Pursuing a Passion from Grad School to Full-Time Job
By Manuel, application support engineer
By Manuel, application support engineer
When I was working toward my Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, I focused on the problem of coordinating self-driving cars as they traversed traffic intersections. My research involved three main types of work: reviewing the literature to learn about existing approaches, brainstorming and modeling new approaches, and simulating those approaches to validate them.
From the very first year of graduate school, I felt that reading papers was painful and brainstorming and doing whiteboard math and physics was okay, but programming the simulation environment was genuinely fun. It was the one step of the process that did not feel like a chore.
When I realized that it was actually someone’s job to do exactly the parts of grad school I was enjoying the most, I knew I wanted to work at MathWorks.
After spending a full day programing an optimization algorithm in MATLAB (and enjoying every second of it), I found out that MATLAB already had a function that could do this. When I realized that it was actually someone’s job to do exactly the parts of grad school I was enjoying the most, I knew I wanted to work at MathWorks.
After three years of graduate school, I was ready to start thinking about what was next. With MathWorks on my proverbial vision board (I am much too free-spirited to have a real one), I applied to the Engineering Development Group (EDG) internship program and was offered a spot.
Soon after I accepted the offer, my hiring manager reached out to me to discuss potential projects for the summer. He proposed working with the MathWorks Advanced Research & Technology Office (MARTO) team. This small four-person group was working on the problem of coordinating self-driving cars as they traversed traffic intersections. This was the exact same problem I explored in my graduate school research.
I had a decision to make: What do I do now? Do I branch out or double down? Explore something new, or use the internship opportunity to keep advancing my doctoral research?
The first option might have been a good résumé builder, but when you want to finish your Ph.D. sooner rather than later, you take every chance you get to pump out research into your dissertation. So self-driving cars it was.
I planned to move to Massachusetts for the summer of my internship. But COVID-19 happened, so I moved from my room to my upgraded in-home office to start my remote internship.
I was a part of three-intern team working with the MathWorks Research and Technology Office (MARTO) during the summer. Our mentors showed us the objectives of the project and let us propose our own ideas on what next steps we could take. Based on my own experience working on the problem of coordinating vehicles at traffic lights, I proposed programming a custom traffic simulator and formulating a novel synchronization strategy based on some interesting approaches I had just learned about in one of my last courses in grad school. My fellow interns on the team proposed alternative coordination strategies using different approaches based on machine learning techniques.
On a typical day, I would sit down to program my simulator or formulate my coordination strategy. I would collaborate with the other interns on my team on their aspects of the project, and they would help me with mine. At the end of the day, we would all meet with our mentors to discuss our projects, get feedback, and work through any roadblocks. Occasionally, we would meet with engineers from product development teams to discuss the work we were doing and how this work fit in with their own objectives for the coming development cycles.
By working with other interns, I was exposed to new and novel techniques that I would not have explored in my own research.
A few times a week, I would meet with different members of the EDG team. While my project mentors oversaw the technical aspects of my internship, EDG offered opportunities for us to get to know MathWorks as a company. My EDG manager would make sure that I was setting—and meeting—personal and professional goals for my internship. Other EDG engineers would hold meetings with me and other interns to discuss our experience in EDG, and at MathWorks in general.
By the end of my tenure, I had a functioning traffic simulator that we published in GitHub for anyone to use, and I had a working coordination strategy that I could present in a research publication that could be a part of my Ph.D. research. By working with other interns, I was exposed to new and novel techniques that I would not have explored in my own research.
To cap off my internship, I had the privilege to present my work in a presentation anyone in the company could attend. Having presented some of my research at conferences where the sessions often had just a dozen attendees, I was excited (and a bit nervous) to present to over 200 MathWorkers, including Cleve Moler, the original MATLAB programmer and one of the company’s founders.
Shifting from the day-to-day of being a MathWorker to the struggles of being a grad student again was hard. Thankfully, my manager reached out with a full-time offer not long after my internship was over. I quickly accepted it, which gave me something to look forward to as I worked on my last year of doctoral research. I defended my dissertation the following summer, and soon afterward came back to MathWorks as an application support engineer for EDG.
The EDG program appealed to me because it is a great way for new engineers like me to explore different areas of interest before taking a permanent position at the company. It’s given me the opportunity to work on short-term projects with a variety of teams, so I’m gaining experience while searching for the right fit for a permanent role. At the same time, I also work on offering technical support to our customers as I develop a deeper knowledge of our products.