From PhD to Industry

In most disciplines, obtaining a PhD is a trap. And I’m not talking about the “grunt work” for “no pay” that one struggles to go through for 3-8 years to obtain a slip that states that you know how to strongly focus on a topic. The real trap is what occurs post-graduation.

The primary reason one seeks to acquire a PhD is to become a college/university professor to teach, research, brag, etc. Each university is always begging for more money, hence they only have a limited amount of faculty openings. Each professor will typically have a group of graduate students, granting one a PhD once every 1-2 years (this value can vary, greatly). However, a professor occupies his position for 30+ years. Thus, there is roughly a 15:1 ratio for candidates to academic positions.

This is extremely important for academic disciplines where the ONLY option is academics and a few possible openings in university/government research labs.  Linguistics, Ecology, History, and biomedicine included. Their only other option is to go into post-doc mode. It’s almost the same as graduate school; more work but more pay (still worse than their BS industry counterparts). As the years go by, the separation worsens, requiring more post-PhD experience before one is even considered a decent PhD candidate (while at the same time fighting against millions of foreign candidates willing to work harder than you for less money).

Some majors are more lenient, where you can indirectly apply your skills to an appropriate job in the industrial sector. Some disciplines have strong financial interests, where patentable, cutting-edge technology can result in large profits in the commercial sector. Biochemistry can be applied to pharmaceutical to create the next Viagra (possibly for women!). The applicability of computer science, physics, and math backgrounds is quite broad and easily adaptable, resulting in future careers in advanced machinery and aerospace, communication, encryption, coding, and even advanced marketing analysis. In order for this to occur, one must accept that their graduate work will have no direct application to their future careers. And after 5 years purely focused on a subject, most are more than willing to try something new.

When someone acquires a PhD, the majority of the skills and knowledge acquired by that individual during that time period are traits that they could have learned without the university’s help. Students “learn how to learn” when undergo their undergraduate studies; and those knowledge fundamentals help assist an employee’s push through their constantly-changing environment called a career [New products, markets, trends, bosses and management, employees and coworkers, technology, promotions, laws & regulations, software, just about anything].

Graduate school is more of a battle of wits, and many of my fellow classmates have agreed that it’s a test of passion and determination. You cannot overcome qualifiers, research, peer-reviewed publications, and the defense without this. This evidence in a candidate is the main feature that drives high paying salaries and recruitment benefits; they are long-term investments which will produce the most output with the minimum external influence required. These words are posted on every job opening: “independent worker”,” quick to adapt”, “enthusiastic personality”, “strong communication skills.”

These skills need to be bolstered about when applying for jobs. Don’t know C#? I don’t, but I could tell you how I learned C++ to build an LED cube. Or how I used old codes in MATLAB and G-code to fix various problems without any former background. Not many expect you to be the perfect candidate, and there will always be a certain level of training. Given the broad variation in technology (including those abstract statistical ones), there are still hidden traits between them all that make them quite comparable. Even the experience of acquiring familiarity with a foreign idea/object gives you the courage to do it again. I have learned guitar over the last decade, and I know I can pick up piano if I give it a similar amount of dedication.

Another factor that employees weigh in on is that they are looking for someone that can bring “value” into the company. They aren’t considered “entry-level” where they are assumed to be fresh. PhDs should be able to teach their co-workers something new related to the business. Unless it strongly applies, please don’t lecture them on your dissertation. There should be opinions and insights that stem from a strong problem-solving skillset. No one knows how to better solve a question with an unknown problem like a PhD can!

There is one major blade that looms over the head of most graduate students, “over-qualified.” And there is a good reason for it. If someone was passionate about an in-depth subject, a particular opening may be viewed as “boring” after a few years. Take for instance the difference between polymers vs steel. Steel hasn’t changed much since the invention of stainless steel with slight changes to the manufacturing process. Polymers are always coming out with new formulas / ingredients (corn). And if someone is doing mechanical tests all day, filing the same form of paperwork, it will get boring, triggering the leave of the employee, the vacancy pressuring the company, and the drag of interviewing/hiring/training that everyone would like to avoid.

