Sep 9 2019 "Job Hunting, Interviews and Internships-Discovering more of myself in Japan"

Job hunting, interviews, and internships- These are the phases we usually have to go through to finally get that job that we wanted. But there is actually more to know when it comes to going through these phases. We learn a lot from each phase and some situations are a bit more difficult to handle than others.

The Second part of our interview with Dr. Aaron Bell focuses on the steps he took and the experiences he had up until finally landing a career as a Machine Learning Engineer.

Sometimes even explaining the relevance of your degree to the position you are applying for can be really difficult especially if the interviewer doesn’t have much knowledge about your major. Internships which are supposed to be your time to be trained on the jobs you are hopeful to do, aren’t always as productive or worth it as they seem. And not knowing which types of recruiters to trust can be a waste of time and source of a lot of frustration. Let’s go ahead and see how he managed to go about these phases as we continue the interview below.


How do you explain and relate your background in Astronomy to Data Engineering positions? How do you highlight and give emphasis on how transferable it is?

Dr. Aaron Bell: “It varies by interview. Sometimes they understood that modern astronomy is essentially engineering and data science, and then it was pretty easy. In other cases, I had to first sort of break down their preconception that I was a nocturnal telescope hobbyist spending their days sketching the rings of saturn. The main point is to try and get some understanding, maybe during the initial company intro, of what it is the interviewers expect from someone from your background. 

On the contrary, I often had to talk down my abilities, when it sounded like the interviewers had an unrealistically positive expectation. I was always careful to say things like “If you’re looking for an AI or deep learning expert, I’m probably not the person for you.” — but just be sure, if you say something like that, to follow it up with what you ARE good at, like “However if you want someone with a good sense of logic, scientific method, and outside perspective while also having data analysis and visualization skills, and ability to challenge new techniques on a regular basis, I think I would be a good fit.” Otherwise it sounds like you’re trying to convince them not to hire you (which, actually, could be for the best if the position is a really bad fit!)


Tips & Reminders to foreign job hunters (Be careful of these situations…)

Let’s talk about your Job hunting experience…


In General how difficult was it to find a job with someone who has the same profile as you?(Foreigner, Japanese Level, Ph.D. holder)

Dr. Aaron Bell: “That’s a really hard question to answer… for people with an astronomy PhD I’d say it’s pretty hard. Easy to find a job if you are not too picky, but hard if you want to find something that lets you keep doing something akin to research. If I had a PhD in AI, for example, I’d probably have had less of a hurdle convincing companies that my degree was relevant.”

You have had very interesting internships before you landed your job, could you briefly talk about it, how you got it and its role in strengthening your career and your job hunting perspectives? 

Dr. Aaron Bell:

1.) NASA internship:

One of the most exciting 8 weeks of my life. I don’t think you can really compare it to a normal internship. I think they formally call it a “science accelerator program”. The idea is that NASA has some science goals, that are pretty far out there. Things that are really hard to hire full-time scientists for, and get long term funding to do. The Frontier Development Lab program was started to bring together experts in space science, with experts in AI, to find those places where outside perspective, and a real willingness to jump into seemingly impossible challenges at a face pace, might move science and technology forward. 

I found it pretty randomly, looking at articles about one of my side interests “Astrobiology”. Turns out, the NASA FDL 2018 program had started a challenge on Astrobiology. The application was simple, and I hadn’t decided on a job yet— or even settled in leaving academia, so I applied and honestly forgot about it until the interview invite came. They said the main thing that got me the interview was my curiosity about astrobiology. Like my first internship experience, I failed the first round! This was after two phone interviews. Soon before the program started though, someone apparently had to drop out and they called me in as a backup. I took the chance in a heartbeat. The absolute best part of the experience was the people. So many talented, fun individuals from all over the world— we lived and worked together closely for 8 hard weeks in Silicon Valley, with mentors from big tech companies and top tier research institutes. It also gave me something really important for my job search: A positive benchmark. A work environment I knew I enjoyed, that I could refer to during interviews to say “This is what I’M looking for. This is the kind of team I want to work with.” It also helped me understand my own strengths and weaknesses— those come out pretty quickly when you’re asked to “Investigate the universality of life” in only 8 weeks.


