Yang Ding graduated from the Integrated Program in Neuroscience in 2017. He is currently a software consultant at his own technical consulting corporation.
Q: What made you interested in doing a PhD in the first place?
The most honest reason for doing my PhD was that I have always been in school and I wasn’t really ready to go out to face society and start looking for jobs. I didn’t really feel comfortable about myself so I just kept doing more school. In my family, my dad also has a PhD. So I thought if he could do it, I should probably do it too.
Q: What would you say were some of the most valuable experiences from your PhD?
I was the first PhD student in the lab under my main co-supervisor, and there were no other PhD students, research assistants, or postdoctoral fellows that I can ask for help. I was doing most of the medical imaging and there was no one in the lab that did that. It was a massive learning curve. I spent time working on my own or finding people in similar fields that can teach me. I had to find everything by myself or take courses. It was super valuable because I learned to be super reliant on myself to get things resolved and teach myself whatever that is needed to move forward. I think that’s the most valuable thing I got in my PhD.
Q: And what were some of your more challenging experiences?
I failed my PhD defense so I had to do it twice. To be honest, I was really disillusioned as I went through my PhD experience. I was expecting to learn something that’s very valuable, interact with people at the top of the field, and have nice collaborative work with various people. I had way too high expectations for everyone around me, including my peers, my mentors, and the school—I had a really heightened expectation that was not realistic. It was almost like an idealized version of what a PhD or graduate studies was going to be, so I was really disappointed. In the end, I had to save myself because no one will care to help or save me and the only person I can rely on is my own talent, habit, and perseverance. I’m glad that I finished my PhD. It turned out a lot more difficult than I expected initially—not from an academic perspective but from the sheer mental burden, total isolation, and the demand it placed solely on myself and no one else.
When I was wrapping up my thesis, my lab disintegrated—my supervisor literally just left the country. Because I didn’t have any financial support, I had to actually go look for a full-time job. That made me realize that in the end, what really matters is how you land a job (ideally an enjoyable job in an area of interest and expertise) and how you keep yourself employed—that’s the first priority above other things.
I worked for a year and a half year before I got a warning that I had to graduate. I already submitted my thesis at the time, so I just had the defense left, but I kept putting it off. Finally, I couldn’t delay it anymore so I did the defense. But I did not do well at all. I definitely should have rehearsed a bit more with my co-supervisor. Afterwards, I had to redo the oral defense about two or three months later and I passed when I stopped being harsh to my own achievement and stopped mentioning the new cool experimental machine learning predictive analytical model results I picked up after I wrote my thesis.
Q: Did getting a job during the end of your PhD help your transition out of academia?
I would say it kind of forced my hand that way. I’ve known people that worked way harder and are way smarter, but still have a hard time getting a position in academia. I looked at the compensation that academics get and the lifestyle they have and I think, “Why am I doing this?” I enjoyed research, but I don’t want to bet my entire life on this. There are many things that I also enjoy too. So that’s why I decided to go where I went. I have always had an interest in information technology and computer science. That would have been my second choice if I didn’t do my undergraduate degree in the medical science field. I decided to explore that route and I found that I’m a lot more talented and appreciated (and compensated well accordingly) in that area.
I had a few months to find a job before I ran out of money. So I took whatever job I can get. The job was more related to I.T. support—not exactly the development software development aspect—but it was pointing closer to the direction I wanted to go, and it gave me more skills along the way.
Q: So fast-forwarding, what do you do in your current role?
I’m a software development consultant, even though I was never formally trained as one. During my PhD, I did a lot of programing that was self-taught because of the data processing part of medical imaging. Back then, I had always wanted to learn a bit of programming, but my education in programming was only a couple of courses in undergrad computer science. That turned out to be quite important for what I do now. A lot of things I learned during my PhD like best practices for software engineering were self-taught from reading blogs and following discussions people held over forums/reddit, and talking to people in labs that were more aligned with industry best practices. I picked up those skills along the way and it became extremely valuable. Then after I graduated, I started a research position in the field of medical imaging but it was more of a hybrid between software development/IT and scientific research. It was technically still in academia, but less academic-driven and much more applied. About three years after that, I fully transitioned into an industry job.
