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Dr Carlos Peña-Monferrer

Details of PhD

Industrial Engineering and Production, Universitat Politecnica de Valencia, Spain, 2017. 

Current position

Research Staff Member, IBM. 

Job highlight

What I love about IBM is that there are so many experts from different disciplines gathered in the same place and working together. I also love the fact that although I am still doing research, this is actually applicable to industries and the wider society. In other words, I think working in IBM is all about doing research with real impact! 

Case study conducted

February 2020. 

What’s your background? 

I started a Technical Industrial Engineering degree at Universitat Jaume I in Castelló, Spain and later became an Industrial Engineer. During my undergraduate studies, I also worked as a maintenance engineer in a ceramic tiles production company in Spain and did an internship at the Technical University of Munich. 

Then I was offered a PhD in the Polytechnic University of Valencia. As part of the PhD programme I did a Master’s Degree in Energy Efficiency and Sustainability in Industrial Plants and in Building Design. During my PhD, I also did two internships, one in Iowa University and another one in Imperial College London. After my PhD, I continued to teach and research back to my former university. 

The next step in my career was joining IBM as a Postdoctoral Research Scientist in 2018. I actually finished my postdoc in IBM recently, which means I got promoted to a Research Staff member. 

Why did you move beyond academia? 

It was definitely about me spending more time on doing research. This is because I was teaching in an academic institution and for people like me, the possibility of solely doing research typically lies in an industry position. There are not many academic positions in which you can spend the majority of your time in research. I enjoyed teaching, but I wanted time to do my research. 

Why did you choose the sector you’ve moved into? 

Well, to be honest, when I applied to IBM, I did not know that the position would be so related to my research background and interests. It was only after the interview that I realised how closely linked to my research this opportunity was. 

In fact, I feel like I had the knowledge and methodological background, and what IBM provides researchers with is the infrastructure and environment to apply this knowledge to industry and share it with fellow researchers from various disciplinary backgrounds, so that every employee develops anew from this mutual sharing of ideas and practices. 

How did you get this job? 

In terms of how my IBM application happened, I found out that there were vacancies and the advertisement for the specific post I applied for was on LinkedIn’s homepage. I could not get much information about the content of the post or how close a fit I was for it, as the job description was quite generic. 

On LinkedIn, there is an option for you to just click a button and automatically apply for a post. So, you don’t need to write a cover letter or submit your CV, at least at this initial stage. I was actually talking to my partner about it and she said “Just click it and we see what happens”. 

After a while, I received a phone call and had an initial conversation with a senior person from the Research team, which made me feel really good, as we ‘spoke the same language’ due to our common disciplinary background and the whole interview became easier for me. This phone interview also provided me with more concrete information about the job specification. 

After this phone call, I was invited to come to the UK and have a formal interview, which is like a job centre day, based around a talk related to my field of research and meeting the wider team. 

So I came to the UK, delivered my talk and met the team and then returned to Spain and continued my teaching and postdoc job. I had to wait for 3-4 months before hearing back from IBM, which made me think that I hadn’t got the post. The story had a good ending though: I received another phone call, notifying me that I was a successful applicant and like that, I moved from Spain to the UK. 

How did your postdoc prepare you for your current job?

My experience with practical applications was a valuable skill as well as my openness to learning new things. I mean, technology advances so fast that you need to keep up with updates and adapt to new knowledge, so willingness to acquire new knowledge and adaptability are quite important. 

My ability to effectively communicate with different audiences was also an important skill, especially as work in IBM is centred around continuous collaborations with people from various disciplinary backgrounds, so being able to both communicate your needs and methods and also understand those of your colleagues is a necessity. 

What were the first few weeks of being in your new role like?

I remember my first week and I thought that everybody was amazing. I felt that they knew so much and that I would be able to develop myself from being part of this team. Arriving in such an interdisciplinary company, I felt there was a lot to learn. I was confident in my abilities to fulfil my responsibilities, but I felt I needed time to make my colleagues trust me and my skills. 

So here I am now, two years later, having finished my postdoc post and embarking upon my new appointment as Research Staff Member, feeling more confident both in myself but also in how much my colleagues trust me. 

Can you describe a typical week in your job? 

I go to my office, which I share with four other people. My research is computer-based, so there is a lot of computer time. We have a lot of projects running concurrently so most of the time, we are fighting with solving our research problems, like any researcher, right? 

Apart from that, there are talks delivered by invited speakers, both internal and external, that I try to attend, as there is always something to take away from them. 

We also have a lot of team meetings, with colleagues that we work together with on research projects. To put it in percentages, I would personally say that I spend 70% of my working time on research and the remaining 30% on meetings and talks. 

I should also not forget to mention my personal development which is important to me and IBM. There are online training materials available to IBM employees, some mandatory and some optional, which enable us to develop our skills and knowledge. 

Have you found the workplace culture to differ from that in academia?

I found it completely different. I think that in academia planning your time is harder, because of teaching and all the other peripheral stuff you have to do alongside research. I feel that in industry, your main focus is your research and, in my opinion, the bureaucracy is minimised. 

I would also say that resources in academia were more limited, so I could not do the things that I am now doing. The technical leaders here are experts, so I have expanded my knowledge base, but also financially, the budget in industries is different. 

Team-working is also more developed in IBM compared to academia, as we need to co-ordinate on a daily basis for running the experiments and time allows us to do so, whereas in academia this would have not been possible, as research-time is limited and has to be balanced around teaching and other administrative tasks. 

What I also think is entirely different, which is also what I love about my job, is the freedom to think long-term about future research plans. In academia, thinking and planning for 3-4 years into the future was never an option. The time horizon also gives you the chance to plan for more complex projects, as you have the required time to devote to them. 

Do former postdocs get hired in your company often? 

Yes, I would say they usually employ postdocs. They are mostly placed on research posts across all departments (life sciences, AI, chemistry etc.). About 3 months after I was hired, 3 more postdocs were employed and joined my team and office. 

Any advice to postdocs considering a career beyond academia?

I would advise any researcher who has an interest in practical implementation to give research industry positions at least a thought. I mean, I would say “go for it, there is a whole world that lies beyond academia!” 

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