Beyond Your Research Degree

Episode 9 - Dr. Celia Butler, Senior Applications Engineer at Synopsys Inc

October 27, 2020

Welcome to the Beyond Your Research Degree podcast from the University of Exeter Doctoral College! The podcast about non-academic careers and all the opportunities available to you... beyond your research degree!  In this episode Kelly Preece, Researcher Development Manager talks to Dr. Celia Butler, Senior Applications Engineer at Synopsys Inc.


Music from ’Cheery Monday’ by Kevin MacLeod ( License: CC BY (


Podcast transcript


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Hello and welcome to the Beyond Your Research Degree podcast by the University of Exeter, Doctoral College
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Hello and welcome to the latest episode of Beyond Your Research Degree.
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I'm Kelly Preevce And today, I'll be talking to Dr Celia Butler, who is currently senior applications engineer at Synopsis,
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having graduated with her PhD in physics in 2012. Celia, you happy to introduce yourself?
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Hello, my name's Celia Butler and I did my PhD in Microwave Metamaterials in the electro magnetic materials group at the University of Exeter
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which is part of the physics department or it was at the time. And now I work for synopsis
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I'm a senior applications engineer with the simplewear support team.
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And what I do is I provide support for a software package that allows you to take 3D image data and like scans from MRI,
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and CT and turn it into a computer model and you can do all sorts of things with that computer model from 3D printing to finite
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element analysis all the way through to just simple visualisations to learn something about that data that you're inspecting.
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Amazing. So can you tell me a little bit about the transition from doing your research degree into the current role?
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Did you have any were there any jobs that you took in between or was it a straight move?
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Yes. So when I left my PhD, I actually went into a job which sort of spanned the gap between academia and industry.
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So officially, it was a postdoc role, but I was actually more of a research and development engineer with a pre-spin out company.
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So it was still part of the university and it took on a role.
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kind of like a technical consultancy?
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So like an R&D consultancy role. And my specific area was to look at improving radio frequency identification tagging.
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So RFID tagging is now quite popular, popular. You see it all over the place in tags, in clothes shops.
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RFID tags are embedded into shoes. When you buy them all sorts of things.
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But the specific area that I was looking at was how to tag structures that have a lot of
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metal in them because essentially they're an antenna and when you place them on metal,
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they don't work very well. And I was looking at tagging RFID circuit boards.
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So these circuit boards have very high value and you really try to understand what you can do.
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So I worked with a few different people locally to try and address this problem,
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using some of the knowledge from my PhD, but also past experience from before that as well.
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And after that role, I left it and started a new position for a company called Subten Systems.
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Now, this was a very small Start-Up company, possibly the best and most exciting research I have ever done.
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It was looking to create wireless Ethernet bridges.
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What that means is point to point, a transmission of data, at very, very high frequencies.
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So in the millimetre wave region. And this was so exciting because I was quite new to the R&D world and I was given a lot of responsibility,
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but also worked in an amazing team and we just got things done.
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It was fantastic. But unfortunately, like a lot of start-ups, it didn't make it.
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And I had to make the decision to leave. Possibly the hardest decision of my life.
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But yes. So I left subten systems and that fantastic team.
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And then I found a job in the centre of Exeter working for at the time, simplewear
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which were, again, a small company, not really a Start-Up, but about 30, 40 people.
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And from there. This company was bought out by synopsis.
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But my job role has stayed pretty consistent. Most of the way through.
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And I actually I'm able to use a lot of my experience from my career, but also interests outside of work to perform my job, which is it's just a.
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Varied and keeps me on my toes most of the time.
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That sounds amazing. And in a short space of time, you've worked in quite a lot of different.
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Different organisations. So what was it like making that transition from your phd into a.
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Non-academic Role did. Did you always know you wanted a job outside of academia and doing research in industry or so?
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I think when I did my PhD, I really enjoyed my time doing the research element before I did my PhD.
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I worked in industry for a few years.
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So I was very aware of what it was like to work in a team doing commercial R&D as opposed to quite academic research.
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And it is very different. And I preferred the industrial research, the kind of work.
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Working towards one product or one specific goal,
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but also having the flexibility to change projects or move into different roles within the same organisation.
