How to find your way into industry, start-ups and academia
A mentoring session at the Swiss Robotics Days 2021 & 2022
Whatever career path you’re thinking about, it is important to know “the rules of the game”.
Some are the same for academia, rising start-ups and big companies, some not, some are well known, some less… and among them, there might be the one that will make a difference for your next career move.
At the Swiss Robotics Days of 2021 and 2022, the NCCR Robotics Equal Opportunities committee invited several professionals to a mentoring session where they shared with young researchers their tips on how to make it in industry or academia.
Invited mentors for the 2022 session were Simone Schürle-Finke from ETH Zurich, Laura Marchal-Crespo from Delft University of Technology and Maja Hadziselimovic from SKAN AG (prompted by the moderators Auke Ijspeert (EPFL) and Manasi Muglikar (UZH)).
Lightly edited highlights of the sessions are posted here.
Q: What inspired you to pursue a career in robotics? And do you regret that choice?
I don’t regret it at all, but my path was not straight towards it. I loved math and physics in high school, but didn’t dare to go for a PhD in that direction. Then, by chance, microrobotics and nanorobotics appeared in my research and I got hooked to it. Today I am deeply focused on microrobots for medical applications.
I too was not linear in my career, as a child I loved to play with LEGO as much as with Barbies. I didn’t even know what an engineer was when I was a child, but then, as I grew up, I discovered it and decided to go and follow studies in industrial engineering. After university, I went to work in a company. It was rather boring so I came back to do a PhD and found my passion: doing robotics for medical applications and truly having an impact on people’s wellbeing.
My journey starts in Bosnia: my role model early on was my dad, who was fixing things around the house as an electrician. But I was not sure whether I could study as an electrical engineer; I didn’t have anyone to discuss this with at school, I was scared of my physics teachers,… So then I decided to just try it out. As I got in, I realized I was rather good! Then I discovered robotics and found it fascinating. After a bachelor, I obtained an Erasmus scholarship for Slovenia and started my master in robotics. Then continued in Serbia and then I did an internship in a company in the automotive industry in Germany. In parallel I was working in a start-up developing an exoskeleton and realized that there are so many people in Bosnia who still don’t see the possibility to pursue STEM careers, so I decided to do workshops to spread awareness on this, especially among girls. So, I alternate working in the industry and working with kids…
If you are curious about a PhD and find joy in science, don’t hesitate: go and try it. I encourage you to look around, go and look around labs, read a lot, get inspiration from the literature and don’t neglect your social environment: think of where you want to live and who is there, who is working on things you like. Also think of the “stage” of the lab: is it new and rising? Is it an established lab? Think of pros and cons of the two cases and which one works best for you. Know yourself and look for something that fits with it.
I worked for one year in a company, between my first master and my second one. And I don’t regret that year, as I gained many skills that I still use in academia. Maybe you decide on something, then realize that that path is not for you: that’s not time wasted!
My colleagues said it all! I remember at the beginning that people were giving me tasks and I had no clue how to approach them. But then, after a few tasks, you improve, you get ideas, and you say: yeah, I will figure it out. This is also important for personal development: you can and will learn anything. There is always time and opportunities. Don’t be afraid of tests!
Don’t think things are set in stone. Don’t think that a choice you take defines you for the future, necessarily. Especially in academia, it may seem that we have less control over our career path, but I see that having several employers and multiple careers in one’s professional life is actually becoming more and more common. You can define your own narrative, so even if you are not 100% sure of something, then just try one direction and when you realize it’s not right for you, just change. You always grow, learn, improve and become the unique person you want to be.
(Audience Question): I am a former mechanical engineer who got interested in data science and robotics and I am now trying to transition towards this field. I left my former job and now I am not sure how I can join a robotic company, given the competition with younger talents. What advice do you have for someone who is trying to change career later in life?
The exciting thing of robotics is that it’s an interdisciplinary field: people come to it from all kind of different backgrounds. And we need all that. I wouldn’t worry, because you might be very interesting because of the broad set of skills you bring.
Think of what is your unique selling point and make it visible. You can for example pitch your diverse background and once you are convinced it is a strength, you will convince others too.
