Diversifying science skills and learning languages
In the second article in a series on changing careers, Yamila Omar talks about the challenges of a profession in materials science, taking on a contract PhD, gaining a fellowship, and passing the Sproochentest to acquire Luxembourgish nationality.
Materials science to funded PhD
Thirty-three-year-old Omar, originally from Argentina, arrived in Luxembourg at the end of August 2016 and started her PhD at the University of Luxembourg that September.
“I studied materials engineering at university, and the five-year-long degree included time at the West Virginia University," she said. “They had a fully equipped, clean room, amazing labs and incredible funding. There was no limit to research, and we had the use of the principal investigator's credit card.” Whilst there, she developed chemical sensors for fingerprint gas detection, and procedures to produce nanoscopic cantilever beams.
Her master’s degree in the United Arab Emirates was a different story, where procurement procedures were slow, and scheduling training for equipment not easy. Whilst in the Middle East, Omar met her Italian husband, and spent a year in Rome learning Italian.
“I soon noticed that materials science research was hard in Italy, and I guessed much of Europe. It requires funding, easy procurement procedures and a well-run laboratory,” she said. Omar started studying programming languages, like R and Python, and statistics through Coursera, then she began looking for a job that depended less on lab equipment and funding, and more on her brains and her laptop.
As she was not an EU citizen, getting a job was much harder. Finding a PhD position, which in Luxembourg comes as a job contract, was easier. “Luxembourg happened by chance. I was searching for funded academic positions in the EU when I found a PhD position that matched my knowledge,” she said. “I did a first interview via Skype, then came to Luxembourg to meet the professor and got the job.”
Omar says the PhD journey can be lonely. She worked on a standard PhD contract, but her professor encouraged her to write an FNR (Luxembourg National Research Fund) Industrial Fellowship Proposal in collaboration with a local company. This she did, and in May 2017, she got the fellowship, giving her a little more money and the chance to learn a lot from the company with which she collaborated. She graduated this summer.
Learning French and Luxembourgish
“My PhD was in English, but when I arrived in Luxembourg I couldn’t speak French or German,” she said. “I started studying French via a Prolingua course offered at the university campus, and later studied Luxembourgish and passed the Sproochentest [the language test needed for nationality] this summer. I also realised I love teaching.”
Part of the PhD involved participating in Chercheurs a l’Ecole - explaining research work to secondary school classes to encourage pupils to consider a career in science.
Her advice to those arriving with professions that cannot be catered to, is to consider gaining experience first, rather than opting for a university qualification. If that’s not possible, always check with graduates on a course what jobs they went on to do, and if you can do internships in your desired field when studying.
“Register with ADEM. I thought that with a PhD, that would be a waste of time, but they provide an amazing service and their jobs board is full of opportunities you don’t see on LinkedIn or jobs.lu. I’ve got interviews for dream jobs this way,” she said.
You can read our article Looking for a new job? with details on agencies, CVs, ADEM and more, or our article on Starting a business, for details of the legal and administrative requirements and support agencies.
You can also read about Francesca Moroni, who went back to university after a 10-year career gap.