Moeed graduated with a PhD from the Department of Chemical Engineering in 2015. His thesis focused on multiscale computational modeling of high-pressure thermodynamics, phase behavior, and thermophysical characteristics of polymeric materials. Today, he is an application development engineer working at a LyondellBasell JV in Seoul, South Korea.
Q: Let’s get started by asking what made you interested in doing a PhD?
My undergraduate degree is in petrochemical engineering, and I also earned a Master’s degree in chemical process engineering in Germany. Along my Master’s journey, I got to take a significant part in an industrial research project on polymer processing with BASF Corporation.
That notable accomplishment left a deep impression on me. Most of all, it assisted me in coming to the realization that research enables us to push the limits of knowledge farther. I had a sense that there was way more to explore. I suppose that it was somewhere around that time that my endless interest in getting a PhD truly began to grow. As I came to the end of my Master’s degree, I assumed doing a PhD would fulfill my insatiable voracity for contributing to the body of knowledge and for pushing the science forward in my own discipline.
Q: What do you value most about your time in the PhD?
The fact that I got to develop a can-do attitude—which requires a whole range of determinants like being on my own, being capable of thinking on my feet in rather complex circumstances, as well as having a sincere belief in myself in whatever it is I wish to accomplish. The fact of the matter is, my time in graduate school compelled me to be highly willing to figure things out by myself. This undoubtedly arises from having to take the initiative and carry out research autonomously throughout the PhD years.
All those components furnished me with a sense of confidence and turned me into an individual thoroughly willing to assume positions of authority and articulate my own ideas. On top of that, through TAships—as well as mentoring an undergrad as part of a short-term summer research training—I managed to ameliorate my supervision skills. That as well turned out to be a tremendously rewarding, fulfilling experience.
Q: And so who were your most important mentors during your PhD?
My doctoral research was concerned with the implementation of a sophisticated molecular modeling algorithm. Once I embarked on carrying out research as a novice to the area of molecular level simulations, I found just simply gaining all that countless knowledge on my very own to be a hurdle. One of my peers a couple years ahead of me had utilized that approach, yet his work was on an entirely dissimilar material, time scale, and size scale. He attempted to walk me through the process to some extent, but at some point I ended up seeking other folks’ assistance to get a key phase completed and move on to the following ones. For that reason, I had to figure gazillions of things out by myself. This included numerous frustrating steps and complications for three good years.
At the end of the day, I managed to get the hang of the molecular mechanics through the user discussion forum of the computational suite I was utilizing. I posted my queries to the forum and waited patiently for responses—whether it was the system set up to carry out high performance molecular dynamics computations, picking proper molecular dynamics parameters or gaining an in-depth grasp of simulation output analysis and so forth.
I—without a doubt—trust a couple of individuals out there that were old hands in the discipline, who made a noticeable contribution by supplying advice and insight on a volunteer basis, irrefutably got me out of my predicaments. If you ask me they all knew tiny pieces of advice that all added up. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration if I say those were core supports and that as a result of consulting that forum, I managed to navigate through the intricacies of the initial phase of my PhD.
I’m willing to hit on a pivotal point here: I was well aware that there was a lot more stuff to get the hang of and explore. Nevertheless, my strategy was to break down the project into multiple manageable chunks and take toddler steps forward. All the while, I had faith that—even if there wasn’t much evidence of progress—as long as one is continually pushing forward, the job eventually does get done.
Q: What kind of support did you receive in your PhD program such as funding, career advice, etc.?
The first thing that comes to mind would be funding. First off, my PhD supervisor was amazing at making certain there would be sufficient funding throughout the whole process. Quite luckily, I never found myself having to apply for my own funding, or seek other grants within the university or apply for external funding, it was all through my supervisor.
I got funding through a variety of sources, to be further precise. For the first year, my research was partially sponsored by industry through a NSERC-Collaborative Research and Development (CRD) grant. In the following years it was a diverse mix of NSERC, the MIDAs program, and internal funding through our department along with quite a few awards granted by McGill. On top of that, I was awarded the Graduate Excellence Fellowship in Engineering for two consecutive years, back in 2012-2013. I as well got a bit of money through TAing over the course of my doctoral studies.
As for professional development, I was pretty fortunate to receive the Departmental Graduate Travel Grant and go to the UK for an intensive course on molecular dynamics simulations.
Towards the end of my degree, I turned to career services at McGill (CaPS) seeking career support and advice since I had made the choice to not necessarily stay in academia. I met with career advisors at CaPs to get resume feedback, ask how to go about handling interview queries, etc.
Q: From all the connections you made with people during the PhD, which ones do you value the most now?
I’d reckon the one that ultimately landed me a job in industry. Back in August 2012, my supervisor forwarded an email over to me advertising the chief commercial product of a corporation.
