Closing The Skills Gap Through Innovative Entrepreneurship Training

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. Skilled, Innovative and Entrepreneurial Scientists (SKIES) is an ambitious project that offers astronomy researchers (PhD candidates and young postdoctoral researchers) training in developing new skills and 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. Forty students and early career researchers will be participating in the workshop, which will take place in a hybrid setting.

Only a fraction of astronomy doctoral graduates (about 10%) remain in academia. As a result, the skills beneficiaries acquire during their research must be effectively transferable. This will consequently aid a smooth transition from academia to the private sector. Advanced degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects are excellent popular bases for careers in the tech industry. However, most graduates find that they need to learn additional skills. The ability to confidently navigate the Open Science landscape and a capacity for innovative thinking can set astronomy graduates apart. Additionally, it can allow them to fulfil their potential and develop into well-rounded scientists and professionals.

The astronomy field research is collaborative and international, and students receive training in diverse skills. These range 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. In addition, it will be implemented across various astronomy research organisations. Researchers from the University of Cape Town (UCT) will be leading the project in South Africa. These researchers include PhD candidates from other organisations across the country. In addition, Dr Lucia Marchetti, from UCT’s Department of Astronomy, is the principal investigator for SKIES in South Africa.

“I am thrilled to offer this opportunity to our PhD candidates,” says Dr Marchetti. “Their astronomy training already provides them with many theoretical skills to 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. We will also fully equip our astronomy students 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. These modules include design thinking, open science and responsible research; innovation and entrepreneurship; and a career-oriented masterclass that includes mentoring. The week-long programme also includes speakers and guests from universities and industries. As a result, young researchers will be opportune to learn and receive inspiration from experts and leaders. They will also learn best practices and techniques in their fields.

The South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) is part of the SKIES South Africa partnership with its Human Capacity Development (HCD) programme and Commercialisation unit involved in the design and facilitation of the local SKIES training workshop. SARAO hopes that many young researchers that SARAO’s HCD programme funds will leverage this opportunity to develop their skill sets.

The training will introduce the beneficiaries to various techniques that they can take with them going forward professionally. From CV-writing and communication to business models and organisational theory to design thinking and creativity. Participants will receive insight into what enterprise support is available, the role of a technology transfer office, how funding models operate, how social entrepreneurship works and how to pitch an idea for commercial and academic purposes.

Guests will give presentations that speak to individual experiences. The speakers are Imogen Wright, founder of Hyrax Biosciences, Dries Cronje, CEO and founder of Deep Learning Café. Tshegofatso Masenya, the 2021 winner of the Entrepreneurial Development in Higher Education Entrepreneurship Intervarsity National Winner, will also speak.

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

Head of eResearch and Astroinformatics Research Professor at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), Professor 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”. Dr Bonita de Swardt, head of Strategic Partnerships for Human Capacity Development at SARAO, expects that this exciting collaboration “will increase the 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”.

You can learn more about the SKIES programme here.