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How an Italian Molecular Biology graduate became an account executive at a market research consultancy firm in London

Date:02 December 2020
Author:Jonathan Tavella
Jonathan Tavella, Italy, Master Molecular Biology & Biotechnology, currently Account Executive, Key Accounts
Jonathan Tavella, Italy, Master Molecular Biology & Biotechnology, currently Account Executive, Key Accounts

In the summer of 2014, I was finishing up my final project of the Master of Science in Molecular Biology & Biotechnology at the University of Groningen. Getting there was quite a journey with its ups and downs. Little did I know I had another intense journey ahead of me, also with its ups and its significant downs.

It was only 2 years earlier, in 2012, that I had moved to Groningen to start my Master's.
Being able to join that study program was the result of 3 grueling years at the University of Pisa (Italy), my first journey in my twenties. I spent most of my time studying in my room. When not, I was grinding through long days at class, complicated subjects and a cadence of exams that made me feel like I was in a constant battle against time. But that didn’t matter, because at that point my goal in life was to become the best scientist I could be. And nothing else mattered. There were many things I had to give up to make sure I earned my Bachelor on time and with high enough scores to be admitted to the UG.

When I moved to Groningen I realized that other things than just studying mattered as well
My drive to go study abroad came from an intrinsic need to broaden my horizons and meet people from different cultures. In hindsight, that sort of curiosity probably played a strong (subconscious) role in me choosing a field of study that was known for its international collaborations. My two years in Groningen were my second journey in my twenties, which was about becoming comfortable living abroad, about communicating across language and cultural barriers and about being surrounded by exceptionally brilliant people. This environment is where the seeds for my third journey were planted. 

The further I got in my second journey, the more I realized that, while I still loved science, I had a greater interest for people and ideas. But what to do then? All I had done until that point was to study scientific subjects and design and run experiments in a lab. What else could I do?

My third journey had started.
After a first phase of panic, I laid out a simple plan. I asked myself “what professions deal with people and ideas?” and “how can I meet individuals in those professions?”. The industry was a great place to start.

The University of Groningen was offering a unique opportunity for me to connect to those individuals while progressing with my studies. In fact, one of the research projects I needed to complete to graduate could be done in a company. Therefore, in early 2014 I ended up moving to Delft for a 6-month internship at DSM. While I learnt a lot scientifically speaking, I also had the chance to meet individuals in people-and-ideas-related professions. These colleagues largely resided in the business department.

I spoke to professionals in Marketing, Strategy, Sales, and more. Some of those conversations still echo in me to this day. But one guy I spoke to was particularly inspiring, and he was a Sales leader. After sleeping on it for several nights, I decided, my future is in the sales profession. 

This brings us back to that summer of 2014. What happened afterwards was, to some people, pure madness. I started applying for commercial jobs through some of the relationships I had built in the biotech world. I received some initial interest and had some conversations, which were then followed by deafening silence.

It became clear I had no clue how to find a job and how to interview and that I could not rely on just a couple of opportunities. Therefore, when I went back to beloved Groningen for my graduation ceremony in September 2014, I was prepared to put up a fight.

I approached job hunting as a full-time job. Fast forward a month and a half later, I had received nothing but rejections. While rejection was hard in itself, the hardest part of this process was that my emotional support system at the time was actively trying to pull me back onto the science path. Some of my university friends did not quite understand what I was doing or why I was doing it, and were quite vocal about it. But the fiercest opposers of my decision were my parents, and that was a huge shock to me. They had always been extremely supportive of my choices, until then.

It could have been because they saw how hard I had worked to get to the point of being a molecular biology graduate, and they didn’t want me to “throw it all away”. I didn’t see it that way. I saw that transition as an evolution of my persona and my skillset. Surely, I wouldn’t be using biochemical laboratory tools and techniques in other careers. But the thoughtful and detailed thinking, adaptability and perseverance I had developed in my scientific studies were the core of who I was then and could easily be applied to many other domains.

I wasn’t “throwing away” my academic preparation, I was building on its core and most transferable skills. Speaking of skills, I realized that at that point I was missing some. Human resources professionals kept telling me I had no “commercial experience”. Besides, I reckoned I had to find a way to pay the bills as this job-hunting struggle was going to take much longer than I had anticipated.

So I thought “let me go get some of that commercial experience”.
I mustered my courage and my poor Dutch language skills and I applied for a job where I was supposed to go out on the streets, stop people and sell them annual subscriptions for a newspaper. My parent’s voices of discontent raised. At that point they would remind me how much they disagreed with me almost daily and tried to offer “logical” alternatives.

After a month, I was fired from that job because I couldn’t sell enough subscriptions. It was not the end of the world, as my Dutch had improved and I was learning the basics of sales. So I applied for another direct sales company, this time selling door-to-door. That gig went better as I could sell enough to keep the job, pay my bills and learn a ton. But I did realize the Dutch winter and early spring is no time to walk around neighborhoods knocking on doors; boy it was cold!

In the meantime, I was still applying for jobs, and still silencing the dissenting voices in my life. Towards the end of 2014 I had gone to a technology fair in Utrecht to see if I could meet potential employers face-to-face while walking through the booths. I spoke to pretty much everyone on the floor. Some of them were very nice and welcoming, some others not so much. Among those, I met the owner of a Belgian reseller of Laboratory equipment who wanted to expand in the Netherlands in pharma and academia.

We kept in touch until eventually, in May 2015, he offered me a job. I will always be grateful to him, as he is the one person who believed in me when no one else did. It was only 6 months later that I was offered the exciting opportunity to go to work in London for a multinational, in a field that was completely unrelated to biotechnology. They liked my journey and decided to invest in me. That marked the end of this challenging and transformative chapter of my life, and the beginning of a new one.

Looking back, I am extremely proud of that transition. I am very grateful I was able to listen to myself and had the courage and perseverance to go after what I wanted, even if I was alone in doing so. In this sense, Groningen really did broaden my horizons, and helped me gain the confidence to determine my own path in a field that was not mine.

Had I done my Master’s in my country my life would be completely different now. To everyone reading this blog I would like to say: the path of going after what you want can be rocky but it will be rewarding.

About the author

Jonathan Tavella
Jonathan Tavella
Overall my experience in Groningen, inside the University as well as out of it, formed my character and made me far more confident in my capabilities than I was before. It also made me more pragmatic and efficient. In other words, it represents an invaluable stepping stone in my life.
www.rug.nl/alumni/about-alumni/ambassadors/2014-2015/jonathan-tavella-italy