PNAS: Steven Olson, Semiconductor Engineer

I've decided to do a new round of profiles in the Project for Non-Academic Science (acronym deliberately chosen to coincide with a journal), as a way of getting a little more information out there to students studying in STEM fields who will likely end up with jobs off the "standard" academic science track.

Ninth in this round is a physics major turned semiconductor engineer.

1) What is your non-academic job? I am a Plasma Etch Process Engineer at Avago Technologies, which is a semiconductor/MEMS company that produces Wireless semiconductor devices.

2) What is your science background? I have a BSc and an MSc in Physics from the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. My MSc was in experimental Condensed Matter Physics

3) What led you to this job? During my BSc I did an internship at a national laboratory in Canada where my primary responsibility was designing and making small MEMS devices in a University Nanofabrication lab. During this time I realized that I loved the problem solving and hands on lab work involved with MEMS/semiconductor processing. This re-invigorated me for the rest of my Bachelor’s degree and through my MSc as well, where I did some similar fabrication work for my MSc thesis experiments.

4) What's your work environment like? (Lab bench, field work, office, etc) I have a desk/cubicle in a cubicle farm and I am also a tool owner for several etching tools in a large Semiconductor FAB. Lots of data processing and document writing/editing done at my desk, and plenty of experiments done in the FAB.

5) What do you do in a typical day? Its hard to describe a typical day because it can vary widely from spending an entire day at my desk doing data analysis, data mining, managing projects and writing documents to an entire day spent in the FAB running experiments,taking measurements and sitting at a microscope inspecting wafers. In both cases with meetings sprinkled in. In a typical week its roughly a 50/50 split between desk work and FAB work, which is a nice change of pace to keep things interesting.

6) How does your science background help you in your job? My science background is extremely important to my job. There is the obvious technical aspects of my job which rely heavily on physics and chemistry, as well as the more general skills I learned in physics about how to break down problems into the most important aspects, build physical models about what might be going on and generate testable predictions to design experiments. Being able to work with data and understanding how to get meaningful information about a system from graphs and plots plays a heavy role as well.

7) If a current college student wanted to get a job like yours, how
should they go about it?
A current college student who wanted a job like mine would be better studying a branch of engineering, such as Chemical or Electrical Engineering because the path to this type of job is much more straight forward. Its true what they say about Physicists, that they can do a lot of things, but nobody really knows what they can do. I found that to be true in my job searches. Studying Physics in some ways makes me better prepared for my job than some of my colleagues, however it also made getting my foot in the door to my industry a bit harder.

Another important thing to people wanting to get into my industry now would be to get a graduate degree. There are many people who I work with with BSc’s in Engineering, however most of our new hires have graduate degrees.

8) What's the most important thing you learned from science? The most important things I learned from science is how to tackle a problem, and the confidence and determination to continue digging deeper when the first, second or third things that I try don’t solve the problem.

9) What advice would you give to young science students trying to plan
their careers?
Find a field that you enjoy because the more you enjoy it the more you will put into your career and the more satisfaction you will get out of it.

10) (Totally Optional Question) What's the pay like? Salaries in my industry can range from 70K-120K. The company I work for is on the higher end of that I am around the middle of range, still being in the early stages of my career.


More like this

"Its true what they say about Physicists, that they can do a lot of things, but nobody really knows what they can do."

I like to say that "A physicist\ can do anything an engineer can do -- it'll just take longer and it won't be done as well."

The corollary, though, is that one physicist can do a (marginal) job of imitating many different types of engineers.