I moved to USA with a PhD: on Challenge, Resilience and Giving Back.

When I was offered a PhD studentship at one of the largest CNRS labs in France, I immediately accepted. It was evident to me that higher education meant a further reaching career. I even checked on multiple salary databases. They all agreed with that impression, with higher retributions and job levels. Those were salary statistics for jobs in companies of my industry, Electronics and Communications Engineering.

One year or two into my training, I discovered that not any kind of PhD in my industry would be needed for the kind of career I desired, but rather those involving Applied Research, readily translatable to the industry’s needs. A research topic that doesn’t need 15 or 20 years to become mainstream.

So, why did I found myself knee-deep into a Fundamental Research topic like Graphene microwave properties, again? Well, an error coming from my naïveté, for sure. I didn’t connect the dots between what I wanted to achieve and the path I was following.

Learn from your errors. Such a simple lesson, applicable to really anybody. Yet it implies you first should fail at something, then honestly analyze why did you take that course of action, and finally correct your path.

Since then, I corrected my life and career path, and I failed at new and different things. That’s good, you don’t wanna do the same errors twice. If you fail enough times, you’ll develop a highly revered quality called resilience. You’re gonna need a good amount of it if you want to drastically change your life, or society, or the city where you grew up, or a bit of them all.

What’s all this about

Resilience is one of the main topics of this post. Another one is the mindset of giving back, plus on the importance of challenging yourself and truly stepping out your comfort zone.

If you are a highly specialized professional, or a PhD, or a researcher, or a startup founder, you’ll always have larger autonomy compared to other workers, and you’ll always be on the first line. You’ll always be on the brink of success and failure, and you’ll have to adapt quickly. Your professional success will be very much dependent on those personal traits.

Putting the concepts of resilience, challenging yourself and giving back into practice will be one of the strongest distinctive actions that will set yourself apart in this increasingly competitive world.

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My transition from academia to industry, and from Europe to U.S.A.

I managed to correct my professional path from purely academic to one palatable to the industry. I did this by redirecting the focus of my last PhD studentship year on Metrology and microwave measurements. A series of doors opened at the same time, including an opportunity for my wife to spend one year as post-doc in Los Angeles.

I wanted to make the best use possible of my freshly got PhD diploma and of that American opportunity. That window was constrained to a one-year period by my wife’s J-1 exchange researcher visa, and her sponsors did not have funds to further her grant. With that, our visas too would stop after one year.

So, as soon as the visa offices allowed, we moved from Italy to California. No more than two months later, I was already employed as Sr. Design Engineer in a small startup and, even better, my boss insisted for me getting the Green Card, the U.S. permanent residence. At the same time, the American mindset of dynamicity, of personal success and of getting things done fast was really appealing for my wife and me, and we wanted to stay in the U.S. Those were really exciting times.

Challenging myself: the Green Card petition

Unfortunately, my Green Card petition became much more complicated than what the attorney initially forecasted. He convinced me that my case was strong enough for a highly challenging Green Card petition called National Interest Waiver (NIW), very advantageous for my situation.

For this NIW petition to succeed, I had to show the importance to the U.S. National Interest of what I did with my work (Radar Electronics). In particular, I had to show the results of my research as PhD student and, through those, demonstrate how I, as professional research, was significantly above the level of other researcher like me. The way to prove it (at that time) was through number of publications and citations I gathered with my works. And they weren’t enough to ensure a clean and smooth approval of my case.

I also needed other experts of my field and professors, especially whom I never met or talked to before (external to my circle of collaborators), to validate the worth of my work through official support letters.

One of the most difficult things for me in this procedure was really putting myself forward, stating my worth way beyond what even I, myself, thought I was worth. It was especially difficult with the professors, because I felt they would look at the results I achieved and judge them too meagre compared to the high value I was asking them to state in the letters. This made me extremely reluctant in asking their support.

But I forced myself and I did it. It was a big challenge for me.

It turned out that many of those professors and experts were really happy to offer their support. And one of them even went beyond and offered me a job in his lab. I couldn’t expect this kind of approval.

The lesson here is not about my special achievements and my value, there’s no use of that for anybody other than me. What I want to give to you is a practical example of what many people already say: the biggest limit we experience is within ourselves. And of how I got past that limit in many occasions: holding my breath and diving deep, there’s no way around it.

In my case, I was limiting myself from contacting the leading experts in my field, asking for their statement that I was world-leading expert too. I was very seriously considering of abandoning the path I chose, my personal American Dream, because I didn’t want to expose myself that way. I said out loud, many times, “I can’t do it”. I had to really force myself to click “Send” on the emails asking for their consideration and help.

That challenge paid off greatly.

Resilience

“1: The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.” Oxford Dictionary.

My PhD training was absolutely a training of resilience too, being left most of the time on my own, trying to innovate on a topic mostly foreign to my supervisors. I imagine that this kind of difficulties are very common among PhD students, in any country.

The exercise of pursuing a career goal during the PhD training is also very formative, as there are many difficulties on the research path that tend to steer us away from our initial aim. For example, I had to change my PhD subject at least TWICE and reinvent it (and reinvent my career with it).

