PhD, check. Now what?

By Meimei Qin and Brittney Wolff Zatezalo

Your PhD diploma arrives. What do you do now?

Leading high-tech companies are hiring top talent globally. But is working in industry right for you? Hear from PhD graduates who have made the jump.

More than 800 PhD holders in physics, computer science, chemistry engineering, mathematics and other related fields are tackling the extreme technology challenges at ASML. Talking to them, a clear picture emerges of why they chose a job in industry over life in academia: The desire to build real products, the adventure of exploring career paths, and the joy of being challenged and helped by incredibly smart people on the way to a shared goal.

Building real products

“The drive for me to come here was the desire to see the results and impact of my research,” says Kirill Bystrov, a Design Engineer in the development and engineering department at ASML’s headquarters in Veldhoven in the Netherlands. “As an applied physics PhD student, I did fantastic research in the lab, analyzed the data, and published papers. And then what? Maybe 1,000 people downloaded my papers, 100 read them through, and 10 used my results in their studies. Results achieved by the academic community often stay within the community. I want to see more impact coming out of what I do day in, and day out.”

Kirill Bystrov shows a video of how the robot works in front of an exhibited optical component at ASML’s experience center in Veldhoven, Netherlands.

Kirill managed to do so. On his first day of working at ASML in the winter of 2015, he was asked to make a ‘wish list’ for a robot that would be used to clean one of the most precious optical components in the cutting-edge chip-making machines. After specifying 227 requirements for the proposed robot, and more than one year working with suppliers to develop it, the robot (which goes by the nickname ‘Robert’) will go live in a couple of weeks.

“I am so excited,” Kirill says. “It already works, but its software still needs to be finalized — occasionally ‘Robert’ shows his character and refuses to do what we ask for.”

Robert, the 2m x 3m cabinet-shaped metal box with a robotic arm inside, is designed to clean the optical component within 8 hours, a task that currently requires a few weeks of team effort. “The current way of cleaning is like doing the dishes after a big family dinner, and you’re only capable of washing one plate per day. It’s time-consuming and uneconomic,” says Kirill.

ASML delivers its cutting-edge machines to customers like Intel, TSMC and Samsung to enable them produce smaller, cheaper, but more powerful chips. Down the line, the chips are inserted in everyone’s laptop, iPhone or car, and those tiny pieces of silicon change the way people work, live and play. In this sense, Kirill’s work is affecting people’s life on a larger scale, and the result of his research is tangible.

Software experts can also enjoy a chance to develop their ideas from vague thoughts to mature applications. Jen-Shiang Wang, a Stanford PhD graduate in Electrical Engineering, joined ASML’s model R&D team in Silicon Valley. Having developed models for applications for more than 10 years, he shared his magic moment.

Jen-Shiang Wang at ASML’s office in Silicon Valley, USA

The team developed a software model to help improve overlay accuracy, or layer-to-layer alignment on multi-layer chips. For example, lines and transistors must all line up as a single overlay error can be detrimental to performance.

“The true magic occurred when we translated our solution into a sleek, user-friendly interface used by our customers every day to control their processes. That’s immediate impact and true value — applying mathematical and physical skills to solve a real-world problem,” he says.

The adventure of the jungle gym career

A career in industry rarely resembles a ladder, said Chen Zhang, who after her post-doc in the chemical science department at Berkeley Labs joined ASML’s technology development software team in Silicon Valley, and recently joined a new rotation program. “It’s more of a jungle gym,” she says.

Chen Zhang at ASML’s office in Silicon Valley, USA

“While I’m not necessarily taking on an entirely different role, I’m gaining broader exposure to different aspects of ASML’s product development cycle and expanding my technical expertise,” she adds.

In a large global technology company like ASML, which spends more than one billion euros annually on research and development, career paths abound, from America to Asia and Europe. Although the majority of PhD graduates start their careers in research or the development and engineering department, they may go on to have a job anywhere in the company, depending on their skills and preferences.

At its headquarter in the Netherlands, Koen Maaskant, an ‘amateur philosopher’ and PhD graduate in astrophysics, quickly jumped at the chance of a new opportunity. After a one-year journey in development and engineering, he moved to corporate strategy and marketing to work in new business development. “I asked myself one question: Beyond the technology side of things, what will I be working on in 20 years in ASML?” He adds that peripheral vision is useful, as it helps you see future career opportunities that come along and, in jungle gym fashion, be ready to swing to them.