Futhermore, there comes the topic of communication. Fighting this topic is mandatory, for the stereotype of a graduate student is a follows: a nerd in glasses, slightly smelly and poorly dresses/groomed, minimal eye contact with physical stuttering, verbal quirks and lack of personal relation/empathy, only excited when his line of work comes up, and so on. Trust me, I’ve been there.

This can’t just be fixed with a quick read from “How to win friends and influence people.” Partake in meetings, make slides and present them, learn to communicate your work to various age levels from middle school / grandparents / various academic backgrounds. And create something physical (or virtual) that can be referenced when asked.

The transition can be easy for some, as many research assistants are funded by industrial sponsors who want a “cheap” consultant opinion. Others find their work purely academic focused and have to work in bridging the gap. For myself, my work was funded by one company in optical polymers, but had no options for full-time employment once I completed. However, my industrial publications and patents did bring in enough interest for 4 on-site interviews that led to 3 job offers (cameras, LEDs, and simulation software).

The delay in previous blogs was due to my constant persistence over the past 3 months in career hunting followed by interviews, moving, and creating a more stable lifestyle. My hobbies have also suffered, so stability is something I’m looking forward to. But my new position will still require an amount of “catching up.” No matter which path in life you choose, the successful individuals are those can stay afloat through their lives. And I’m comfortable with that.

Salt Sugar Fat [Book Review]

Health-related books have always been a big hit in the non-fiction section at your local book store. Typically, they discuss the “truthful” conclusions of academic’s most recent studies. You’ve been there and have seen these transitions before. “How fat in your diet is terrible for you” to “Saturated Fats and Cholesterol are the only trouble makers” and then “Only LDL (low density lipids) from red meat is the type of Cholesterol that you should avoid.”  Recently, the dawn of “The new poison, Sugar” is a hit with emerging works of literature. After a while, these publications tend to get repetitive. And if you keep up with your reading over time, you even start to question if the new publications are going to be more truthful than the last.

The cover of the book, Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss, is another example of not “judging a book by its cover.” Its title leads us to believe that it’s another overdrawn story about the terrors of these ingredients, with each letter arranged in the manner similar to what you would find in an anonymous threat letter. However, to my surprise, it tickles a different side of the food world: the corporate side.

The story initiates with a high-class meeting among the major food corporates, where they debate about the new obesity epidemic that is wrecking the legacy of long-selling brand names: Kraft, Coke, Pillsbury, even the dairy sector. Questions like “What is causing it”, “their (quite major) role in the disease’s procession”, and “what they could do to remedy their brands”.  While this gathering illustrates the interest that these franchises possess on this topic, there is no real initiative to ensure their production of healthier products. Revenue and stock prices are the true gears that drive the direction that “nutrition” research, product inventions, and marketing strategies take.  And this theme foreshadows the rest of the book to follow.

Processed food exhibits MANY ingredients, but only three [hence the title] encompass the strong ratio of flavor vs. cost (salt especially at ~10 cents per pound). And with large brands come large “research and development” labs. Taste testing is utilized to optimize ingredient amounts (moderate sugar, and higher fat/salt levels) to maximize consumer enjoyment.  Advertising is utilized to unconsciously bind a brand to positive emotions. Economic surveys to track customer purchases as a response to modern trends (ex. work more / cook less).

This work also brings to light many creative methods that portray the scientific excellence behind the bags and cans. True success is found when marketing is geared toward “target audience” [specific soda (Dr. Pepper especially) fans, teens to baby boomers, male/female]. Companies have used generation fads (like low fat) to re-engineer, sometimes temporarily, the food to meet those demands (like adding more sugar).  Is it healthier? It’s actually probably worse. But the product needs to sell!

And my favorite of them all, product tweaks to remove consumer shame. For example, everyone knows that fatty foods are unhealthy. Why not change the phrase “deep-fried” to “toated” or “baked”? It’s the same reason why the image of “the red barn surrounded by green pastures” is so prevalent in grocery stores, and it’s not just on dairy produce! Help your audience forget that it’s caloric, salty, irresistible, and terrible for your kids. Put some “fruit juice” in it. Call it a vegetable (potato products anyone?).  Label it as if the vitamins (vitamin c in sunny delight) or minerals (calcium in chocolate milk) actually mean something, despite it being VERY misleading.

