Custom CSS

Leaving academia and moving countries

Photo of the author who wrote this blog post
Oliver Back
8 min read

We’ve talked about leaving academia a lot recently. Matt, Phil, and Oliver have shared their stories of leaving, citing a variety of reasons.

Rodrigo is in a similar position, having completed his PhD and going on to work for a start-up rather than pursuing the academic grind. But what makes Rodrigo different is that his journey out of academia also included a trip across the globe.

Originally from Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil, Rodrigo completed his Undergraduate and Masters’ degrees in Physics at Universidade Federale de Minas Gerais (UFMG), with an interest in quantum state discrimination. Following his first degrees, he pursued a PhD in quantum computing, where he researched quantum walks.

Outside of his education, Rodrigo is an avid gym-goer, with a passion for food.

Rodrigo now works as an algorithm developer for Oxford Quantum Circuits, where he spends most of his time benchmarking the performance of quantum algorithms, discovering ways to mitigate errors, and consulting on related projects.

How did you end up moving from Brazil to the UK, and do you like it here?

I didn't want to leave Brazil. When I was looking for a job, I tried to find employers in Brazil, but since quantum computing is such a new area, we don't have many start-ups or job opportunities working in this field. 
So, I looked all over the world, and I was really afraid of landing in some places, especially places where I would need to learn a new language to integrate. I also didn't want to go to the US, so I was quite happy when I ended up here in the UK. The company I’m working for has a very good environment, everyone is super friendly. I’m also quite familiar with the UK because I studied in Manchester ten years ago. I did something similar to an Erasmus program, but a Brazilian one, and studied physics for a year at the University of Manchester.
I like the UK actually. And in Reading in particular, the British people that I’ve met and got to know are super nice. But there’s also a large international community in Reading which has created an environment where you can always make new friends because everyone is in the same boat. So I found it easy to integrate with people and I don't have the language barrier, which helps. I do have an accent, but it's understandable, so there’s no issue when I meet new people.

Did the move feel more like a challenge or more like an opportunity for you? Do you think this will set you up to go back to Brazil and start your own quantum computing company, or whatever comes next in in life? 

It felt like an opportunity. I approached it as a new step in my life. It was very different from the last time I was here. This time, it didn’t feel like an intermediary step.
I decided when I got here, that I shouldn't try to find Brazil in the UK. I know that it's quite different, but I needed to accept that the difference also brings positives. The other benefit of moving to the UK is that it has given me some financial stability. I don't come from a rich family in Brazil and part of the reason for leaving academia after finishing my PhD was about money as well, because I spent my whole life counting coins and this job gave me the opportunity to be here, have a life, and also help my parents back home if I need to.
I don't have any plans to return to Brazil right now. I mean never say never, right? But at the moment, I don't have any plans. 
Career-wise having my own company at the moment is a nice thought, but my main retirement goal is to open a restaurant. I'm planning for that as well and doing some culinary courses in London to prepare myself for my retirement plan.
Having been in academia my whole life, I’m just learning how a company works, it's a learning curve, but I am supported here. 

What made you do a PhD in the first place? And what happened to make you move into industry? Were you originally thinking about an academic career and something changed, or did you use the PhD as a way to get expertise, life experience, and a qualification that would put you a step ahead of other people in your cohort?

I had always wanted to work in research. When I was a little boy, I always said I was going to be a scientist one day, and also, I just enjoy learning new things. From the moment that I had to choose my bachelor's, it was clear to me that I was going to be in academia and I was going to do a PhD. I didn't go for physics at first: it was a choice between physics and philosophy, but I tossed that coin and landed on physics. So I always knew that I wanted to try academia, but during my PhD, I had this kind of identity crisis. I felt that it was a big part of my identity, and that it wasn't working for me anymore. I wanted to have a job, and not be my job. I think that academia has this kind of ethos that you are your job, right? There’s a lot of ego attached to describing yourself as an academic, but that wasn’t sufficient for me anymore, I just wanted a change. The academic career is also tough. After I finished my PhD, I would need to do a postdoc and I would be jumping from city to city every two years until I was lucky enough to get a tenured position at a university, and I didn't want this kind of insecurity anymore, I wanted something more stable. I chose to go to a company where I could lay down some roots, stay for at least a few years, and build a life. I knew that if I wanted to I could change, but at least I would have some control over if and more financial stability. 
We try to downplay it a bit, but passion can only take you so far, I also want my needs to be fulfilled. And unfortunately, we live in a capitalist world and things cost money. You know, it was those things that made me leave academia.

