Manuel Queißer, Environmental Physicist

What is your job?

I work as a geophysicist, developing borehole logging tools for mineral exploration in a medium-sized company, called UIT. Based in Dresden, the company focuses on two main areas: engineering of process plants and environmental services. The latter includes the mineral exploration department. In this department there is the geophysics group. The group leader is a particle physicist by training; my other colleagues are a nuclear physicist, a geophysicist, a physical engineer and myself, an experimental physicist by training. Down the hallway we have a geology/mineralogy group, a chemistry group specialized in mineral extraction and a team specialized in modeling. Our project is just taking off, so I have to do a bit of everything. I help building the logging tools and procure components. I also do technical sales. This means I develop commercial relationships with potential new clients, which involves organizing logistics, going on field measurements and trade shows. I manage to have some room for blue-sky research and presenting the results at conferences, such as the International Association of Mathematical Geosciences (IAMG). Of course, the primary goal here is to promote our tech and services to make money.

How did you get your job?

After over 14 years of life as an ex-pat in various countries, I had a young family. So I decided to return to my home country, Germany. The priorities in my new job search included: being closer to family and old friends, decent salary, work as a scientist and, if possible, being close to Earth science. I was about to accept a post doc offer from the Max Planck Institute (MPI) when I got an offer for my current job, which I had already applied for. I had found it on the website of the German job centre. It was a no name company to me. It was a tough decision between the two offers. What made me decide to work for the company were the location and the prospect of not having to move the family far again after the end of the post-doc.

Did you initially plan on this career at the onset of your PhD?

I never had a plan because I never wanted to narrow my options. After my Masters in physics, I worked with lidar and lasers doing cool experiments in atmospheric optics. Back then, I found the research somewhat pointless. After I saw the movie „There will be blood“ in 2007, I decided to do a Ph.D. in Earth Science. But it had to be something useful, such as fighting climate change. I was also open to adventures. So I left Germany for France in 2008 and began a Ph.D. at the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris. I worked on seismic full-waveform inversion of a CO2 storage reservoir beneath the North Sea. It was hard. It was purely data analysis and assimilation. Thankfully I went on many seminars and field trips where I met a bunch of great people. In 2012 I left Paris for a post-doc at the National Institute for Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV) in Pisa, Italy to develop lidars to measure and study volcanic degassing processes. For me it was the perfect mix of fieldwork and cool technology. By 2015, still in Pisa, I was freshly married. We followed my group to Manchester, UK, to create a volcanology group there. I continued developing lidars, a time consuming but fun task, and used them in field measurements. I still managed to chuck out papers as first-author. I strived for independence and so I wrote good proposals with very good ideas. They were not good enough though, that is, perhaps not convincing enough. In retrospect, I was fighting a losing battle. I achieved a lot but it was a niche. Hence, it lacked the leverage effect of a high-profile collaboration and research project and the associated high-impact papers, such as Nature and PNAS. I definitively had resilience. During six years, I applied for about 13 UK, EU, German, and French research fellowships, including VW Freigeist, NERC Independent Fellowships, Emmy Noether, and CRNS. I was invited to interviews for three of them (VW Freigeist, NERC, and CNRS), but it was not enough to get the grant.

What helped you to be aware of the alternative career paths to academia?

In German we have the word Lebenskünstler, an artist of life. This is what I was once called. So I might be quite broad and flexible. I did not even distinguish between industry and academia. This is diametric to academia, where mainly highly specialized individuals work. I think that is one reason I struggled in academia. As an experimental physicist I have technical skills. My Ph.D. was applied Geophysics. There was no separation to oil and gas companies. They go hand in hand. I saw that when I did an internship at Schlumberger during my Ph.D.. This internship made me want to go join this industry after my defense. But due to the wake of the crisis of 2008, I commenced a post-doc at INGV instead. I thought: “Lidar, Italy and volcanoes? Sounds interesting!“ During my post-doc in Italy I started to really like it and thus started to apply for grants, lecturer jobs and other jobs in academia. The selection processes often confused me. For example, at CNRS, I had the impression that network and relations seem to be extremely paramount. This was frustrating for someone considering himself a self-made man. In these times of frustration, I often looked through the job ads and wrote 10 or so applications for various jobs. This also helped me to see what is out there. I was a bit naïve and thought I could do pretty much anything. For example, I had friends who became patent attorney, so I applied. But after the interview I realized this was not for me.

