When the PhD refuses to be a pure executor and starts looking both on the detail and the big picture, those are the elements that the industry really would need. And these are the skills that PhDs have acquired during their time at university.
– Dr. Fulvio Caruso, Process Engineer at ABB Semiconductors
Hi and welcome to PhD Career Stories, a podcast for people interested in career opportunities after their PhD. I am your host today, my name is Michele Manzo and I am co-founder and producer of this podcast. Every two weeks we bring a new episode with a story or a collection of tips and tricks, which we hope can inspire or guide you in your next career development. I often hear the sentence that the PhD gives you career opportunities only in academia, whereas makes it very difficult to transition into industry. Although I might partially agree with this sentence, with this podcast we want to show you exactly the opposite. We want to show you the variety of opportunities that a PhD can give you after you have completed it.
Today as a guest I’m pleased to have Fulvio Caruso, he is a previous colleague of mine. Now I should say back in the days we studied together electronics engineering at the University of Palermo. But Fulvio is also in a broad sense, a colleague of us, since he has completed his PhD in electronics engineering at the university of Palermo. His focus was working on hybrid organic and inorganic materials for photonics and optoelectronics application. In 2016, he left academia and moved to Switzerland in Lausanne, where he started working at Novagan, a startup company which is focused in nitrate technology. In March of this year, he joined ABB semiconductor, still in Switzerland, in Lenzburg, where he is currently working as a process engineer in production of high power semiconductor devices. I’m very glad to have you here today, Fulvio. Welcome to PhD Career Stories!
Fulvio: Thank you very much Michele for inviting me to PhD Career Stories. I’m so glad that we finally came up and talked together after so many years after university. Thank you again!
Michele: Yeah, this is also one of the important things I wanted to mention: the importance of not burning bridges. In your career development, in your career transformation, try to keep contact with previous colleagues is always a great opportunity to learn, and to improve yourself. But let’s talk a little bit about about you, Fulvio. Tell us a little bit about you. When did you start your PhD and why?
Fulvio: Ok, I started my PhD back in 2013, at the University of Palermo. Well after six months that I finished my masters degree in electronic engineering. So I started that PhD course, because I really wanted to keep on focusing on the academic research that I was already being involved into during my masters degree.
What I remember is that, of all the engineering students that I knew that were dealing with circuits analog or digital simple or for complex commercial application, it doesn’t matter, I was the only one feeling that I was entering in more of a physics world that was intrigued me, because I felt privileged to gather some experience in the world of scientists that had different backgrounds to this. So, what I got from my PhD of course it was I huge mix of applied semiconductor physics and material sciences. And that came together with the difficulties of setting up the workbench for my research and all these challenges had something truly magnetic to me. Even though I knew how hard the life of a PhD student was going to be.
Michele: That’s great! In a way where already ready. Did you have the chance to meet other PhD students during your master so you had the opportunity to learn a bit more about PhD life?
Fulvio: Yes, to be honest I didn’t meet any other PhD student in electronic engineering but I knew other PhD students from other degree courses in the university of Palermo and I, what I remember their way of living. And I enjoyed the work they were doing definitely. But I felt like I was about to go in an unexplored world. Because I didn’t know anyone that had started their PhD in electronics. So that was more or less something that was definitely keeping me in contact with my department but I didn’t know what I was going in to.
Michele: It is fantastic, Fulvio. It’s something which I have seen, which is in common with very many PhD students. And I mean the willingness to discover, the willingness to study and clearly the willingness to understand a little bit better how the world and the discipline we’re working in. However, eventually you took a decision to leave academia and to land a position in industry. Can you describe a little bit how you feel about it and what initiated your decision to leave academia to pursue a career in industry?
Fulvio: Yes. Okay well if I have to be a hundred percent honest during my PhD, I didn’t even know if I wanted to leave academia. I believe there many students experience something similar to the five stages of grief and loss. But in a reverse way, in maybe just three stages:
The first one is acceptance, where you start accepting you will run a doctorate programme, and it comes with all the high or working on something that is, in your mind, cutting edge technology. And the second stage is similar to depression and you will start asking yourself if your research should take longer or if is it still worth studying, because maybe someone around the world someone is doing it at the same time, but in a better and more articulated way. And the third stage is anger. And that comes at the end of the PhD when you start being mad at yourself. Because you feel like all of the years you have spent on your research, produce something like a drop in the ocean. And the point is, you are so focused in the third stage, expressing your anger, that you forget about how to prepare for what comes next.
So, at the final phase of my PhD, especially when I was writing my PhD thesis, I realised that I needed to write a good and honest CV, and send it both to universities and research institutes, and to companies of course. And the outcome of this experiment was that companies were more prone to answer to my applications. While most universities didn’t even bother to reply to my emails. And my CV was short with just a list of competences and one or two lines of brief descriptions of previous experiences. And it was never my intention to make it large enough to interest the reader, like most academics expect your CV to be. So, my mindset had changed. And I realised that. I wasn’t paying attention to the words, I was already targeting the industry with my CV. And after my PhD, I got three different job offers coming from industry, and I decided I needed to take advantage of everything I learned. And I wanted to use it for something different than writing a research paper.
