A life science careers blog for early career researchers
This blog aims to inspire early career researchers exploring different career options. We provide interview-based profiles of life scientists working in diverse science-related careers and articles on a broad range of career-related topics, with new content added on a regular basis.
Science administration is a broad career area encompassing many roles. Ioannis Legouras, an EMBL alumnus working in the area of strategic cooperation and research funding, shared his experience of moving into this career area along with his tips to those interested in following a similar path.
The full interview can be found below. Additional resources that might be of interest include:
After your PhD and bridging postdoc, you moved into the broad area of science administration and management, what is your current role and what does involve?
My current role is Head of International Programs at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC), in the Helmholtz Association, and also Vice-Head of the Department for Strategic Cooperation and Research Funding, also at the MDC. This role involves responsibility for all international research funding programmes. I’m responsible for any grants that come from outside Germany, and also for publishing and exploring possibilities for international cooperations. Apart from that, I’m also responsible for some strategic elements – like how to position ourselves for the new European funding opportunities – as well as for representing the institute and writing or commenting on documents for the outside that have to do with European or international funding or cooperation activities.
So lots of different things then. In your experience, in what ways is your work similar to that of a bench scientist, and in what ways is it different?
What is really different from the work as a bench scientist is that the preparation timeline for supporting a grant application is normally not that long, compared to the preparation or carrying out of scientific project. So as far as time is concerned, there is a clear finishing line – there is a specific deadline, you apply and then there is an end. The day after submitting the grant, you can’t do anything. This is almost never true in science, because you can always do follow-up things.
For the strategic aspects, I would say there I see more similarities to bench work, because if you want to establish yourself or have a new idea about a cooperation, this takes many years. There may be some first discussions at a conference, which lead to some more discussions about common projects and then we might explore common funding opportunities to find it’s not possible – then finally, 5-6 years later, we have something in place. So, there I see it more as a long-term investment to position the institute.
In what ways do you think you are using your scientific training?
I have been in different positions in the last years, working on scientific writing, on conference organization, on grant application preparation and financial grant management, and also scientific project management. There is a great variety in terms of to what extent the scientific knowledge is important, but in order to prepare the grant you really need to understand what the science is about. You don’t just provide support to prepare the budget or to prepare specific documents for the application, but if you want to help the scientist in a comprehensive way, you really need to put their research in the context of research trends and also, the broader scope regionally, nationally or Europe-wide, or in the case of international grants, internationally. This is really important, because part of the funding criteria for major funding bodies is the impact it can have on communities. And in order to properly explain that, you really need to understand the science. The same holds true for cooperations. It is impossible to identify the right strategic partners for the institute without understanding the mission and the state-of-the-art of the most important research fields.
What do you enjoy most about the role?
I would say the diversity and the strategic components. I have to admit that when I was ready to stop being an active researcher at the bench, and move into science management, I thought I would miss the science. But in the end, this didn’t happen at all. As manager of international programmes, you are reading and have access to all the new ideas from all the scientists at the institute on their new international projects. Scientists tend to put their most innovative, ground-breaking ideas to grants because the funding organizations want to pursue innovative ideas. What I enjoy a lot is that I am very close to science and that I get to read about all these new research projects, and how the research views are changing, and in which direction. This is definitely one of the most gratifying aspects of my job.
And on the other side, what do you find to be the biggest challenge about the role?
When you have many grants happening at the same time, you have sometimes limited sources of information, and you need to find solutions for problems that sometimes have never happened before at the institute. This has quite often to do with the grant administration part – for example a new combination of grants. This was sometimes challenging.
In my current position, the main challenge is more about where to focus. We are a molecular medicine institute without a clear disease focus, so we need to research in different research fields – we want new international cooperation and new grants and we want to promote the scientists working to have new grants. But sometimes it’s hard to prioritize and make a hierarchy. However, this is also sometimes an advantage, because we have a lot of flexibility in defining which new programme is most relevant to us. For us we don’t have a clear-cut category, of we apply only to this type of grant and not the others but sometimes the decision can be challenging.
What was your first role outside the lab, and how did your career progress?
My first role outside EMBL, was at the Center for Molecular Medicine of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (CEMM). This is an institute directed by Giulio Superti-Furga, who was previously at EMBL. I saw this opening in the last month of my PhD – I think it was circulated by the alumni association. I applied, was successful and that was my first job. My job title was “scientific assistant to the director and scientific writer”, and I was supporting the director in all his scientific activities, this included lab management, scientific cooperation management, events management, grants management, grant writing, conference organization and scientific writing. One of the great aspects of this position was that in a very short space of time I got a glimpse of various aspects of science management and the support needed at the senior scientific management level. I was junior in the position, but because I was working directly with the director, it was interesting to see the different aspects of support from people who do have a scientific background but who are not active researchers anymore. This was really eye-opening for me.
And then you moved to Berlin to join the MDC?
