PhD Profiles: Siddhartha, PhD Graduate in Applied Physics at University of Groningen, Netherlands

Today we’re joined by Siddhartha who graduated from his PhD in 2018 and is now working on a similar technological field in industry. You can find Siddhartha online at his website and LinkedIn.

If you are interested in reading other PhD Profiles in the series you can find them here.

Please introduce yourself and summarise your PhD in a sentence

Hello my name is Siddhartha and I completed my PhD a couple of years ago. My PhD was in the field of applied physics where I was looking at inducing magnetism/magnetic properties in non-magnetic materials (graphene) and studying the properties of electrons within the material.

PhD Applications

What was your background prior to applying for the PhD?

I originally studied for a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, India. After this I began working in industry, which I did for two years, but I then decided to try my hand at research so applied for some master’s and PhD schemes.

The research master’s degree I completed was in nanoscience. It was very different working on more basic sciences (physics and chemistry) compared to the electrical engineering from my bachelor’s. I had a lot of fun and made up my mind that research was what I wanted to pursue.

Why did you choose to do a PhD?

I was fortunate that for my research masters course, the normal path after completing the masters was for students to go directly to working towards a PhD at the same institution. It was a natural transition almost expected of the masters students. Since I had enjoyed the masters I decided to carry on with a PhD afterwards.

Graphic of PhD device
A schematic of one of the devices I made during my PhD

My masters project had required a lot of skills from electronics, which I had gained from my bachelor’s, and was applied to physics. It was very rewarding to able to apply my skills for research which helps us to understand the nuances of materials. It was for these reasons I was keen to stay on for a PhD.

How did you decide on a project?

As mentioned, I was keen to find a project which related to my background in electrical engineering. There were parts of my bachelor’s which I had studied and was very interested in had never had the opportunity to explore further until the PhD. The research master’s fed nicely into exactly this kind of work which I was very happy to dedicate myself to during the PhD research.

How was the process for applying for your PhD?

For me it was not too complicated because the masters programme which I did was designed to allow students to progress to a PhD immediately after the masters. In fact they were preparing us for a PhD with the right tools already in our masters!

What do you think made your masters application stand out?

To be honest it was a bit difficult for me to find this masters degree position.

After a lot of applications I was shortlisted for an interview for the masters I eventually completed. At the same time I was also shortlisted for some other engineering programmes for masters but it was not so easy in my opinion.

I think my time in industry was useful, as well as being able to apply my electrical engineering background to other fields.

For the application process plus also for the interview and getting selected was not so easy for me. There were some failed applications but a few were accepted and I was able to get the position that I wanted so it worked in my favour in the end.

What advice do you have for people applying for a PhD?

To be successful in the application you should learn how to present yourself. This includes summarising yourself very well and selling your strengths. Try to write as clearly as possible to help the admissions team clearly see why could be a good choice.

When thinking of research topics, try to come up with your own research statement and questions. Don’t copy others. Try to not get tempted by the need to do fashionable research, do the research which you think is relevant. Yes it’s tempting to go for popular or fashionable research and get more citations but I don’t think that’s the idea of research. Find your own queries and try to answer them. You have to roam a bit to find your own question and think independently.

Life as a PhD Student

How was your PhD experience?

There were certainly ups and downs! The PhD was not actually much different from my expectations and overall I was happy with my PhD. I loved that I was working in experimental physics.

Sitting in the PhD lab surrounded by equipment
Working in the lab during my PhD

I got to know a bit more about workplace politics while doing the research but more or less it went smoothly for me and met my expectations.

Patience is key and know that it is not always your knowledge which will determine the fate of your work but also a bit of luck. Stay dedicated and your moment will come.

How long does a PhD take in the Netherlands?

In the Netherlands a PhD takes approximately 4.5 years: 4 years to submit the thesis then some more months waiting for the defence.