He merely wanted me to determine whether their product would be beneficial to my doctoral research. I went ahead and took a quick peek at the website and realized the firm was based outside of Canada. I reached out expressing my desire for a job and brought up the question of whether they would open up a branch in Canada. Soon after, they got back to me wanting me to follow up in a couple of months.
I followed up with them twice over the following years in a way that caught their attention. It turned out that if I ever wished to be part of their team, I would have to consider relocating to South Korea, where the company is based. Frankly speaking, to me, this seemed utterly out of the blue. I hadn’t ever been exposed to the idea of residing in Asia. It just felt like I was on the horns of a dilemma, since relocation was not part of my plan at that time. It was a bit of a risk once I think of it at the moment.
I eventually made the choice to take a leap of faith. My thinking at the time was that I could always turn it down in case I didn’t find the offer appealing enough. I went through the interview and was at last offered the research and development engineering position. Once the job came up, it was such a perfect fit.
Without recourse to hyperbole, I find that was by far the most noteworthy connection I made prior to my graduation. It sure made a vital difference in my job hunting in that I was able to step into a research engineering role that I was after. That email my supervisor forwarded definitely altered my career path.
Q: What was your path like after your PhD?
I simply adored the experience I got in research even though I had a foggy and blurred image of what the career path would be like once I got into the program. It wasn’t crystal clear what the next step was. Yet, by the end of my PhD, I had made up my mind that academia was not for me as I felt like I was more into industry-oriented research. I was looking to put my knowledge into practice and get into a trade where I could apply my PhD skills.
I found myself having to pick between two avenues of research: one which would be the short-term path of getting into a one-year industrial postdoc, the other being a long-term career starting with finding one job that truly mattered to me—one single, permanent, full-time job that paid a salary.
I genuinely exerted myself and, at last, prior to completion of my degree, I landed a one-year joint industry-academia postdoc. At that point in time I trusted that—despite feeling effectively unemployed—the experience would be rather valuable in making my resumé look even further vibrant and would assist in maintaining me afloat while on the job market. I went straight into this postdoc which turned out to be a happy medium between industry and research.
Q: Can you describe a little more of what you do in your current position?
Presently, I am a couple years into working in the industry. I was getting great feedback from my former employer here in Seoul, and loved my time there. Still, I started to feel like I was in dire need of novel challenges and that time had come for a massive alteration. An opportunity came up and I jumped on it as I was immensely fond of digging deeply into cutting-edge polyolefin technologies.
At the present time I’m an Application Development Engineer with a LyondellBasell joint-venture in Seoul. I work at the corporate headquarters in the Sales & Marketing Department. My specific role revolves around working closely with customers to grasp the requirement specifications and translating it into commercial polymer grade technical specifications. This unquestionably demands an in-depth comprehension of manufacturing, processing, and in addition, involves working constructively with quite a number of other departments.
To put it in a nutshell, the corporation applies a broad variety of innovative polypropylene manufacturing technologies tailored to fulfill the most demanding customers’ desires in terms of multitudinous polymer mechanical, thermal, impact as well as optical features, to name only a few.
Q: So what was the hiring process like for your current position?
I went through an interview and met with key folks where I got to express my keen desire to be engaged in world-class high-performance polymer manufacturing techniques. I made every effort to project an enthusiastic, upbeat image and demonstrate that I could apply my organizational skills together with interpersonal skills in an industry position. Aside from that, I did highlight my immense desire to work in a team-oriented workplace where folks get to articulate their ideas. My PhD focus on polyethylene was momentous as well. It appears to me I wouldn’t have gotten my current job without all those vast experiences.
Q: Is there anything about your PhD experience or current position that I didn’t ask you about that you would like to share?
As I stated, in the early stages of my PhD I was sort of unsure about pursuing or diverting from the academic path. Around the third or fourth year of my PhD, I came to understand that I no longer wished to stay in academia. It took me until well into the PhD to realize the extent to which the doctoral research project was going to aid in getting a non-academic job. Looking back, given how tightly connected my PhD research and the R&D position I got were, I have faith that this variable undeniably paved the way for me into the job market, in the position that I was genuinely after.
Q: If you could go back and tell your younger self something about the PhD or the postgraduate journey, what would it be?
There’s a whole lot of uncertainty as you go further along. It’s extremely arduous to anticipate what one’s life is going to look like. One may come face to face with grave impediments. Do your utmost to be a man of iron will, irrespective of the complications along the way. Dedicate exclusive attention to your lofty ambitions and equip yourself with a handful of determinants as tenacity, resilience, adaptability. Yet rest assured, you’ll eventually find a way to make things work. Everything will be working itself out.
With that in mind, while groping your way through the wilderness on your own, make certain to be mindful of taking a second to smell the roses, seize the moment, live in the moment. In retrospect, I’d reckon such remarks would to an enormous extent alter my perspective towards my career path.
Many thanks to Moeed for sharing his PhD narrative! You can find out more about him on LinkedIn.
This interview took place in September 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.