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Academic risk-taking and degree mash-ups: Payam Mousavi, Physics PhD, on his alt-ac career path

August 06, 2014
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This article is part of a series exploring professional paths for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows that make use of or leverage academic training but are not limited to traditional faculty positions (#alt-ac).

It’s common career knowledge.

If you want to start building towards your post-graduate school profession, you need to get into the real world.

As told in countless academic career blogs, PhDs need to "get an internship, a freelance position or a part-time job related to the field [they] want to enter (source)." The suggestion is always that real career sklls don't happen in labs and libraries.    

Dr. Payam Mousavi would probably say you should never believe anything that's called common knoweldge. He sure didn’t.

Payam completed his Physics PhD in 2014 and is currently working as a Research and Technology Adviser at Canada Revenue Agency.

“I’ve always been very interested in R&D and now I get to work with people and help them do exactly that.”

Unlike many PhDs which struggle to transition from graduate school to the work world, Payam landed the job before he had even defended his dissertation. And he did it without having any prior government experience or even having ‘Liked’ any ‘government’ Facebook groups.  

What he did was a lot of academic risk-taking.

“I jumped around a lot during my degrees. I studied fluid mechanics, optics, mechatronics, math, biophysics, and electrical engineering. I even tried a biophysics PhD for one year but quit as it involved too much biology and chemistry for my taste.”

Payam fulfilled the requirements for a science doctoral degree mash-up style. Though this path wound up extending the amount of time he spent studying, it also gave him a deep understanding of a diverse range of disciplines.

It was this background which made his application stand out from the rest.

“I was chosen for my position with CRA because of my large area of specialties, and diversity of skills.”

Payam’s academic wanderings also equipped him with a variety of people skills that were essential to his landing the job.

“I had to take an exam with questions about how to deal with different people.  That was something I was used to, moving from a discipline like biology where everyone was very colorful to engineering where they were much more reserved.”

As Payam’s experience shows, building your career doesn’t have to be separate from your academic training. Rather, it’s about taking risks in everything you do—whether that be introducing yourself at an industry meet-up or choosing an unconventional though intriguing research project.  

- Jackie Amsden, APEX Professional Development Coordinator

If you are are interested in hearing people like Payam share their alt-ac career paths or you would like to learn about upcoming professioanal development opportunites, email jamsden@sfu.ca to be put on our professioanl development mail-list

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