(Audience Question): Do you think that this advice is valid in academia too? Or do they look for someone who has gone through a certain set of steps, a certain sequence? And what should I do, just apply? How open are labs to taking people from outside?
I am an engineer in a medicine faculty. So if this is possible, other interdisciplinary paths are also possible. My lab includes people with many diverse backgrounds. I would like to have you in my lab, if you bring unique skills! As a second point, I think in Switzerland it might be hard to enter academia as an older person because there are age limits, which I personally disagree with. I hope that this will be changed soon but at least in other places, as far as I know, this limit is not there.
Q: How should I go about choosing an employer in industry? What’s the best way to approach a company?
When I was choosing a company something important for me was the company culture: how do they think of work-life balance, quality of life, gender balance, etc.? that means a lot and tells a lot about the company. I could work in a small company with 20 employees and one with 2000. This difference in size also creates a difference. In a small company, you’re involved in all aspects of a product, from research to training, to customer support… while in a bigger company you are more focused on your area of work. This is another thing to think about. It might also be a good approach to start in a smaller company, that at least was good for me, because it gave me the chance to see a lot of different things and aspects that make a whole project, which is a vision you don’t get in a larger company. This also helps you identify the part you are most interested in and refine your career choices.
I think that LinkedIn is a very powerful platform for that, so make sure your profile is polished and up-to-date, you can even set your status showing that you are on the market. Then, reach out within your network! Build your network! To this end, being here now is already a good choice. And then maybe someone that you’ve reached out to knows someone etc…
(Audience Question): My question is about visibility. As women in STEM, it is sometimes difficult to be the only woman in an environment, and sometimes it is difficult to be recognized and be visible. How can we increase our visibility? Especially in industry?
You’re right, there are not so many women doing commissioning in big factories and sometimes I went through very difficult situations because of that, e.g. receiving stupid comments from colleagues. At the beginning, you are not even aware that this is inappropriate and maybe you don’t even know how to react. When I realized that this was a real problem, I joined some networking groups and saw that actually there are many that you can join. A problem there is that each group tends to stick to itself, but I think that we will not solve the problem without joining forces. We should not have to face uncomfortable situations just because we are women. So, join those groups. This is also an opportunity to meet great women, who are in important positions, and this can also help with your networking. But you can also start groups at lower ages, with students, even elementary school students! We need to combine the forces of everyone to solve this problem, as I unfortunately think it will take long to solve it.
Joining forces is important because this way you don’t feel isolated, and this is one of the worst feeling one can have: to feel that you don’t belong. Personally, I always speak up. This sometimes gains you the label of “a difficult woman”, but never accept attacks. If someone is attacking your professional life and self-esteem, don’t accept it!
Find your sparring partner to help you. Find a mentor that you can talk to, even inside a company.
If the surrounding is not treating you well, don’t burn yourself in order to change the company. Leave, before it destroys you. If you tried and it didn’t work, go somewhere else where you feel that you belong.
I completely agree with what has been said so far. An additional note about possibly feeling out of place: I think that everyone suffers from impostor syndrome and women are known to suffer from it more than men. Don’t listen to that voice. We all have it, but trust yourself. Everyone has a place.
Even as a young individual in industry, I already changed many companies. I had my fair share of unnecessary comments and unusual situations. These things helped me speak up, and especially choose who to speak up to. Not the person who insulted you, but their bosses. Those who can make a change. Secondly, get out of your head and others’ people heads. Lastly, there are environments that provide opportunities for women, like NCCR Robotics. NCCR Robotics has specific scholarships for women, I got one and this opened the world for me. Don’t try to find your opportunity in environments that don’t give you one, go to the environments that are open to the issue and support you. Those places want you there.
Q: There are a lot of unwritten rules for finding jobs, in academia and in industry too. What are unwritten rules or mistaken to avoid that you want to share?
One of the mistakes I was doing all the time is that if a job announcement had 10 requirements and I was missing one, I would not apply. Now, I apply even if I have only 5 out of them. I really thought you always need to tick all the boxes and this blocked me from getting very good positions. Don’t do this!
Network! Talk to everybody! You never know who will be the one to help you.
