S and I talked via Google Hangouts at lunchtime on a Sunday. While my camera was poorly positioned, showing the bed (made; phew!), the mess on the dresser, a mirror weirdly reflecting the window behind the laptop, and me with my wet hair (how did I forget this was a video call?), hers only showed her face and the upper corner of a white room. She clearly does this more than I do, already revealing her professionalism. This state of affairs in itself highlights one reason that I wanted to have this conversation: what do professional engineers really need from academics like me?
S got her PhD a few years ago, and we know each other because she took EE 295 and participated in a short-lived EE Book Group. (We met for four or five quarters, and then people graduated before we’d repopulated the group.) She sees herself more as a mathematician than an engineer, and after two years in industry, she’s now in the first year of a two-year post-doc. She’ll soon begin applying for faculty positions.
As part of the run-up to the application process, S says she is trying to get invited to give talks at many universities, even if they are not hiring. She reminds me that “these talks have to be understandable to everyone in the audience, which can be tricky since most people aren’t working on remotely the same thing as you are, yet still need to feel included in the talk.” And this statement reminds me of what my neighbor, a UCLA physiology professor said later on that same Sunday when she was discussing a job candidate: “he didn’t connect the dots between his work and why I should care.”
But S sympathizes with the student experience, and the difficulty of moving from details to generalities. “School’s set up to put you in that tunnel vision,” she says. And she means this in more than one sense: school makes us focus on our area of expertise, “but it can also make us feel incompetent, since our ‘product’ isn’t directly benefiting anyone (yet).” When we enter the “real world,” it’s refreshing to see how competent we really are, if we’ve retained the skills we need for that broader world of work.
S benefited from going to an undergraduate engineering school that assigned many open-ended projects; she feels that she “would have been more cautious” if she’d gone through a more traditional program. She says that the projects “brought me out of my shell” and gave students more power of “self-determination.” Because it was a small school, she got “a lot of personal responsibility.” And because of an extracurricular role as a yearbook photographer—what sounds like the yearbook photographer–she says that she
had to go to all these events that I never otherwise would have gone to, just to take photographs of people. It really got me out of my shell; at first, I was afraid even to make phone calls to order pizza, but by the end we were all way more confident approaching strangers to get interviews for random projects.
In all these ways, S’s experience highlights the value of broadening one’s horizons, participating in many activities, meeting and talking to new people, and trying to communicate across disciplinary borders and other (often self-imposed) boundaries.
Another way to do both these things—explore beyond boundaries and communicate across them—is to review papers: “Be a reviewer for conferences, even the ones you don’t submit to,” S recommends. It’s valuable experience. During her time in industry, she did a lot of this, and she also had to give many “’broad picture” and “state-of-the-art” presentations for CEOs at the company. In one email, she writes:
Giving survey presentations was really great practice for me, because (1) it forced me to read a lot of papers on subjects I didn’t really understand and pull out the few things I thought would interest a general audience, and (2) it forced me to communicate to as broad an audience as possible. When I went back to academia, I realized this was a key skill that you don’t really learn in school—not that they don’t know how to prioritize their audience, but they’re not really under a huge amount of immediate pressure to do so.
One thing that surprised me about S’s industry job is that “they tried to figure out what [she] wanted to do and let [her] do it.” Not all industry jobs would be like this, but having your PhD probably puts you in a great position to be an explorer and motivator rather than a drudge at work. “Drudge” is probably the wrong word, since it means the person who does the “tedious and menial” work. But sometimes graduate students get in the habit of working alone in their cubicles. That alone-time can produce great work, but it’s under-appreciated if done in silence. It might not even be as useful as it could be if it were done in tandem with other people’s knowledge and goals.
S was surprised to discover that people interrupt talks in industry, and she’s productively imported this to her new academic position. She says, “at a company, people are really obnoxious and stop you every five seconds (because they’re your boss).” She adds, “if people don’t interrupt you, then you know you’ve had a bad meeting.” The advantage of being interrupted with questions is that you “get a better sense of your audience”—both what they know and what they care about. So instead of trying to overlook, ignore, or fill in the blanks herself as she listens to talks in her current university position, she’s become “the obnoxious audience person who keeps making the presenter stop and clarify things” and says that “actually, a lot of people told me this as a compliment!” I remember S’s digging down into some of our responses in the book group, so I can easily imagine the tone of her questions: not at all obnoxious, but not soft. Often, her questions and comments made the rest of us rethink or at least more carefully state our ideas.
I wanted to know what these jobs are like. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that a post-doc (or at least this post-doc) spends her time “reading papers and writing ideas.” She adds, “One thing that post-doc freedom allows you to do is to have three-hour meetings with other colleagues to discuss random ideas, which I do with another postdoc every week.” There’s also some teaching (this year, S gave two lectures; next year, she’ll teach a whole course) and “a fair amount of mentoring.” So far, she’s not had to do much grant writing or traveling.
About the mentoring, S says,
I don’t really mind mentoring because . . . working one-on-one . . ., I find it easier to engage with the student and make sure we really exploit his or her talents and ambitions. Actually, we have one student here who is really kick-ass. He’s only a first-year master’s student, but he decided he wanted to learn really hard subjects by running reading groups and teaching us. So whenever I have a hard problem that I don’t really have time to look at, I just give it to him over Slack, and he answers it for me later that week. (Does that make me abusive?)
I’d say no, and here’s why. S’s attention to the specific “talents and ambitions” of each student suggests that her need for information and this student’s goals are fully aligned. She’s giving him exactly what he needs to develop in the ways he wants. And she’s giving him what she has already said is valuable: the chance to read many hard papers, practice pulling out the ideas that are useful for a certain problem or audience, and practice explaining them to others.
Because S is successful and spirited, I wanted to pass on some sense of her “philosophy of life.” While resisting offering one, S emphasizes flexibility and gratitude. Because “the whole process” of the job search is “unpredictable” and moves at erratically slow speeds and big leaps, “there really is an element of faith” and “you just have to try your best and try not to read tea leaves.” In her case, she spent six months working diligently to get a postdoc position, “negotiating with various professors” and “testing various sources of funding, etc.” and then, “out of the blue, a prof contacted me and almost immediately the offer went through.” S summed up her philosophy this way:
Maybe just try not to take anything too seriously, and try not to be hurt when things don’t go your way? It’s easy for people who have very high aspirations to be very upset when they see people achieve dreams in ways that seem like pure luck, but the fact of the matter is we are all really lucky to be alive, well-fed, and generally safe from war and famine. Actually, there was a podcast about this, which said it really well: we always feel the headwinds, but we never appreciate the tailwinds (a biking analogy!). So maybe my life philosophy is “don’t forget the tailwinds!” Or, less pessimistically, there’s way more in life to enjoy than can be found at the end of a career path!
Once again, her message is to take the bigger picture into account!