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Whereas in a PhD, you're very focussed on your path, your route to completing whatever your project might be.
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I didn't find the transition very hard.
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Moving from academic research to sort of industrial R&D, I think, because it's something that I knew and I was comfortable with.
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I was looking forward to moving back. I also had very good kind of time management skills during the PhD.
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I viewed it more as a day to day job because of my past experience.
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There is one exception for that, which was when I was writing up.
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When I wrote up, the time really went out the window. I was just working all the time, it seemed.
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But after that, I was really able to relax into that role,
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to work with lots and lots of different people and to really focus on a product, which is what we were aiming for.
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So, yeah, that worked really well for me. So, yeah.
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Can you say a little bit more about what it what it is about doing R&D work in industry that you prefer to academia.
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Is it that kind of. Is it something to do with the pace. Is it the pace of it or is it the kind of clearer sense of product, and impact.
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So I think industrial R&D has a clear focus, a clear aim.
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But people work slightly differently. In my experience in commercial R&D compared to academic R&D or academic research, in academic research,
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you are striving to understand every single little part of whatever your problem or area might be in commercial R&D,
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although you need to understand what's going on. There's a limit to how much detail you need to go into.
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You need to be able to solve the problem. But you are working towards a different goal and that goal will come to an end and it will change.
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There will be a second level, another stage or something that you are building on.
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You need to understand this area. Make a decision. Produce a product, whatever that might be, and then you move on.
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It's also quite normal to have multiple projects going on at the same time.
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And for me, I need that that ability to be able to switch between projects to keep me fully invested and sort of just enjoying what I do.
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I need lots of little things to dip in and out of just to keep me entertained.
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I guess. Yes, I absolutely know that feeling.
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So you said about the time management skills that you developed during your PhD and how important they are to what you do now.
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And certainly if you're working in lots of different projects, I can really see that.
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What other skills and experiences have you taken from your PhD that have really helped you with an R&D role in industry?
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I think the biggest thing that I learnt during the PhD, as opposed to other roles I've been in before,
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was to be able to take a big project and be able to divide it up into small chunks that seem more manageable,
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because I think when you start the PhD, it can be a little bit overwhelming because you've got this three,
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four years plus and you've got to produce something at the end of it.
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But I'm not really sure what that is.
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So to be able to take that huge idea, chop it up and then manage yourself to be able to to achieve whatever that might be is really important.
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And then the other thing, the sort of skills that I learnt.
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I did a course on how to read sounds ridiculous, but how to speed read, how to take academic papers and top and tail.
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And that's been really useful in other projects that I've done because in industrial research,
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you haven't got loads of time to do a full literature review on most projects.
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You need to extract the information that you need. Put it together and then use it in whatever form that might be.
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The other thing I think was really important is how to present robustly.
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So I've never really had a problem with the actual presenting side of things.
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But the questioning was something that was sort of really drilled into me during my PhD
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That you need to know your subject well enough.
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You need to have done your research to be able to answer questions robustly and kind of stand up to someone standing up and saying,
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oh, I'm not I'm not sure about this. Tell me more or I don't believe that.
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What's your evidence for it? And to be able to stand there and and defend the research that you've done and to present a reasoned argument.
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And I think that was probably the biggest thing to take away.
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Yeah. So really, it it's project management. It's. Ability to read and synthesise information and presenting.
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Yes, it's kind of a soft skills. I mean, obviously I learnt a lot of physics in my actual PhD
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But I wouldn't say that I've applied much of that in my other roles.
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It's more being those kind of soft skills that have been the most useful.
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Yeah. And I think that's that's always what's really interesting about looking at careers beyond academia,
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because I think we get really entrenched in this idea that I.
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I need to be looking at something that's very specific to the very niche topic area I am working in, whereas actually.
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When people are going to work in industry, that they're more using the working in the general subject area in some shape or form.
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But it's those soft skills that become even more important because they're the ones that are transferable.
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Absolutely. And I can give you an example of that. So. Right. One of the first things that I did when I joined Simplewear
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whereas it was then now synopsis was I had a Web meeting with someone who is using this software and they were doing knee replacement.
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And now my PhD is a microwave metamaterials. I'm looking at electromagnetic interaction with materials and it has nothing to do with knees.