Michele: That’s a really interesting aspect you have just raised. I would like to focus on the two main things that you highlighted. The first one is the third stage, which described… that was the anger. And then the second one is the mindset and mindset changes something which I think happens to many PhD:s which are transitioning from academia to industry. Regarding this, do you think that is something that you wished you knew before you started your PhD?
Fulvio: Well… Not really, no. Well, nothing is my answer. I believe that is not bad to know in advance, what your next job is going to be, whatever it is. The slow discovering of pros and cons. It’s also a challenge and as a student I felt like I had to face that challenge.
Michele: So the result of what we are today is a collection of all the mistakes we’ve done before?
Fulvio: Probably, yes.
Michele: I totally agree with you, both for personal experience and for listening to our podcast. Do you think there is a collection of skills, which a PhD can provide you and that are useful in industry but at the same time such skills are not valued enough?
Fulvio: Well, definitely the ability to handle most of the tasks by myself. And first of all learning how to deal with bureaucracy and financial stuff, even though through the academic point of view. And also the small experience of teaching which I had the privilege to run into during my Phd. It gave me the chance to learn how to make a person understand even complex matters when you have a different education background. Thinking about the industry, not everybody is an engineer or physicist uh I don’t know… chemist. You may want to express yourself in a comprehensible way to be able to make everybody’s life easier. And as a PhD that was the best thing that I could get.
Michele: I totally agree with you. Do you think there is something that you have not learned in academia that would’ve been useful in industry nowadays, or even would have made easier your transition into the industrial and working environment?
Fulvio: Yes, probably the true meaning of industry, which is not just the wrong idea that it is opposite of research. It’s a lifestyle, industry is a lifestyle and you share it with many persons to pursue the same objective. I would say that’s probably the main word that the academia tends to forget is teamwork. And teamwork was something that I did not learn quite enough during my PhD. I learned how to deal with myself, and my problems and not with the whole problems of the whole team, in a research team that can happen. But it is not the main focus of your job everyday when you are a PhD.
Michele: I think that you have raised a very important point. The teamwork feeling is something that you really start to experience at a different level in a main industrial setting. At the same time, based on my personal experience, I noticed also some resistance and skepticism in industry. Do you think that there is some skills which industry is not valuing enough from people with a PhD background?
Fulvio: Yes I would say that, since the PhD has the tendency to ask a lot of questions about their work. Sometimes this is good and sometimes this is bad. And industry sometimes doesn’t understand that it’s those good moments which are needed for companies. When the PhD refuses to be a pure executor and start looking both on the detail and the big picture, those are the elements that the industry really would need. And these are the skills that PhDs have acquired during their life in university.
Michele: So it’s really important for you that you highlight these aspects about, I would say, mind opening of industry towards PhD: s. Let’s fall back a little bit toward the PhD world. If you would like to share some tips or tricks for PhD:s which are currently unemployed and they are in their career development period. What would you suggest them to do?
Fulvio: There is probably two things. Do not be scared to try. And do not be scared to fail. Academia has the tendency to be very, very closed. Once you make a mistake, especially a big one, you realise that you have done something that can mark your life forever. Industry does not. So keep this messages in your mind and convince yourself that your skills have a huge panorama were to be applied for.
Michele: Yes, I totally agree with you! It is important to build a learning environment where failing is seen as an opportunity and not as… as a mark. What tips would like to give the or would like to share with somebody who is new to his PhD? I mean, if you for instance could talk to yourself at the beginning of your PhD, what would you tell to yourself?
Fulvio: Well… If you have decided to go on with your PhD, that must be because you really want to. And avoid thinking that you are entering in the academia world, and that’s all. You’re not. And the sooner you will realise that, the better you will face your coming years at the university. So it’s not just going back in books and research and writing papers. You’re building something for your future. Whatever is going to be, it’s something that you will take advantage for.
Michele: And it is also a great trip to do a PhD, I guess. It is a great opportunity.
Fulvio: Definitely it is!
Michele: Thank you very much, Fulvio. It’s been great talking to you and I really appreciate that you had got the time to contribute to our podcast.
Fulvio: Thank you again for giving me the opportunity to share my experience and all small tips that I wish I could have had when I was a PhD student and I wish everybody can can listen to them now and can take a good profit of this.
Michele: One last thing, which I’m remembering now: if our listeners would like to reach out in some way what would be the best way to connect with you?
Fulvio: They can definitely write me an email, both at work email which is fulvio.caruso[at]ch.abb.com or they can even write me an email in my private address, which is caruso.fulvio[at]gmail.com. Email is the best way to get in touch with me because it’s something that I will always keep under my eyes.
Michele: That’s brilliant! Many thanks for your contribution! Bye!
Fulvio: Thank you again! Bye!
Thank you for listening to yet another episode of PhD Career Stories. Do you know anybody who’s story will be interesting to be shared in our channels or do you want to contribute yourself to our podcast? Don’t hesitate to reach out to us! You can find us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Spotify, iTunes and so on. Thank you for listening! Bye!