I realized that very long emails, with lots of details, not tailored to what the company or lab is doing, are discouraging for those who have to go over that application. Always know your audience! Tailor your application to your job. This really makes a difference.
In academia there are also reference letters. They are so important! Hiring committees don’t just look at the CV but also at what the people they know, what the people they trust in the field say about you. Go and invite yourself to labs! I have done it often, and this is a great way to enlarge your network. Go around, visit places, give talks.
Q: There are a lot of unwritten rules for finding jobs, in academia and in industry too. What are unwritten rules or mistaken to avoid that you want to share?
If I had a Swiss Franc for every time someone asked me this question, I would be rich! But the answer is: that I don’t manage it. You cannot be perfect at the job and perfect at home. Some things you have to let go, learn to prioritize and focus on what is important. Also, choose your partner wisely! If I think about it, I can do what I do because my husband is very supportive, and we share everything 50%. If your partner prioritizes their career over yours, it would be very difficult for you to manage family and career.
Realize that you can’t do everything and give yourself some slack. My child is 2 and, of course, needs much attention; but he also helped me to get better at prioritizing and be comfortable to say “no” more often. I feel I might have become more efficient. It was also helpful for me to create routines and define rules (that may change over time as the child is growing and lab/career are evolving) to make sure I have sufficient time for my family.
Q: How do we chose an employer? What’s the best way to approach a company that one is interested in?
In start-ups it’s a lot easier to get a human connection, so just approach them and speak. Have a conversation, that’s the best way to start. Reaching out via email is also nice, because it shows your specific interest in the company. Show pro-activeness and specific interest in them!
For companies, yes, do apply via the web forms, we do read them all, but also reach out via contacts you may have. If the company offers a position about X but you are skilled in Y, write to them. The most important thing is to show your personal interest in them. About how to choose the company: don’t forget to check the people you will be working with. Who’s the manager you’ll work with? Do you like them? The most perfect job ever cannot compensate for a bad manager. Look for a manager who is interested in your development.
I mainly get people from the doctoral program and for me motivation letters are important. Do your homework, show your real interest and that you are aware of the type of research carried out in the lab.
Q: How can we choose our manager well?
Ask them explicitly: how do you see my development? There are questions you can prepare and then ask during the interview. “Can I grow in the company?” “I would like to speak with some of my future peers”. You can ask, find out, and then follow your gut feeling! If you don’t get a good vibe, you’re probably right. It is really important who you work for, especially in the first years after education. Finally, hiring is difficult on both sides, so be patient.
You can also look for internships: they are a window into the environment, giving you the chance to check the company, and get to know the people… you should interview them as much as they interview you!
Q: For Marina, how did you decide to go from technical position to management?
Marina: I always had an interest in how products affect people. Sales came very naturally, because it provides the customers’ view on products. Indeed, at ABB, most of our sales people are engineers! Sales in companies such as ABB is a very engineering job. About management, it is about people. I really enjoy it and I spend a lot of time asking myself “Who am I as a leader? How am I?”. Now I know I have a style which is different from many of my colleagues, but it has been effective for me.
Q: When networking, how should we approach “approaching”? e.g. How do we approach a professor at a conference, when they’re typically surrounded by other professors?
Networking is key, indeed. Have beers with people at conferences! Be friendly! I respond to almost all my emails, so dropping an email is a good way to approach as well. But make sure to address it personally as opposed to a generic “Dear professor” email. I don’t like emails where you see that the sender has not put effort into personalizing the email and sends the same one to 100’s of professors.
Indeed, if you’re interested in someone, go up to them and present yourself.
it can also be useful to find a person that can introduce you to the person you want to be introduced to.
Q: Who are the best people to get reference letters from?
When I started applying for positions, I thought that my CV would speak for me. No! reference letters are very important. Closed letters (that a referee sends directly to the employer) have more value than open ones. External letters are very important too later in your career: get known by people who are not your direct supervisors. In an academic career, when going for promotion (from assistant to associate professor for instance), the promotion committee will request evaluations from multiple professors in your field of research. It is important to make sure that prominent researchers in your field know about your work.
Reference letters are important. Say in your CV that you can give them upon request. Go up to people you’ve worked with or have a connection to and ask them if they would be ok with being your reference. Then, remind those who accepted about this whenever you give their name somewhere.
