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Introducing NextMinds

Have you ever thought about adding another string to your bow and starting a new business next to your academic or industry position? Well, Isabelle Kohler – well known for developing mass spectrometry-based approaches for the analysis of drugs and metabolites as Assistant Professor at the Division of Bioanalytical Chemistry at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands – has done just that. 

Here, Isabelle – who appeared on our 2022 40 Under 40 Power List – introduces her new mentoring initiative “NextMinds” and reflects on the struggles faced by early career researchers – especially those in analytical science.

Why do you think chemistry students often feel lost when thinking about their career path?

I think that one of the major reasons is because we don’t train them well on these aspects during their studies. Of course, they have numerous career events organized (usually by students’ associations with guest speakers from the industry), which bring them insights about some of the career paths they can take after their studies (or their PhD), but this is, in my opinion, not enough. 

Universities focus on teaching scientific knowledge; we’ve also started teaching more and more about academic skills at the bachelor’s and master’s level (for example, academic writing, presentation skills, and so on). However, we don’t spend much time or energy supporting and guiding students in planning their career – even though I believe it should also be our role, as educators. 

Is that why you started NextMinds?

I’ve now spent 15 years in academia, including 10 years post-PhD. I’ve been a PhD student myself, and now I’m on the other side of the coin where I’m supervising PhD students. Over the last few years, I realized that many PhD students around me face similar challenges during their PhD – many of which I also had to face. What strikes me the most is that many of these challenges arise from a lack of knowledge or information or a lack of self-confidence.

I’m at a stage of my career when I am now convinced that a traditional academic career as a professor is not what I aspire to do – working 80 hours per week and writing grants that don’t come to fruition can be nerve wracking. My power and talent can also be in a different space – helping the younger generation, by combining the knowledge I gathered from the academic world with my empathy and willingness to help, guide, coach, and mentor these young (and not so young) scientists.

I believe that there’s a strong need for such an initiative  – where young scientists can learn from someone who has been through similar challenges and who can bring another perspective. And that’s where NextMinds comes in. 

So what exactly is NextMinds?

The mission of NextMinds is to provide all the necessary tools and knowledge to early-career researchers (students, prospective PhD students, PhD students, and postdocs) to help them navigate academia and beyond. 

When I did my PhD before the social media empire, this information was not really available. If you had a great supervisor, they would mentor you – if not, bad luck! You would have to make mistakes to learn. 

Today’s generation has access to information via social media, but they don’t know if it's reliable. With this in mind, NextMinds is active on social media – mainly LinkedIn – sharing free tips not only for academic purposes but also mental health, networking, and soft skills. These tips are also available via weekly newsletter, where I also share personal stories to illustrate the topics I cover.

We're about to launch an e-learning environment, which will feature online courses – covering different topics to help prospective students find a PhD position and prepare effectively for applications and interviews, and a community, where young scientists can interact with each other. We also collaborate with universities to organize workshops, online events, and webinars. In a very near future, we will also offer individual and group coaching sessions.

It sounds like a significant shift away from a traditional academic position… 

Indeed, and I find this exciting! One of the aspects I really like with NextMinds is that it allows me to see the direct impact of my work. An academic career does not bring much immediate reward; you know you need to work hard, but the reward is that you will receive even more tasks and need to work harder! 

I don’t expect to win a Nobel prize with my research. The real impact I see with my work at the university is everything related to teaching. There, I can really see how my endeavors help both people and society. NextMinds goes in the same direction – helping people and society by sharing knowledge. Basically, my mission with NextMinds is to guide and mentor those who may get a Nobel prize!

How has NextMinds been received so far?

Despite only launching the company a few months ago, the initiative seems to be highly valued. The comments I receive from students and professors are incredibly positive. It is definitely rewarding to see NextMinds being embraced so warmly by everyone.  

I have also received enthusiastic comments from different institutes who would like me to join their consortia, projects, or introduction days, which tells me one thing: we are on the right track and our voice is being heard.

What plans do you have for the company? 

I want my work with NextMinds to be an inspiration to many academics (and non-academics) of my generation and younger – people who are seeking more work-life balance and want to have an impact on their peers.

The plan is to have a “NextMinds academic hub,” where young academics worldwide and across disciplines gather to learn tips and tricks to navigate academia with a happy mind, self-confidence, a clear goal, and the feeling that they are supported and understood.

And that’s why we’re trying to take NextMinds to the next level. Our team has been working to build an app so people can easily access our content whenever and wherever they want. We’re also hopeful to launch our two first digital courses, “Unlock Your PhD Position,” and “Master Your PhD Application,” to help candidates craft the best possible applications and choose the best PhD position.

What tips or words of advice can you offer to students and postdocs here? 

My first piece of advice is that it’s never too early to start preparing for your future. Many young scientists embark on a PhD simply because they love research, but without knowing exactly what they want to do after their PhD. This is fully understandable, but it’s important to start looking at possible career opportunities soon after their PhD. 

So get out there and talk to other scientists – especially those at a more senior level and those who work in different sectors: industry, start-up, academia, hospital, education, NGOs, governmental institutes, and so on. The possibilities are endless, but it’s important to be aware of them to choose wisely! I always encourage PhD students (and Master students, if they have this opportunity) to go to networking events to discover all these opportunities. It doesn’t need to be a fancy conference – a local university symposium with a few invited speakers from different sectors is already an excellent start.

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About the Author
Markella Loi

Associate Editor, The Analytical Scientist

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