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Untraditional student

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Untraditional student

Postby Chris Kobsa » Tue Feb 01, 2005 3:29 pm

While getting my BS in physics fifteen years ago (with initial plans of continuing grad school), I got a job offer that was very good and I forgot all about grad school. I have worked as a technical consultant for a scandinavian company, for Siemens Automation and a reputable IT firm in Atlanta... then the IT bubble burst!
That's when I decided to go back to grad school, getting my Ph.D. in physics. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I've been into it for three semesters now, and can't help the feeling that I may be to old for this, being 41. I'm not likely to be done before I'm 46! My concentration is in nanotechnology, i.e. modelling and fabrication of MEMS devices. I know this is a growing field. But am I to old to be considered in industry once I have my Ph.D.? Or will my previous job-experience benefit me?

Any advice, thoughts, experiences, ruminations are appreciated!

Chris
Chris Kobsa
 

Untraditional student

Postby Dave Jensen » Tue Feb 01, 2005 5:19 pm

Hi Chris,

We have a few physicists who deliver excellent advice (Val?) and I hope they show up with a comment or two.

My guess is that you took a VERY risky move going back for a PhD in Physics at the age you did. However, you luckily chose an area that has a lot of future potential, while not always a lot of jobs right today. Since it will be at least a year or two before you are looking for a job, I suspect that the whole nano thing will have kicked in by then.

Sure, you'll be older than the competition in the job market, but you can sell your maturity and previous IT experience as a plus. I don't think you'll have a problem, as long as you stick to areas of industry relevance as you are -- and don't hang around too long in the Ivory Tower!

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Untraditional student

Postby Val » Tue Feb 01, 2005 9:13 pm


Chris,

I got my BS in Physics 13 years ago. I started doing a PhD (also in nanotechnology) pretty much straight away. I wish I worked in industry for 3-5 years before going to PhD school. Working in industry would equip me with the experience in completion of projects and with the sense of achievement. I would use this experience as a basis from which I would jump into PhD school, and dictate _my_ working conditions to my PhD advisor rather then him forcing _his_ conditions onto me. Also, the previous work would allow me to develop my own research interests, and I would go to the PhD school because I wanted to further my expertise in this area, rather than to work on the topic forced onto me by the advisor.

(For many BS/MS holders, there is a ceiling in their careers; "PhD" says about the person that he had experience of being responsible for a complex scientific project and successfully finished it. This makes the PhD holders more promotable to a high level of responsibility, in the eyes of the company administration.)

The hiring managers at companies put a high value on the applicants who had company work experience, regardless if it was before or after PhD. The reason is that the industrial managers universally require from their employees (i) capability to solve the problem of the day, and (ii) capability to teamwork. The industrial managers perceive people with PhDs straight from academia as (i) too abstract, that is incapable to get the product out of the door, and (ii) solitary workers, that is incapable to finish the complex product which requires the work of team of many specialists.

In your case, the employers will highly value your previous industrial experience in IT for the reasons above. However, if all of your 15-year experience has nothing to do with MEMS (your topic of PhD and, obviously, the area of the employment sought in future), then the employers will tend to discount the value of your industrial experience. They will take you with your 15-year experience in IT on par with someone who has, say, 5 years of experience directly in MEMS. (Hmm... your IT experience might turned out to be highly relevant if you apply for a job of writing drivers for the MEMS devices...just guessing... Opportunities always present themselves, and their appearance cannot be predicted.)

When you get your PhD, you will have a slight problem in looking for the first job. You will have a slightly hard time to convince the potential employers that you have not turned "academic" during your PhD studies. Your efforts in getting through that perception barrier and getting hired will depend on the state of economy at that time.

Then, at an age after 40, the phenomenon called "age discrimination" kicks in. It becomes harder for the people of 45 y.o. to get a job. And it gets even much harder for the people of an age of 55 to get jobs. You see, you would be about the conditional "45 y.o." number when you graduate. In this condition, a clear recommendation to go for a PhD or not to go cannot be made. If you are good at what you do (which, in its turn, depends on whether you love what you do), then your chances to get the first job and progress your new career are higher.

All in all, people do the decision to go for a PhD for more reasons than getting a new job upon graduation. Some like doing it for the sake of mental stimulation, and some do it for the sake of high social status. I hate the employment opportunities which I got because of going the "PhD route", and I tell to any interested listener that I would be better off by not doing a PhD and going to industry instead. However, I have came to the realisation that, if I had a choice to do it again, I would still go for a PhD, because I never had good opportunities in industry, and my social background pre-programmed me for getting a PhD.

All problems resolve themselves regardless whether we do something about it or not.

Regards,
Val
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Untraditional student

Postby Chris Kobsa » Wed Feb 02, 2005 9:55 am

Dave,
Thanks for your frank input! Why do YOU consider my move very risky? I'm asking because you also mention that you don't think I will have problems finding a job.

