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In a Finnish biotech company

E. Jardin & C. Schoch

Géraldine Carrard did her PhD in biochemistry between the Institut Pasteur and the VTT (Technical Research Center of Finland). After a stint with Sanofi-Aventis, she got a job with Ani Labsystems.

1/ Could you describe your itinerary from the time you defended your thesis to when you got your job with Ani Labsystems?

I was registered at the University of Paris 7, but I did 25% of my doctorate in France (for the research supervision) and the other 75% in Finland (for the lab work). It wasn’t a co-supervised doctorate; I did it in the framework of an international program sponsored by the Institut Pasteur.

Not long before the defense, I contacted the new head of the Paris 7 doctoral school, because I wanted to move back to France and was considering doing a postdoc. I hit it just right because the department head had just gotten funding from a European program that provided for a non-contractual research position. So I came back to France in June 2000 and defended my thesis in November 2000.

2/ How long did your postdoc last?
Two years. I must admit that the postdoc was a shock for me because the working conditions at VTT and at the Institut Pasteur are nothing like those at Paris 7! Anyway, when the postdoc ended, I applied for a position at Sanofi-Aventis and I became a managing researcher for infectious diseases, but my husband (who is Finnish) wanted to move back to his country. So I started prospecting the biotechnology market in Finland to be sure to have a job when I left France.

3/ How did you get your job in Finland?
I picked out a few companies around Helsinki and contacted them while I was still in France. Every morning, before going in to Sanofi-Aventis, I’d call and introduce myself, telling them about my career path and then asked if they were interested. If they said “yes” or “maybe,” I’d send my résumé and then call them to make sure they received it. I took a rather offensive approach, that’s for sure! Then I took a week’s vacation to do interviewing in Finland. I managed to schedule five appointments. Among the five, there was Ani Labsystems, which was in the process of merging with another company, so they couldn’t hire me right then. Six months later, they called to ask whether I was still interested and if I could start work the following month. I resigned from Sanofi-Aventis and moved to Finland in record time!

4/ What mattered most in your getting hired Ani Labsystems? Your scientific skills and your past work experience, I would imagine…
The fact that I was versatile certainly counted:  I had done my thesis in biophysics, then did research on human aging during my postdoc, and with Sanofi-Aventis, I was working on anti-infectious agents. What’s more, I was more technology-oriented than research-oriented. I’d say all those factors were important.

5/ What responsibilities do you have in the company?
Since becoming head of the R&D department, I’ve had to take production and marketing aspects into consideration to make sure the products we put out on the market (diagnostic kits) are saleable.

6/ What are your working conditions like?
In human resource management, status matters a lot less in Finland than in France, and the management style is very human. Here it’s totally understandable if you need to leave work at 1 p.m. to go to the dentist or at 5 p.m. to pick up your children from day care, and no one expects you to put in overtime if you’re at the management level. I really appreciate that, and it motivates you to work even harder! What’s more, titles don’t impress the Finns. It’s hard work and creativity that count.

7/ Is Finnish the language you work in?
I’m lucky to work in a Finnish company where it’s not considered a handicap if you’re not Finnish. That’s not true everywhere! Speaking Finnish is often a prerequisite to being hired.
At Ani Labsystems, I mostly work in English. I speak Finnish and can read it, but I can’t write it. More precisely, I speak English with my colleagues, and when I go down to the production lines, I speak Finnish.

8/ What are your career perspectives like?
Finland is a small country with a population of 5 million, and there aren’t a lot of opportunities. For the moment I’m focused on my upcoming motherhood. I’ll be on maternity leave for a year, which gives me time to plan.

9/ What about getting permission to work in Finland?
It’s always a bit of a pain at first, but it’s not terribly complicated when you’re a European Union national. In the first months, you have to request a residence permit from the police, which is practically automatic if you have a work contract. Then you have to register with the local authorities. That procedure can take 3-4 weeks, but you can start working without a work permit, because it’s the residence permit that matters… and even then, only when you stay more than three consecutive months in the country.

10/ If a young French PhD wanted to move to Finland and asked you for advice, what would you say?
I’d suggest the person get in contact directly with the research center he or she is interested in. The email addresses and phone numbers of the management staff are readily accessible, and there are always projects where you can find funding for six months of a year. If you plan to stay longer, you should start learning Finnish.

11/ Anything to add?
Finland is rather austere at first. It’s a harsh country that takes time to adjust to. It’s not easy at first. You have to work hard to fit in and gradually meet people who turn out to be extremely friendly.

Interview conducted by Evelyne Jardin, 8 February 2007