Working Engineer to PhD Student: Thoughts

Almost a year ago I left my full time job as a senior process engineer working in Singapore and California to pursue a PhD in Switzerland.

Why Did I Leave? 

  • At the time I left my job, the process I was working on was ramping to full scale production. We were moving away from solving the fundamental problems and moving towards optimizing equipment up-time. Since, my interest was in the R&D-pilot line process I found my work less and less fulfilling as we moved farther up the business chain. Simply put, the problems we were solving were not the ones I most enjoy.


  • As is pretty common in start-ups/scale up projects management was an issue. The longer I worked under the management the more difficult I found it to watch certain aspects of the project flounder under mis-management. I had a conversation at the time with a manager who said that while I was used to ‘research failure’ – that is, failure due to a technical problem, I needed to also get use to ‘executive failure’, failure because of poor management.  I refuse, and still refuse to get used to this, and this is why my new goal is to go into technical management.


  • Personal reasons: I ( at the time) had personal ties to Switzerland and wanted to move to really give it a decent shot.


  • Research Nerd: Finally, I liked the idea of doing a PhD, I love ( and am good at) doing research. While I could purse my career goals without one a PhD would make it easier and I thought I would enjoy getting to spend a few years working on more fundamental problems.


The cold- hard reality of a Swiss PhD: 

  • So I will say first, I do really , really enjoy the work I get to do. The research is fascinating and relevant and my fellow students are passionate and intelligent.


  • Here is the But: I walked into a PhD group with a lot (I mean a LOT) of issues. At the time of writing, half of the students who joined with me have quit. And none of the senior students have a good relationship with the Professor. I will write another post on how I would suggest avoiding getting into the same situation as me. Fun fact, there is currently a huge scandal at a Swiss university about Professors’ treatment of students , link here .


What next? 

I’m not sure. I really enjoy the work, and “giving up” is not something I really want to do. But I also don’t want to spend the next six years becoming more and more disaffected and end up leaving my field ( the fate of a lot of former students….).

Hopefully later I can write a more general post about the differences between work and academia, but for now I wanted to be honest about my situation instead of sugar coating it.

Currently I am trying to follow piglets advice and also remembering  a quote from one of my favorite blogs:

“There’s stuff ahead, you promise yourself. There’s big stuff later on, and when it happens, you’ll remember this moment. This stupid, gratuitous, depressing moment where you thought you had nothing. You had something, and you were waiting for something else. That’s it. ” -the frenemy




Getting a Tattoo in Zurich

I’ve been wanting to get another tattoo for the past few years. As happened with my last tattoo after years of thinking , it suddenly became an urgent need.


Step One: Cursory search of google reviews….

tattoo shops


Step Two: Pick an artist /studio…

For my first tattoo I basically booked an appointment at a local shop and went in blind to the artist. This time,because I am a responsible human being and because I wanted a specific style I took a look at the first few google results of “tattoo shop in zurich” and looked for artists who specialized in that style.

The nice thing about Giahi is that they host visiting artists pretty regularly. I found Tanis  who specialized in the style I was interested in (watercolor by the way 😉 ).


Step Three: Email the artist… 

OK , so I was weirdly nervous about this step, but I plucked up the courage and emailed Tanis.

Info in the email:

  • where on my body I wanted the tattoo
  • a rough idea of what kind of tattoo I wanted (reference picture)

Tanis replied saying she could do the tattoo and asking me to stop by the studio that day. Because I work in Zurich and she was in the Winterthur I replied saying I wasn’t able, then she replied saying I should call the shop.

Then, I called the shop and after a bit more back and forth I was scheduled for an appointment Saturday.


Step Four: Show up!

I showed up, they had a waiver form in German only but with a little help from google translate I was able to get through it.

I brought some water and dates with me in case I needed some sugar. Tanis was super awesome and printed out a few different versions of the design so we could figure out placement and size.


Overall Review: The end result was awesome and Tanis is an amazing artist! Giahi studio was also very nice and comfortable, with tattoo rooms a bit out of the way , which means you don’t have too many random people staring at you while you’re in pain ;).

Things to note about Giahi :

  • Forms only in German , so make sure you have google translate handy if your German’s not up to snuff.
  • For guests artists they prefer you pay in cash, I had to pop down to the atm and they were understanding, but it might be better to have cash in hand.
  • Giahi Winterthur has a cafe in the bottom floor- super handy if you bring along friends or want a bite after you finish your tattoo.
  • Friendly and helpful staff who didnt mind speaking English ( thanks guys!)

