A View from Graduate Students: Sleepless Nights and the Importance of Cold BreakfastInterview conducted in June 2020
Meet G. and R. At the time of our conversation, G. had completed a graduate program in industrial and system engineering at a public university in California with particular interest in high-powered engines and blockchain technology. R. was enrolled in a graduate program in a private university in the southern United States, studying vehicle automation.
These young professionals were still adjusting to the whiplash of one of the best job markets in history quickly transforming into one of the most challenging. Although they fit the category of millennials in terms of age, they did not conform to the stereotype of being “digital natives” in their priorities. Both emphasized a need for the physical interactions that come with in-person (vs. virtual) meetings and conferences. Both also noted the importance of having hands-on experience—such as the kind that comes from SAE International technical committees—to complement academic training. A native of India, R. also conveyed the additional, and perhaps underappreciated, complexities economic upheaval levels on a foreign student.
SAE: We want each of you to think back New Year's Day, 2020. A new decade had started. Few of us had heard about COVID-19. How would you have defined your goals then?
G.: My goal before the pandemic was, first of all, to graduate. The pandemic made things difficult. We have young children and did not have any childcare, which made it hard to even study in order to graduate. I wanted to be working in the blockchain industry for sure, maybe as a system engineer or data scientist.
R.: I was thinking about going into the automotive industry as an automation engineer. And the thing that worries me right now is quite a few recent graduates have been laid off. When companies hire you, they basically support you being in the United States with an H-1B visa. If you're not able to find an opportunity, and the visa expires, you run out of time. If you have to go back home, that is the worst-case scenario.
SAE: Do you remember a particular incident when you realized things are really changing now?
R.: I was on call with one of my seniors. I was asking: how are things going? He was pretty sad. He had graduated a week ago. He said: "Oh man, I was in contact with this HR person. We had this really good opportunity going, but the HR person got laid off.” So that is when it struck me.
G.: Yes, once I started seeing the unemployment rates just going up to Great Depression-levels.
SAE: Have your professional or personal goals changed?
R.: For me, the goals have remained the same. I still want to get into the industry as a motion planning and control engineer. But to be honest, right now I'm putting quite a bit more work into it. It is just more sleepless nights.
G.: I am going into the job market as soon as possible. I’ve got kids, bills and school. So, yeah, I'll be on a job hunt.
SAE: What advice do you have for us that will help you?
R.: Well, I've been associated with SAE for quite a while. I joined SAE my first year in school and participated in the Baja SAE event. And it was amazing, man. It got me into automotive engineering. And I published with SAE. There are a lot of unknowns in the autonomy industry. The standards aren't all set. If I can gain more insight on functional safety through SAE technical committee work that would be really beneficial for me. I also think SAE can provide support with research projects. That will strengthen students in two ways. First, they will get to work on industry-oriented projects, and that gives them industry experience. Second, they might get some payment for their work and they may be able to continue their livelihood. It is also very important to see the market in action. Of course, you can get the education, but application opportunities should exist. Hands-on autonomy projects will be really appreciated.
G.: I'm not a really big fan of virtual stuff. It works when you have nothing else, but it's not the same thing as going to a physical conference. In a physical setting, you get different body language from people. You get a different gut feeling. It's a lot different when you're there, than when you're virtually “there.” So, yeah, there's going to be a lot missing if we have to transition to the virtual conferences.
SAE: So, don’t give up physical conferences?
R.: Yeah. How would you approach a person virtually, right? I mean, in person you can still strike up a conversation, "Oh, the weather is bad or the breakfast was too cold." Something like that, how would you do that virtually?
SAE: Let’s assume you have a crystal ball. When you gaze into it, what do you want to see?
R.: Well I sure hope that this autonomous thing takes off. Because there's a lot hanging on it.
SAE: Some people say, "There’s nobody on the road; nobody wants to meet anyone. Everything is home delivery, sounds like the time for autonomous cars has arrived." Others say, "You know what? These were just hobby projects. We cut all the funding. That's dead."
R.: I really do see a future for this technology, so I'm going for it. There is still a lot of economic gain to be had from it. I think that will be the primary mover in research.
G.: My crystal ball... I believe a lot of jobs will not come back once we resume the economy. It's kind of hard to just pause business. I also see a future where autonomous vehicles basically take over deliveries and other services.