While doing a PhD in itself is a memorable and enriching experience, a career in the industry requires transferable skills that can build on your core research expertise to bring tangible benefit to the real world.

Nivedita Basu, our next pathbreaker, Process Engineer, works on constant improvement in the manufacturing process of Intel microprocessors.

Nivedita talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about always wanting to join the industry after PhD and leveraging her fabrication experience in semiconductor manufacturing.

For students, academics provides the foundation while the industry requires application. Work towards bridging the gap and nothing can stop you from following your dreams!

Nivedita, tell us about your background?

I hail from a small town in West Bengal. I grew up in a regular, middle-class household where education was given importance, but it wasn’t the end all and be all. I remember wanting to be a Fashion Designer when I was 12 or 13 and I remember my Dad telling me, “For all I know you can be anything but be the best version of whatever you choose to become”.

I wasn’t that kid performing science experiments at home or asking for telescope on my birthday. I was more into literature. I remember devouring books written by Rabindranath Tagore and other imminent Bengali authors from a very early age. I owe my emotional maturity (which has helped me stand my ground in life) to these great authors and my mother who inculcated the habit of reading in me.

However, I had a very solid foundation in Mathematics from an early age, all thanks to my Dad. Hence, even though I wasn’t overtly interested in Mathematics/Science growing up I was always good at it. The strong foundation helped me later when I took to Science.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I did my bachelor’s degree in Physics from the University of Calcutta and went on to do my master’s from the same University. During my master’s I fell in love with the world of Nanophysics and naturally went on to do my PhD in Nanoscience.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?

I strongly believe in the beauty of endless possibilities in life and thanks to my parents who did not kill it for me. I have taken all my professional decisions based on my own judgements and that’s how I think it should be for everyone. When I was doing my bachelor’s in Physics, I fell in love with Quantum Mechanics. In my master’s I learnt how Quantum Mechanics plays an integral part in electronics. This in turn made me curious to see if electronics can be applied to detect biological signals and eventually, I was led to the world of Biosensors and went on to do my PhD in transistor-based DNA Biosensors.

I did not choose my career but rather stumbled upon it by curiosity and I think this is one of reasons why I am passionate about what I do.

I think my takeaway from my own career is that passion is not Maggi noodles. It doesn’t cook in 2 minutes. Passion is something I developed over time while working hard towards a goal.

Tell us about your career path

Life is so unpredictable that it is a complete waste of time to make a long-term plan. I usually divide life into phases of 2/3 years and make the most of every opportunity that I hear knocking at my door in that phase. This helps me to remain focused.

When I was in school, I focused on completing school. When I was in college, I focused on finishing college. When I was in master’s I came to know about DST INSPIRE PhD Fellowship, awarded to toppers of Indian Universities, to pursue PhD in any Institute in India. In my master’s I focused on topping my University.

After Master’s, I focused on selecting a lab in India that aligned with my goal of carrying out research in biosensors. I found research groups across India working on biosensing, read about their work and jotted down key points. I then wrote emails to head of groups (and included the key points to validate my interest in their work. Writing a personalized email is very important) working in biosensors.

I briefly joined IIT Bombay and IIT KGP for my PhD before finally choosing IISc, Bangalore.

My PhD involved design and development of an electronic/ electrochemical sensor for detecting DNA. I developed a simple platinum oxide-based sensor on flexible substrate using CMOS-compatible fabrication processes which could detect DNA. I chose platinum-oxide for my sensor after detailed material study of platinum oxide. I also worked on gold-based and Si/Ge nanowire-based DNA sensors. In that sense, IISc has truly world-class labs for fabrication and characterization of materials and nanostructures which aided me in my PhD.

During PhD, I applied for mid PhD fellowships to carry out part of my research work abroad to gain an understanding of the work culture in foreign labs and develop a complimentary skill set. I was awarded the Raman-Charpak Fellowship to carry part of my research work in ENSCP, Paris.

Raman-Charpak Fellowship is awarded to 10-15 Indian PhD students in STEM, to carry out part of their research work anywhere in France for 6 to 10 months, every year. The two most important steps in the application of this fellowship are:

  • Finding a host (supervisor) in France, and,
  • Writing a proposal that will clearly show how the work to be carried in France is aligned with the candidate’s PhD.

I worked on electrochemical DNA sensors in ENSCP which gave me a deeper understanding of electrochemistry and electrochemical sensing of biological signals.

During the last years of my PhD I knew that I won’t be continuing in academia, so I focused on industry jobs and here I am working in Intel, Ireland as a Yield Analysis Engineer. In my current role I use my knowledge acquired during master’s and PhD to understand the productivity of the microprocessors being developed by Intel.

To young people reading this I would like to say that have ‘A plan’ but most importantly have ‘plan B’ because life will always throw curveballs at you. Remember, life is not a one-way street.

