystals and molecular gels.

Although my research led to the publication of six papers, even one in Angewandte Chemie, one of the best chemistry journals, I’d say that what I value the most about my PhD were the two secondments I did in the USA, one at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, and the other one at Georgetown University in Washington D.C, which allowed me to get to know a different culture, and grow enormously both personally and professionally.

Following my PhD, which lasted for five years, I stayed for several months as a postdoc in my former lab, before moving to Madrid for personal reasons.

Transition from academic research

After moving to Madrid I debated with myself whether to keep working in academic research, but several factors pushed me towards a different path. Although research is a really interesting professional pathway, with new challenges every day, constant opportunities to meet new people and see new places, it is also a very time-demanding profession that, in many cases, requires sacrificing time that otherwise could be dedicated to family, friends or hobbies. I now wanted to start a family and settle down in Madrid, so those two things, along with my age (I was 33 years old) were not a good combination for staying in academic research, and made me look for other options.

When considering new careers I thought that consulting was one where I could use the technical knowledge acquired during my PhD, as well as my scientific writing skills. Therefore, I thought it would not be very complicated for me to grow professionally in that environment. A second option I considered was something related to science dissemination. Finally – and this really attracted me – I looked into opportunities to work in a science start-up, which would give me the chance to be a key part of the growth of a new company. Unfortunately, there weren’t at that time many science start-ups related to my skills in Madrid, so in the end I started working for a small consultancy firm, writing R&D project proposals and reports for Spanish companies.

I found that the most challenging aspects of the transition were having to deal with legal aspects of R&D project funding, since I had no experience in that area, and having to be in constant communication both with customers (the companies) and with representatives of Spanish funding agencies and quality assessment companies – in short, being responsible for the money of other companies and other people.

Working in academic research you have to responsible and trustworthy, but I found that working in consultancy took those characteristics to a whole new level.

The company’s office was too small to house me and another recruit, so together with a more experienced consultant, who would be my mentor henceforward, I was moved to a co-working office. We established a very good professional and personal relationship, and he was definitely my main source of support in this new challenge, as well as recommending the renewal of my contract when it expired.

Another career shift

Although I think that my time as an R&D consultant was quite successful, securing funding for two new projects and successfully justifying several ending ones, I found the fact that the company only worked on national R&D projects rather limiting. Other constraints were the potential salary and network of contacts I could gain at this company. So I started looking for a job similar to the one I already had, but which had greater scope for fulfilling my career ambitions.

As it turned out, I ended up finding something that looked way more interesting to me than another R&D consultant role.

Current job – and how it compares

I’m now working at a research centre both as European projects manager and manager of a technological platform. I find my project manager role very similar to that of an R&D consultant; however, the change from commercial to academic environment felt highly rewarding, perhaps because it is the kind of research I’m more familiar with.

The possibility of combining project management with the technological platform suited my ambitions perfectly. The latter is a sort of association of companies, universities, research and technological centres that work developing new materials and nanomaterials, and is one of the instruments that the Spanish administrations have in for understanding the R&D priorities of the national industrial ecosystem for this sector.

Working on the platform involves attending a lot of meetings and events, attempting to enhance collaborations in R&D projects between the different platform members, learning about their R&D priorities and transmitting this knowledge to the public administrations. Therefore it requires a high degree of technical knowledge and forces you to be up-to-date across multiple research fields. It also requires a good deal of social skills – an aspect I thought I was good at and wanted to enhance further.

Although the combination of my two roles is very rewarding from an intellectual perspective it puts heavy demands on my time. To perform adequately in both needs a deep knowledge of a wide variety of research areas and how both European and national funding programmes work; and keeping up with everything requires highly developed organisational skills – which can be very stressful at times.

Competencies old and new

Besides my technical and scientific writing skills, I think the most important skill that I acquired as a researcher in academia is the ability to adapt to new challenges and to learn new skills quickly. This, I believe, will be invaluable for any future career switch I may end up making.

Another useful competency developed in my time as a researcher is public speaking. Knowing how and how much scientists work is also really useful, to be able to give them effective support.

I’ve mentioned that I had to learn how national and European funding programmes work. This would have been very useful knowledge when I was in academic research: I feel it needs to be fostered among young scientists.

I also had to learn a little bit of web programming, and commercial skills – things I thought I would never enjoy. I was completely wrong about that!

Reflections on my career path

I wish I’d known more about how academia really works if you want to stay and progress in it, how funding programmes work (at least the ones I was indirectly involved with), and the different career options you have with a PhD in a technical subject.

However, I would do nothing differently, since I’m very happy with my current job and I think everything I did before led me to this point.

Knowing how the system works from inside – identifying some of the flaws and the strengths – and helping to shape a better system by participating in policy making can be really interesting. In addition, all the knowledge I’m acquiring regarding technical issues, funding programmes and industrial priorities would be valuable for starting my own business. I think that would be my greatest ambition.

My advice

Don’t be afraid of change. The fact is that a lot of people begin academic research paths, and since the path keeps narrowing as you reach up, there are and will be many people who need to leave academic research.

In my experience, we are trained thinking that what we do is the most honourable and personally fulfilling profession. While it is true that it feels great doing research and learning interesting things on a daily basis, there are many career paths that can challenge you to the same extent, using skills you weren’t even aware of having.

So wherever the path takes you, do not fear changes; embrace them.