Chris

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Untraditional student

Postby Dave Jensen » Wed Feb 02, 2005 10:09 am

Chris,

It is risky to go back for a PhD at the age you did. ANY PhD is a big decision, and one that really has long term implications that have to be considered carefully. Yours was done in a field that doesn't have the greatest ease of finding work (physics) at an age where you'd potentially run into age discrimination when you get out. That's a risk.

It sounds to me like you got some excellent advice from Val. My guess is that the nano upswing will coincide with your availability, but that's just a guess.

Dave
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Untraditional student

Postby Chris Kobsa » Wed Feb 02, 2005 10:22 am

Hi Val,
Thanks so much for you input! I sure do understand your first paragraph, and fully agree. Being older than most grad students and having been in the "real" world, gives you an different outlook and approach to your studies and research interests.

Your fourth paragraph is very interesting. My secular work experience is not strictly in IT. When working for the scandinavian company (Valmet Automation) and for Siemens, I was more involved in technical automation related issues; most if not all of which of course is driven by IT... For Valmet I was the liaison between their Finish R&D unit and the end-user for a new product introduction; a very technical job with much PR exposure. But you are right, I had nothing to do with MEMS.

My biggest fear is the age discrimination factor which you address. My thoughts are that if I get my doctorate in a MEMS related field my chances along with my industry experience should be rather good. On the other hand, I don't want to fool myself either.

You sure are right about your last paragraph! I always had a propensity for academia. I enjoy studying mathematics and physics and the reason for doing this is more then just getting a job or a career change. Nontheless, I have to make a living... On the other hand, if getting back into industry will be harder than expected, wouldn't teachning at a college be another option? I believe there is an increasing shortage of qualified science teachers in the nation. Of course the financial rewards would be smaller... Now I'm just thinking out loud...

Chris
Chris Kobsa
 

Untraditional student

Postby Chris Kobsa » Wed Feb 02, 2005 10:43 am

Val,

Why did you hate your employment opportunities after getting your PhD? Are you indicating that it is harder to get an industry job with a PhD? Would I be better of with a MS? Or was/is the timing just not right for nanotechnology? BTW, what is your take on where nanotechnology will be at in five years?

Best Regards,
Chris
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Untraditional student

Postby Val » Wed Feb 02, 2005 8:38 pm


Chris Kobsa wrote:

> Why did you hate your employment opportunities after getting your PhD?

I live in Australia.

> Are you indicating that it is harder to get an industry job with a PhD?

I have read the memoirs of successful industrial physicists. All of them had spectacular career rise by the same scenario. After a BS, they worked for several years at a large company. Then they decided to go for a PhD. After graduation with a PhD, they _returned_ to the same company, but at a higher level, and quickly rose in ranks. In other words, each career move took them higher, and each new position was built on achievement in the previous position (i.e., working on the same topic). I say, life-long employment does not exist anymore.

> what is your take on where nanotechnology will be at in five years?

Originally, "nanotechnology" denoted the world invented by Drexler, where molecular-sized robots built products. It is still a pure theory. Nowadays, "nanotechnology" term is applied to anything which has sizes of order of nanometers. Semiconductor technology is used to manufacture those nano-sized structures. Semiconductor technology will still exist in 5 years, but its particular embodyment called "nanotechnology" might not, in my opinion. I must confess the last time I regularly read a journal on a condensed matter physics topic was 6 years ago.

Regards,
Val
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Untraditional student

Postby Chris Kobsa » Thu Feb 03, 2005 8:36 am

Val,

I agree that the days of life-long employment are over. You sound more like it is a good idea to go and get ones PhD however... who doesn't want to grow in their career, be a decision maker, make more money, make a "meaningful" contribution, etc.

Your thoughts on nanotechnology are interesting! It has received tremendous financial boosts in the last years from government agencies and industry. There is good funding money being used by academic and industrial labs doing all kinds of research. Granted, it would not be the first time that some technological panacea ends up being a pie-in-the-sky...

May I ask what you do now. Do you work for academia or industry?

BTW, where in Australia do you live? I've got family in Melbourne; aunt, uncle, cousins. Did you get your PhD in Australia?

Regards,
Chris
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Untraditional student

Postby Val » Sat Feb 05, 2005 6:26 am

Kris Kobsa wrote:

> You sound more like it is a good idea to go
> and get ones PhD however... who doesn't want
> to grow in their career...

It was mentioned on this forum that "PhD" is like the license for hunting: once you got your papers in order, you still have to track down the animal and manage to kill it. Once you are in a job, (probably) the most difficult part starts: you have to earn the disposal and trust of your bosses to let you work independently, to pay you high salary etc.

> nanotechnology ... has received tremendous
> financial boosts in the last years

In my short experience, the duration of the "hot" topic in academic science is about 3-4 years. After that, for 1 or 2 years, there is a transitional period, when there are still some publications made and almost no employment is being made. After that, a new "hot" area arises. You will still be able to obtain employment is semiconductor technology, but muttering the word "nanotechnology" will leave the prospective employers cold.

> Do you work for academia or industry?

There is a third alternative, which somewhat combines the qualities of the mentioned two. It is natl lab. If you want to know more details about me, you'd beter ask me in a private email. My email address is at the top of my message.

Regards,
Val

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