Tanis comes to Zurich regularly so check her facebook if you are interested in getting a tattoo by her! Link to Tanis


When the Cows Come Home

So 4 months later and its fall here in Zurich. In the villages this is also the time when the cows and sheep come down from the mountains where they have been grazing in the summer to their “winter quarters” in the valleys.

Usually each village has a celebration around this involving drinking, music and , most important COWS IN HATS.

Here for your viewing pleasure is fall in Switzerland:



6 Month Update from Switzerland

So, I just looked at the calendar and apparently I’ve been living in Switzerland ( Zurich -ish area) for six months. To say it has gone quickly would be the understatement of a century. I’m going to try and keep up with this blog more, but we’ve all heard that before. In case this is my last update for a while here is the just:


  • I am now a PhD student, still in engineering but much more science and research focused.
    • Surprisingly the pay for a PhD in Zurich is pretty generous so I’m still able to  keep roughly the same quality of life I had in Singapore. With less eating out , pricey drinks and mall visits.
  • The transition back to being a student is still ongoing, I’m currently suffering a bit of a slump after an initial burst of energy when I first moved. Also, need to learn to self motivate again.
  • Work drama exists everywhere *sigh* but I’m working with a good group of people and the work itself is very interesting.



  • For the past 6 months I have been living with my SO (lets call him W) in a village outside of the city. Despite this being very cheap , its an hour away from work and I’ve found it very isolating. W and I have decided to live separately for a while and I have found an apartment in the city. I move in this weekend, woot!
  • While I am excited to move, the idea not living with my SO was a bit of an adjustment for me but here’s hoping its all for the best.
  • I joined a book club 😉 Other than that finding people is still a bit of a challenge. I’ve made a lot of friends at work but am still working on building up my outside-of -work friends, hopefully moving to the city will help with that.
  • No , don’t speak German. Yes, this fills me with guilt and yes, I am planning on starting lessons asap.



  • Is awesome.
  • I have been skiing, hiking camping, swimming and kayaking. All of these things are awesome.
  • I bought a foldable kayak ( see link ) it is awesome. I am hoping that once I move to the city I can use it to commute/paddle to work via lake in the morning :).

That’s all the update there is for now.  I really will try to update this blog more often, about more interesting , relevant expat-y things, like how to register and change address in Switzerland.

Starting Over- Yet Again

Starting over yet again, today is my third day (ish) in Switzerland.

Or- should I say my first real day in Switzerland? I have spend the last two hibernating on my bed watching Netflix. Today- I finally ventured the three steps to the train station,  and payed the exorbitant 8 franks for the twenty minute train into the city. My mission: getting my bank account, residence permit, sim card ( cell number) and documents from my new job.

Three hours later and…. I have a new cell phone!

Baby steps. It might not seem like much and yes being able to open my bank account would have been great, but being able to text with friends back home and generally connect with the world is a good first step. In about 30 minutes, or more if I get lost, I will head over to my new office and pick up some employment documents ( also potentially meet my boss). This fills me with irrational terror. Ill get over it. Does everyone feel this way the first few days in a new country? Not sure, but it is pretty standard for me.

At the moment I am recovering from my mornings “adventure” by sitting in Starbucks writing this post. I used to be one of those people who judged Americans for going to Starbucks when traveling abroad. Now I understand.  Sometimes, in order to be brave and venture into the unknown, we need to be able to retreat into the relatively known and constant world of Starbucks. Where the coffee is expensive and the wifi is free.

I have lots more to do and a language ( or two- Swiss German O.o ) to learn before I can be at home here. But for today, I got a Swiss number , and that will have to be progress enough.


Moving to Switzerland and Other life Updates!

First- Happy Holidays!

Its been a while  since I’ve updated this blog and a few things have changed. After one year in Singapore and almost two years at my job I am quitting and heading to Switzerland to get my PhD.

My reasons for leaving are many and the subject for another post. I left Singapore December 9th , almost a month ago. It was a bittersweet goodbye. I feel like I left the city just as it was beginning to feel like home. In large part due to the friends I had made there.  All things equal I would have loved to stay in Singapore for another year or two but due to job and life circumstances it was best to move on.

I move to Switzerland in a few days and start work/school a few weeks after that. I am mildly terrified at the idea of taking classes and being a student again but really excited to work on research again.

Ill try to be better about updating this blog from Switzerland as well as finishing up some of the posts I meant to write but didn’t in my last few weeks of freedom. Once again I’m starting the new year with throwing myself into a new round of the living -abroad roller coaster. Excitement and terror is always a great start for a new adventure.


7 Things Remember When You’re the Boss

I aspire one day to lead a team or teams of engineers. I hope that when that happens I remember the list below. Things that,as a lowly engineer, I now notice. Add your suggestions to the comment section!

1) Respect your engineer’s time.