Have short term goals. Take one steady step at a time towards it. And most importantly enjoy life as you are having a go at your goals.

How did you get your first break?

My switch from academia to industry happened over time.

My expertise lay in semiconductor microfabrication, design of electronic/electrochemical biosensors and material science. I was keen towards continuing my work in biosensors, but I was also open to industry role in semiconductor manufacturing.

In India I hardly found jobs requiring my expertise. However, I did apply for related positions, but I couldn’t convert.

I started applying for jobs outside India. I got interview calls for a couple of them, but no final offer was made. So, I joined as Post-Doctoral Fellow in Tyndall National Institute in Ireland in December 2018 and worked on an Analog Devices Inc (ADI) project. This was probably my first break in industry.

What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

I think as a researcher working on a very futuristic problem it was hard for me to find an industrial position that required 100% of the skill set that I developed during my PhD (And I think it is unfair to expect an industrial role completely aligned with our PhD to begin with). However, on closer inspection, I became aware of the flexibility of my skill set.

For example, I developed process steps for fabrication of my silicon-based DNA sensor during my PhD. I realized I have required skills to become a Process Engineer in semiconductor industry.

It is important to develop skills, but it is probably more important to understand the applicability of the developed skills.

Once we understand the applicability of our skills, we can easily figure out how our skills can be transferred across different areas and how we don’t need to limit ourselves in specific roles.

Where do you work now?

I am currently working as part of the Low Yield Analysis (LYA) group in Intel Ireland.

My role as a Yield Analysis Engineer is to work towards constant improvement in the manufacturing process of Intel microprocessors.

For this role one needs:

  • Good understanding of semiconductor physics, working of conventional transistors and MOSFETs and semiconductor manufacturing processes
  • Good grasp on statistical analyses and scripting, and,
  • Above all, like in any role, curiosity and willingness to learn.

I think I developed my understanding of semiconductor physics and semiconductor manufacturing processes during my master’s and PhD. I am learning the rest of it as part of my job.

I believe every role in the Industry has its own set of skills that you must develop on the job. No amount of degree or certificate courses can prepare you completely for a job.

My job is office based. So, 99% of my job just requires me to tap my Desktop/Laptop keyboard and click my mouse. Lot of both.

However, my role is quite challenging, and every day is full of uncertainties (and possibilities). I might wake up thinking, “Today is going to be a quiet day. I am going to do A, B and C and I will be done”. But soon enough that idea would be properly crushed.

I don’t mind though. I never had penchant for predictable jobs. That’s why I never liked the idea of working 9 to 5 jobs in the government sectors.

The best part of my job is probably its complexity. My job challenges me. As part of my job I must constantly learn new things and that is very important for me. I can never bring myself to do a job where there is no scope to learn and grow.

How does your work benefit the society?

Ah well, semiconductor devices are everywhere around us. From the moment we wake up in the morning till we go to bed at night we are surrounded by semiconductor technology. I don’t know if it is for the good or bad, but it is very hard to ignore how an Intel microprocessor touches our daily lives.

However, I think this question sometimes take away the true essence of benefitting society. I think being a Scientist/Engineer working on cutting edge/lifesaving technology is not enough to benefit society. We should practice kindness irrespective of our professions to really benefit society.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

Professionally, my entire PhD has been very memorable. I might not have been able to patent a technology or publish in Nature/Science or might never win the Nobel Prize, but becoming aware of the infinite possibilities in biosensing or life for that matter has been life changing. Before PhD, I used to see Science broken up into boxes like Physics, Chemistry, Biology, etc. After PhD, I see Science as a way of life.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

  • Don’t over plan. Let life happen.
  • Don’t dwell too much in the past or worry too much about the future. Practice living in the present (easier said than done).
  • Don’t compare your career graph to anybody else’s (I know it is hard not to). Identify your strengths and weaknesses and constantly work on both. You will eventually get there.
  • Don’t feel bad if you haven’t figured everything out. You are not the only one.
  • Love what you do or do what you love. Either way, give your hundred percent. Because a half-hearted attempt is no attempt.
  • Spend time with your family and friends. Always surround yourself with people you love. No amount of success is good enough if you don’t have people in your life who feel genuinely happy for your success.
  • Don’t get overwhelmed by failure/s. It is part of the process. Learn from it and move on.
  • Don’t blame your past generation for not having what you want. If you don’t like something the way it is, change it.

Future Plans?

I have always dreamt of a simple life full of meaningful deeds. My father used to say, “Simple living, big thinking”, and I think I resonate with that idea.

As much as I love my present job, I look forward to a quieter life in the Indian Himalayas working towards the betterment of people residing there. My love for mountaineering has taken me to the remotest villages of India and I have seen enormous opportunity to positively influence the lives of the villagers. I hope to come up with a solid plan in the near future to realize my dream.