Pablo Quintia Vidal

Airline pilot, Ireland

Former researcher in robotics at the University of Santiago de Compostela and the University of A Coruña, Spain

Pablo Quintia VidalAcademic research experience

When I was young I thought I might be a researcher when I grew up. But I also dreamt of being a pilot.

I started my research career in 2007, the final year of my MSc at the University of A Coruña (UDC), when I was 25. I liked robotics and AI and one professor offered me a nice project about autonomous learning in a mobile robot, which I took.

At the time of finishing the MSc thesis I was working as a software developer in a different laboratory of the university. They offered me a PhD place in biomedical computing. At the same time my thesis advisor offered a PhD in robotics, a way to continue the research done in the MSc thesis. I took the latter. The arrangement was to work with my MSc thesis advisor and with another advisor who was a professor at the University of Santiago de Compostela (USC).

During the six years of my doctoral research I published several papers and attended quite a few European conferences. We also carried out live demos of our autonomous robot learning system in museums and high schools of Galicia.

However, the overall experience of my PhD was a negative one. I’d been given to understand that there would be sufficient funds to hire me for the duration of my PhD. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Temporary contracts with USC and UDC (supplemented by a two-year research grant I won from the Galician government) gave only a low income and did not cover the whole period. To start with I had a lecturer contract at UDC, but this caused friction and ceased in 2008. In the final months of my PhD my only income was unemployment benefit. I was also frustrated at a lack of support for spending some time researching abroad.

I left academia mainly because I saw that I had no future in it. It was very hard to get a permanent position and I didn’t want to be linking contracts and fighting for grants in my 30s and 40s.

Another reason was that I did not get a good enough offer to stay. Before finishing the PhD I got an offer from the University of Albacete to join their robotics group. After thinking it over I refused it, partly because it would mean leaving my girlfriend in Galicia and partly because I would not want to leave the University in the lurch if I then found something I preferred.

I also started to dislike the way academia works. It seems to me that sometimes quantity is more important than quality and that people work to get more publications, not to get more science done. It’s important to publish about projects that don’t get the results expected, to avoid people committing the same mistakes in the future, but the current focus prevents this happening.

In 2012 I started to look for a job in industry, in anticipation of completing my PhD in the next few months. I sent my CV to several companies, mainly robotic companies, but also software and hardware companies. I got a few interviews but no job offers.

Meanwhile, I had not totally neglected my dream of becoming a pilot. All the time I worked I’d saved money to get my private pilot license. When I finished my PhD and couldn’t find a job I decided to bet all in and go for a commercial pilot licence, with the hope of becoming a professional pilot. There was a flight school in Coruña so I could live with my girlfriend while getting the licenses. That is when my career turned from research and computer science to aviation.

Transition from academic research

When I decided to shift from research to aviation I didn’t have a job guaranteed. I didn’t get my first job as a pilot until the summer of 2016, a few months after getting all my licenses. Until the very moment I was signing the contract with the flight school I thought my dream was impossible, because my family wasn’t wealthy and I hadn’t saved enough money. But with the support and effort of my parents and my girlfriend I got the funds to pay for the flight school.

My decision really was a risky bet because aviation is a very challenging and variable environment, with good times and bad. If you finish your studies in a bad time it will be very difficult to get a job. I was lucky enough to finish at a good time, when airlines were looking for new pilots.

Since a job as a pilot was not a sure thing, I looked for another job to sustain myself and not depend on my family. I looked for any kind of job in Coruña and the suburbs. I was unemployed for a year until in October 2014 there was an opening for a temporary lecturer in UDC, the same job I did six years previously.

My biggest fear was to fail my family after the big investment made in the flight school. At the time I joined it I was almost 31, so I would be 33 at least when I graduated, which is quite old for a pilot with no experience. I was almost sure that if I could not get a pilot job within a year I would never get it.

Current job – and how it compares                       

I am a Boeing 737 first officer flying for a big European company. The best aspects of my job are the chance to handle a challenging and powerful machine, the views from the cockpit are wonderful and the pay is a big improvement from my previous jobs. I also have a lot of off days due to flying time limitations.

The downside of the job is that I have to be away from my family for days, and as I now have a baby I feel I am missing his best years. Also the job can be very stressful, with time pressure, delays and bad weather.

It is very different from academia. In this kind of job it is easier to disconnect when you go home after work. Your workmates are from very different backgrounds and you all work as a team. In academia, at least in my experience, the research groups are far from a team. They are more like a group of people that happens to work together, with a strong hierarchy and some kind of common goal, but sometimes conflicting interests.

Competencies old and new

My scientific background helped me to understand more easily some of the subjects during my aviation studies. Those subjects focused on navigation and the physics of flight were my favourites.

The most useful competency I can apply to aviation coming from academia is critical thinking. You must be able to analyse the information provided for the several instruments and extract the facts. One source of errors during a flight is confirmation bias, where you misinterpret some information because you were expecting something different, something that usually happens but for some reason this time it didn't happen.

Another useful competency learnt during my stage at academia is communication. It is vital in a cockpit to have a clear and effective communication, without ambiguities which could cause deadly misundertandings.

For this new job I had to learn several new competencies: teamwork, resource management and, of course, handling skills to pilot the aircraft.

Reflections on my career path

If I’d known it would be so frustrating I would not have started a PhD. I knew it would be hard to find a job after a PhD, but I never imagined it would be so difficult even in the private sector.

I should have followed my dream at a much younger age. It occurs to me that if I had simply got an unskilled job but with a good salary at 18, I could have got into aviation in my mid-20s. (In Spain during the 2000s a bricklayer could earn more than an engineer due to the construction bubble.) But the thing is that you cannot know what would have happened, and even if I think I made some bad choices I am now where I always wanted to be.

Although I have left research behind I haven’t lost all interest in my past life: I try to be up-to-date with the latest developments and keep in touch with my PhD advisors.

My advice

Do it before it is too late and don't be afraid. I saw how hard it is to get a job after academia; you are going to be too old and inexperienced for most companies. Sad but true.

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