Examples of Non-Academic Career Paths

André Moreau

PhD Physics, Senior Research Officer, National Research Council Canada, Industrial Materials Institute

André Moreau walks the fine line between management and science, industry and academia. It’s a tough line to walk, but he enjoys where he is and prefers the middle to falling on one side or the other. Moreau works for the National Research Council of Canada at the Industrial Materials Institute (IMI) in materials processing, mainly working with polymers and metals.

Moreau obtained his Bachelor's in physics in Canada and his PhD in physics at Northwestern University of Illinois. He found his job immediately after graduation, but he had prepared himself well for his career. While are Northwestern, Moreau found himself to be the only student in his group who had a good understanding of electronics. After finishing the main topic of his thesis (in novel ultrasonic measurements of the supermodulus effect in composition modulated thin films), he took on an additional project. His advisor proposed that he "be essentially an electronics technician for another student who wanted to build a scanning tunneling microscope" says Moreau. "I accepted only because I saw that I could invent a new type of Ultrasound detector based on the interesting electronic tunneling effect," he adds, which added to his technical experience.

One year before graduating, Moreau started looking for jobs. “I always had an idea that I wanted to work in a national lab but I thought it would be hard to get such a position because there are very few. The idea of teaching did not appeal to me and I wanted to do high caliber research,” he says. He applied for a job a Canadian national lab in Ottawa , but a colleague suggested he apply to IMI, which Moreau had not heard of before. Moreau didn’t get the job in Ottawa ; he got the job at IMI. He points out, “note that it is my networking that got me my job at IMI, that almost got me a job at IBM Zurich, and that got me another post-doc offer in Grenoble which I declined.” On the job at IMI, Moreau says, “doing ultrasonics with lasers as a scientist in a National lab in Canada near my home town did not sound bad at all, so I took the job. And it turned out that I had the exact profile they were looking for.” After accepting the job, he says he “slowly specialized into metallurgy applications.” He moved from a two-year renewable position into a permanent position after four years at IMI.

What attracted Moreau to metallurgy? He says there were two main reasons: “one, bringing physics to a field (metallurgy) neglected by physicists meant that I had higher chances to contribute, and two, I had fun tools (such as laser-ultrasonics) that no one else had, so again I had better chances to make novel contributions.”

Moreau says he didn’t do anything special to prepare for his career, but networking played a part as mentioned above. He mentions that “the biggest surprise was how important it is to master languages (English and French), even in physics.” The transition from academia to his position was smooth, in part, he says, because, “when you move into a job environment, you have to learn your new specialty, but the [working] environment is adapted to the job so colleagues and bosses help you make the transition.” To tailor an application to an industry position, Moreau says, “accomplishments are more important than degrees or anything else,” so highlight your accomplishments. He says too that “the resume of a recent PhD should be about 1 ½ pages and you should list your publications on a separate ‘publication list’.”

If you are considering a non-academic career, Moreau advises that you “forget the prejudices that some professors tend to give to students. Find something that looks interesting and just go for it; be open to learning anything you find interesting, not just physics.” He adds, “personal networks are extremely useful, so develop your network,” and attend conferences whenever possible. Moreau also provides tips on giving a good presentation, whether at a conference or in front of sponsors. He acknowledges that “presenting is not an easy task and requires a lot of practice and experience.” His advice is to “say less but don’t…present dubious or wrong statements or results,” and “don’t discredit others’ work but explain why you did what you did.”

As for his own career, Moreau has made careful decisions to keep a balance of science and management he is comfortable with. He says, “the more you get involved in the fun stuff like science, the less you can do because science takes a lot of time. The more you gain clout, hire people to help you do more and do it faster…the more you turn into a manager. If you are aware of that compromise, then you can choose the mix of science and management that is just right for you. Personally, I had to say ‘no’ to hierarchical advancement to return to doing science.”

Moreau’s unique career mix of academia and industry is not easy to maintain. “We are supposed to take basic research to industrial and commercial applications. This is a very very very long road and there is usually not enough funding to go all the way, so I often get neither the satisfaction of a good publication nor the satisfaction of seeing a commercial product become successful,” he says. In addition, “the ‘money-making’ mindset of industry and the ‘scientific reputation’ mindset of academia meet and clash quite hard here; it would be easier to live in either one of these mindsets, but although what I do is difficult, I like it,” Moreau adds.

Moreau’s current responsibilities revolve around the processes necessary for technology transfer to industry, including promoting, selling, implementing and developing IMI’s laser-ultrasound technology for transfer to industry. He says, “in a typical day, I will work on one or more of several projects, either by doing the work myself or helping others [in my group]. Sometimes I am in the lab, but most of the time I analyze data, write reports, prepare meetings and project proposals. I also discuss results other colleagues have obtained and advise them on what to do. On occasion I travel to meet customers or attend a conference.”

What does it take to succeed in a career like Moreau’s? He says, “one needs other skills than physics.” Skills such as, “writing, communication and the ability to convince someone, initiative and business sense,” he says are valuable. In addition, he says one needs the “ability to make and maintain a contact network and the ability to work under a deadline or budget constraint” are necessary. In fact, Moreau points out that “some excellent scientists will not make it because they work alone and rarely talk with colleagues; some other scientists will do very well because of their communication and management skills.”

As for the kinds of experiences that are useful for a career in nondestructive evaluation, Moreau suggests that graduate students “concentrate on measurements rather than the material you are studying. Learn to build instrumentation, learn error analysis and learn to program code well.” If someone is interested in a career in material science, he suggests taking other courses such as metallurgy, polymer physics, ceramics, “or other such courses outside of pure physics.” In addition, Moreau doesn’t feel that additional experience beyond the PhD work is necessary. He says, “shoot for what you want right away. I got my job immediately after graduating when the job market was tough.” The nondestructive testing industry “has been quietly and steadily growing,” he says, and while “it doesn’t make the news…this is definitely a growth industry, so the job market should be excellent.” He adds that a few large companies are emerging, in addition to the many small firms that exist.

Moreau’s career allows him a good lifestyle outside of work. “I do not have to work crazy weeks and my working schedule is reasonable,” he says. His salary allows him to live comfortably and was able to buy a house when he was a young scientist. Other benefits include some flexibility in his work hours, and he says, “I have about 5 weeks of vacation; I would say that I traded a larger salary for a better lifestyle and working conditions”. As for what he likes best, he says “I can do more science and have more flexibility in my job than in many other jobs.” Sounds like a promising career field.