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Into the Astro Industry with Matthew Stevenson

Today I'll be talking to Matthew Stevenson, a former astronomy graduate student at Caltech. Matthew defended his PhD thesis last summer and will be receiving his degree this June. He now works for Synaptics, as discussed below. While at Caltech he worked on the C-Band All-Sky Survey (C-BASS) which is mapping the entire polarized sky at 5 GHz. He also worked on anomalous microwave emission in the Galaxy's ISM.

Where do you currently work and what do you do? 

I work for Synaptics. We are a leading company in capacitive-touch interface products for computers, smartphones, and tablets. My job title is "Senior Algorithm Architect," and my job is to develop next-generation algorithms and circuits for our chips to improve our performance. This requires coming up with new inventions, evaluating their efficacy, and writing specifications for their implementation. 

What does your typical day entail? 

My work has a great deal of variety, which is really nice. I am typically working on 2 or 3 projects, each of which may require some theoretical work (analytical, numerical, or both), some experimental work, and a substantial amount of documentation. I may spend one day working entirely on an analytical model for a project, the next constructing a numerical model in Matlab, and then the day after that testing the model on my experimental set-up. 

When and how did you decide to leave the academic career track and get a job in industry?

I decided to leave academia during the final year of my PhD. I had applied for a number of post-docs, as well as several jobs in industry. I received two offers: one for a post-doc and one for my current position. My decision was largely based on two factors: work-life balance and salary. 

On the subject of work-life balance, many in academia will be familiar with the notion that young scientists are expected to work at least 50 hours per week, increasing to 80 hours a week during crunch time (ie, proposal deadlines, observing runs, etc). Some jobs in industry do require similar commitments, but mine does not. I typically work 40 hours per week, and I have only had to bring work home a handful of times in the 10 months since I started. 

During my graduate studies, I often took part in good-natured commiseration on how underpaid we were, especially considering our long working hours and technical skills. As it turns out, the disparity is not only real, it is shockingly large. The difference in compensation between an industry position and a post-doc can be in the range of 2-3x. People often choose careers in academia for the love the science and tend to give less attention to money. For myself, however, such a large difference has a real impact on the quality of life for my family and myself. 

Are you happy with your decision? 

I am very happy with my decision. I find my job to be absorbing and fulfilling in ways that I didn't expect. I am genuinely having fun as I work to solve the problems I am given. It is immensely satisfying that I have a job that I enjoy, which has great work-life balance, and which compensates me fairly for the expertise that I've developed. 

What aspect of your new job are you most pleased with?

In my current job, I am most pleased with how interesting, challenging, and satisfying the work is. Although I knew that the work would require technical expertise, I did not expect the extent to which I would enjoy it. My main concern with leaving academia was that I would end up in a job that I didn't enjoy as much. The fact that I do enjoy this work so much really leaves me with no regrets on my decision. 

What's one aspect that you're less than pleased with?

It is a shame that I'm no longer involved on the forefront of science. Although my current work involves developing novel algorithms and circuits, it doesn't really replace the wonder of scientific discovery. Fortunately, my scientific background does allow me to follow new scientific discoveries as they're announced, both in the popular press and in the open-access literature. Even when I was in academia, a great deal of my scientific wonder came vicariously through attending colloquia and reading papers, so this isn't actually that large of a change. 

Do you have any advice to offer graduate students considering a move from academia to industry? What do you know now that you wish you knew in grad school?

I would encourage all graduate students to at least consider careers in industry. Students should attend their schools' career fairs and take a look at what's out there. There may well be great opportunities that they're simply unaware of, and it really doesn't hurt to look. 

Many students wonder how their expertise on some detail of the interstellar medium (for example) will be useful in industry. The answer is that, actually, it probably won't be. What will be useful is their expertise in applying the scientific method, in solving complex problems, in programming, in instrumentation, in technical communication, in technical reading, and in a myriad of other skills. Success in graduate school requires a great number of valuable skills which are in high demand in industry. 

A big challenge in finding good jobs in industry is overcoming this misconception that one's only value is in one's scientific results. Students must not only overcome this in themselves, but also in recruiters. Unfortunately, recruiters will often not see the valuable technical skills that a science PhD requires. Therefore, students must be prepared to make their skills clear. 

Finally, I wish that when I was a grad student I had known just how great the opportunities in industry are. Many grad students have their hearts set on a dream job in academia. This can lead to great deal of anxiety, stress, and general unhappiness. If I had known that I could fall back on such great opportunities in industry, I think I could have relaxed in grad school and enjoyed it a lot more. Science is a lot of fun, and grad students should really try to enjoy every minute of it.


cosmicray said…
Thanks for a great perspective on life outside of academia!

I would pile on to your point about students (and postdocs) often thinking that their greatest credential (or what they should market themselves on outside astronomy) is scientific results.

Really, as you said, scientific results will be irrelevant outside of astronomy, unless you developed some groundbreaking image processing technique that can be used in computer vision, for example.

What people will positively respond to (and what you should be proud to talk about) is that you have been a self-directed, problem-solving, knowledge-generating researcher for 4+ years, who is able to rigorously analyze problems and contribute analytical horsepower to a team working on challenging problems. Any professional astronomer will have had technical writing experience, coding knowledge, project management skills, grant application success, and team coordination capabilities. That combination is not that common, and you should make the most of it.

Sometimes, it's actually refreshing to have your background appreciated for those aspects rather than just the scientific discoveries you made along the way using those skills.

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