Undergrad: University of Oregon, Eugene, OR - Chemistry
Current Job Title: Application Engineer at Thermo Fisher Scientific (FEI Company)
During the final years of my undergraduate degree in chemistry at the University of Oregon, I was faced with the difficult question of what I wanted to do when I was done. I had three years of research experience and planned to apply to a PhD program after graduating. As senior year rolled around and I was forced to address this question with more seriousness, I began to realize that I was having doubts about the path I was on. I knew I was still committed to expanding my education, but I was also interested in seeing what applied science looked like “in the real world.” The prospect of entering a PhD program which could take anywhere from 4-6 years, without any idea of what a science career outside of academia actually looked like, made me a little uneasy. After discussing these uncertainties with my research professor, he recommended the Master’s program to me. After doing a little research I realized this program was exactly what I had been looking for. A master’s degree in about a year, plus paid exposure to the industry side of science. For me, it was the perfect balance of continuing my education while still figuring out what a career in science was like.
The summer curriculum was very challenging, however it was a perfect environment for such an accelerated course. In short, it's an impossible amount of work for a single person, but fortunately you're not alone. The teamwork and networking experience that this program provides is perhaps one of the most valuable and unique aspects it has to offer. The lecture and lab experience are obviously an integral part of any science education, but I don’t know of any other program that stresses the professional development and interpersonal career skills as much. For 10 weeks you will spend most of your days with a group of strangers who you will rely on and who will rely on you. At the very least, it will teach you to find a way to get along with people you don’t always see eye to eye with (and there will be some of that), and at its best you will form bonds with some of the brightest and most driven people – who are all about to become your network in industry. The summer will be difficult – and it will also be one of the most exciting and interesting terms of your academic career. It's difficult to describe the summer as it is a bit of a paradox; every day will be long, full, and difficult, but it will be over faster than you can imagine. My advice about the summer is if the rigor has you worried, make your choice not on how intelligent you believe yourself to be, but on how hard you are capable of working.
When I originally wrote this, I was mid-way through my internship at FEI and I realized that the interpersonal skills and the self-motivated work ethic that the program forces you to embrace are arguably more important on a day to day basis than the specifics of manufacturing processes and the theory behind them. The program puts a focus on this because it is the only element that will exist regardless of where your internship takes you. In this way the program prepared me very well for my internship, even though the day to day specifics of my job could not be taught, especially for the diversity of internships available to students in the program.
The exact path of my education and career is still not perfectly clear to me, as I expect it will continue to be for some time, but this Master’s program has given me some invaluable tools to make more informed decisions about that path and the ability to follow it. I've gained knowledge about the world of semiconductor manufacturing, invaluable work experience in a field relevant to my interests, insight into careers in science, understanding about how my degree impacts my career, and a strong network of individuals starting their careers in dozens of industries both closely related to and very far removed from my current position. If you want to gain the same type of insight while making life-long friends and connections, expand your education and practical career experience, all while earning a paycheck with little more than a 1 year commitment, I highly recommend this program.
James provided an update December 2018:
Recently I was given the opportunity to reflect on how far I've come since my first day as an intern at FEI (now Thermo Fisher) and how well the Master's program prepared me for what would follow and what is still ahead of me. Part way through my internship I applied and interviewed for a few positions within my company. I was excited to revisit my resume and was very pleased with the number of skills I was able to add to it. Looking over my old resume, I was reminded not only of all of the technical skills I had learned during that first summer in the Master's program, but also all of the guidance I received about how to organize and present a nice resume, how to interview, and ultimately how to sell myself and my talents. Armed with the skills I learned during my internship and the confidence that I could deliver them, I felt really positive about my interviews. That confidence showed when it came time to interview and I walked out of both of them feeling like I had nailed it. Sometimes though, life has other plans for your future, and I was discouraged to learn that I had not been selected for either position.
Fast forward several months later and my internship is nearing its completion and I still don't know what I am going to do after it ends. I receive an email from one of the managers I originally interviewed with saying they were impressed by my skills and have a new position opening up that they think I would be great fit for. I interviewed for the position and this time, things worked out in my favor. Now, almost 3 years into my career, I couldn't be happier. My job as an applications engineer allows me to travel around the country and help people at companies and universities learn how to use the powerful microscopes we sell to conduct their research. Before taking this job there were a handful of states I had traveled to – now there are a handful that I have yet to visit. I get to work with cutting edge equipment and learn how our customers are applying our techniques to answer their toughest questions.
There are two main components to my job as an applications engineer at Thermo Fisher. When I am here in the Hillsboro office, I'm usually analyzing samples on our microscopes for prospective customers or doing system demos. I work mostly with our Quanta and Quattro microscopes, environmental SEMs which excel at looking at samples that are non-conductive, hydrated, or would otherwise be damaged by exposure to high vacuum. A prospective customer sends us a set of samples and I collect images and data from the system to demonstrate what it is capable of. After the customer has reviewed the report, they schedule to see a live demo of the system, usually coming out to Hillsboro for a few days. I enjoy this element of my job because every sample comes with a new challenge and each customer has different needs. Our customers work with some very high-end materials and are often experts in their fields, so getting to interact with them and gain insight into their industry is always fascinating to me.
When I'm not working in the office I'm traveling to customer sites to train people on our instruments. I love this aspect of my job because not only do I get to see exciting new places, but I also get to really dive into the problems our customers facing and often I can give them really powerful solutions. The variety of customers I get to work with is what keeps the job interesting. I've worked with companies and universities that make everything from aircraft aluminum, electric car batteries, medical devices, cereal, paper towels, and soap. Getting to learn about all these different industries has been a really engaging part of the job. Ultimately the job is providing customers with a solution. At the end of the day, it feels good to know I've made a difference for someone, but the insight I gain into a wide variety of scientific industries is what keeps me going and makes the job fun. Getting to work with some of the best scientific equipment in the industry doesn't hurt either.
A month ago I was handed a couple resumes for candidates we were reviewing for positions in our group and it gave me a chance to reflect on just how far I've come and how much I've learned. I was reminded that success is a combination of preparation and serendipity. You have to be willing to work for your goals and pursue your desires, and you have to be ready to seize opportunities when they present themselves. Of all of the opportunities I've seized, few have served me better than the choice to join the Master's program at University of Oregon. To be given the chance to continue my education while gaining insight into the industrial side of science has opened many doors and hopefully will open many more. If I could give my former self any advice, it would be to treat every interview like you would the interview for your dream job, because you never know who you might impress.