Undergrad: University of Montana, Missoula, MT - Physics
Current Job Title: Protection & Controls Engineer at AVANGRID
“So, when will you get your PhD?”
My senior year of undergrad, it seemed like this was the only question my professors had for me. There was a path they saw me heading down, and so far I had checked all the boxes: research experience in atomic physics, an REU, good grades, and conference presentations under my belt. The “natural” next step for any graduate, they figured, was a PhD. But I had read the stats – living on $30k a year, working well above 40 hours per week between teaching/research, and 5+ years to degree completion, along with no guarantee that you will work well with your advisor or enjoy your project. It seemed like a huge commitment to be making when I had no idea what I really wanted to do, and hadn’t been exposed to other options outside of academia.
I ended up taking three years off, working odd jobs and looking into options other than a PhD in physics. After a pretty exhaustive search, UO was the only school that I felt had a program specifically geared toward working in the private sector with a fairly minimal time commitment (~1.5 years and the chance that you’re employed right afterward is a pretty good deal). In my mind, the worst that could happen was that I didn’t like my internship – which would still be valuable information in determining what I wanted to do, and I’d be paid in the meantime!
I chose the semiconductor track primarily for the device physics component, which covers solar cells. I had always had an interest in renewable energy and climate change, and felt that I wanted to apply my knowledge and skills toward that field. Plus, I already had experience in optics and felt that this was a chance to try something new without pigeonholing myself, unlike a PhD program.
My internship was at Electro Scientific Industries in Portland (ESI, now a part of MKS Instruments). ESI makes laser micromachining systems that are used to drill small holes (called “vias”) in printed circuit board materials. I worked in the applications group, which is the team that interacts with customers and figures out laser drilling parameters that will work for their particular purpose/material. As an intern, I worked mostly with our UV systems. I got experience working directly with customers, as well as determining the feasibility and capabilities of prototype products (5-10 years out from release). At the end of my internship, I was converted to a full-time employee on the same team, but my responsibilities shifted over to the CO2 system offerings. In this role, I focused mostly on “de-risking” our newest product. This entailed determining limitations of the performance, developing new drilling processes to work around these limitations, and suggesting changes to the user interface/software to better meet customer needs. I also trained the first customer to purchase this product, which was a challenge that I thoroughly enjoyed!
While I gained valuable experience during my two years at ESI, I wanted to take another step toward my goal of working on something related to renewable energy. I started at Avangrid in January 2021, as a protection and controls engineer. Avangrid is a large energy company that develops renewable energy projects like wind and solar farms, as well as grid infrastructure upgrades that can better handle electricity generated from renewables. My role works on designing protection equipment at both new and existing substations – for example, relays that trip breakers in the event of an overcurrent. I feel like I’m playing a part in the deployment of renewables, and I find that added sense of alignment with my purpose has really helped me enjoy my job and keep things in perspective.
I think there’s a lot of pressure to continue down the academic path, because professors often reinforce the misconception that “the smart ones go get their PhD.” It’s really not that simple and I am a firm believer that graduates should blaze their own trail and chase their interests, and feel free to explore a bit after undergrad. Don’t just choose the PhD route because it feels like the default option. There are some careers that truly require a PhD, but most don’t, and once you’re in the workforce, people usually don’t care very much how many years you spent in school – they care about how well you do your job. I’m very glad that I chose to go through the Knight Campus program as it propelled me forward into a career I enjoy, improved my communication and interviewing skills, and connected me with a great (and large!) alumni network. I wouldn’t have done it any other way!