Q: What were some of the transferable skills from your PhD that you brought with you to your current job?
I would say the most important skill is the ability to learn and also to motivate myself to keep learning. There’s no one to tell you what you need to learn—there’s an overall end objective that needs to be achieved but you need to find out what needs to happen between point A and point Z and come up with the best approaches, ideally with industrial best practices. These skills are never explicitly taught anywhere. Because I have struggled to get the result on my own in the 7 years of my Master/PhD, I think that became a habit and that’s what I use currently in my job, in my own corporation, and will use in my future. I can set a goal and then motivate myself to get the job done by chipping away at it one bit at a time.
Q: What advice would you give someone who is currently doing a PhD?
To quote our program director, no matter what happens in the end, you are a graduate student. The most important thing is to graduate. It doesn’t matter whether you have a bad thesis or an excellent thesis, or lots of papers or no papers. When you graduate, life will be easier and you’ll be able to wrap up this chapter and move on to whatever you want—whether it’s in academia or not.
In the sciences, a lot of skills are transferable, like programing, statistics, data visualization, data processing. Some of these are in very high demand right now. That made my transition to industry a lot easier. I feel like school completely dropped the ball on this—I had to actively seek out organizations in the school that provided these types of service, but it’s never really talked about among students and most people are very shrouded in the ivory tower with almost a disdain towards any non-academic career track when the bulk of the graduates (>70%) are not academia-bound in the long run.
Academia has interesting research, but industry can also offer research and offer a better work-life balance. I’m sure there are tons of success stories of very brilliant students in academia, but I think the reality is that it’s just a numbers game with more graduate students being produced than academic positions opening. Students should seriously give industry a very thorough exploration before they focus on academia, because most people go through the PhD thinking that only academia is something that’s worthwhile but they have not really fully explored their options.
Q: What kind of resources would you recommend to people looking to transition into industry?
Especially in the sciences, there’s a lot of data-crunching and statistical analysis, which are readily transferable. There are specific camps, such as in data science, that specifically take highly educated graduates and give them half a year to one year of training to help them polish up their business-related skills and help them prepare for the world in industry. There are also online or in-person communities or meet-up events that helped me broaden my network. These types of things are not happening spontaneously in a school—school might have a few organized events here and there, but you still have to reach out and break out of the McGill bubble if you truly wish to be ready for the world outside.
Q: Lastly, is there anything else you want to mention?
I think my experience is not unique. I wouldn’t consider myself lucky or unlucky. Labs can form and disassemble, and supervisors can move away. But in the end, and all of those things don’t really matter because it’s your education and what you want to do with it. So it’s about how to get the most out of the experience. I’m quite happy with how it ended up even though it was different than what I expected and difficult in a mentally taxing way. I still got lots of valuable skills out of this experience. If I have to go back and do the PhD again, I would probably do it more efficiently. In the end, people realize that they’re not doing this for their professors but for themselves and that they are ultimately responsible for their own experience.
Finally, I want to make it abundantly clear that I do not place any blame on my graduate program, supervisor/co-supervisor, McGill University, or anyone involved during my graduate study. I firmly believe that everyone I met and mentored me along the way all did what they thought was best for me in their limited capacity to help me graduate. I firmly believe the PhD journey is a personalized version of hell that is meant to challenge anyone who tries to go through it and I appreciate TRaCE and similar programs that will help those who are still suffering along the way. Best of luck to find wherever you belong, sooner than later.
Many thanks to Yang for sharing his PhD narrative! You can find him on LinkedIn and at his consulting corporation MotionCorrect Inc.
This interview took place in August 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.