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

 

 

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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.

 

“You don’t look like an engineer”

I can guarantee most female engineers, and often POC who are engineers have heard this phrase at least once.  Generally people mean it as a compliment (at least with women). But it stinks in the same way that “don’t get so emotional” stinks when its been said by a male colleague after you’ve proven your point. I’ve never once heard these phrases directed at a man.

What is wrong with “You don’t look like an engineer”? : 

  1. Yes. I do. I am an engineer, therefore, I look exactly like an engineer.
  2. Would you ever say ” You don’t look smart”? If the answer is no, then don’t say “you don’t look like an engineer”. It means exactly the same thing. If you would tell a girl “you don’t look smart” then please, exit the internet.
  3. If you have an idea in your head that people in STEM all like Amy or Sheldon from Big Bang Theory, that is your problem. Nerdiness knows no color or gender boundaries.
  4. If you want to tell me I’m pretty ( which I think is often the intention?) then please, just say that.

I went into engineering because I love knowing how things work. I love looking at a complex system , like a power plant , or a chemical reactor and knowing that with equations and some time I can build it from the ground up.

I get to build , really, really cool things. This is why I do my job. Its as simple as that. But somehow this is hard for people to believe.

As I’m writing the above I’m starting to get a bit emotional, which is a little surprising. I’m not a very emotional person. I’m analytical and introverted like a lot of other engineers. I have a pretty thick skin, and in general, am treated as an equal by colleagues. But every time I hear ” you don’t look like an engineer”, “don’t get so emotional”, “we need someone more experienced“, “can we talk to the lead engineer?”  I see the capital T Truth.

The Truth is, that no matter how good I am at my job I will always need to work a little bit harder to be seen as good. I will always need to be extra careful to prove a point in a way that doesn’t offend my male , senior colleague. I must be careful to not get too excited or enthusiastic because then my argument will mean less , because I am “emotional”. And even when I do all of these things, I will still probably never rise very high in my current company. Because that is just the way the world works, and sometimes it makes me sad.

If you don’t believe this. Your eyes are not open.

I still love my job. If I cant have the impact I hope to at my current company than I will find somewhere I can. Because things are getting better. For every guy who says “you don’t look like an engineer” There are three guys who were in my study group, who know that I look exactly like an engineer. The kind of engineer who still remembers the day she learned how to use the Schrodinger equation to explain hydrogen’s existence as a diatomic as one of the coolest moments of her life.

And no matter how many things about my job suck. At the end of the day. I built something and no one can take that away from me.

 

Below is a link to an amazing ted talk about women in engineering, bias and how we can all help to increase diversity in STEM:

https://embed-ssl.ted.com/talks/yassmin_abdel_magied_what_does_my_headscarf_mean_to_you.html