Unlike the UK it is not a serious viva, it is more like a ceremony in the Netherlands. The main thing is that your supervisor agrees that you should submit your thesis and then there’ll be no hiccups. Then once you’ve submitted you can kind of relax.

How did you deal with failures during your research?

It is important to be smart about where to focus your attention. Work on the things which make sense rather than just working harder and investing yourself completely in the research.

In terms of failures, in my experience things are not necessarily that difficult, people tend to make it complicated themselves.

What do you wish you’d known when you started your PhD?

Do the basics right including thinking about the design your research problem. For example, I was doing experimental research about transistors. It was important that I built up a good understanding of what transistors are and how they are made.

You should know the basics of how the technology works plus what is relevant to your project such as how to take measurements accurately. Then once you know the basics you can find your own interests. It is fine to spend one year investing in these things and getting a good understanding of your research field.

Good time management is important. I didn’t manage my time so well but I encourage others to do so because it helps enormously in the long run.

Was the PhD stressful? If so how did you handle the stress?

Sometimes yes it was stressful. You have to let it pass and keep working since I feel this is normal to happen at stages of your PhD.

There will always be unknowns and things you don’t know and that is okay, persevere and don’t let it put you off your research.

PhD Completion and Beyond

How was your viva experience?

In the Netherlands there is a committee to examine your thesis and they come prepared with their questions. All the questions are prepared in advance and have to be submitted by the committee to the chair. You don’t have to present anything, you just answer the committee’s questions.

Presenting during my PhD defence

It is quite scripted but in a good way: they have legitimate questions. If anyone in the audience has any questions, they also have to have submitted them in advance.

Did you get asked many technical questions in the defence or were they more of a formality?

Yep, they’re experts in the field and are interested in the research so want to ask technical questions to understand the thought process behind all of the things you present.

There are also philosophical questions: how do you justify the work in respect to society? How do you see the future applications of it? These are serious questions which you must have good answers for.

What have you been up to since finishing your PhD?

I recently joined a company who make little graphene machines for electronics. It is somewhat related to my PhD. I would say it is working at the interface of engineering, mathematics and physics.

Why did you make the switch to industry and how have you found it?

At this point it is difficult to say, I’m enjoying the work in my current role in industry a lot.

For now it is not too challenging but is enjoyable and requires significant effort. Therefore you can enjoy it knowing you’ve applied yourself but do not have to carry the work home with you in the same way as academic research. We’ll see whether or not I feel like this after a few years!

In academic research every day is exciting so has its own fun I would say. I needed a little break from it, I’m enjoying my current job for sure so we’ll see if I return to academia at some point.

Has your PhD helped in your current role?

Yes a PhD really helps for getting positions such as my current one. I don’t think that masters or bachelors students could easily get these positions. My employer favours PhDs for the experience they have in thinking deeply about unanswered problems. They can understand the problem and I think that helps at this stage.

How was the transition from being a PhD student to your current role?

It was not a difficult transition, I was kind of prepared but getting the position was a bit random. I was a bit surprised that it took me some time to get a job.

I was thinking it would be quite quick to find a job after the PhD since I already had work experience, yet it was not that smooth but for random reasons. I don’t think it was due to lack of skills or such, it was just random. If you match their thought process they are okay with it. I think most of the applicants are highly skilled so they think more in terms how well you could fit into the team, whether or not you’d enjoy the work etc. They seriously judge candidates about this kind of criteria.

In hindsight would you choose to do a PhD again?

Definitely yes. I enjoyed it a lot. I could define my own problems and those were the research questions that I wanted to answer. The biggest satisfaction is creating your own idea, you verify them and then you convince others and hope to prove that they’re useful. It is a complete process in my opinion and doing a PhD you are able to lead the whole way. They may be small questions but I am happy.

We hope that you’ve enjoyed reading about Siddhartha’s PhD journey! A reminder that you can follow Siddhartha on both his website and LinkedIn.

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