Q: How do you deal with people randomly reaching out to you in LinkedIn etc?
If you see they have a sincere interest, follow-up. On a related note, when you get a random connection request on LinkedIn from someone you don’t know, ask them why they are reaching out to you specifically. This forces them to explain their reason.
I get very, very many but try to attend to them all.
For me, if you add a personal message to your connection request, it’s a bonus with me. If you put my name in the request, I will click accept.
Q: What if you don’t know yet what you’re looking for, whether to be in academia or industry?
Robotics is hiring at all levels, and especially now. It is very easy to move from one field to the other. People go to industry after postdocs, and people in industry even get back to academia. Don’t worry about having to make a permanent decision.
Take some time to decide, don’t rush the decision. Don’t be hard on yourself, thinking that you need to know exactly what you want to do. If you find that something is not the right field for you, the time you spent on it is not lost, it’s all knowledge and experience you acquired.
I think I did 6 internships in my life… if you choose wrong, it’s ok! It’s never too late to change, explore… and discover what you don’t like to do, which is very important.
Q: What are the unwritten rules in academia?
Auke: I have a long list… first of all, the importance of reference letters and personal contacts. It’s rare that I hire a postdoc that I haven’t met at a conference or event like this. Second, make a good research statement, show your vision, look long-term, and be ambitious. You can completely change later, anyway. When you apply for a position, show your characterizing trait, eg. I am a computer engineer. I am a mechanical engineer. Interdisciplinarity is good for research projects (e.g. for getting funding and publishing), but less for positions because you have to fit within a particular department. Also, prepare for your teaching statement: What courses does your prospective employer offer? Mention exactly which ones of those you could teach. Regarding publications: In robotics you can go for high impact publications, but they are high risk and they can take very long. Don’t put all your eggs one basket, send manuscripts to smaller places as well.
Q: In Switzerland there are many many startups. What are the pros and cons of joining a startups vs a bigger company?
Start-ups are not for everybody. There is a level of uncertainty, but you’re likely given a lot more responsibility. You’ll see your work directly on the product, and then directly in the hands of the customers. Small start-ups also allow you to explore nearby areas and fields. You’ll have to wear “many hats”, and e.g. as a mechanical engineer, you may need to get familiar with regulations. Being in a very new start-up gives you the chance to grow with it. Of course, this is a risk: it might be that the start-up dies. Most of the start-ups here in robotics have been around for 3-4 years, that’s already quite long. These start-ups are not as risky as one might think, but they are obviously a bit risky.
I think that the difference between start-ups and industry is smaller than people think it is, there are start-ups within big companies, for example. It might be easier in a big company to stay in a field and go deep in there, but big companies let you move around a lot too. ABB is not “one company”, there are many divisions, many application fields… and they are all different. Big companies are maybe a little bit more secure, but not so much.
Indeed, I think that there is a culture shift now in Switzerland and failure (of a start-up) is better accepted than before. This is a good thing. There is a lot to learn and you can do better next time.
Q: Regarding work-life balance, how do we make sure we are not indispensable but also not easily replaceable?
People are scared to mix academia and family life, because you need to move a lot before you find your permanent position. But once you do, academia allows quite some flexibility, which is very nice. Also, things are changing now, there are a lot more resources for family support. Finally, in academia it’s quite rare to get kicked out once you have a permanent position, and so they are very stable positions.
I had my child with me during business trips, and my manager supported this. I am now requiring my people to spend time at home with their kids, because this is actually a very good training for dealing with customers. It is possible to have both a career and family, but you have to choose your partner wisely and have important discussions: kids or no kids? Who does this? Who does that? Life is always a puzzle. It requires planning and discussion but it is possible. Don’t shy away from these discussions, both with your partner and also with your managers.
I grew up as a kid following my mother on business trips. In startups, the environment is small and dynamic, so you can make it family friendly. Have the discussion with your manager and remember, founders are often parents themselves.
