Alessandra Treviso

Research Engineer, National Composites Centre, UK

Former academic researcher in composite materials at the University of Calabria, Italy and Siemens Industry Software, Belgium

Alessandra TrevisoAcademic research experience

I started as a PhD student at the University of Calabria in December 2012, but six months later I was offered the opportunity to continue my research activities at Siemens Industry Software, sponsored by a Marie Curie Early Stage Researcher Fellowship. My research focused on modelling, analysis and manufacturing processes of composite materials and structures.

I therefore spent undertook most of my doctorate in a company office rather than a university one. My activities were not affected by that, however: I could still experience the wider breadth offered by academic research while experiencing industry life. It was an unusual arrangement and I think it probably gave me the opportunity to see just the best of the two worlds.

Academic research is fascinating to me; it feels like you are creating new knowledge and you are doing it not for the profit of the few but in order for science and knowledge itself to advance.

But I am an engineer, and the idea of solving practical problems, creating things that other people can use, is fascinating as well.

Doing high level academic research in industry fulfilled both ambitions.

In 2015, at the end of my PhD, I started looking around Europe for a postdoctoral position. I was determined to embark on an academic career, but got discouraged by the short-term contracts and, in general, the stories of those who tried and were never able to break through. I was scared of being stuck, just one of the thousands of PhD graduates from the “production line” of universities around the globe. I enjoyed industry life and applying your research outcome to everyday products, so I looked for a job in industry. I also liked the idea that I could gain a lot of experience by working on different projects and learn new things, which is what attracted me to research in the first place.

Transition from academic research

As every job seeker does, I started spending hours and hours on job portals, writing CVs and cover letters. I soon lost count of the applications I sent out. What I learnt, sadly, during the process was that the PhD, the thing I was (and still am) most proud of seemed almost to discourage employers. At that point, I realised that I had to change my presentation pack and leverage on all the industrial experience I had gained during my time at Siemens. But how was I to distinguish between my purely academic and purely industrial experience? It wasn’t possible. I then decided to sell my PhD just as a long-term research project to highlight all the time and project management involved, to prove that I could easily fit into industry with its tight deadlines. I was very lucky to have Siemens written on my CV; it was a sort of quality seal.

Unfortunately, my topic was quite new for Siemens so I was either getting calls for jobs I had no qualifications for, or rejections from specialised companies I would have loved to work with but who couldn’t figure out how my Siemens experience could have equipped me for the role.

I got in touch with lots of people, both from academia and industry, whom I had met at conferences and courses over the years. Never underestimate the power of networking, is what I learnt, and don’t be afraid to ask. People are generally happy to give career advice. That was very useful because I could gain a lot of information from other people’s experience. I just had to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.

I eventually found a job in a small consultancy group at the University of Southampton (UK). I thought that I would be slightly more on the academic side yet still at the very same interface between industry and academia, which I was very comfortable with. But settling in was hard. The size of the group and the consultancy type of work made it impossible to do research as I expected or wanted to. Customers were not interested in the why or how but just in the final answer. I didn’t last long there.

I wanted to go back to real research and timidly tried to look for a postdoc or a researcher position in a research institute. I was even ready to undergo all the uncertainties of postdoc life. There are several research centres in the UK that specialise in composite materials. Ever since visiting them for a training course I have kept an eye on their open positions. I sent my CV and cover letter and before long I was transitioning back to research.

Current job – and how it compares

I now work as a Research Engineer at the UK’s National Composites Centre. In my current role I deal both with external customers and with proper research activities. It is quite a good compromise because it mixes what I like about both fields: application to the real world and development of novel solutions for novel problems. Dealing with customers is sometimes difficult because what you might see as a research opportunity is just an obstacle to them – something to find a workaround for. It also differs from academia because my research focuses on finding solutions that are scalable for industry.

Competencies old and new

Academic research helped me develop a broad approach to problems. The temptation, especially in industry, is to always choose the beaten track, but academic research taught me that there are similarities between different fields and sometimes a method can be transferred from one problem to another. I have to thank my earlier education for this as well, because my degrees in Mechanical Engineering gave me a solid background in different fields. I think this attitude should be used more in industry and it is the one that can successfully lead to innovation.

Reflections on my career path

I am quite happy with my career path. Looking back, it may look full of turns and changes. Maybe it took longer to be where I am now, but I think it was helpful to experience different working environments and also different fields. It boosted my adaptability, broadened my skill set and helped me identify what I like and what I don’t like. Changing country and then city in a very short time was challenging and so was changing job. But I am grateful for the personal aspect of the challenge. I met wonderful people on the way and developed many professional links.

During my university days I had a very clear picture of the academic career I wanted and where I wanted to be. I postponed it to take the Marie Curie award – which turned out to be the best professional and human experience I could wish for.

I love doing research so I would like to stick around for the next few years, but I would also like to bring it to the next level and maybe try and move to a leadership role to share my experience and path with other people and hopefully teach them something.

My advice

It’s vital to shift your point of view and look at yourself in a critical way. We take our daily tasks for granted, as an essential part of the job that we don’t think about. When you think critically about what you actually have to do to carry out your research you will figure out that you have developed so many non-academic skills! It is difficult to do at first but it is the first step to get on top of your job search. Also, don’t be discouraged by rejections. This will happen and it’s a good opportunity for learning and improving.

LinkedIn profile