PNAS: Australian Equipment Maker

(On July 16, 2009, I asked for volunteers with science degrees and non-academic jobs who would be willing to be interviewed about their careers paths, with the goal of providing young scientists with more information about career options beyond the pursuit of a tenure-track faculty job that is too often assumed as a default. This post is one of those interviews, giving the responses of an Australian who prefers to remain nameless.)

1) What is your non-academic job?

I'm the manager of a small company that makes high-tech measuring equipment. Most of this is used for monitoring and control in manufacturing industry but some is also used in research labs.

2) What is your science background?

I did a four year degree in physics at the University of Adelaide in South Australia. This school of physics left its mark on me in a number of ways. Senior students were expected to spend time getting their hands dirty building their own experimental apparatus. I learned that the occasional bloody knuckle or draining oil from a vacuum pump are part of science. Every day, I went past the office of Sir Mark Oliphant, who worked on the Manhattan project and later became state Governor, past the lab of William and Lawrence Bragg who won the Nobel prize for their eponymous equation and past the memorabilia of Sir Douglas Mawson, one of the most heroic of Antarctic explorers. It never occurred to me that physicists were nerds or geeks. I took it for granted that physicists could go anywhere and do anything.

3) What led you to this job?

I never had a career plan: I saw a vacancy advertised, thought it sounded interesting, applied and got it. I was fortunate that I had some hands-on experience in making stuff. In addition to my academic degree, I had the rudiments of technical drawing and metal working.

4) What's your work environment like?

My work environment is mostly in an office with some time spent in a fairly clean factory.

5) What do you do in a typical day?

I spend more than half of my day at a desk. This time is mostly spent talking to customers and suppliers, designing custom-made products, designing tooling and of course there is the dull but necessary administration. The rest of the day is out in the factory, talking production, development trials, trouble-shooting and helping the production staff. About once or twice a year I visit customers so I have been to Germany, Switzerland, China, Japan, Korea, USA, Turkey and India.

6) How does your science background help you in your job?

1. Most of our customers are scientists or engineers. I can understand what they are talking about and what they need or, if not, I know what questions to ask.

2. Trouble-shooting and product improvements require very similar mental processes to scientific research. The amount of science knowledge might be less but the cycle of proposing a hypothesis, designing an experiment, analysing the data and coming to a conclusion is just the same. Because I work in a very small niche with leading edge materials and products, there are very few text-book solutions.

7) If a current college student wanted to get a job like yours, how
should they go about it?

Make stuff with your own hands. Look for holiday jobs in factories.

8) What's the most important thing you learned from science?

People sometimes say that the biggest long-term benefit of a university degree is that is teaches how to think. I disagree. I think the the benefit of a degree in the arts or sciences is that it enables one to discriminate what is worth thinking about. When you have decided what is worth thinking about, evidence gathered by measurement is worth more than a thousand opinions

9) What advice would you give to young science students trying to plan
their careers?

My advice is don't. Do what interests you. I have worked in textile science, neurophysiology, psychophysics and high tech ceramics. You call that a plan???

10) (Totally Optional Question) What's the pay like?

The answers to this question are going to be hard to compare if you get responses from all over the world. My pay is high enough for me to indulge in a couple of foolish luxuries, holiday in Europe most years and still live comfortably :)

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