Closing the skills gap for young researchers

Young astronomy researchers have the opportunity to learn skills that will allow them to bridge the gap between academia and launching their careers in the workforce. SKIES (SKilled, Innovative and Entrepreneurial Scientists) is an ambitious project that offers training for astronomy researchers (PhD candidates and young postdoctoral researchers) in developing new skills, integrating Open Science, innovation and entrepreneurship. The training workshop will take place in Cape Town from 4-8 April 2022, hosted at the UCT GSB Conference Centre.

Only a fraction of astronomy doctoral graduates (about 10%) remain in academia, which means that the skills acquired in the course of their research need to be effectively transferable in order to achieve a smooth transition from academia to the private sector. Advanced degrees in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) subjects are widely accepted to be an excellent basis for careers in, among others, the tech industry, but most graduates find that they need to learn additional skills. An ability to confidently navigate the Open Science landscape combined with a capacity for innovative thinking can set astronomy graduates apart and allow them to fulfill their potential and develop into well-rounded scientists and professionals. 

Madagascar Astronomy Python Workshop 2017. Credit: IAU Office of Astronomy for Development archive
Madagascar Astronomy Python Workshop 2017. Credit: IAU Office of Astronomy for Development archive

The field of astronomy research is collaborative and international, and students are trained in diverse skills, ranging from theoretical approaches and big-data science to observations and laboratory work. Thus, there is a unique opportunity to integrate a modern skills course with the existing programme. 

SKIES will reach about 500 astronomy graduate students and young researchers in Europe (Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and Portugal) and South Africa as it is implemented across various astronomy research organisations. Researchers from the University of Cape Town (UCT) will be leading the project in South Africa, which includes PhD candidates from other organisations across the country. Dr Lucia Marchetti, from UCT’s Department of Astronomy, is the principal investigator for SKIES in South Africa. “I am thrilled to be able to offer this opportunity to our PhD candidates”, says Dr Marchetti. “Their astronomy training already provides them with many theoretical skills that they can apply to jobs outside academia. With this training, we will show them how they can best exploit and translate their knowledge into a job beyond astronomy, and ensure that all our astronomy students are fully equipped for whichever path they decide to take after their PhD.” 

The SKIES training workshop in South Africa consists of three modules co-created by academics and career development consultants: design thinking, open science and responsible research; innovation and entrepreneurship; and a career-oriented masterclass that includes mentoring. The week-long program includes speakers and guests from universities and industries and young researchers will have the opportunity to learn from and be inspired by experts and leaders, as well as learn best practices and techniques. 

From CV-writing and communication to business models and organisational theory, to design thinking and creativity, they will be introduced to a range of techniques that they can take with them going forward professionally. Participants will be given insight into what enterprise support is available, the role of a technology transfer office, how funding models operate, as well as how social entrepreneurship works and how to pitch an idea for commercial and academic purposes. Guests will give presentations that speak to individual experiences. These speakers include Simon Travers and Imogen Wright, founders of Hyrax Biosciences, Dries Cronje, CEO & founder of Deep Learning Café, and Tshegofatso Masenya, the 2021 winner of the EDHE (Entrepreneurial Development in Higher Education) Entrepreneurship Intervarsity National Winner.

The SKIES project will also deliver a mini online open course (MOOC), which will support partner organisations in running similar courses. This will remain available after the project has ended to ensure its impact and legacy. 

Head of eResearch Office and Astroinformatics Research Professor at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), Prof Mattia Vaccari echoes Dr Marchetti’s optimism, adding that “the bridging of this gap is particularly important for South Africa in the increasingly global talent search in the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution”. UWC’s Technology Transfer Commercialization Specialist, Luan Africa, is also enthusiastic about the initiative, and how it will allow young researchers “to see the broader value, applicability, and transferability of their rigorous scientific training. We are hopeful that participants will exit with a more entrepreneurial mindset, underpinned by a constant need to upskill, learn from mistakes and take continuous action on ideas. We are thrilled to contribute to this wonderful programme.”

Dr Bonita de Swardt, head of Strategic Partnerships for Human Capacity Development at the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), expects that this exciting collaboration “will lead to increased employability of doctoral candidates, in industry or through entrepreneurship, who will be effectively working on high-impact areas to benefit broader society on the African continent”. 

For more information: 

Prof Mattia Vaccari 
Director, eResearch Office
University of the Western Cape

Mr Luan Africa 
Technology Transfer Specialist: Commercialization
Technology Transfer Office
University of the Western Cape

Dr Lucia Marchetti 
Senior Lecturer in Astronomy
University of Cape Town
H2020 SKIES SA Lead 

Ms Michelle Willebrands 
H2020 SKIES Project Manager
Leiden University