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Dr Lan Hoang

Details of PhD

Engineering (Impact of Climate Change on Water Resources), University of Leeds, EPSRC Consortium, 2013. 

Current position

Research Staff Member, IBM Research. 

Job highlight

Research Staff Member, IBM Research. 

Case study conducted

February 2020. 

What’s your background? 

I completed my PhD in 2013 and that was a project that belonged to an EPSRC consortium. It was based in Leeds working on the impact of climate change on natural water resources. My PhD was embedded within a collaboration with multiple universities. In my case Oxford, Leeds, UCL and Loughborough universities were involved. As part of this, there were plenty of opportunities to work with consultancy companies and within industry. 

I then did a postdoc at the University of Cambridge for two and half years, working on a project that involved geospatial tool building. This helped me use my existing data analysis skills (programming and modelling) and also develop new analysis skills (e.g. geospatial analysis). 

After Cambridge, in 2016, I moved to a consultancy company based in Warrington for a year. From there, I found this role at IBM research and have been there since 2017. At IBM, I found the balance of doing research and having an impact. 

Why did you move beyond academia? 

After my postdoc I did have the option to stay on but I decided to move due to multiple factors. My ambition was to bridge academia and industrial research. In fact, my PhD and postdoc always had that business element to them, with links to industry, and it always seemed like a natural progression. 

I was a software engineer at a consultancy firm working on a specific software product. This role was linked with my postdoc at Cambridge. I was building a plausible solution (e.g. a geospatial tool) to help alleviate flooding. For example, there are co-benefits of building a pond to alleviate flooding while adding to wildlife habitat and blue-green spaces in urban areas. 

My husband is an academic and had an offer of a postdoc position in Manchester, so we moved there. Sometimes with both partners in academia the question of finding postdoc employment within each of our fields in the same location is quite difficult and a big ask from academia. 

With both my partner and I in fixed-term contracts (when I used to be a postdoc) we needed to consider opportunities in the same location to provide continuing support for our family. I was fortunate to find a role in a company that had multiple branches/locations so there could be some flexibility in asking for relocation should the need arise. 

How did you get this job? 

When I went to conferences, and met with different companies, I tried to get a feel for the company. I was initially not particularly adept at approaching potential employers and pushing my skillset into conversations but naturally, people had questions, so it grew organically following people’s research interests and business needs. 

I looked for a skills match with the job description but also other things – opportunities to learn, employer support availability – will they support my career? I got to know people from various consultancy companies and was offered different positions. I chose the consultancy firm I ultimately joined because they supported and recognized the relevance of my research to their services, the location was convenient and they were also keen to build a role around my qualifications and skillset. 

When applying to IBM Research, I did additional background research. The team was newly set up and in order to understand what the roles would entail and the team culture, I went onto LinkedIn and found people with similar positions and looked through profiles and skillsets. That gave me an indication of how and whether my skillset matched with the roles. In terms of keyword searching I didn’t have a specific set of terms. I searched for “Scientist” on LinkedIn and browsed everything that came up. 

Did you receive any support from anyone at your University while applying for jobs? 

Cambridge University has a postdoc office which helps with CV preparation. They also provided help with grant writing. 

I was fortunate to have supportive friends who were ahead of me on the career ladder and gave me advice on how to better reflect my skillset in my CV. I also had great PIs who wrote supportive reference letters. 

How did your postdoc prepare you for your current job? 

My Postdoc gave me the technical depth, the ability to steer projects and work collaboratively across different disciplines. This led to companies seeing a potential to fulfil a business need by bringing these skills as a relevant addition to their firm. 

Additionally, in terms of skillset, it was the softer skills that were also valued. Are you a team player? Can you commit? Will you work hard and contribute? Do you have a good attitude towards change? 

As researchers, we are often used to using jargon and sometimes it requires a conscious effort to tune that out. In order to make communication effective, we need to make it accessible to the audience and communicate the values of your work but not trivialise your contribution. 

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

You always feel different when you start any new role: there’s new work to do, new skills to learn, in different organisations different people do different things, finding out what their roles are, learning how they prefer to work. You learn what communication mode works, you try and work towards making your niche in your organisation. 

Understanding the social culture of the work place as well takes time, does the team eat lunch together? Do they talk to each other? What is the right balance for this role? Do they collaborate across teams? But there is that excitement as well, in embarking on something new. You’re preparing yourself for new skills, developments and opportunities. 

I also like working at IBM because it has so many researchers all from different disciplines and I quite enjoy that aspect of it. I joined IBM when they were just setting up teams so it felt quite dynamic and adaptive in a way. You get to grow your skills and get to grow even in the business aspect of the role. 

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

Yes, it is different. At university you work with your PI, who is also your technical lead and they secure the funding; they lead on the work. In industry, you work on research with impact and in collaboration with your colleagues, your managers, mentors and technical leaders. You are encouraged to lead and collaborate (work with people in other disciplines and within your own area as well) on your project. 

In terms of communication, at university you communicate with your PI or experts in your area and this is jargon-driven. In industry you meet with a greater variety of people, especially clients, and effective communication is required at different levels. You meet with experts in your area and the language may be more technical, but when you meet with clients, it will be more solution-oriented. For example, what is the problem? How can we solve it? What will be the impact of the work undertaken towards solving it? 

Do former postdocs get hired in your company often?  

In 2015 – 2016, when IBM Research established a location in Warrington, up to 10 post-docs were employed; now the team has expanded to approximately 40 people of both postdocs (fixed-term contract) and research staff members (permanent role). 

Is there anything you miss about academia? 

In business there is a pragmatic pressure, there is long-term vision which is broken down into stages and then there is planning, balancing the impacts, risk-benefits and deliverables of each stage. So that time to “think and reflect” might be shortened or need quick adaptation. 

Any advice to postdocs considering a career beyond academia? 

Showing the value of your work and verbal communication at networking events is important and can generate opportunities for you. Try to find a common interest and let the conversation grow naturally. The career opportunity may not happen right away. It’s more general than that. Try and make a brand for yourself at these events. 

It’s quite normal to think “I don’t have any skills for that position” when you read the job description. The description can look scary. For example, you may read the job requires “high performance computing”, but you only have experience running jobs on the cluster and not necessarily know the backbone architecture and workflows. 

Please embrace opportunities: often employers will be nice and understanding, especially if you are passionate or motivated about the work and team. You have done a PhD and postdoc, so you are qualified as a hard-working individual. 

Don’t hold yourself back –if you have passion, some experience and are willing to learn, that will come through in your application and interview stage. 

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