From Industry to Industrial PhD

If you are someone in industry and are curious about pursuing a PhD, I hope this post encourages you to apply for a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Early Stage Research (ESR) position and learn why this may be a good fit for you. 

My journey

During the pandemic, I left my family and friends, resigned from my job, sold most of my belongings, packed three suitcases and moved from sunny California to Sweden. I arrived in early February, the coldest month in Sweden. Many people tell me that I’m crazy and then ask me many “Why” questions. One of the questions that I get asked is why did I leave my job to do a PhD? The simplest answer I give is that I got a once in a lifetime opportunity. 

This is not the first time I’ve moved abroad. In 2016, I moved to Scotland to do an intense one year master’s course. I did my MSc in Speech and Language Processing at the University of Edinburgh. The program had courses in Speech Synthesis, Automatic Speech Recognition, Natural Language Processing, Natural Language Understanding, Machine Translation and other classes that provided a great foundation for language technology. 

After my master’s degree, I was eager to get back into the industry and start using my knowledge. I landed a job as a Research Engineer in text-to-speech at a start-up. Although I was able to contribute to the company by implementing what I had done during my master’s thesis, I soon hit a wall. My colleagues, most of whom had a PhD degree, were able to read papers, implement models, and make improvements quickly. I soon realized that these were skills that they learned during their PhDs. Unfortunately, the start-up lost funding, and I soon started looking for another job.

I found a contract job at a big company where I was part of a project development team. Because of my background in language technology, I was able to come up with a research idea and I was encouraged by the project manager to pursue my research. However, since this was a deliverable team and not an R&D team, my research was always in the backburner and less of a priority in order to meet our deadlines and milestones. I slowly started realizing that I wanted to pursue a PhD to learn how to be a better researcher.

With my current ESR position, I feel like I have the best of both worlds. Marie Skłodowska-Curie Innovative Training Networks are made up of partnerships between companies and universities. Even though I am enrolled at Aix-Marseille University, I will work and conduct most of my research at Furhat Robotics, a start-up which my industry advisor co-founded. I will also have two secondments which means moving for a couple of months to do research at other institutes within the network. One of them being in Aix-Marseille University where my academic advisor is located and the other secondment will be at the Slovak Academy of Sciences.

What attracted me to the ESR position was the fact that not only are we mentored and guided by both an industry advisor and an academic advisor, but we also get training events where we get to meet with other researchers and other ESRs in the network. During these training events we will have workshops pertaining to the topic of our network, Conversational Brains, but we will also have training for research and transferable skills.

The main reason why I applied to this ESR position was because of the research topic. My PhD topic is “Gender and vocal alignment in speakers and robots”. The purpose of the project is to learn from human-to-human alignment, how humans change their speech rate, prosody, head movements, facial expressions when they communicate and model that for human-robot interactions. As I do my research, I’ll be able to run experiments using the social robot Furhat and hopefully, along the way, improve Furhat. The research that I do will not only be in theory; it will be incorporated and actualized in a product used by other researchers and companies. If you don’t want to leave industry but would like to focus more on research, a Marie Curie ESR position may be a good option for an industrial PhD. 

Follow us on Twitter (@CobraNetwork)  and Instagram (@conversationalbrainsmscaitn) to stay up to date. 

Author: Carol Figueroa, ESR14

Editors: Lena-Marie Huttner, ESR1,@lena_hutter, Greta Gandolfi, ESR6, @greta_gandolfi, Dorina de Jong, ESR2, @dorinadejong

Featured image designed by slidesgo via Training tab.

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