PNAS: Mark Hodinott, RF Designer

(On July 16, 2009, I asked for volunteers with science degrees and non-academic jobs who would be willing to be interviewed about their careers paths, with the goal of providing young scientists with more information about career options beyond the pursuit of a tenure-track faculty job that is too often assumed as a default. This post is one of those interviews, giving the responses of Mark Hoddinott, a RF circuit designer.)

1) What is your non-academic job?

I design radio frequency (RF) circuitry in wireless modems for a mid-sized company. The modem designs I work on use UMTS/HSPA/GPRS/EDGE and sometimes incorporate GPS or WiFi.

2) What is your science background?

I have a Bachelor of Science from the University of Alberta, with a major in Physics and a minor in Mathematics. I also have a diploma in Electronics Engineering Technology from the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology.

3) What led you to this job?

I had intended to go the PhD route, but things did not turn out that way. After completion of the B.Sc., I left school and tried finding work in various places for several years, then decided to get the electronics diploma, as I had been interested in electronics and ham radio since I was in elementary school. SAIT led to a job at Nortel, which I left at just about the perfect time (late 1999), and found my current position.

4) What’s your work environment like?

Lab bench work mixed with design work occupies most of my time. There’s testing and evaluating new components, incorporating them into new or existing designs, and testing and troubleshooting prototypes.

5) What do you do in a typical day?

Arrive at work, check emails, go to the lab and test or troubleshoot parts or circuits, review new designs, possibly meet with component vendors to discuss new parts. There is considerable variation in this depending on where the current project(s) are in the design cycle. Sometimes travel to factories on the other side of the planet to help with new product builds.

6) How does your science background help you in your job?

Physics has given me greater depth in electromagnetics and thermodynamics than most engineers; this has enabled me to specialize a bit in RF work, which relies heavily on electromagnetic theory, and also deal with thermal issues in small electronic assemblies. Statistics has also helped working with manufacturing yields and test parameter distributions.

7) If a current college student wanted to get a job like yours, how
should they go about it?

Getting an engineering degree is probably the most straightforward way, but those with degrees in physics could do what I did and get additional education in electronics.

8) What’s the most important thing you learned from science?

Critical thinking! It helps in all aspects of life, not just my job. It’s always useful to consider “how do I know that?” and similar questions.

9) What advice would you give to young science students trying to plan
their careers?

I don’t have any advice that I’d consider very wise – just that it can be a long, tough slog to get to where you want to be.

10) (Totally Optional Question) What’s the pay like?

The pay’s pretty decent.