How to Handle a Career Setback

An interview with Seher Abbas, PhD

Meet Seher:

Seher Abbas, PhD

Seher Abbas is a project manager who works in the pharmaceutical industry. Currently she works as a technology transfer Manager for ESTEVE Pharmaceuticals in Berlin – Germany. She has a bachelor’s in biochemistry from the Islamia University of Bahawalpur and a master’s in biochemistry and molecular biology from the COMSATS University Islamabad (formerly COMSATS Institute of Information and Technology). She earned her PhD studying vision and blindness at the Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg in Germany.

Seher grew up in the Punjab province of Pakistan and immigrated to Germany to attend graduate school. She has overcome a number of challenges to get where she is, and she has also learned quite a bit about the challenges of moving to a new country. Seher plans to write a book about her experiences to help anyone else considering such a move to navigate the challenges of relocating to a foreign country.

Below is an excerpt of my interview with Seher to discuss her career path so far. (Look for the full interview to appear in my forthcoming book, Shaping the World: The Privilege of Being a Scientist in Industry)

An excerpt from our conversation:

Dave: How did you get from your PhD into the private sector?

Seher: That was an interesting accident, so I’ll tell you the story. I was offered a postdoc only one year after I’d started my PhD. A researcher in the US, who I consider the godfather of my field, had posted a postdoc position on Research Gate. I thought it would be like a dream to work with the godfather, so I immediately created my CV and sent it to him. He contacted me to set up an interview call, which really turned out to be a conversation about his research. I mentioned that I’d found his work super interesting, and he agreed to give me the postdoc position, so I was all set to go there when I completed my degree in early 2020. I finished my PhD defense in February of 2020 and my flight was booked for roughly one month after that.

But then COVID happened. The border closures and travel bans started, and I had to cancel my flight. I thought I had a second chance that summer, but then Trump made a rule that canceled my visa. It was all a huge setback, and because my student status was gone, and I had limited time to find a job, or I’d have to leave Germany.

Dave: How did you deal with that setback?

Seher: Throughout my life I’ve been very driven by a quote that I heard when I was very young which says, ‘I didn't come this far just to come this far.’ Every time I experience a setback, those words just pop into my head, and I know that I need to keep pushing and find a way out.

I’ve also learned that when I experience a setback, I can usually find an opportunity to grow in a way that I didn’t expect. Rather than sitting there feeling stuck and worried and afraid, I look for a way to learn something new from the experience, and then I see I don’t need to be afraid.

I decided that if I was going to have to spend more time where I was, I needed to find a way to spend that time learning something valuable for my career. I’d started reading a lot about various sunscreens and how they impacted aging, and I developed an interest in skincare products, and all of that got me thinking about how products are developed. That led to me taking an industry job at a production site. I took the job because I figured I could learn something valuable, not because I wanted the job itself.

Dave: I love that attitude for dealing with a setback, and I try to embrace it myself. When the COVID pandemic put a stop to my workshop travel, I turned it into an opportunity to write my second book.

Seher: It’s been a great learning opportunity, but I didn’t feel prepared for that industry job at all. I felt like a child in a very intimidating environment, because unlike my PhD, I was not there to learn. I was there to perform.

But, of course, that will always be the case for your first job. People in industry can sound pretty intimidating, but industry is just a different way of doing things than academia. If you look at the challenge as an opportunity to learn something new, much like with a setback, then you don’t need to be afraid.

Also, it’s important to realize that you might be somewhat intimidating to them, because you are coming with a PhD degree. Now is the time to take action and use everything you learned before. In your head you might worry that everyone is looking at you and maybe they think you are underperforming. But keep your feet on the ground and stand strong. You are a PhD now, and no one is going to take that away from you. Now is the time to be like a lioness: be fierce, be confident, and be fast to jump at opportunities that present themselves. Observe carefully and identify the people who have the power to move your career. Connect with them from the very beginning. And the best way of connecting is to offer them something – offer them help, offer them solutions, offer them value from all the things you have learned in your career so far.

But also, don't forget to open your mouth when you need help. I recommend that people who are new to industry look for a mentor right away. This is becoming more common in companies, because it is a valuable way to help onboard people. A mentor can be very valuable in helping you through the next important steps in your career.

Dave:  So, are you saying, ‘Act quickly and make an impact in areas where you are the expert, so that you can feel confident asking for help when you aren’t the expert’?

Seher: Yes, that’s right. Don’t be afraid to make a bold move, because you already have valuable skills and knowledge, and you are an independent learner. You just need a little time to adapt and understand things better. Going to industry from academia is a bit like moving to an area where you have to speak a new language. Don't be scared about it, just realize that you need time to learn, and others will understand and allow you to learn.

Dave:  I love the language analogy. That makes so much sense.


Find Seher's LinkedIn profile here.

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