Gen Y Speaks: I “settled” for a stable first job, but now I’ve found my dream career. It wasn’t easy to change
As a child, I was always fascinated by artificial intelligence and computer science.
I loved movies that featured futuristic technology and sentient robots, and I’d be glued to the screen and thinking about the possibilities for the next few weeks.
At school, I was also excellent in mathematics, I even managed to obtain distinctions in several Olympiads. And as a high school student, I learned the basics of the Python programming language simply out of personal interest.
I had always imagined that it would be a dream come true if I woke up every day with a job in this field – a job that would allow me to profoundly improve our way of life using technology and artificial intelligence (AI) .
However, it was my parents who suggested that I start my career as a civil servant out of necessity.
As a child from a low income family, we had gone through days when there was not enough food on the table and we often went to bed hungry.
Being in the civil service meant there was job security and a steady salary each month.
So, I had my life planned out well, with all the ducks laid out in neat rows: getting a mechanical engineering degree, working a steady job, getting married, and settling down to start a family.
And that is exactly the path I have taken: I entered Nanyang Technological University (NTU), received the Nanyang Scholarship, and graduated with a degree in Mechanical and Electrical Engineering.
Then I landed a job in the civil service as an engineer, following the same steps as many of my peers in the same university course.
I did it because I felt secure in deciding that the beaten path was the right one for me.
I felt honored to be a public servant, and it certainly gave me hard-to-get job security.
NOT READY TO INSTALL
A year into my job, I started to feel that there weren’t many opportunities for a breakthrough in my career, even though I was comfortable being where I was. was.
Don’t get me wrong, being a public servant is great if stability is part of your career plan, but I was craving more and looking for an opportunity that could boost my career.
Taking risks was in my personality and I wanted to get out of my comfort zone to try something that might excite me.
There was still a thought in the back of my mind, something I had always wanted to do, and I realized that I just wasn’t ready to let go of a long-held ambition and settle down.
I felt that the longer I stayed in my current career trajectory, the harder it would be to get out of it.
Suddenly I could imagine all the future possibilities in front of me – only I had to take the first step.
The looming question in my mind was how and where to start? One of my biggest fears was whether I even had what it took to work in tech as a viable career.
I was now out of my comfort zone. Did I really know? Could I survive as a late bloomer in a different industry?
By chance, I heard about the Alibaba Talent program during my undergraduate studies, an Alibaba and NTU doctoral program for people wishing to pursue studies in fields such as AI, machine learning and cloud computing.
I also personally knew one of the NTU professors in the program and consulted him countless times. His advice strengthened my resolve to take the plunge and apply, “You won’t have much to lose, and there’s a huge upside, so why not just give it a try?”
I still remember the moment I received confirmation of my acceptance into the program – it felt like my future had brightened up and I felt the opportunities before me were immense and limitless.
So I tendered my resignation. I felt lighter immediately, and I knew I was made for this.
RE-LEARN THE ROPES
When I started the program in 2019, I had to read hundreds of technical articles to get a good foundation in computer science research.
I was completely lost and my engineering background and work experience didn’t help.
It wasn’t hard to see how far behind some of my peers I was because I had no formal training in programming and computer systems. I expected that, but experiencing this knowledge abyss in person was a whole different matter.
The first few months were a tough struggle and my initial confidence wavered. Placed in the midst of a group of smart peers and teachers every day, I couldn’t help but feel a bit inferior and constantly questioned myself and my abilities.
Having initiative and not being afraid to ask questions is essential. As part of a PhD program, I had access to many great minds so close, but it was up to me to find the courage to approach them for help.
I had to work hard to fill in the gaps. I soon discovered that I was not alone as I had others to help me as I was immersed in interdisciplinary research fields, technical and scientific writing on a daily basis, while mastering fields such as analytics, data mining, natural language processing and machine learning.
It took me a year and a half to define my research goal, but I appreciated every opportunity to improve and learn. I told myself that each new obstacle I crossed was one step closer to realizing my dream.
Making the decision to give up a stable job was quite daunting. Sticking with the decision has been an even more difficult journey.
I would be lying if I said that I was never tempted to give up.
But I can say with confidence that I stayed because of the great personal and professional relationships I established with the teachers and mentors.
They have been invaluable in shaping my outlook and growth as a researcher and as a person.
Four years later, I have not only completed my doctoral research, but have also settled into a family and will be welcoming a newborn in October.
People generally think that life-changing moments happen dramatically and all at once. Looking back, all of my experiences were actually the culmination of daring to dream, believing in myself, and having the courage to keep going.
Taking a leap of faith can be daunting and scary, but I believe anyone who is determined and open-minded can do the same.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Zhang Jiehuang, 32, is a recent graduate of the Alibaba-NTU Talent Program, a doctoral program that supports undergraduate and master’s graduates looking to further their education.