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At some point during their undergraduate experience, all physics students will have to make a decision about what to do next. This point typically comes during their senior year before receiving their bachelor’s degree. Do they attend graduate school or enter the workforce?
For insight into how one physicist made this choice, Dan Pisano, APS Director of Industrial Engagement, interviewed Audra Macie, Senior Principal Engineer at BAE Systems, Inc., in Nashua, NH. Audra is an early-career physicist who chose to enter the workforce after receiving her bachelor’s degree in physics and astronomy from Smith College. (See end of article for more information about BAE Systems.)
Dan: How do you find a position in industry after having been in school for more than 16 years?
Audra: When I was looking for a job during the last year of my undergraduate program, I attended career fairs, not only at my school, but also at the big engineering schools nearby because I knew that technology companies would not be targeting Smith College. After I landed my first job, I found opportunities on LinkedIn by staying connected with recruiters. I have also kept an up-to-date LinkedIn profile. Additionally, I have found great opportunities through professional networking at different conferences.
Dan: While in school, there are some classes in which you occasionally work in teams, but in most classes, you are an individual contributor and complete assignments working solo. Is the working environment in industry collaborative? Do you work alone or on a team?
Audra: Throughout my career, I have worked in a variety of roles allowing for collaborative and individual work. I have had assignments where I was working largely by myself, only providing work products to one other person; however, there have also been times when I have spent half my day designing new algorithms with a team in a conference room. In this case, we have split up the assignments and worked individually on pieces of a larger product. I have also had opportunities to lead different portions of my programs, which has afforded me the opportunity to work collaboratively with different engineering specialties, subcontractors, and customers.
Dan: In academia, you frequently get the impression that professors can work on what interests them the most. What is it like working in industry? Do you get to work on projects you like?
Audra: In my experience, there will be assignments you like and assignments you don't like. The best thing you can do is advocate for yourself with your functional manager to ensure that the assignments you get are aligned with your career goals and interests. That being said, I have found my teams to be one of the best parts of my job. Even if I happen to have an assignment that isn't my favorite, having a great team makes coming to work fun! I also ensure that I participate in employee-run committees to pursue work culture initiatives that I am passionate about. I lead a committee that sponsors different events in the office to build community and comradery. Due to COVID-19, the committee has had to increase our creativity to help those who are working remotely to feel connected to their colleagues working in the office.
Dan: You mentioned that you completed your master’s degree after you started working. I have known quite a few early-career physicists who have earned advanced degrees to increase their subject knowledge in the area in which they were working. Was that the case for you?
Audra: I earned my master’s in Space Systems Engineering from Johns Hopkins University. I chose the degree because it allowed me to further my skills as a systems engineer and to take electives from the applied physics department. I started my program in the spring of 2018, and I completed my degree in December of 2020. My current employer has a generous continuing education reimbursement program that paid for three classes per year. To be fair to my previous employers, they also offered continuing education programs in which they either fronted or reimbursed the cost of classes up to a certain dollar amount each year. It was certainly challenging at times to balance work and school, but it was so worth it to be able to keep progressing in my career and to continue my education at the same time. My hope is to transition into a role that will more fully utilize my new degree in the next year.
On behalf of APS, I would like to thank Audra Macie for the opportunity to interview her for this article. For physics students who are nearing a decision about next steps in their careers, it is imperative to obtain accurate information about your possible options. Audra provided insightful information to help students make the right decisions for themselves. For those who are APS members, the IMPact mentoring website offers opportunities to be mentored by industry professionals who are experts in various corporate fields. — Dan Pisano.
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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondents: Sophia Chen, Alaina G. Levine