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So very quickly, I have to understand the different parts that need to put the bones are called some of the key muscles or tendons.
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I had to understand how you perform in knee replacement so that I was roughly on the same level so that
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we could talk in similar terms because there are terms that are specific to different industries.
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So I had to come up to speed very fast on all of that and then understand how this particular
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customer wanted to use the software and what what the challenges were that they were facing.
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And then I had to take all of that presented back to them in a Web meeting in under an hour.
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So very quickly, you're having to take a problem.
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Understand it. Do your research. Kind of problem solve along the way and then present it back and answer questions all in one.
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So I think that would take about maybe between one and two days to complete the whole project.
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But at the same time, I had three or four other projects and sort of mini projects like that that I'd have to answer as well.
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And meetings and emails and all these other things. So it's really a bit of a juggling act.
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But you've got to focus on each problem, solve it, and then present it back to your customer and make sure that they're happy with that solution.
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Make sure that you have understood and solved whatever they're looking to work towards and make sure that it fits for them.
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So it it's quite a quite large challenge, but it's really fun.
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Yeah, and I think that there seems to be something there that's really about problem solving,
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but using your research skills and your creativity in finding solutions to your work problems.
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And I think you draw on all your past experience in order to do that Problem-Solving.
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So in before I started the PhD, I worked in manufacturing.
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So there are lots of things that I learnt in terms of tolerances, in terms of manufacturing processes.
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So when I work with someone who's using additive manufacturing, I can relate to certain areas there as well.
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And I bring that experience to help me to solve that.
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So, yeah, there's lots of different areas that kind of draw together.
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But the PhD brings a skill set of tackling a very large project and helping you to form it all together.
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One of the things people get. We get feedback that our researchers are quite nervous about is the application process for.
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Jobs outside of academia, because they're sort of the. Academic kind of job application promotions process feels very familiar.
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When you're in that environment, can you talk about your experience of.
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Applying for jobs in. industry and specifically kind of how you talked about and framed, your research experience?
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Yes, absolutely. So I was very lucky with the jobs that I went to.
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Most of them, I had some connection to the company.
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And throughout my working career, I seem to have fallen into jobs rather than applied through the formal process.
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So I would definitely say to any PhD tudents and create a network and tell people that you're looking for a job,
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because the one that I got at Subten Systems, I found out through a guy that I used to go gliding with.
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He'd started at this company and they were looking down on and I was able to apply
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and get a lot of things have kind of fallen into place through that network.
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I have done very few formal applications. Having said that, all my positions have involved some kind of interview.
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So I can certainly comment on that. I guess the key thing is to think about how you've applied your skills and
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any way that you can show that you can talk about how you've used that skill.
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So it could be that you.
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Looked after a colleague's child, say, for a few hours.
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And that was very challenging for you. You can apply that situation and say this was a very stressful situation.
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Not something that I'm familiar with. And this is how I managed it. That might not be particularly relevant to an industrial R&D engineering job,
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but they can see how when you went into a new situation, how you managed it.
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And I think those how you can form an example, if you can draw on your PhD, if you can draw on your sort of formal experiences, that's great.
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But if there's an area where you think importantly, where to go with this, look at your your life outside of work,
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outside of academia and think, are there examples that you can draw from there as well?
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Because that's a really key area that people sometimes sometimes miss.
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I think the other thing about applications and interviews is.
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It's almost always evidence based. So really try to give as many examples of how you fulfil the job.
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Job skills and competencies which will be listed on the job description, try and like focus on those specifically.
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And then you've got a stronger application. Are there particular things that you did?
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So you said you talked about kind of the importance of forming those examples and those examples,
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not having to be really specific to the role the industry that you're working in.
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Are there things that you did during your OhD that weren't necessarily kind of just about the doing the research
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and writing the thesis that have been really useful to you as examples and job applications and interviews?
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Oh, that's a great question. So there are lots of things I did during my PhD
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I travelled extensively as part of the PhD, which is something that I would definitely recommend to everybody.
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And actually that travel led to multiple collaboration's.
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Regarding my research. So that was extremely helpful in terms of outside of the actual PhD and the research environment.
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And I was also a Brownie leader. So that's part of the Girlguiding structure.