What skills acquired during your academic experience are the most valuable for you today? What are the new skills you learnt in your current job?

Self-management, resilience and the ability to apply concepts and knowledge to new problems. For example, in the first few weeks at my first company, ZX Lidars, I sat at my desk and was reading myself into the topic and started doing some research and I came across a feasible way to measure an important parameter of the wind field with wind lidar using my experience from making lidars at uni. Eventually, after lots of work, this new technique was integrated into the existing products enhancing their performance. These lidars make wind energy cheaper. It is a nice feeling. In my current job, it was similar. I was a bit bored initially. So I read papers. One of them inspired me to take a data processing algorithm from a different field and use it for in situ quantification of minerals with a pulsed neutron borehole logging tool. Since I work in a company I have improved my coding skills in Python, because the guy in my office at the beginning laughed at my bodged up code. It is still far from expert level, but it helps me in my current job. Coming from the ivory tower, I also had to learn how to work with a more diverse staff, for example, former academics, factory workers, sales persons or engineers.

Would you have wished to have a special training during your time in academia to be more ready for your career today?

I was quite confident that my achievements, such as creating technology from scratch, data analysis skills and being able to write coherent scientific texts, would be highly valued in industry, perhaps more than in academia. On the other hand, and luckily for my present boss, I lacked the skills I now think are important in academia, as much as being a good scientist, such as the right university on the CV or getting my name on as many high impact papers as possible.

What aspect of your work are you most excited about at the moment?

We have developed a data processing technique that harnesses the data produced by our downhole probe in a way that allows quantifying a much higher amount of parameters. This should tremendously enhance the opportunities of our instrument, both commercially and scientifically. Speaking about the latter. I am keen to collaborate with academics. It is not what I am supposed to do, but I am excited that I am given some freedom to satisfy the scientist in me. In the end, businesses benefit too from spreading the word and using the technology out of the comfort zone and pushing its limits and learning from it.

What advice do you have for PhD student/academic staff who is thinking of leaving academia?

From my experience, if you are flexible, self-organized and creative – traits that most academics have, then you will thrive in industry, even if you lack some skills. You will learn them. Typically, it took me a year or less. So far, the diversions in my CV have broadened my horizon and made me more valuable to employers outside academia. Both working in academia and industry have their advantages. From my experience, the advantages in industry are: You work in teams. You are respected and valued for your skills. You do not have to worry about your contract ending, providing peace of mind and potentially an advantage for obtaining a mortgage. You may chose from plenty of businesses to work for those who will allow you to have an immediate impact on society. Personally, working in industry also has downsides.I miss the process of publishing exciting papers. Instead I write reports. Although I may still publish papers, they are low profile due to confidentiality reasons. Despite going to conferences and trade shows, I feel sometimes isolated from a scientific community.  Since I work in a company, I miss the chance to study fundamental natural processes. I need to negotiate salary increase and justify my performance; in public service, pay rises automatically, at least in Germany. Time management and flexibility is an issue. Industry is much more flexible since Covid-19, but in academia you work differently. You work for yourself, so nobody cares when and where you work. Focus is another issue. I multitask a lot more since working in industry. On a typical day, I may work on seven projects, which often have little in common. I like those the most that I came up with and I like those the least that my manager asked me to do. Be aware of micromanagement. Some people may find this attractive. I find that it sometimes fragmentates my energy. Yes, you can earn much more in industry than in academia, but the salary is not per se higher in industry. It depends on your job title (e.g., junior, senior) and whether you manage people and many projects, which may be a burden if you like solving scientific or technical problems. These are all my personal experiences and may not apply to others. I would say, for people who like to be independent and are passionate about a subject, academia is better, or perhaps starting a business themselves! If working your way up to a good salary is more important then the exact project you are working on, then industry might be the right fit for you.



Full text from : Manuel Queißer’ blog

Interview conducted by Thaïs Couasnon (EAG Communications Committee)