Gen Y Speaks: I 'settled' for a stable first job, but now I've found my dream career. It wasn't easy to switch – TODAY

Gen Y Speaks
As a kid, I have always been fascinated with artificial intelligence and computer science.
The author felt that the longer he stayed in my current career trajectory, the harder it would be to break out of it.
As a kid, I have always been fascinated with artificial intelligence and computer science.
I loved movies that featured futuristic technologies and sentient robots, and I would be glued to the screen and thinking of the possibilities in the next few weeks.
In school, I was also excellent at mathematics, even managed to achieve distinctions in several Olympiads. And as a secondary school student, I took up the basics of the Python programming language simply out of personal interest.
I’d always imagined it would be a dream come true if I got to wake up every day with a job in this field – a job that would see me improving our way of life profoundly using technology and artificial intelligence (AI).
Yet, it was my parents who suggested that I start my career as a public servant out of necessity.
As a kid in a low-income family, we had been through days when there was not enough food on the table, and we frequently went to bed hungry.
Being in public service meant that there was job security and a stable pay cheque every month.
So, I had my life planned out nicely, with all ducks laid out in neat rows: Graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering, work in a stable job, get married and settle down to start a family.
And that is exactly the path I walked: I got into Nanyang Technological University (NTU), was awarded the Nanyang Scholarship, and graduated with a degree in Mechanical and Electrical Engineering.
Then, I scored a job in the public service working as an engineer, walking the same steps that many of my peers in the same university course did.
I did so because I felt secure in the decision that the beaten path was the right one for me.
I felt honoured to be a public servant, and it certainly provided security of tenure that was hard to come by.
One year into the job, I began to feel there wasn’t much opportunity for a breakthrough in my career, even though I was comfortable being where I was.
Don’t get me wrong, being a public servant is great if the stability fits in your career plan, but I was hungry for more, and I was looking for an opportunity that could supercharge my career.
Being a risk taker was in my personality, and I wanted to step out of my comfort zone to try something that could excite me.
There was always a thought niggling at the back of my mind, something that I’d always wanted to do, and I realised I was just not ready to give up a longtime ambition and settle.
I felt that the longer I stayed in my current career trajectory, the harder it will be to break out of it.
Suddenly, I could envision all the future possibilities in front of me — only I had to take the first step.
The looming question on my mind was how and where do I start? One of my biggest fears was whether I even had what it took to work in tech and make it into a viable career.
I was now out of my comfort zone. Was I really up to speed? Could I survive as a late bloomer in a different industry?
By chance, I heard about the Alibaba Talent Programme during my undergraduate studies, a PhD programme by Alibaba and NTU catered to individuals looking to pursue further studies in areas such as AI, machine learning, and cloud computing.
I also personally knew one of the NTU professors in the programme and consulted him countless times. His advice strengthened my resolve to take the plunge to apply for it: “You won’t have much to lose, and there is a tremendous upside, so why don’t you just try?”
I still remember the moment I received the confirmation of acceptance into the programme – it was like my future had brightened and I felt the opportunities out there for me were immense and limitless.
So, I tendered my resignation. I felt lighter immediately, and I knew that I was meant to do this.
When I started the programme in 2019, I had to read hundreds of technical papers to get a good foundation of computer science research.
I was completely lost and my engineering background and working experience did not help.
It wasn’t hard to see how far behind some of my peers I was because I hadn’t had formal training in programming and computer hardware systems. I had expected this, but experiencing this gulf in knowledge in person was a whole other matter.
The first few months were an uphill struggle and my initial confidence wavered. Placed among a group of intelligent peers and professors every single day, I couldn’t help but feel a little inferior,  and I constantly questioned myself and my abilities.
Having initiative and being unafraid to ask questions is critical. In a PhD programme setting, I had access to many great minds at such close quarters, but it was up to me to muster up the courage to approach them for help.
I had to work hard to bridge the gaps. I soon found that I wasn’t alone because I had others to aid me while I was knee-deep in interdisciplinary research fields, technical and scientific writing on a daily basis, while mastering domains like analytics, data mining, natural language processing, and machine learning.
It took me one and half years to settle on my research focus, but I enjoyed every single opportunity to improve and learn. I told myself every new obstacle I crossed was one step closer to reaching my dream.
Making the decision of giving up a stable job was daunting enough. Sticking with the decision was an even tougher journey.
I would be lying if I said I was never tempted to drop out.
But I can, with confidence, say I stayed because of the great personal and professional relationships I built with the professors and mentors.
They have been invaluable in shaping my perspectives and growth as a researcher and a person.
Now four years later, I have not only completed my doctoral research, but have also settled down with a family, and will be welcoming a newborn in October.
People usually think that life-changing moments come dramatically and all at once. Looking back, all my experiences were actually the culmination of daring to dream, believing in myself, and having the grit to push on.
Taking a leap of faith can be intimidating and scary, but I believe that anyone who is determined and open-minded can do the same.
 
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Zhang Jiehuang, 32, is a recent graduate from the Alibaba-NTU Talent Programme, a PhD programme supporting undergraduate and master’s graduates keen to further their studies
 
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