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And that was something that kept me really rooted during the PhD because I was working with girls aged seven to 10 and they can be so challenging.
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They can really come up with so many questions.
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Things that you don't think about a child's mind is a fascinating array of ideas, and they're so inquisitive.
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So that was really amazing. And I am quite lucky in that I was able to actually bring them into the physics building.
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And we did a whole evening in the physics building with a little talk and we did some bridge building and and all sorts of things.
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So that was that was really fantastic. I think I also did just after my PhD, I did some volunteering through girlguiding.
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So it was sustainable. Volunteering is what I called it.
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Call it. I'm not a builder. I don't have any skills in that area.
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So I can't go and build houses for people or anything like that.
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But we we ran a programme where we went out and asked the people what they were
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looking for and actually what they wanted was something much more simple or simple,
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something that I could deliver. Which was how to build CVs
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How to present yourself to different people. And it was a very simplistic level, but that was something that we were we were able to do.
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So that was fantastic. And as part of that, we also developed the girl guiding programme in the country with the leaders,
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very simple ideas that don't take lots of resources or money or time, but just ideas for things that they could do to to get more people involved.
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So that's something that I often talk about in interviews,
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because it's something that also changed me as a person to understand that I finished my PhD.
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But actually I have a lot of skills that are useful to other people and I can
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teach them in an informal way and about the world around them and how it works.
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I never really appreciated that before I went away.
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So that was really great. That's very interesting and how did you how did you balance doing that kind of activity alongside doing your PhD?
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I was quite lucky. We're part of a team.
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So when my work load up for my academic workload was quite high, I was able to kind of step back from the brownie preparation for the sessions.
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But when I was a little bit quieter, I could jump in and do more.
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And what I really tried to do was make sure that every Monday night when it was the meeting, I was always there.
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And that was a kind of a non-negotiable aspect for me. That time was Brownie time.
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And that was it. Apart from obviously when I was travelling for conferences and and other such things.
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But I think that's all about teamwork. That's about communicating with the team that you have and understanding each other's pressures.
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One of the other ladies that runs it is a school teacher. So there are key aspects during the year which are particularly busy for her.
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Another lady is a solicitor, so she has big projects.
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So sometimes it coincides that we we are all really busy.
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In which case we all do a little bit to contribute to what we need.
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Having said that, there's also a good aspect of just winging it,
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turning up and just having some fun and nothing to planned and just having a couple of things in your back pocket that you can just get on with.
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And I think that's that's really fun as well.
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I wouldn't want to do all the time, but that helps. And it is quite an important skill to have.
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Like you say, it's not something that we would necessarily want to make.
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The way that we operate on a daily basis, but quite often in in the working world and in your PhD, you do kind of have to just turn up and wing it.
00:24:56,530 --> 00:25:05,830
Absolutely. So there's always that time when you go to a conference and someone's talk doesn't load properly or is corrupted,
00:25:05,830 --> 00:25:14,800
or I went to a talk where all the graphs were in neon colours and you couldn't see any of the lines.
00:25:14,800 --> 00:25:19,630
And so I give him his due. That guy stood there for 20 minutes.
00:25:19,630 --> 00:25:24,430
He talked about his research and we could not see a single thing on any of his slides.
00:25:24,430 --> 00:25:31,060
And I think that is a real skill. And I think there's a bit to be said for preparation in that situation.
00:25:31,060 --> 00:25:37,810
Maybe you can go in the night before or just a couple of hours before your talk and just
00:25:37,810 --> 00:25:42,370
check it over to make sure that it does work on the projector that you're going to use.
00:25:42,370 --> 00:25:47,260
However, it's if you really know your subject area,
00:25:47,260 --> 00:25:55,720
hopefully you'd be able to talk a little bit about your research without these slides, you know, just giving it a go talk.
00:25:55,720 --> 00:26:01,210
And actually, it was a really good talk because it got people asking questions.
00:26:01,210 --> 00:26:10,300
And I think that's really key. I guess one of the big questions is what advice would you give to someone who's currently starting out or doing well,
00:26:10,300 --> 00:26:17,140
coming to the end of the research degree, who is thinking about R&D roles in industry?
00:26:17,140 --> 00:26:25,960
What advice would you give them about things they should be doing now, about applying for applying for jobs?