2.) Machine Learning Internship

This was my first experience with a Japanese venture tech company. The most important thing I learned is how much a work environment can change vs. it’s initial appearance. Working there for 6 months, the things I thought were important at first: freedom, fashionable office and very smart people started to fade. I realized what I really needed was feedback, guidance, and people with a good team work ability.


3.) Mitsubishi Research Institute

First experience working in a company at all, let alone a large traditional Japanese company. To be blunt, it was awful. That’s not to say “Stay away from MRI” rather, make sure you do your homework about who you’ll actually be working with. Inside MRI itself, I found a lot of really great people that I might have enjoyed working with. I also found that different departments can have a really different culture, like Energy vs. Human Life and Health, I worked in the energy department, under (what I learned later) a person who was notorious for verbally bullying interns and employees, but really good at hiding this from HR. A huge red flag was the interview itself: he asked me weird questions like “Have you ever had an IQ test?”, “What kind of person were you in high school?”, and things he said on the first day: He warned me not to talk to people from other teams unless absolutely necessary. Gave me a lecture on fashion and not putting my hands in my pockets while walking.

After the first day this quickly escalated to him whispering verbal insults in my ear while I worked at my desk, berating me for asking a clerical confirmation question with HR, “Stop wasting their time!”.

I quit the internship early. To his credit he apologized after the fact, and asked me to continue the program— but that may have been to keep him off HR’s radar. I heard later that I was the first person to ever quit an internship at MRI. The HR staff too, once they heard what happened, were very understanding and apologetic about the issue and encouraged me to give MRI another chance.

Also to be fair to MRI overall, I learned from friends who had worked there in other departments that my department was an outlier. And that my boss was an outlier within that outlier. The health and human life industries related department for example appeared to have a much more positive daily working environment.


“To some point it’s nice to challenge and try new things, but don’t let people abuse you. If you hate being there, then get out as soon as you can.”


What is your advice to people about internship? 

Dr. Aaron Bell: “They are one of the best ways of giving you material to use in interviews, to say the least. There’s simply no better alternative to questions like “What’s your preferred working environment?” or “What challenges have you faced and resolved in the workplace?” than having real, human stories, and benchmarks to recall. Keeping the cautionary notes mentioned above in mind, I’d say it’s generally good advice to be liberal about what internships you try. Try something. If you don’t like it, try something new. You won’t get that kind of license to sample working environments once you have a full-time job and the “resume gap paranoia” sets in.”

What’s a negative experience you have when it comes to job hunting? (Situations other candidates should be aware of and be cautious about)

Dr. Aaron Bell: “Predatory recruiters are out there. Even large recruiting companies can tend to use candidates ruthlessly. It’s true that getting candidates high salaries is in their interest, but not necessarily true that they want to get YOU in particular a high salary. They can for example introduce you to a company that doesn’t fit you, just so that they can get more information. Or they can use you to manipulate expectations of their client companies: like making another candidate look better by comparison. Beware especially of freelance recruiters…. people that hang around university campuses and randomly approach international students. I think it’s better to try a lot of interviews, but also follow your feeling— if you really don’t like a company, or just don’t think the position would fit you, say that clearly to the recruiter. If they keep insisting no matter what you say, you should probably use a different recruiter.”


How did your experience compare to Dr. Aaron Bell’s? 

Finishing undergrad, graduate and doctorate studies is just the beginning. The pressure and the overwhelming experience of job hunting sometimes gets the best of us. And it helps to hear and get inspired by other people’s experiences. The situations might not always be exactly the same, but it helps to be prepared and set some sort of expectations out of every experience. Internships are also very important. You get to discover what you want out of a company by immersing yourself into the actual working environment of a company. You discover your weaknesses, strengths and limits, but you also discover your potential and learn more about what type of company you want to work for not just industry wise but as well as selecting a preferred corporate culture.

We thank Dr. Aaron Bell for sharing detailed accounts of his career journey experience in Japan and what it took for him to get to where he is now.

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