Transitioning from Academia to Industry: the Journey of Hong Dang, Architect @ ASML

With many research universities ranking high in the global chart, the Netherlands is known to be a great country for pursuing a PhD. However, after a PhD, what are the job options in the Netherlands? Does a PhD mean you can only go for academic path, or are there also opportunities outside universities? This time, we had a chance to talk with Hong Dang (PhD), an architect working for ASML Headquarters in the Netherlands. Not only did she give insightful observations transitioning from academia to industry in a STEM field after finishing her doctorate, but she also shared with us all the interesting projects and initiatives in social works that she has been taking part in.

Can you introduce shortly about yourself?

I’m Hong and I’m currently working as an architect in ASML. I obtained my bachelor’s degree in Materials Science at Vietnam National University. After graduation, I continued with my Master’s degree and in parallel was a lecturer at the university. In 2006, I moved to the Netherlands for a PhD in Nuclear Physics at the University of Groningen. After finishing my PhD, I worked for ASML and have stayed with the company for 7 years.

You were a university lecturer in Vietnam, went for a PhD in the Netherlands. After that, you started working for ASML until now. What made you decide to move from Vietnam to the Netherlands, and then from academia to industry?

I moved from Vietnam to the Netherlands because of a very simple reason: my husband was already doing a PhD in the Netherlands at that time. After my PhD, I decided to leave for industry, firstly because I had been staying in academia for almost all my life by then. I was eager to challenge myself in an unfamiliar environment. I wanted to work in places where things are changing more constantly and moving more rapidly, where you can see the results of your work and efforts faster. Even though I was not too young then, I was not too old either to change career direction and try something new. Hence, I decided to look for a job outside the university.

At first, as during my PhD, I did several works related to biophysics, I was eyeing a position in the hospital, where I apply can my knowledge. However, to apply to such positions, your Dutch needs to be almost as good as a native speaker. That got me thinking and struggling for quite a long time between the two options: either to delay my progress, learn Dutch and get a job at the hospital that I really wanted; or try to find other opportunities in a different industry. At last, I went for the second option, took on the position at ASML, and I have been very happy ever since.

This for me was a learning lesson: you need to be flexible in your life. There are many ways to reach an overarching goal; and sometimes, you might need to change your destination. As long as the things you do make you happy, align with your values, and bring positive changes to society.

Going from academia to industry, did you notice any major differences between the two environments?

I think the biggest difference is that working in companies, you need to be more agile and flexible. In a corporate world, you need to make decisions a lot faster; sometimes there is not a lot of time to dwell on books and research to find answers. Therefore, you need to find the balance; sometimes a decision might not be the most optimized; but good enough to generate value in time for the team or the company.

Besides, working in industry means you must be a lot more active. When I was still doing my PhD, even when I did not raise my voice, I still received support from my colleagues and my advisors with my research. However, once started to work in industry, I have to swim on my own a lot more. If there is something I need in order to do my job well, I must actively seek out and look for help from my colleagues or managers. You cannot stay in one place and hope that others will notice and come help you if there is a problem. Especially as ASML is growing very fast and innovating constantly, in order to keep up with the pace, you need to keep yourself always on the go as well.

How was it at the beginning to be a woman in STEM, and has it changed as you progressed in your career?

Ever since my bachelor’s study, there have always been more male than female in the field. Being the only woman in the group or in the meeting is no longer a strange thing to me. However, I am very fortunate to always be in a supportive environment, from universities to my current company. People respect my opinions and recognize my work regardless of my gender. In such environments, when you are confident with your knowledge and attitude, gender is not a problem at all. I think it’s a very important factor that helps me grow in my career and be where I am today.

Apart from your impressive achievements in academia and industry, we know you also engage in several community activities. Could you tell us about them?

At ASML, I’m the coordinator of the Vietnamese group. The group’s purpose is to connect all the Vietnamese people working in the Netherlands. Before the pandemic, sometimes we would catch up offline in the campus; but it is harder now with all of us working from home. Hence, I created the group online so we can occasionally e-meet and support each other if needed, either at work or in life. There, we also help people who want to move to a different position in the company, or outsiders who want to apply for ASML. Even though ASML is very large, the number of Vietnamese working here is still rather small. I hope with the group, we could introduce the company to a broader community of Vietnamese.

At the same time, I’m also engaging in some other volunteering works. This always has been something I wanted to do, but before I couldn’t find time to make it work. Working from home has given me time to live more slowly, and this topic came back to my mind. I knew it had to start somewhere, and it didn’t have to be big action.

In ASML, there is a program that financially supports volunteering projects in countries where ASML has an office. However, my company does not have one in Vietnam. Still, I wanted to try to make a proposal and ask for funding for the Vietnamese programs, because I know there are still lots of lives that need support in our country. Fortunately, ASML approved my proposal for Teach for Vietnam with funding from 2021 to 2024. This is a non-profit organization that aims to provide a more equal and sustainable education system for all children of all backgrounds in Vietnam.

After that, I got really interested and passionate about social works. I notice that there are quite a lot of volunteering initiatives in Vietnam, but they are not organized professionally, including some of my friends’ projects. I also want to help in fundraising; but for such small, informal projects, it’s quite hard to ask for support from companies and organizations. What I have been doing instead is to raise awareness of these initiatives to the local people I know here in the Netherlands, and ask for support individually. However, in the near future, I want to support these small initiatives to become more professional and formal, so they can reach out to more potential donators.

As you were working in academia in both Vietnam and the Netherlands, what do you think about Vietnamese students compared to Dutch students? What strengths or weaknesses do they have, and what they can do to improve their opportunities in the global job market?

In my opinion, Vietnamese students are very smart and hard-working, which gives them a big strength in the global market. However, one disadvantage is that they don’t really have a clear career outlook. When choosing a field of study, they don’t really think much about what they like, what their passion is, or what they are good at, which sometimes results in them struggling to find a direction later on.

Furthermore, Vietnamese students are in generally less confident compared to students in Europe. I think this stems from our education system and culture. We are afraid of giving the wrong answers or raising an opinion that’s different from others. This makes us harder to integrate into the Dutch working environment, when we are not confident enough to raise our voice and contribute in meetings. This limited participation from when we are young also leads to our communications and presentations style less effective than the foreign students in general.

To succeed in finding a job abroad, I suggest students first focusing on studying while still at school. A good academic background will open a lot of opportunities for you to find a job in the Netherlands. Secondly, be active while at school and while searching for a job. You should always look for opportunities to broaden your network and gain more experiences, even if at first these networks or experiences do not seem relevant. Viet Make It is an example which I really like and would suggest them taking part in, either to join as a volunteer or to join the events or programs you have.

What advice would you give to someone who is starting their career in STEM?

I would remind them that the first job does not need to be the most perfect job. When entering the market right after your graduation, do not focus too much on salary or the fact that it’s not yet something you are truly passionate about. Once started working, you will get better at work, harness your technical and soft skills and gain more experience; and in turn, you will start liking your job more. This later can make it easier for you to find another job that suits you better or can offer you more compensation. Moreover, try to be open-minded and connect as much as you can with your colleagues. You will see that there are a lot of people smarter than you, from whom you can learn and improve yourself. This will make work a lot more fun.

If you want to connect with Hong or want to know more about her community projects, reach out to her via Linkedin.

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