Research Alumni Case Study - Software Engineering

Posted in: Alumni Case Study - Researchers, For PhDs, inspire, Subject Related Careers

Researcher Alumni Case Study – James Cave

Software Engineer at MathWorks, Cambridge

What do you do day-to-day in your current role?

I work on the development of MATLAB’s Parallel Computing Toolbox, which allows you to scale up your code over multiple cores, multiple computers or in the cloud. I work primarily on our cluster support, which allows you to easily submit code to servers and supercomputers (like Balena) from within MATLAB. Most of my day is spent on development work: implementing new features, adding enhancements to existing functionality and squashing bugs. Other times I might be participating in a design or code review or watching talks by other groups about their latest features. What I find most rewarding is knowing that what I’m working on will, within just a few months after I implement it, be widely used across academia and industry in just about every field you can think of.

Give a brief overview of your career history to date, and any steps you feel were important to you

I first did my MPhys at Bath, then stayed on to do a PhD in theoretical physics in Prof. Alison Walker’s group. The main part of my PhD was simulating novel solar materials using a drift-diffusion model, implemented in MATLAB. I also developed a Monte Carlo model of energy dynamics in organic films.
Perhaps my favourite part of my PhD was visiting Newcastle, Australia to collaborate with the university there and CSIRO, Australia’s national research organisation. I would definitely encourage anyone to take the opportunity to do a placement at another university, research institute or company, mainly because it gives you experience in how other groups/organisations operate. It’s valuable to have this experience as everywhere works differently.
With regard to non-research interests, if you have a vague idea of where you want your career to go after the PhD, you can try to get involved with activities you think will help you get there. For example, I didn’t really spend any time doing departmental or outreach activities as I’m not so interested in those and I didn’t feel they’d be useful outside of academia. Instead, I focused on technical skills, like programming languages and computing knowledge, and administration of the CDT I was part of, through arranging a couple of conferences. I also did a little teaching cover for the computational physics modules, which is a good transferrable skill.

How do you use the skills from your doctoral/postdoctoral experience in your current role?

Of course, the obvious skill to point out would be coding ability. My PhD was almost entirely computational, specifically in MATLAB and C++, so that carried over extremely well. Otherwise, the most important skill I use day-to-day is problem solving, be that in working out how best to implement a new feature, fix a bug or helping a customer use our software. Additionally, being able to get up to speed quickly on something I may not have any prior experience in is very helpful.

How you went about finding your current job, what advice you would give to researchers interested in working in similar roles and suggestions on where they could look for vacancies

I was contacted about this job via LinkedIn, so I can definitely recommend putting effort into your profile on there. Be sure under privacy settings to say you’re actively looking for jobs. I had a few more good leads from uploading my CV to Indeed and Monster, including two that led to offers, so that’s worth a shot as well. Put your email and mobile at the top of your CV and put it on the most public visibility possible.
I also applied for a couple of positions I found by searching on Indeed. I ended up not going to either of these, as by the time they’d arranged a date I’d signed my contract with MathWorks. This is a great example of how the pace of the recruitment varies widely between employers. The time it takes from application to offer may be as short as a few weeks or as long as a few months.
It’s worth getting started on searching early, then, in case your ideal job is one with a lengthy hiring process. I’d say if you’re handing in in Autumn, you want to start your search in Spring at the latest. MathWorks received my signed copy of the contract the same day I handed in my thesis, which was maybe cutting it a little fine. Fortunately, I finished my thesis about a month before the deadline, so could focus fully on job searching and interview preparation in September.
Finally, it also goes without saying (I hope) that you should get your CV looked over by someone in the Careers Service. Your CV is your first impression on your future employer and is basically solely responsible for getting you an interview, so ensure you spend plenty of time on it.

Posted in: Alumni Case Study - Researchers, For PhDs, inspire, Subject Related Careers


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  • Great to hear what James is up to now he's left the group. Thanks for sharing! Wishing him all the very best with his career.