ADDITIONAL RANDOM BITS OF ADVICE FOR JOINING INDUSTRY
- Great to have a career strategy and plan but do not forget the importance in doing a great job here and now
- Do things you enjoy and believe in and not ONLY what you (and others think) is “good” for the career- normally what is good for the career is what you enjoyed doing
- Choose your manager wisely
- Constantly get feedback and give feedback
- Stay curious and open for new tasks and ideas
- Find a healthy work life balance
ADDITIONAL RANDOM BITS OF ADVICE FOR JOINING/CREATING START-UPS
Creating your own start-up
- Find 1-2 partners in crime, it’s extremely challenging and lonely to be a solo-founder
- There are plenty of funding and support in Switzerland for early stage start-ups
e.g. venture.ch, Venture Kick
- If you are tied to a university lab you can also apply for various grants
e.g. Gebert Ruf Stiftung Innobooster, SNSF Bridge, EPFL Innogrant or ETH Pioneer Fellowship, EPFL Catalyze 4 Life, NCCR Robotics Spin-Fund
- Speak very early with potential customers to test idea, a great resource is the book “Talking to humans”
- Attend some free entrepreneurship courses either through Innosuisse/Venturelab or through a startup accelerator (e.g. Masschallenge) to test and develop your idea
On finding a start-up job
Important skills for start-ups
- Have a “can-do” mindset and don’t give up
- Soft skills: be proactive, adaptive, resilient and creative
- Hard skills are important as you will often drive the work, but more importantly, is the ability to learn new skills quickly and independently
Other day-to-day tips when working in a start-up
- Spend at least 2-3 hours a day working towards the start-ups key objective(s), and don’t get lost in small or reactive tasks e.g. random email requests and admin
- Create clear boundaries and stick to them, both in terms of time blocking for specific tasks and for work-life balance, e.g. set personal boundaries to e.g. not work on weekends or after a certain time
- Keep healthy habits, e.g. never work while eating, get enough sleep, work out etc.
- Make time for things that make you happy (for me that’s skiing)
ADDITIONAL RANDOM BITS OF ADVICE FOR JOINING ACADEMIA
Network is key
- Reference letters are super important for hiring and promotion committees (as much, if not more, than the CV). Ideally letters should also come from highly visible researchers who are not too close to you (i.e. not only your supervisors who benefit from your success).
- Conferences are for meeting people. Social times (breaks and dinners) are as important if not more than technical sessions.
- Go and visit labs. Short research stays in visible labs.
- Gentle promotion. Be visible. Do not undersell yourself.
- Add a small personal message when contacting people (that makes a big difference)
Academic and family life
- Academic and family life are compatible. It is a bit difficult at the beginning because of short-time contracts and the necessity to switch institutions, but it becomes easier later.
- The job normally offers flexible hours and academic freedom.
- New initiatives to facilitate life as a parent. Initiatives to improve gender balance.
- Day care can still be difficult though. Join waiting lists as soon as possible.
- Be original. Try to address new questions and new problems. No need to be the best technically. Imagination and originality are more important.
- Multidisciplinary research. Make sure to have a clear main field and business card (e.g. Mech Eng, Electr Eng., Computer science). This is important, e.g. for teaching and for joining a department. Being viewed as too multidisciplinary can be a handicap to join a specific department.
- Focus on journal papers in addition to conference papers. Conference papers count very differently from one field to another. Books and book chapters also count less.
- Avoid predatory conferences and publications
- Share your methods (e.g. your code). Highly-cited papers are about good methods that are easy to use.
- Combine high and low impact publications (do not bet everything on a single high-impact paper).
- High impact publications: cover letter is very important (should be detailed and explicit about novelty and impact). That is the place where you can boast a bit.
- Be flexible. Open positions often require to move to new places (very difficult to plan to join a specific institution/place). Can be exciting and stimulating.
- Try to join highly visible institutions (good for your CV). E.g. try to benefit from SNSF fellowships that allow you to go anywhere.
- Make sure to change institution at least once. It is almost impossible to succeed in academia by staying at the same institution.
- Make friends. Friendship-driven research is the best.
- Be aware of your luck (many people would love to have your level of education). Try to give back.
- Do not listen to your “imposter syndrome” little voice. Everybody has it some way or another.
- Make sure to take many days off (weekends and holidays). It is a very good investment to increase your productivity
- Keep time for hobbies and sports.
- Have fun!