Hubble Telescope Astronomer Becomes Entrepreneur After MBA In UK

After a career as an astronomer, Kim Nilsson enrolled on Cranfield's MBA program and launched a start-up business with a classmate.

After travelling to various remote and exotic places, including a stint on the Hubble Space Telescope team, Kim Nilsson decided to leave her academic career behind and chase another – seemingly unrelated – interest of hers: management.

Kim enrolled on Cranfield School of Management’s MBA program, and established a business with a classmate.

After realizing her dream of becoming an entrepreneur, she is combining her strengths from both fields. Who knows what the future holds for the multitalented PhD (astrophysics) and MBA?

Why did you decide to pursue an MBA?

I had finished a PhD in astrophysics, and had worked almost four years as a researcher when I finally made the decision to leave academia. I had realised with time that I was missing the opportunity to work more directly with people, instead of just sitting in front of a computer doing analyses.

I had also taken an interest in business after reading business literature, and was ready for a career change. Completing an MBA seemed like the perfect opportunity to move into a business role.

What separated Cranfield School of Management from other business schools?

I had a good feeling about Cranfield from the very beginning, when I first visited their website. I remember there was a piece on the front page about their research into women on boards. That impressed me.

When I went to Cranfield for my interview, I was warmly received. The campus is in the countryside, meaning that the students created a strong group feeling, which was also important to me. Once I was offered a place on their MBA program, I had no doubts about accepting it. 

What are the main takeaways you got from the school's program?

Of course I have to mention the learning, and the life-long friendships forged. They are both extremely important. But ultimately, for me, the Cranfield MBA gave me the confidence I needed to start my own business.

Going into the MBA I thought I was at a disadvantage to everyone else because I had no business experience. Afterwards I realised in many cases it all comes down to common sense and leadership.

Armed with my knowledge and experiences from the program I dared to take the plunge and start a business together with a fellow MBA graduate. 

Would you recommend Cranfield to prospective MBA students, and if so why?

Yes. Cranfield is unique in many ways. The faculty has very strong ties with the industry so you will hear a lot of “real-world” examples, and case studies.

The campus location and the type of people that Cranfield attracts mean that you end up with a very strong sense of community in the cohort. Everyone knows everyone, and we form a very strong bond going into our careers. This also translates to the wider Cranfield alumni group, many of whom are always happy to get in touch.

The strong focus on personal, professional and leadership development at Cranfield means you are equipped with the tools you need.

You have a PhD in astrophysics and also worked in the team responsible for the Hubble Space Telescope. Tell us a little about your experience as an astrophysicist.

Being an astronomer is in principle the best job ever – if you like it. I got to travel to remote places on Earth – not space, alas – to observe with large telescopes.  

An academic career can be tough, though. You need to be prepared to move every two years or so, to go where the funding is, and a lot of the work involves quite tedious data analysis and programming.

What I miss the most from my time in science are the wonderful people I worked with. Astronomy is a bubble of sorts, and your colleagues are like an extended family. It was difficult to leave that behind, although we try to stay in touch.

Are there any core competences that you developed during your previous studies and career path which have helped your transition into management?

There are a lot of skills from my science career that I still use. Working with PhDs now, I  need to have a very good understanding of their skills, something I could only have from my own experiences.

I also use the problem solving and communication skills I learned during my PhD. I think PhDs have many transferrable skills on offer, including: creative thinking; analytical skills; programming; critical thinking; understanding of the scientific method; and time management.

You are now Managing Director of Pivigo Recruitment and Pivigo Academy. How did that opportunity arise, and where do you see your career heading?

Me and my Cranfield MBA business partner Jason Muller started the recruitment firm after the MBA, recruiting PhDs into commercial industry, but since last Autumn our focus has been on starting the S2DS (Science to Data Science) summer academy. This is a five-week, intensive summer program in London, which takes up to 100 PhDs and turns them into commercial data scientists.

The program has been very successful so far. We are just finalising the student cohort, and we have more than 20 companies signed up as partners, including KPMG. We aim to grow this over the coming years.

We see a large gap in the market between demand for skilled data scientists, and clever graduates and PhDs seeking work. We will do our best to bridge this gap and increase the flow of talent from academia to business.

In the long term, who knows what will happen. But for the foreseeable future Pivigo Academy and S2DS will be the focus of my career.

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