00:26:25,960 --> 00:26:29,760
Is there any kind of key tips you would give them? Absolutely.
00:26:29,760 --> 00:26:33,700
I would say try and extend your network.
00:26:33,700 --> 00:26:44,770
Now, you could do that by going up to conferences, talking to people about your research, but also talk to your family,
00:26:44,770 --> 00:26:54,070
your friends locally, because lots of my business contacts have been made through unusual links.
00:26:54,070 --> 00:27:01,240
So really use that network to understand what opportunities are out there.
00:27:01,240 --> 00:27:06,400
What kind of skills people are looking for right now. Because it changes it.
00:27:06,400 --> 00:27:16,600
It changes all the time. We're seeing more of a focus towards automation and more scripting is required.
00:27:16,600 --> 00:27:23,560
So things like Python are becoming more necessary and lots of job roles.
00:27:23,560 --> 00:27:33,550
And I would say focus on that to kind of understand what areas you might want to go into, on what kind of skills they're looking for.
00:27:33,550 --> 00:27:38,350
And then you can focus on sort of fulfilling those before you get there,
00:27:38,350 --> 00:27:46,480
but also using those contacts to understand actually is there an opportunity that I'd be perfect for.
00:27:46,480 --> 00:27:52,060
And actually, I can look to apply and say to them, look, it's conditional.
00:27:52,060 --> 00:27:55,900
I want to finish my PhD and then start or something like that.
00:27:55,900 --> 00:28:04,930
There are lots of opportunities out there. And you just need to be a bit flexible in looking for them, how you find them.
00:28:04,930 --> 00:28:11,290
And I think people often overlook that. Thinking that they have to apply through a formal route.
00:28:11,290 --> 00:28:19,620
And there will be a formal route. That is how you find those opportunities that I'm saying can be can be less orthodox.
00:28:19,620 --> 00:28:25,330
Yeah, I think I think that's really key and it seems to have been a key theme in your career so far.
00:28:25,330 --> 00:28:34,630
Actually, the importance of networking and making Connections to actually creating those opportunities.
00:28:34,630 --> 00:28:45,670
Yeah, yeah, definitely. I mean, before my PhD, most of my jobs were through word of mouth.
00:28:45,670 --> 00:28:54,460
One of the jobs that I had was because I'd used a particular software for my dissertation and a company contacted the university and said,
00:28:54,460 --> 00:28:59,920
Do you have any students who can use this software? Any graduates who might be looking for jobs?
00:28:59,920 --> 00:29:06,430
That was another way that I that I got an opportunity there as well.
00:29:06,430 --> 00:29:10,750
So there are lots ways. Talk to your supervisor about what you're looking for.
00:29:10,750 --> 00:29:19,480
Maybe they have someone who's sponsoring PhDs in another area that maybe you're not aware of and they're looking for people.
00:29:19,480 --> 00:29:25,630
So that can be a huge help as well. Yeah, that's really brilliant.
00:29:25,630 --> 00:29:33,240
I'm. Is there anything that you.
00:29:33,240 --> 00:29:41,350
Wish that you had done. While you were still a PhD student that you think would've benefited your career so far?
00:29:41,350 --> 00:29:50,760
I don't think there's any opportunities that I missed. I think probably I should have spent some time learning how to code properly.
00:29:50,760 --> 00:29:55,620
That would be really useful in my career.
00:29:55,620 --> 00:30:04,560
Now, I've picked up bits along the way, but I have to say I'm not a superb coder.
00:30:04,560 --> 00:30:11,430
I think that's a key area. But in terms of conferences, in terms of experience, I was always quite cheeky.
00:30:11,430 --> 00:30:16,860
So I'd always ask if I wanted to go to a conference, if I saw it was somewhere amazing.
00:30:16,860 --> 00:30:23,730
Then I'd just ask and we'd see if there was budget and I'd make sure that I had something new to present.
00:30:23,730 --> 00:30:30,960
When I went to my supervisor to say I would go to this conference and most of the time we made it happen.
00:30:30,960 --> 00:30:39,920
So, yeah, be cheeky. Just go for it. Yeah, that's that's the benefit of being.
00:30:39,920 --> 00:30:46,470
Proactive. And also just accepting that, you know, if you ask.