Yes, I moved to Berlin 2 years later. From my experience in Vienna, I identified grants as my passion. I had never really thought a lot about grants before, what it really means, how gratifying it could be. However, I prepared a couple of grant applications in Vienna and was really fascinated by the mixture of scientific, operational, strategic and financial work. Grants encompass all these aspects – they are like a separate world on their own that encompass so many different elements. And also considering my background, having come from Greece, working at EMBL with so many people from all over Europe, and from all over the world, and then moving to Vienna, I felt like a position where I would be responsible for EU Grants would be ideal. I was looking for such a position, and saw this position in Berlin as EU Liaison Officer. So that was how I moved to Berlin.
And you then moved up in position at the MDC. What skills and character traits do you think were important for you to have a successful career in this area?
I would definitely say that you need to understand what is responsibility and what isn’t. It is very easy in a new position with diverse tasks to expand yourself and do a little bit of everything without actually finishing most of your projects. So, an important trait is to be able to decide and understand how much time to invest in each project in order to finish it on time and leave some time for a balance between proactive and reactive approaches and new project ideas. Other than that, at least for my position, it was important to have some broader understanding of scientific management processes, understanding how grants work and finances –you need to understand the numbers if you are to help scientists get more money. You also need to look mostly at the big picture, not just the specific project, but really look at science in a broader more holistic way, looking at the science in the context of the entire institute. Of course, in order to do this, you need to keep informing yourself all the time. It’s not so easy to read all the papers from the institute – we have about 70 research groups so it’s not possible to follow in detail the science of all these groups. But what is possible is to read about new funding schemes and strategic decisions of different national and international funders. This is really important – you need to keep yourself informed all the time.
So, if someone is reading this who thinks this career area is really interesting, how might they prepare – other than informing themselves about grants and national systems?
First, they really need to see the process of grant preparation and grant management first hand. They should either apply themselves while actively being a scientist – for example, for postdoc fellowships – or volunteer e.g. as an intern to a department that does this to work out if this is something they like. The field of grant management is such that there is no formal education, you really have to go into the field and understand how it works. The structures are so different in different organisations, in grant management departments, that it’s really important to get first experience. Then they need to decide in which exact context they would like to do it – would they want to work in the pre-award context, to help the scientists write and prepare the proposals – or would they want to work in the project management context, after the grant has been awarded? Do they want to be close to the financial management or not? This can be types of work that is quite different, and it is important to understand this in the beginning before embarking on a career.
Is there anything that surprised you about the career area?
I have to admit that I was quite often surprised by the necessity of the position. In the beginning, sometimes I was challenging myself thinking “you just finished your PhD 2-years ago and now you are helping people writing their grants – these people have 20-years’ research experience and they been on every possible evaluation panel, part of international cooperations, etc. Can you really tell them how to write a grant? What is the added value you are bringing to this process?” With time it became more and more clear that there is an added value, because it is different seeing this from the other side. For a scientist, even if they are on the evaluation panels, they see it as a scientist. The funding organisations, however, have various stakeholders behind them – be it the federal government, the European commission or foundations – that have specific strategies in mind and specific goals. Scientists don’t always know these differences, this is something that surprised me – that indeed you can be someone that has stopped carrying out research, but by investing lots of time in understanding the fine details in the grant making world and you can use this understanding to help scientists. With the years I have become more and more convinced of this necessity.
Is there anything else you think PhDs and postdocs need to know about grants?
In my experience as a grants manager there are many limitations in the eligibility for postdocs applying for fellowships. So there is a very favourable period 1-4 years after PhD; when this is combined with field change or international mobility, a postdoc has multitude of opportunities. Without international mobility, without change of field and after a few years after PhD, the fellowship opportunities for postdocs are virtually zero. Perhaps it changes at some point in future, but at the moment that is the reality. In my experience, postdocs are not always aware of this at the right time. Quite often postdocs are then in the position that they are too old in terms of years after PhD for the postdoc funding but too young in terms of papers for PI positions. This is a very uncomfortable situation for postdocs. Grants managers and institute leadership have the responsibility to ensure that this information is communicated early and clearly, so that the career development goes hand-in-hand with the decisions of when to apply to fellowships and how long to stay in different positions. There are many labs with big grants that allow them to fund a postdoc for longer, and this can be advantageous for projects that are more long-term. So, there are possibilities even without a fellowship to have a successful career as a postdoc. But I think it’s very important that postdocs are aware of this bottleneck – probably we event need to target the PhD level – and they incorporate this in their career planning. It’s important that this is incorporated in our training programmes.
Is this part of your role?
We have different departments for career development support and PhD and postdoc programmes – but we work in close cooperation with them. We always have a session at the MDC career day. So, this is something we have been doing at the career day, postdoc day and over events – and we are starting to see a change but it is an ongoing process and we are actively pursuing it.
In one of your answers you mentioned that you have to prioritize your work. How is the work-life balance?
Excluding times when you have important grant deadlines, when there are often last-minute changes and may have to work late or at the weekend, the work-life balance is better than in the lab. Excluding these deadlines, it is a normal working day.
EMBL fellows, staff and alumni can contact Ioannis via the EMBL Alumni Directory. The directory can also be used by EMBL staff / fellows can also search and contact other EMBL alumni working in science administration – or other career areas – to seek career advice / informal mentoring. Please see our article on informational interviews for ideas on how to make the most of such opportunities.