Yes, the book does detail some measures to improve the health quality of their “late-night snacks” and “fast dinners,” but it’s expensive. Replacing salt with spices and salt with KCl. They don’t mean a thing when their cost inhibits their sales. As the book concludes, the market is addicted to low-cost processed foods. We are biologically geared to crave terrible food, and it’s not just shown in scientific studies. When a company focused on processed foods creates a healthier version of a product, competitive companies get a spike in sales [a victory for Pepsi]. Likewise, when a company makes a more sensual, fatty-licious, sugar-spiked snack, that company strikes a market advantage and steals competitor profits [ a victory for frosted shredded wheats].

While people can whine and pout about how billion dollar brands are reshaping the food available for purchase, the community as a whole is truly at fault. The products are only there because we purchase them. And government regulation can only go so far, as we all know about the New York’s attempt at capping the serving size of sugar-based drinks [for those that don’t, it didn’t even last 2 years]. We have accustomed ourselves to favoring such disadvantageous eating habits to the point where government intervention is a discouraging solution.

The safest thing one can do is promote education. From my experience, along with many others, public schools do not effective teach their students the healthy aspects of food consumption beyond “calorie counting + active lifestyle => …?… => profit” aspect [which is quite misleading]. Most have to learn the hard way, and sometimes too late [for myself, I lost 40 lbs in high school and almost 20 more in college] And picking up a couple books, including a book like this one, will help individuals to truly understand the various view angles on the situation to fully be aware.

Neutrino [Book Review]

As an applied physicist (engineer), I do like to play the game where I read about the far-from-applicable forms of physics while dreaming up about its possible applications and uses >100 years from now. Hence, this book review details a little about the flow, the story of this field in physics, what we know, and what can we do with Neutrinos.

The book of interest, Neutrino by Frank Close, describes the story of how some radiation methods did not follow the laws of “conservation of mass/energy.” For example, a free neutron decays (relatively fast if not in an atom, surprisingly) into a proton and an electrons. Makes sense; charge is conserved. The Neutron is heavier than the proton and electron combined. Where did the difference go? Whatever energy release from E = mc^2 did not bridge the gap. So, scientists initially just make up a new particle, calling it a “tiny neutron” (in italian translate to Neutrino. The name stuck after that).

Initially scientists through the Neutron and Neutrino, both have no charge, were the same thing, with just different amounts of mass. Well, that was wrong.

Neutrinos. Are weird. Period. They are smaller (or exhibit less mass) than atoms, quarks, electrons, you name it. We don’t even know if they have mass (only the theory says it does), let alone how much. They have no charge. And the probability of a neutrino interacting with anything is like 1/(10^50) or something exuberant. The probability of it hitting an atom in a lead brick 1 light-year (a form of distance) long is less than 10%. However, there are substantially more neutrinos than atoms in the universe. And if that isn’t confusing, their energy differs based off the nuclear process that it came from, and there are also three “flavors” of neutrinos that all act differently [electron, muon, tau].

This means that neutrinos are like the next step up from x-ray technology. Neutrinos can pass through extremely large, opaque structures for imaging. We have “imaged” the inside of the sun in that aspect, because light particles have a hard, tortuous time leaving the core of the sun where it’s formed from Hydrogen->Helium fusion. [There was this prevailing theory that the sun stopped working a long time ago, and the sun was just releasing old energy, gradually dimming in the process].

Unfortunately, the other side of the double-edged sword is in the form of detection. While we have black plates for x-rays, there is no such thing as a sensitive neutrino detector. The first successful neutrino detector was a large tank consisting of 400,000 LITRES of Chlorine Gas ~1500 meters underground. Neutrinos pass through the Earth, everything else doesn’t. Just a massive liquid chamber. A neutrino “may” hit a Chlorine atom and turn it to Argon. This happened……like once every three days. Also, the new Argon has a half life of ~30 days, so they don’t really accumulate that much. This isn’t imaging, it just is a thumbs-up or thumbs-down machine.

