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Give a concrete expression to your skills and start early

The prospect of many fixed-term appointments led Richard Oberdieck to reject the research path and, instead, build and optimise offshore wind farms at Ørsted. However, a job outside academia made very specific and different requirements of the application process.

Facts on Richard Oberdieck

Richard Oberdieck came to Denmark in 2014 while he was a PhD student at Imperial College, London. He previously studied chemical engineering at ETH Zurich, Zurich's technical university, and, in 2017, he defended his thesis "Theoretical and Algorithmic Advances in Multi-Parametric Optimization and Control". The topic of the thesis is mathematical process optimisation in chemistry and medicine. In his current position as a numerical specialist with Ørsted, he is responsible for the development of models that are able to identify the optimum design of wind farms. Amongst others, he helps to calculate how turbines are best placed in relation to each other and how cables are run most efficiently. Alongside his position with Ørsted, Richard teaches process optimisation at DTU/Technical University of Denmark.

How do you use your research skills in your current position?

In addition to my specific technical knowledge about optimisation issues, what I use most is probably my ability to gather information from a variety of sources and critically evaluate it. I’ve developed a system which enables me to effectively seek out and create the knowledge that’s needed in my work. It’s absolutely central.

Are you still in touch with the world of research?

My current position was basically quite open, so I had to define my own tasks and find a niche. In fact, I ended up doing exactly what I hoped for - working on optimising the work on offshore wind farms. In order for me to do that, it’s important that I keep abreast of the latest developments within the research so that I can try out new solutions. So, I’m constantly in touch with developments within my field and read research papers every single day. In fact, I’d probably be able to publish based on the things I’ve developed but, in my current position, of course, there isn’t the same focus on publishing as there is in academia. In return, I can say that I’m helping to build an offshore wind farm - and that actually feels pretty cool.

My current position was basically quite open, so I had to define my own tasks and find a niche.

When did you realise that you weren’t going to pursue a career in academia?

I jumped head-first into my PhD and was super-passionate and excited about getting the opportunity to do research. After about eighteen months, just before I was halfway, I began to wonder what I was actually going to do afterwards. Initially, I primarily looked around for opportunities to continue as a university researcher. In my third year, I finally decided not to continue within the university system. I could see that even the strongest researchers in my field had to travel from country to country until they reached their forties before they were tenured.

What did you do once you’d made up your mind?

Although I saw the end of my PhD approaching, I actually didn’t do anything. That's probably what I regret most, and it still annoys me. I was completely focused on my thesis. Looking back, I can see now that my thinking was a bit flawed. I believed that to be in an optimum state for the job market, I had to finish my thesis - the faster, the better. I might also have been a little inclined to think that my technical education would mean that finding a job wouldn’t be a big problem for me. All you hear in the media is that there’s the lack of engineers.

Therefore, it only dawned on me a little later that, during my studies, I should’ve been out talking to people. I should’ve spent more energy on figuring out what was really needed in the companies where I could see myself working. By way of example, I worked extensively in MATLAB as a PhD student. MATLAB is a programming language that’s often used by engineers, but it’s very expensive and when you enter industry you see that many other languages are used. When I finished, I’d no idea how to use Python, for example. I kept saying to myself "I don't have time to learn it". I’m learning now.

To begin with, I probably handled the job search as I’d handled issues encountered in my research: As something I could solve by sitting down at home and thinking it through carefully and then follow a detailed strategy from a to b. But that’s not how it works.

How did you bring your background in research and your PhD into play when applying for work after submitting your thesis?

To begin with, I probably handled the job search as I’d handled issues encountered in my research: As something I could solve by sitting down at home and thinking it through carefully and then follow a detailed strategy from a to b. But that’s not how it works.

At the beginning, I wanted to send the perfect application and spent several weeks on each one. Nothing really came of it. I had 46 rejections and only one call, so I started to get a little desperate. However, my applications continued to evolve. Initially, I was pretty stubborn and insisted on showing my academic merits very directly: "Here is my list of publications!" However, I slowly realised that outside academia people don’t really care about this list. So, I gradually stopped focusing primarily on my qualifications as a researcher. To a greater extent, my applications started to focus on the vacancy and how I could be a resource when solving specific tasks. What I have to deliver is, naturally, not my publication list nor my citation index. Basically, I just started commenting very directly on every skill listed in the vacancies I applied for. “I know this, but I can't do this. I’ve experience with this, but not with that".

At the same time, I began to seek out contexts where I could meet both employers and others in my situation. It’s crucial to get out and make contact with people, so I started attending all the job events I could find and, in Copenhagen, there are actually quite a few.

Initially, I was pretty stubborn and insisted on showing my academic merits very directly: "Here is my list of publications!"