Don’t pull engineers into long meetings with no resulting actions. Talking is great, but as an engineer its the ‘doing’ that is my job. Every minute I spend in a meeting is a minute longer I have to spend in the  lab/fab/plant  that night to complete my tasks.


2) Don’t ask for special favors. 

I often get asked for ‘just one or two samples’ for some random tangent experiment that a director on my project wants to preform. These requests are invariably made to me alone in a hallway rather than the bi weekly meetings I hold specifically to establish priorities and discuss results for my process. If there is a critical experiment, I’m happy to work on it, but often these requests don’t make sense to perform at the time.

I have a plan. My system is booked for the next several months with that plan. Asking me to accommodate special requests is disrespectful to all of the work I have put into that plan. And often the results of these experiments aren’t even shared. As a manager or managing direction I think it is important to keep this in mind, and when critical experiments come up , make sure to ask them in the proper forum and frame the request with the understanding that this will likely disrupt plans the engineer has made.

3) When you ask for special favors , explain the question , not the DOE.

The best person to design and experiment is the person who knows the process best. This is the engineer. Period. I don’t care if you were hot shit when you were on the ground 10 years ago.

If, as a manager, you have a suggestion for a DOE phrase it as ” It would be interesting/beneficial to show customers the relationship between defects and pressure, could you get some data on that?” NOT ” Run five samples between 12 Torr and 50 Torr and measure defects”.

The experiment will be done better because your engineer knows his or her process better than you. This also shows that you have some trust in your engineer (and is a good way to see if that trust is justified).

4) Be present but don’t micromanage. 

In my opinion if you are asking for daily email updates from your team it means that you’re not present enough. I think ( and this might change as I have a greater understanding of management) that you should have a basic understanding of what your direct reports are doing on a day-to-day basis. This doesn’t mean taking their bathroom breaks, but it does mean that if they tell you ” Aww shit the pump broke, no process today” you have an idea of how that will impact the overall process plan.

I’ve seen a lot of managers, especially mid-level ones get caught up in meeting after meeting with higher-ups. They then aren’t available to their reports and consequently when the managers boss asks them what is happening that day they have to scurry to ask their engineers. Set some time aside each day when you are at your desk and available to your engineers.

5) Not everything is an escalation. 

Just because your engineers talk to you about some weird problem they are having in lab or with a design, it doesn’t mean they need help. Sometimes people just need to vent , and sometimes people just want to bounce ideas off of you. This is not an invitation to tell them what they should be doing or take over their project. Rather its an indication that they think you are competent enough to offer thoughts and suggestions.

And we engineers are nerds – sometimes something cool happens and we just want to tell other people how cool it is!

6) Give your people all the shit you want in private but defend the hell out of them in public. 

I’m going to tell you a story. One day a high level manager in my company complained because he saw several of the hardware technicians outside taking an extended smoke break. He then went to the tech’s manager, I man I will call ‘Bob’, to complain that they weren’t doing their job.

Bob absolutely tore the shit out of the complainer. Saying essentially that his guys worked hard and deserved their breaks and that its not like the process engineers were any better ( his exact words were something like” Do I ask how often the process engineers check facebook in the lab ?!”). Now Im sure Bob talked to his guys and made sure they were getting their work done. And I know for a fact that he asks for a lot from his team. But ‘publicly’ he defends his guys. Which means his techs don’t need to worry that their boss is going to throw them under the bus when things get hard.

Now a similar situation happened with a junior engineer on my team. The junior engineer made a mistake that led to a lot of lost time. But this mistake had been approved by a large group of people , everyone (including myself) had missed it. All of us were at fault and the junior engineer was the one who had realized the mistake and made it public. I sat in a meeting while a director essentially blamed the junior engineer for all of the issues. The junior engineers manager, lets call him “Tim” sat there and said nothing. It was bad.

Tim’s behavior essentially encourages his people to hide mistakes and bad outcomes because they now know that Tim will throw them under the bus as soon as they get bad results. Bad results and mistakes are part of the game. As a manager its your job to step up and explain this to higher-ups. You can give your people lots of shit later in private but in that meeting where everyone is coming down on your engineer for getting a bad outcome. That is your chance to step up and show that you are not a fair weather friend, taking credit for all of the successes but distancing yourself from the failures that are essential to that success.

7) When your engineers stop pushing back. You’ve lost them. 

Engineering is a creative profession. Most (good) engineers don’t do their jobs for the money. We do it because we get a thrill out of working out complex problems. When you take away all of the decision making and ownership and turn your engineers into yes-men who do only what you say, you have lost them.

Beware of the overly conciliatory engineer , she’s probably looking for another job.