Koen Maaskant checks work in a research lab at ASML’s headquarters in Veldhoven, Netherlands for potential business

“You are not fixed here, and you find your own way,” he said. “If you love solving technical issues, then you could grow to be an expert; if you are good at motivating people, then you could be a manager; if you know how to execute process to achieve a milestone, then you could become a project lead.”

Moving out of your comfort zone can be painful. But nothing is as painful as staying stuck in a place you don’t belong. That’s why the design of a jungle gym has many different rungs — upward or downward leaps and lateral moves. Similarly, career moves can take you up, over, sideways, or perhaps even back a step or two before you move forward again.

The key is figuring out which path is best suited to your own aspirations, as Iwan Akkermans highlights. Iwan, who has a PhD in Antenna Design, joined ASML eight years ago. After leading three projects by playing a dual role — project lead/architect or project lead/engineer — he chose to stop exploring being a project lead and focus instead on developing himself as an architect.

Iwan Akkermans (in blue shirt) works in a research lab with a colleague at ASML’s headquarters in Veldhoven, Netherlands

“That’s my personal ambition. I am more into the technology problem itself than managing money and people. Architects know how to solve problems — they rule the world!” Iwan says enthusiastically. “I believe that, no doubt, and no regrets. So when you ask me if I want to work as a CEO or a fellow, my answer is ‘a fellow’.”

It is the jungle gym career, which gave Iwan the opportunity to explore and stretch, and helped him figure out what matters to him most. The experience also made him grow. The most important lesson he learnt from being a project lead is to always assess the importance of solutions to clients before anything starts, otherwise it can end up as a waste of effort.

Helping hands from peers, inspiration from mentors

There are no lone wolfs in industry — there can’t be, given the toughness of technology challenges, the complexity of products and the extremely tight deadlines.

An urgent call from Taiwan broke Jing Zhang’s day in Veldhoven. With a PhD in physics and chemical physics, she had joined the Customer Service department at ASML as a competence engineer just five months earlier. The issue that she was confronted with was an unfamiliar problem to her.

Jing Zhang (in the middle) discusses the leakage issue in a team at ASML’s headquarters in Veldhoven, Netherlands

“I made a quick initial judgment, but I still needed help, urgently. Not later, but now — our customers’ loss is calculated by the hour!”, Zhang recalls. For newcomers like her, asking the right people the right questions is key to finding the right solutions under tight deadlines. Zhang immediately reached an experienced expert in the field from the development and engineering department.

Even though the colleague was on his way home from work, he answered her questions patiently over the phone and then early the next day sent her the key technical documentation that helped her handle the issue properly. “He saved me, yet we have never met. I was deeply touched. I still owe him a ‘thank you’ in person,” says Zhang.

Working in multi-disciplinary teams is the norm — and for many engineers and scientists, a source of inspiration. At ASML’s Veldhoven campus, there’s a whiteboard next to every coffee machine, and engineers who have been with the company for decades joke that more patents have been invented at these whiteboards than at people’s desks.

Altug Yavuz (in white shirt) sketches his idea on a white board to his colleague at ASML’s headquarters in Veldhoven, Netherlands

Young professionals find mentors among their peers and senior team mates, and in big organizations, there’s probably someone somewhere who can be a sparring partner to develop an idea further.

Altug Yavuz, who joined ASML’s development and engineering department after completing his applied physics PhD, had ideas about how some key aspects of the cutting-edge EUV lithography technology could be improved and submitted his proposal. After a discussion with Vice-President of Research Frank Schuurmans, Altug was given two names of unofficial ‘mentors’. “The only two who could understand my paper and help me,” he noted.

A few days later, Altug received some feedback along with a paper on the same topic from his ‘mentor’ in America. “I had to come up with something better to go back to him,” he says, joking that the teamwork he’s experiencing is not like ‘I bring the tea, you bring the cake, and we have a happy afternoon tea together’. Instead, it’s more like ‘I bring the tea, and you point out that more sugar is needed in my tea’. Like Altug, many PhD graduates are growing up quickly while being challenged by some of the brightest brains on the way to a shared goal.

Time to find your own way

Moving into industry can be viewed as a ‘plan B’, or even about lost dreams. It’s not true.

The kind of a job we can get depends on our background and personality. And what we want from our career depends on our values and what is important to us. All those factors vary from person to person. So be honest with yourself, and get the best one for you.

Don’t forget that a single choice doesn’t have to define your entire career. So bring your PhD diploma, use your head, follow your heart, and be brave.

Interested in working at ASML? Find out more about our opportunities for people with PhDs.

Every year ASML runs PhD Master Class in Veldhoven and other locations. See the video and slideshow below: