From HQP to industry

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Rui Zhang


When Rui Zhang began his oceanography graduate study at Dalhousie University in 2014, he anticipated the traditional academic career path unfolding before him. With a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Ocean University of China in Qingdao, the natural next steps of a PhD, postdocs and eventual academic appointment seemed clear.

Four years later, Zhang is working full-time in industry and loving the new challenge.

Zhang is a physical oceanographer working for RBR in Ottawa, Ontario. The company specializes in designing and manufacturing oceanographic instruments that track water parameters such as temperature, depth, salinity, dissolved gases, pH and many others.

Zhang joined the team in September 2017, where he works as the primary developer and maintainer of RSKtools, a tool box for visualizing and post-processing RBR logger data which he describes as helping to “cook” the raw data into a meal. The role, which also incorporates research and customer service, enables Zhang to keep a close connection with the academic side of oceanography.

Working in industry may be a departure from university life, but it’s a challenge Zhang relishes.

“I enjoy the feeling of solving a problem for a customer, and getting something tangible done. When I was in graduate school, I felt excited about exploring the unknown, but I was not always exactly sure what I was accomplishing. By contrast, Industry has a fast pace, with measurable goals and processes very well tracked by management.”

During his graduate work at Dalhousie, Zhang was part of MEOPAR’s Biogeochemical Projections under a Changing Climate project led by Dr. Katja Fennel; as highly-qualified personnel (HQP), he was eligible to participate in MEOPAR’s value-added training program and attend two Annual Training Meetings in 2014 and 2017. It was at the second of these meetings in Montreal where he reconnected with employees from RBR, where, coincidentally, he had an interview lined up for the following week. Networking with representatives from his future employer gave Zhang more confidence as he headed into the interview process, and helped him build connections in advance of starting the job in Ottawa.

Zhang also spoke highly of the “soft skills” workshops and employer tours that are key elements of the training program. “The workshops provide an opportunity for discussions that inspire you to think of alternatives, and to know that there are more options open to you than academia,” Zhang said, citing Jennifer Polk’s 2017 workshop on “PhD to Life” as one that stood out from the 2017 ATM. The employer tours, he said, can help to build professional network and understand better what skills and values the employers are looking for.

Zhang’s wife Qi Wang is a fellow MEOPAR HQP, who successfully defended her master’s thesis earlier this month. She will be joining Zhang in Ottawa soon, and looking for work herself. Wang recently was a finalist in Dalhousie’s Three Minute Thesis competition for her thesis entitled “Calm Down the Ocean Engine: Surface Wave Effects on the Upper Ocean Response to Storms.”

As Zhang settles into his role, he plans to make the most of the opportunity: “My plan right now is to keep growing and learning—not to focus only on oceanography, but to also learn about engineering and technical sales related skills, so I can gain a higher-level view of the organization’s work. I appreciate that RBR provides such a fantastic opportunity at the early stage of my career.” His background in China and academic work gives him a solid footing to assist with RBR’s customer base, which includes academics and customers all over the globe.

His advice to HQP looking at where their careers can go was simple: “Don’t be afraid of change. Life can be very different as long as you reach out and take advantage of opportunities.”