00:30:46,470 --> 00:30:54,560
They might say no. They might say yes. Exactly. My mom always used to say, if you don't ask, you don't get.
00:30:54,560 --> 00:31:00,840
And that, I think, is very true. So couple of examples on that.
00:31:00,840 --> 00:31:06,480
Specifically, before I started my PhDD, I did a placement with Kinetic.
00:31:06,480 --> 00:31:13,770
And there was a project that we were working on, which was on a warship that was in for refits.
00:31:13,770 --> 00:31:19,290
And I I've never been on an aircraft carrier.
00:31:19,290 --> 00:31:25,440
And I thought I'd really like to go. So I went over to the guy who's running projects and I said, I'd really like to go.
00:31:25,440 --> 00:31:31,410
And he said, Oh, I dunno And then I ended up being down there for two weeks.
00:31:31,410 --> 00:31:40,920
And it was absolutely fantastic. And in another example, in my current job, I was working on a project.
00:31:40,920 --> 00:31:47,340
And one of the surgeons said to me, you should come down and see surgery.
00:31:47,340 --> 00:31:54,030
And I said, okay. So I asked my boss and he said, Well, yes, I guess so.
00:31:54,030 --> 00:32:00,780
So I went down and I saw a knee replacement and a hip replacement. And I've never seen anything like that.
00:32:00,780 --> 00:32:10,920
It's it's brutal and it's fascinating. And I had no idea how I was gonna react, whether I was going to faint on the floor or be engrossed in it.
00:32:10,920 --> 00:32:18,990
Turns out I didn't faint on the floor. Fantastic. Didn't embarrass myself in front of the surgeons, but it was just the most amazing experience.
00:32:18,990 --> 00:32:25,590
And I've got so much more insight into how these surgeries are performed.
00:32:25,590 --> 00:32:30,960
So when I work with a surgeon now, I know that if you're talking about fractions of a millimetre,
00:32:30,960 --> 00:32:42,480
it's probably not going to be achievable in surgery because you you just can't see does that level of detail that you can give them a guide
00:32:42,480 --> 00:32:54,220
and that that really the understanding of the situation of the kind of equipment that you have to wear of the how hot it is in the room.
00:32:54,220 --> 00:33:05,260
You know, all these things really help you to to speak to the customer and to to be able to direct them to the best solution for their problem.
00:33:05,260 --> 00:33:10,630
What do you love most about your job? Oh, just working with loads of different people.
00:33:10,630 --> 00:33:25,750
All the different industries. So I've got a project at the moment where I'm working on trying to automate a learning process to defect,
00:33:25,750 --> 00:33:29,530
to find defects in addictively manufactured parts.
00:33:29,530 --> 00:33:31,810
So that's one project.
00:33:31,810 --> 00:33:48,400
We're also working on automated learning to build models of hearts and knees and hips for things like pacemaker design or stent placement.
00:33:48,400 --> 00:33:54,180
So just working with that huge range of industries and everything in between,
00:33:54,180 --> 00:34:00,730
I'm just really allows me to keep my brain active and learning lots of new, different things.
00:34:00,730 --> 00:34:03,010
But like I've said, applying those skills,
00:34:03,010 --> 00:34:12,070
I've learnt through the experience that I've had before to be able to come up with innovative solutions that don't only solve, you know,
00:34:12,070 --> 00:34:23,290
sort of minor problems, but they're they're really addressing critical problems like defects in aircraftg wings or,
00:34:23,290 --> 00:34:26,780
you know, my my mum's knee replacement. She could have.
00:34:26,780 --> 00:34:33,400
Now, she could have a personalised knee replacement rather than one that was probably a bit smaller, a bit too big.
00:34:33,400 --> 00:34:41,890
But she was somewhere in the middle. And I think helping to address those problems gives you a real warm glow feeling inside.
00:34:41,890 --> 00:34:48,970
Thank you so much, Celia, for taking the time to talk to me and giving some really interesting insights on kind of R&D roles,
00:34:48,970 --> 00:34:53,590
but also the hidden job market. And that's it for this episode.
00:34:53,590 --> 00:35:07,982
Join us next time when we'll be talking to another researcher about their career beyond their research degree.

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