Carlos Yoong graduated with a PhD in Mechanical Engineering in 2018. In his thesis, he studied methods of simulating and characterizing the vibration of nonlinear dynamical systems. At the time of the interview, he was a Project Manager for Soft dB – Experts in Acoustics and Vibration. Since then, he has transitioned within the company to the role of Director of Consulting Services for the Toronto Office.
Q: To start the interview, I’ll ask kind of a broad question. What made you interested in doing a PhD in mechanical engineering?
I have always been interested in doing science and research. I am from Ecuador and there we don’t have much of a scientific community. There’s some, but it is very small. I have always been interested in doing science and research, and that led me to follow a PhD. First, the Master’s, then I started to enjoy doing research and I transferred to the PhD.
Q: So you came to McGill to do a Master’s first and decided to stay and continue in the PhD afterwards?
Yes, I always wanted to do a PhD but I didn’t know if it was the right path. I didn’t know what kind of career I could have with a PhD. When I started my PhD, it was because I wanted to be a professor or a researcher. That was the main reason—not to mention the love of doing research and science, and exploring new stuff. It was a very interesting, challenging, and intellectually fulfilling experience.
Q: Was the idea of staying in academia something that changed over the course of your PhD?
When I started my PhD, I really wanted to be a researcher or a professor, but I started to see that the job opportunities were very slim. There were very few positions for many people and the competition was very tough. I didn’t think I couldn’t find a position, but I was convinced that I didn’t want to go back to my country after my PhD studies. In fact, I wanted to gain more international experience (more specifically, in Canada), so it would be better for me to find a position in industry rather than academia. Also, I think it was a natural transition to industry for me. I do love conducting academic research, but, at the end, I think my personality leans more towards industry work than being a professor or a full-time researcher.
Q: What would you say your biggest challenges were during your PhD?
I would say one of the main challenges was to speak in a different language, especially for the first two years. When I got used to that, another challenging thing for me was to improve my writing/speaking skills—to become a better communicator, to improve on how to present ideas and present them concisely and correctly. It was very difficult for the first two years, where I had several complications with my supervisor in regards to my papers and drafts. But he was very nice while teaching me the process of improving my skills in writing and communicating, etc.
Q: Would you say you had a lot of support from your supervisor throughout your program?
Yes, he was a good mentor on my path to become a scientist. He was very tough, but he was very good at giving objective advice on where to improve. It was good to have someone that could tell you “This is wrong. You need to improve here. You need to improve there.” He truly showed me how to become a better scientist and communicator. We had a very nice and dynamic relationship. We worked in the same office and he sat behind me, so I would just turn my chair, ask a question and we would talk for an hour about an idea.
Q: For someone working on their PhD right now, what kind of advice would you give to them?
I would say to be patient. The PhD is like a marathon. I think that you don’t need to finish it in four or five years or else it’s a bad PhD. There’s no bad PhD. There is no number of papers that you have to write. You just have to set a very strong scientific foundation to defend your ideas, to defend your thesis. It’s not a race for the PhD degree. Some people also think it’s about the number of papers, but, for example, in my PhD, I only wrote one journal paper (and a lot of conference ones). I was happy with it because it was accepted by a very good journal where it is known to be very tough to get the paper accepted. In fact, at the moment, it’s one of the most downloaded papers from my lab.
In addition, I think it’s also very important to have the support of your friends and family. People don’t understand how a PhD is done. It requires a lot of time, a lot of thinking. And sometimes you need time for yourself to think about your ideas and your writing.
Q: Would you say the mental load is somewhat of a challenge as well?
Yes, exactly. The mental load is huge. You always have constant pressure and you always have this imposter syndrome making you think “I’m not able to finish. I’m not good enough. My thesis is not good enough.”
The thesis is never going to be perfect. You have to know when to stop and be happy with your results. Research can go through infinite iterations and you can have infinite results. For example, when I was finishing writing my thesis, my supervisor wanted me to get more results. I told him if he wanted more results, I would need to do another PhD [laughing]. At that point, it was enough for me.
Lastly, I would also suggest PhD students not immerse themselves too much into the PhD tasks and do some extracurricular activities or join a club or networking group. Sometimes a PhD can feel like a very lonely process because it’s mostly yourself creating knowledge. It is very different from working in a company where you have a team that interacts everyday with the same goal in mind.
Q: On that note, how do you feel you were able to connect with people? That’s something that PhD students—who tend to be somewhat more introverted—can sometimes have difficulty with.
I am an introvert myself. For me, it’s a bit difficult to network, but I just push myself because I know that is the only way to make connections. Even in scientific conferences, I would talk to people sitting next to me in the same sessions, ask questions to the presenter, or go to lunch with people in the same session, etc.
In fact, the job that I have now, I found it through networking via LinkedIn. This goes in line with what they say: that 80% of the job market is hidden and only 10% is posted online, so you have to network to find those hidden positions.
Q: How did you tackle the job market as a recent PhD graduate?
It was tough. I put a lot of effort into finding a job one year before graduating. I started to do a lot of networking, a lot of LinkedIn, going to meetings and career fairs to give my CV or my business card. Then, when I finished my PhD, I didn’t have any job or any income from the PhD, so I spent every day and hour trying to find a job. Networking, calling people, asking mentors, writing CVs, cover letters, etc.
Additionally, while I was writing my thesis, I started to work on my CV and go to CaPS workshops. By the way, CaPS is awesome. They help you with everything. They check your CV, they check your cover letters, they help you with your interview skills, etc. They provide an excellent service, and it’s all free.
I did my defense in December 2018 and after three or four months, I got selected for a position. I now work as a consultant in acoustics and vibration, which is in the field of what I studied. I have been working since March 2019. It’s mostly industrial work, reporting, engineering calculations, and a lot of customer relationship management: emails, calls, site visits, presentations, etc.
Q: My last question, then. Is there a defining story or moment that sticks out to you the most regarding your PhD experience?
I really loved my defense. It’s something that I will always remember as a very, very fulfilling experience of trying to defend your thesis. At this point, you know you are prepared because you have been working for this for so long. You know your topic. And you have in front of you a group of experts who have surely more experience in science and research. They push you to the limits of what you know. It’s super interesting and a super fun experience that you probably will never live again because there’s no more PhDs…unless you do another one!
Many thanks to Carlos for sharing his PhD narrative! You can find out more about him on LinkedIn.
This interview took place in June 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.