Earning a PhD: A professional experience in its own right

Mar 08, 2020
Alexandra in front of her old office at LHCb

CERN Alumna: Alexandra Martín Sánchez
At CERN: USER for LHCb 2009-2013
Today: Project Manager in scientific computing at EDF R&D

I met Alexandra at the 2019 "Careers and Networks" event organized by the LHC experiments and she enthusiastically agreed to describe the path that led her from particle physics to a major French energy company. 

From Salamanca to Orsay and from Orsay to CERN for LHCb 

Alexandra grew up in a small town in western Spain, Salamanca, and it was at the University of Salamanca that she began her studies in particle physics. She then moved to the Faculty of Orsay for an internship in the LHCb collaboration. Delighted with the experience of her internship, she continued her studies with a master's degree in particle physics and continued with a thesis at the LAL (Laboratoire de l'Acélérateur Linéaire) in Orsay under the direction of Patrick Robbe, "because the subject fascinated me," she says simply. 
"I've always been affiliated with Orsay and I was mainly working there on the exploitation of LHCb data.  However, I came regularly to CERN for meetings and especially for the on-call duties during the data collection periods," explains Alexandra.
"Coming from a small town in Spain, I thought it was great to work with so many people from different backgrounds, all passionate about the same subject! In addition, when you see what can be achieved with such impressive detectors, it is just incredible; it is hard to believe it works as well as it does.”

Despite a strong passion for research, much effort is required to stay 

Alexandra was working on her thesis in 2012 when the discovery of the Higgs Boson was announced. However, she followed these events 17,000 kilometres from CERN, from Melbourne, Australia, where the ICHEP conference was being held and where she was presenting her work. She recalls with emotion: "Despite the distance, the atmosphere was super-charged with excitement and everyone was eagerly awaiting the results.”
After submitting her thesis, Alexandra considered her options carefully: "There were possibilities to do a post doc in Marseille for LHCb, or elsewhere for other experiments, but I had already changed countries once and had also created strong links in Paris. I loved working for research at CERN and if it had been easier to continue in this way I would have stayed".
Alexandra adds, "I love Paris and I was also curious about the business world, so the decision was ultimately quite simple to make. “

Consultancy, a shoo-in to the company. 

With her PhD in her pocket in June 2013, Alexandra starts her job search in September and begins her first job in December, with the company Bertin Technologies.
"I had precise criteria; I didn't want to work for a bank or in marketing. These sectors offer interesting careers, but I wanted to work towards a scientific goal first and foremost, the goals of the company to which I was going to contribute had to resonate with me. "She adds, "I had also enjoyed working in IT, and I wanted to use the knowledge and expertise I had gained there.”
To make sure she has the best possible chance, Alexandra consults the careers office at her university in Orsay to discuss her career options. In the absence of an alumni network at this university, the few friends who had already made the same transition from research to industry advised her on writing her curriculum vitae. "More than the career office, it was word-of-mouth and evenings with former colleagues that really helped me. “
"I sent few CVs because I got my first job at a recruitment fair in Paris focused on IT jobs. Bertin Technologies were looking for skills in scientific computing, in particular for consulting missions for large groups including EDF." Alexandra realised that this first job could open the doors to a large company, and she took the plunge.  "Bertin Technologies had recruited me without having a clear idea regarding the profile of a particle physics researcher, but they were immediately very satisfied with the way I worked. My recruiters were surprised to see me at ease in all aspects of my job, whether it was coding, functioning in team and collaborating with other services. “
After a great year at Bertin Technologies, EDF R&D recruits Alexandra.

So much in common

"Computer science is the same as at CERN, even if it is applied to different data. Programming is also done in Python and C++. The code used is also code generated by researchers, that is to say more or less "industrial" and I easily found my way around, as we share the same development work habits. At CERN, we work on software developed by CERN and at EDF, on software developed by EDF. In both cases, it is also teamwork. The principles remain the same.”
"Large groups like EDF are of course fairly hierarchical companies, but CERN is also very large and very hierarchical. One can feel protected by such structures. On the other hand, they have a cumbersome administrative side, which means that things do not necessarily move as quickly as we would like. What I miss, however, is the international aspect of the collaborations! ”

SALOME, simulations for energy production

Alexandra has been working for EDF for 5 years and since starting, her position has evolved.  Initially recruited as a research engineer, she is now the SALOME project manager and leads a team of seven people. She explains the nature of her work with boundless enthusiasm:
“SALOME is a computer software for industrial studies of physical simulation, whether for hydraulics, mechanics, electromagnetism, etc. Furthermore, it is an open source program that enables the integration of external collaborations. 
The platform makes it possible to model EDF's operation of facilities and means of production, such as nuclear power plants or hydroelectric dams.  Based on these models, physics simulations can then be carried out to validate safety criteria, guarantee plant availability and optimise maintenance.

  
Simulations are carried out periodically, as a preventive measure, but they can also be triggered following a particular event. Similarly, future power plants are being conceived today and these simulations are essential in order to validate the chosen design. 
Finally, SALOME is at the service of renewable energies, for example to carry out safety calculations on the blades of wind turbines. 
The SALOME project is deployed over five-year periods and I am responsible for the period 2019-2023.”
  
Alexandra is obviously passionate about her work at EDF and, when I ask her about the next steps in her career, her ideas are clear: 
"Today I'm thinking of staying at EDF because I'm happy there. The career paths are varied and the company motivates its engineers to change jobs every 4 or 5 years, unless they wish to become experts, i.e. specialists in their field and authors of scientific publications. Personally, I see myself changing jobs and evolving within the company.”

 

Earning a PhD: A professional experience in its own right

"The labour market has changed and has become tighter.  EDF is recruiting research engineers for R&D and I encourage my alumni colleagues to discover these opportunities as they have many assets potentially of value to EDF.
During my recruitment interviews, I highlighted my programming experience, my ability to communicate and present my work, and especially my ability to complete a thesis project over several years. My advice to alumni looking for a job is to make the most of this PhD experience. Both sides of the job are of interest to recruiters: the technical part but also the communication and collaboration skills with researchers and engineers from all over the world. 
This makes a real difference with candidates coming from an engineering school: the thesis is a real professional experience!”

Words to the wise, Alexandra, thank you very much!

Author, Laure Esteveny, CERN
 

 


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