We only started neutrino imaging in the last 20-30 years, by digging a massive pit, filling it with pure water, and lining the tank with high-sensitivity light detectors. When a neutrino hits an atom in the water, the molecule ejects a larger particle (proton, electron, something NOT a neutrino) and this new particle emits light as it zips through the water. I always chuckle to myself in amazement when I see this image from the following website :

By looking at how much light is given off, the direction of the particle, and lots of signal processing, we can do some crude imaging, called Neutrinography. The first image of the sun was an amazing 400 pixels! (Not mega, just 400 squares).

From my standpoint, the only way we can increase neutrino sensitivity is by creating unique forms of matter that are more susceptible to neutrinos. However, I truly believe that these forms will collapse/decay way sooner than the odds of neutrino detection will ever occur.

But back to the book, it’s always a treat when the story gives much of the thinking behind the scientists back then (based off of what they knew at the time), and even the insights to the various theories they concluded with (including the completely wrong ones). The author also throws in enough particle physics to entertain the science-background audience with a few charts, Feynman diagrams, and descriptions on forms of nuclear decay (the majority of those found in the Sun). The book does demonstrate that such a small “particle” requires a lot of collaboration between minds, foundations, and grants. It’s also another great example of “what did we acquire”, “how much did we really uncover,” and “with every question answered, 10 more pop up.” Relatively fresh, there is still a lot of academic ground to cement, let alone cover and expand.

On the other hand, the obscurity behind Neutrinos could easily pull an academic coup, where they may be something so different that we may have to break our foundations of science to truly understand. It wasn’t long ago that we thought to have measured neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light! Only the future may tell.

Lighting – Light Emitting Diodes [Part 2 – Fabrication]

Light Emitting Diodes [LEDs] have been one of the top hits in the 20th century in turns of revolutionary inventions. And it has been only recently that their commercial feasibility has been tweaked enough for them to be popularized in many applications from standard lightbulbs to car headlamps. And there’s a really good (and quite complex) reason for this.

When you look up “how an LED works” either through the internet, through a book, or a basic science teacher; they will probably give you the following image.

Note: To make the description easier, I did not use the term “current” as it represents the opposite direction of the flow of electrons. Turns out that someone (*Cough*Franklin*Cough) thought that current was the flow of positively charged particles, and (unfortunately) that convention stuck. XKCD shares my frustration in the following comic:


Electrons enter into a higher energy orbital in a “doped semiconductor” and drops in energy as it transitions into a low energy orbital in another similar material before progressing out of the system. A practical LED will NEVER look like this for a few reasons.

1) Semiconductors are given such a name because they do resist the flow of electrons significantly more than a metal will. A practical design will decrease the amount of distance an electron travels in the doped materials. Light is produced at the N/P boundary, which limits an LED’s active thickness area to a couple microns or less (depending on the doping differential).

2) Micron-scale manufacturing is best done from a top-to-bottom style of manufacturing. Practical design will exhibit vertical layering.

Thus, a practical (yet still simplified) LED design will look more like the image shown below.



A brief description of the fabrication process:

  1. Obtain a crystalline semiconductor wafer. Wafer processing is fascinating, as it is the pinnacle of material purification. From my experience, nothing else has been perfected to reach 99.9999999%. Describing this process is worthy of its own blog. For LEDs, the most common material is Gallium Arsenide (GaAs).
  2. The wafer is chemically altered through doping. Doping involves placing your wafer in close proximity to a elemental disc, putting them into an oven, and cranking up the heat (like >1000 C)! The elements in the discs will “boil” off and penetrate into the nearby silicon wafer. Hotter temperatures = deeper doping depth.
  3. Finish with metal contacts. The most unique step involves creating the metal arc contact above the doped conductor through “Wire bonding.”
  4. Protect your LED with a thick slab of plastic coating. The plastic can either be molded to focus the light or manufactured with scattering particles to do just the opposite (uniformly spread the light out).

Many modern LEDs have many more layers than the one described above and include many other unique manufacturing steps, including chemical vapor deposition (cheap, rough material coating), molecular beam epitaxy (costly, fine material coating), dry etching (isolate individual LEDs), and metal sputtering (for conductive contacts for the circuit).

There are lots of neat videos on Youtube that are worth checking out. Particularly inspiring is how fast automatic assembly lines can process and test individual LEDs including packaging and wire bonding.