What was your biggest battle with imposter syndrome? And how do you feel that you've overcome it?

Overcome it is a strong word! Sometimes it crawls back in again. I had a lot during my PhD, especially because, as I said, I did my master's in physics, and then suddenly I was in a computer science department, and my supervisor was a math grad. It also felt as though every other student was a genius. And I was like, oh my God, who am I in this group? What am I doing here? So during my PhD, I battled with imposter syndrome a lot, but I was self-aware enough to know that it was happening.
My escape mechanism was playing Dota 2. And sometimes this became a big addiction in my life, which was a distraction from stress and the feelings of insecurity. But then I think imposter syndrome was always in my life in a way, because I’d never really celebrated my achievements. I felt like: “Oh, I finished my master's. Okay, that's just a check, right? I started it, so I had to finish it”. But after I got my current position here in Reading, I started to realise that it was effort as well as some luck that had got me here. I'm starting to accept that I have some kind of value in a way. And what I’ve achieved so far is the result of my effort. Sometimes I still sabotage myself, but I am working on it. I’m doing lots of self-learning, and therapy. 

Do you ever feel homesick, or are you used to living so far away from family at this point?

It comes and goes. I'm always in touch with my family. I call them weekly, so we always catch up. But sometimes you wake up, you see a picture of your dog, and you think: “oh, my God, I miss them”. But at other times, something happens and you say” “oh, this place is amazing!”. I'm having a good life. I'm happy. So it's always a battle. But I think even if I was there, I would have other battles to face. I think that's just part of life, and I’ve kind of accepted it. What I'm trying to do right now is to make my parents visit me, but it's so hard to get them out of their house because it's like they live in a cave. They go out for nothing. They like watching TV. My mom knits and that's it. It’s hard to convince them to leave Brazil! It's like this, this constant battle in a way, sometimes you wake up, you miss them, then other times it's fine. Life goes on.

What's the strangest thing you found about living in the UK, and what do you think Brits take for granted that someone visiting the country might notice? It could be anything - driving on the wrong side of the road  beans on toast - anything.

Oh, man, the beans are awful. Driving on the wrong side is weird as well. I went to Japan last month, and I was not sure which was the right side anymore. I was like, oh, my God, which way should I look? Can I cross here? I was really confused. And I didn't adapt well when I returned to the right side to drive. 
But what is good about it? I feel something that’s great about London, which is also true about the UK, is that you have a lot of immigrants, and that's great. You can find anything in the world in London, which is kind of surprising. It's amazing. One day I woke up and I said, ‘man, I really want to try Georgian food’. So I just googled, Georgian restaurant in London and I was able to find five different restaurants. I would never be able to do that in Brazil. So I feel like this kind of influx of immigrants creates a very interesting environment.
But one thing that is weird in that way, because it is quite different from Brazil, is that I feel that although you have very different cultural backgrounds, they are a little bit segregated. I feel that it's like a melting pot in Brazil, you take a different culture and you make a Brazilian version of it. Then suddenly this piece of culture is part of Brazil. We had a discussion of what it means to be Brazilian, and we came to the conclusion that we are cultural cannibals, we just take stuff from other people and create something new out of it.

Tell me about something you're proud of

Oh, something I'm proud of. I think I'm proud of my life.
I think I got to a place that is unique, because I enjoy the work I do, and it’s the result of everything that I’ve achieved. In my ten years of studies, even if I made a lot of mistakes, as you do in life, I still got into a nice position. Which is rare, and I'm proud of that.