The second time was the most suffered one. At the very beginning of my second year I planned an experiment, and the samples I needed were supposed to be fabricated by my lab’s clean room. My supervisor was the one to build them, and he assured me it would have taken “just a couple of months”. It actually took more than two years. I got the very first sample of my first experiment when my PhD studentship was already over.

Again, this kind of things are way more common than what we want to believe, especially in fundamental research.

What helps in those situations, and that is really needed from a PhD, or a startup entrepreneur, or anybody involved in innovating and confronting with making radically new things, is the ability to pursue our ultimate goal even when the very basis of our initial plan fails miserably. That is resilience.

I have other examples of that trait to offer, but I don’t want to make this post about me.

Let’s focus on resilience again.

“The flexible are preserved unbroken.” Lao Tsu. The Tao Te Ching.

Anyone who launches in a new venture, being it building a product around a new idea, or furthering that idea by introducing the product into the market and building a company out of it, is always facing some degree of failure. It’s spoken as a necessary evil that prepares for and traces the path to success.

One of the most popular mantra in Silicon Valley is “Fail Fast, Fail Often”. However, I disagree with it. It’s not failure that should be sought for. Indeed, everybody in the Bay avoid failure as bubonic plague (even though people don’t generally avoid other people who have failed in the past; failure seem to be accepted in other people).

So failure is not exactly something people currently seek, or should seek at any time. It’s what happens next that failure that’s instead distinctive as a trait of a successful person: the ability of bouncing back. The ability of indeed learning from our personal errors, with honesty, and implementing a winning strategy.

Resilience is what makes a successful Entrepreneur and a successful PhD transitioning into industry.

Resilience is what made me go through two years of psychological hell waiting for graphene samples for my experiment, and finally reinventing myself on a different topic, very sought for by the industry.

Resilience is what made me stick through another two years of legal hell for my US immigration problems, sticking to my case, until I WON my own battle, alone, against any forecast of all the attorneys I contacted and that turned me away as if I had the bubonic plague.

Transferable skills

Resilience is an exceptional transferable skill that many PhD and Startuppers can learn in their personal life, then adapt and implement in their profession.

No employer or VC investor will ever ask you to show your mastery with that particular MATLAB function or that obscure physical measurement. They will instead look for a handful of transferable skills that you learned in your past experiences and that will prove vital in the future. Resilience is one of them.

The mindset of Giving Back

All of us know that helping others, in any form, is important for the survival of community and society as a whole. But very few people describe it as a vital part of the Networking skill set. Even fewer people talk of it as a necessary element of the Leadership skill set.

The latter is source for one of the strangest contradictions. Everybody imagine that a leader is one that “shows the way to others”. But how does he or she show it to other people? By pointing at it with a long stick? Or with a laser pointer on a slide?

Lead by example. Teach what you know to the people who are in the same position as you were in the past. Feed your network at every level, including your roots, such as your native country, your hometown or graduates from your Alma Mater. Because they will likely support you in the future.

Giving back is more profound than the traditional notion of charity. Both of them represent helping others and both are equally important. However, giving back inserts into the gradual progression of one’s life. It threads into the very fabric of one’s professional community. What we got from the community, we give back to members of that community.

Giving back is something I learned in California. It is embedded into the U.S. culture. As much as the U.S. culture is controversially founded upon money and mythology of success, so it is founded upon giving back substantial portions of your time and wealth to your own community.

I decided to implement that giving back mindset. I took everything I had learned the hard way, that is how to win the Green Card petition using academic and professional results, and I’m sharing it. I’m building two websites, both dedicated to PhD’s and Entrepreneurs. And I especially want to share all the things that I wish I knew while I was building the case for my own Green Card.

NIWeasy.com is dedicated to a global audience in English and provides resources to highly skilled professionals, PhD’s and startup entrepreneur to petition for the U.S. Green Card with success.

OttenereLaGreenCard.com is in Italian, my native language, and broadens the scope of the first website. It also integrates career-building, soft-skill-building and American mindset as tools for a successful and empowered life, be it in Italy, in U.S.A. or anywhere people can express their full potential.

OttenereLaGreenCard.com in particular is my way of giving back value to my native country, and hopefully it will help Italians be more competitive in an ever-changing world.

Conclusions

There are many actionable tips in this article.

First, getting out of your comfort zone really means do things that make you uncomfortable. Do things that you never ever thought of doing, and that don’t put you in any danger other than getting yourself closer to success. (Yes, success is sometimes perceived as dangerous, like any other radical change in our life).

Embrace challenges that are deeply, truly important for you, and that you must win at nearly all cost.

Embrace resilience. “Losers are those who stay down when they fail. Successful ones are those who get up.” Listen to some talks of Brené Brown, PhD, for that.

Give back to people who are in the same situation as you were in the past, and build your network not by merely adding people to your LinkedIn, but by helping them out, even in little things once in awhile. Add value to them.

I hope this helped you as much as it would have helped me during my PhD :)

Giancarlo

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