Robotics is a dynamic and fast growing field with high demand for robotic graduates. If you are considering a career in robotics, you are probably asking yourself: what skills do I need to work in robotics and which subjects should I study?
The world of robotics combines a series of different interdisciplinary skills and our community consists of internationally renowned robotics researchers, who followed many different paths that got them into robotics. We have made available a compilation of exclusive interviews with some of our NCCR Robotics professors where they were asked how they got into robotics and what advice they would give those hoping to follow this career path. We also recommend you watch the series of videos, how our researchers got started where you can find out more about choosing a career in robotics and find inspiration from some of our researchers.
So you want to work in Robotics?
There is no set path to a career in robotics, in fact, few universities offer an undergraduate course in the subject, meaning that most people study something else and change to robotics later. Every roboticist has a different background with different training, and it is in these differences that the field of robotics finds incredible strength. Robotics is a worldwide growth area, and is showing no signs of slowing down, so as far as long term career security is concerned, it is a very good choice. If you think that a job working with robots might be for you, then we have the following pieces of advice and ways that you might be able to find an entrance into an exciting and fast developing world.
Of course when most people think of roboticist they think of those with a high level science background and excellent skills in maths. While maths is an advantage there is no need to specialize there, the backgrounds leading to a career in robotics can be wider than you think. Within NCCR Robotics, our scientists have Bachelor’s or Master’s degrees in electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, aeronautical engineering, computer science, physics, maths, neurobiology and bioengineering and each member was hired because they bring something unique to a broad subject. This means that, if you are still at school, you should choose science and engineering based subjects. However, there are a number of personal characteristics which suit robotics too: it suits those who are inventive and inquisitive, but who value precision and attention to detail. Successfully developing robots involves working closely with the rest of your team, so enjoying discussing projects with those around you is a must.
What courses to study at University
If you plan to work in robotics by the time you choose your degree, we recommend electrical or mechanical engineering or computer science as these are the most common routes, although which degree to take involves some thought – what aspect of robotics draws you? Do you want to design robots, work with flying or ground robots, medical robots or work on hardware (the physical robot) or software and algorithms (the computer systems that enable the robot to work)?
After completing a Bachelor’s degree, the most common and advisable route is to take a Master’s degree. In Switzerland there are two main postgraduate degrees that are offered, a Master in Robotics at EPFL and Master’s in Robotics, Systems and Control at ETH Zurich. This is the point in your career when you choose robotics and move away from more general technical fields and start to specialise in whatever subject interests you.
Going on to a Doctorate and continuing in research
After training, there are a multitude of routes to choose from.
In order to go into academia you will need to complete a PhD. PhD programmes typically take about 4 years from start to finish (although there is a wide variation from project to project and country to country, e.g PhD programmes in the USA take considerably longer than in Europe) and, during this time, you will have one project to focus on. This means that you will need to work on developing a robot in a way that has been agreed with your supervisors and work on overcoming any problems to achieve your goal. A PhD can be extremely rewarding, but there are many reasons why PhDs aren’t for everyone – they involve a lot of hard work and individual thought and can sometimes feel quite isolated.
After completing a PhD you can then start to move up the academic career ladder. First you do at least one “PostDoc” (a research job where you can focus on many projects and are not so reliant on one supervisor) before moving onto lectureships and finally a professorship. The advantage of working in academia is that you have total intellectual freedom to pursue whatever lines of research you wish. As an academic you will also have to do some teaching, so if you enjoy mentoring others and giving knowledge then you may enjoy this field of work. On the downside, many academics live on short term contracts and are expected to move frequently, especially at the lower end of the career (PhD, PostDoc, Junior Lecturer) and there is no guarantee of a permanent position – for many people this can be a big turn off.
Working outside of the University environment
Aside from the academic route, Universities need technicians and engineers for their robotics departments. As an engineer you are a vital member of the team who contributes many different research projects, so the work is highly varied and interesting. The one downside is that you do not have the same intellectual control over your day to day tasks as an academic might, but you are less involved with teaching and management, so you have more time to actually work on robots.
Many universities and research groups (such as NCCR Robotics!) have spin-funds that allow people to take work that they have produced in an academic environment and create a spin-off company with it. This obviously requires not only the successful completion of a project which has practical applications for the public or companies (have a look at the NCCR Robotics spin-offs to see the kind of thing that gets funded), but also the vision and wide range of skills to take something to market. If you choose to create a spin-off company, you are no longer just a scientist, you are also responsible for management, sales, finances, marketing and legal affairs but you have the advantage of being your own boss and being able to shape your company in the way that you see best.
Outside of the academic work, roboticists are required in many organisations such as hospitals, manufacturing plants, environmental services and even space agencies. Within these types of employers, an equally wide range of careers exist, from product development to manufacturing, testing, sales and operations. This means that, if you decide to take your career in another direction, it is often possible to sidestep within the same company. The advantage of working in these environments is that you have greater job security and work more within a team and, when a product is successful, you can see the fruits of your efforts. A disadvantage might be that you have a bit less control over your day to day work and must go where the market dictates.