A week in the life - how I survived the shift from a PhD to the industry

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Me at work.. I don’t always look so curly. The image is a drawing by my dear friend Antea Curcuruto.

The week which has just ended (yesterday) has seen me transition from academia to the industrial world, I am working as a Software Developer (as it must be certainly clear from the image…).

It’s been a training week, I still have to learn lots of things in order to become fully functional in my job, but I am making great progress and everything’s really exciting!

I’ll here focus on the path I took in order to bridge the “famous” gap -from PhD to __ __ __ __ ___ (complete with whatever your extra-academic dream field is). The Web is full of advices about this, and stories, and what-to-dos and what-to-donts. Frankly, I think everyone has his/her own way to figure out what’s best for him/herself, and I don’t believe a unique set of advices makes any sort of sense. Plus, if you look for this kind of things online, there seems to be the sly assumption that a PhD is like a cage in which you fall and escaping from it is something like the survival of the fittest. Nonsense! A PhD is a wonderful thing, it is what allows you to improve your reasoning skills by working on an intellectual open question, it is what enables you to put your thoughts in a logical stream, it is what furnishes you with plenty of added knowledge you don’t get with a degree, it is what makes you face the challenge of talking in public and working in a team. From the administrative point of view, it is a university qualification which, as its usual outcome, leads to an academic career. This doesn’t mean that it cannot lead to something else. Of course, as with almost anything, this may depend on the country. In Italy for instance, I have the feeling that a PhD is regarded solely as an academic thing, both because you’d be considered overqualified for an industrial job (meaning they don’t want to/can’t pay you a regular salary in agreement with your qualification) and because you’re considered, well, old (meaning they think it’s late for you to be trained for another couple of years in order to fulfill the company needs). Elsewhere, things might be different, the job market might be more dynamic and people can really have the luxury of choosing their personal paths. It’s mostly a matter of collective mindset, I believe.

I had started gaining knowledge and information about a possible career in Data Science. They say Data Science is becoming the new fuel, in terms of economic potential. As a matter of fact, even if you have no idea what that is, a simple googling will throw up plenty of results about how sexy a data scientist job is, or how good it would be if any company would take decisions based on real data. Everything is true, analyzing data and abstracting patterns and information out of chaos is indeed very fascinating. And it can be very useful as well. I won’t enter into the details of where Data Science could be applied, I will only mention my dream. I dream that one day data will help everyone be more informed about the world around them and take reasoned decisions. This goes from healthcare (you know who/what institute performs well and who doesn’t) to politics (you are able to cross-check every single politician’s statement). Sure, you still need education to do that, otherwise, sorry, but you’ll be fooled, no matter the information you could potentially reach. And this is already happening.

As a physicist who has worked on data mining/numerical simulations/modelling, I knew (read: hoped) I could go for a Data Science/Tech career, but I lacked any commercial experience. I came across this bootcamp summer school, Science to Data Science, and I applied. It’s been an intense 5-weeks back in August, and I also had to write my thesis at the sametime! The school has been great overall, I highly recommend it.

Then, while submitting the famous thesis, I started looking for opportunities. I knew Data Science means basically a lot of different things, and the companies involved can be extremely diversified. I was looking for a job involving programming and/or data mining/analyzing, which would provide me with new challenges every day; I was also looking for a young-minded company with a friendly atmosphere. And, I wanted to move to Scotland because my boyfriend was already living there. There we go, I landed a very interesting job in a company whose product I really like, which also happens to be near where I live. I’m not going to continue listing the things I love about this new life, I just want to convey a point: if you have a flexible mindset and if you enjoy learning/studying continuously, you can go wherever, careerwise, and that’s the only thing that really counts. You are the master of your own future, and (I’ve been having this sentence as the bottom phrase of my e-mails for years now, I never found anything more appropriate):

There’s only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that’s your own self. — Aldous Huxley, “Time must have a stop”

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