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Advice for First-Year Nano Students

Out of the blue, last week a first year ‘Nano’ (Nanotechnology Engineering student from my alma mater, the University of Waterloo) named Prashant asked me on Linkedin how I ended up as a data scientist at Microsoft. The world changes, but he’s facing some similar decisions as I did back in 2011, a time when young Noah really had no idea what he was doing and could have used some guidance. So I’ll leave some reflections here that the current Nano class might find useful.

Who am I? l graduated Nano in 2015 and spent my co-ops at Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, MIT, Harvard and Microsoft, before going back to Microsoft full-time. I’d like to share my experiences getting good co-ops, being successful and publishing once you’re there, and switching fields from academia to tech. I was never the smartest person in the room, and if I’ve been successful it’s a result of working hard, being passionate and figuring out how to be in the right place at the right time.

The Co-op Landscape

Waterloo has a pretty badass co-op program, allowing you to work full time for 4-8 months at a time at 4-6 different employers, for a total of two years’ job experience. This training is far more valuable that anything that can be learned in the classroom, giving graduates stacked resumes and skills that have earned them a great reputation. Plus, as a student you can make money and figure out what you want to do with your career.

Research vs. Industry

Nanos are in a tough position with respect to co-ops and jobs. I was attracted to the program because I wanted to make humanity 2.0, complete with nanobot sensors and customizable, augmented and uploadable consciousness. The marketing of the program feeds into this, with superlative statements like “you’ll achieve mastery of manipulation of matter at the nanoscale”. On the ground the reality is very different. Whatever the nano industry might become doesn’t exist yet and you end up learning how to become a technician in an intel fab more than anything else. It’s a great path to do research, but a lot of us didn't realize how constrained non-research options would be. Those of us who wanted to learn how to build stuff and go into industry either switched out or wished we did.

If you want to go into research from Nano, here’s the deal. Each year there’s 10-15 people that get their pick of top gradate programs, so you just need to make sure you’re in that bin by the time fourth year rolls around. Over 85% average is ideal, though above 80% people don’t really ask questions. There’s a few awesome labs at MIT, Harvard and other top schools that hire co-ops. Do whatever it takes to get those positions, and when you’re there work your ass off to get on as many papers as you can, ideally first author. That plus some good recs from the supervisors you’ve wowed and you’ll be golden.

If you don’t want to go into research, prepare to either switch programs or face an uphill battle, unless it’s something directly related like a nanotube supercapacitor startup, solar cell producer, battery company or the like. Even then, without a PhD you’ll be relegated to technician/tester status. Some know how to code from high school and use this to get their first job. Great, but how will you stay competitive when your friends in CS are spending their time sharpening their skills while you’re learning how to interpret diffraction patterns in reciprocal space? You can play the long game that your nano knowledge will someday intersect with your practical skills in consulting, product management, or mechanical or electrical engineering. I hope this comes true in my career, perhaps in some machine-learning-meets-material-science application, but I’m not holding my breath.

An unexpected benefit of Nano: nobody knows what it is, beyond sounding cool and futuristic, so it won’t preclude you from being considered. This can at least open the door and allow your enthusiasm and eagerness to learn to take you the rest of the way.

Hustle is critical

Note that co-ops are very much a rich-get richer kind of situation. Nobody really knows how to identify good candidates in interviews, so recruiting relies on 1) easy flags that you’re smart (other hard-to-get internships, high average), 2) Having a positive feeling about you in info sessions and interviews, and 2.b) Enthusiasm/passion for the role. You can compensate for deficiencies in 1) with 2), but it requires you to develop your hustle. Then once you have some of these flags on your resume then things get a lot easier.

Think about it like this: P(getting job) = skills + credentials + hustle. Some people have all skills and no credentials or hustle (e.g. savant self-taught coders), and they will get the job. Others have no skills and few credentials, but can still achieve good outcomes with hustle. First year Nano students are usually in this second category.

How I got my first co-op job

A personal story of how I got my first co-op job. 78 average, only work experience was mowing lawns and working in a bike shop for three years, zero job interviews. As weeks go by you go from dreaming big about interesting, cutting edge companies to applying to borderline landscaping jobs as a backup, only to realize that even they don’t want you. I poured myself into long, detailed and impassioned cover letters that didn’t even elicit a ‘thank you for your interest’ in response. The only people who got interesting sounding interviews from our class were in the top-10 (by average), knew how to code, had family connections, or had a network with older students via design teams (back then this meant the nanorobotics group or CUTC). I unfortunately didn't fall into any of these buckets.

The backup is always to do free research for a Waterloo professor. I wanted to avoid this at all costs to avoid future employers thinking "clearly he couldn’t get any other job last semester, so why should I hire him now?" Forward momentum is key, and a steep upward slope from the get-go will pay huge dividends down the line. Caveat: Nothing against UW professors, and many of my friends who took this path were totally able to find jobs afterwards.

The semester ended and I moved home. Maybe the old bike shop would need an extra hand for the summer. Then I started Googling around and realized that there’s a whole ocean of researchers out there that must be willing to take in a hard-working pair of hands. I started sending emails and Googling more, and soon I became obsessed with finding an opening. I realized that my full time job now was finding a job, and approached it with as much persistence and focus as I would anything else that was mission critical for me future.

After two weeks, ~150 rejected emails and dozens of phone calls later, I found something at the Ontario Institute of Cancer Research (OICR). Their previous student had just left and they hadn’t found time to make a new job posting. They loved Waterloo students and were baffled and pleased that I found them (I went from U of Toronto materials department -> collaborators -> OICR and emailed all 20 of their principle researchers). Suddenly the fact that I was average in my Nano class didn’t matter, and my go-getter attitude and genuine enthusiasm for what they were doing made me a no-brainer candidate. As Peter Thiel says, competition is for losers.

Even though I was offering to work for free, they found funding and managed to pay a pretty good salary by research standards, and better yet our work culminated in two publications, which were key in getting my next position at MIT. This was the probably the most pivotal moment in my career, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without this first step.

My numbers indicate that there’s less than 1% chance that a given lab will be willing to take you on. That’s fine, all that means is you’ll have to send 100 emails. Maybe I was lucky and the real number is closer to 200 or 300; if that's true, just keep going. Treat it as a filter to remove all of the people who aren’t as dedicated as you are. There’s a delicious piece of cake at the top of a hill. Others generally don’t even see the hill, and if they do they aren’t willing to climb it. Now that you at least see the hill, the rest is up to you.