What is your typical workday like?
Normally, half of my day is booked with meetings – strategical meetings with the management, other internal meetings, meetings regarding specific case handlings in our ongoing projects, or meetings with clients. I also spend a lot of time on professional back-and-forth with the engineers in my area of business about smaller ad hoc tasks and larger tasks regarding the solutions we are working on for our clients. The last hour or two of a typical workday, I check my emails and ty up loose ends. Furthermore, being part of a manufacturing company means that if there is a challenge with the production facilities that will get our full attention. This gives a dynamic workday.
What has your career path looked like up until now?
My career started in the laboratory at AAU, where I worked with some very specialized investigations. From there on, things have really taken an opposite direction and now I basically work as a generalist.
When I started at Mekoprint, I functioned as our responsible for an innovation project in cooperation with both other universities and other companies. My work included a mix of detailed, specialized product innovation on one side and a highly commercial focus on the other side, because it was run by a commercial company. Simultaneously, I was also handling regular client projects, which have started to be a bigger and bigger part of my daily work.
A little more than two years ago I left the innovation project in order to work solely with the commercial part of Mekoprint. A year ago I became the business manager of the business area called Flexible Foils. I am still going into details with projects now and then, but most of the time I am focusing on management and strategy and functioning as a partner for discussion with our other engineers.
How close is your current career to the ideas and dreams you had as a PhD fellow at AAU?
I made a very deliberate choice of becoming part of the very specialized world that a PhD really is, because I found it very motivating and interesting at the time and there was an opening to be part of a very interesting project. I knew all along that it wasn’t a career at the university that I wanted to pursue, so it would be a timing question for me when I would seek a position in the industry and test my PhD competences in a different context. In a way I think that what I do today has a somewhat more commercial focus than I had expected during my PhD studies, but besides that my position is very close to what I had in mind.
How have you made use of your PhD education, and which of your PhD competences have been most important to you?
It is a difficult question to answer, but I absolutely feel that I use the specific academic competences, which I acquired during my PhD, for instance in relation to categorization methods, knowledge on technic and materials and so forth. At Mekoprint we have clients who are companies with a large degree of specialization and it is very useful for me to be able to “speak their language”. I also think that the way I have learned to present complex data during a PhD gives me an extra advantage. But if I should highlight what PhD-competence I use the most, I must say that it is the analytical approach to suggest well-founded solutions to a problem. I think I use this both in relation to deciding specific design issues related to client projects, as well as making estimations in relations to new business opportunities.
What do you remember most from your PhD studies?
I was part of a large EU-financed PhD project with several universities as well as some companies involved. One of the things I remember best from my time as a PhD fellow is probably the meetings where we all got together and all the groups presented their work. It was highly motivating to get feedback from an international crowd after spending hundreds of hours working in the lab.
What is your best memory from AAU?
For me some of the really good memories are the trips I had with my PhD project that I mentioned before. Apart from that, I would say that writing my thesis was also kind of a high point. I wrote it together with a really good fellow student. We had both returned from our respective studies abroad and found a really interesting topic and had a good corporation with our thesis supervisor. When we finalized the thesis it felt like the past years of studying at AAU kind of fell into place.
Is there a teacher/colleague from AAU you remember especially, and why?
I have met many interesting persons and learned a lot from both professors and fellow students. But if I should point out one who – especially career wise – has had a great impact, then there is no doubt that it is Sergey Bozhevolnyi who was my supervisor both during my master’s thesis and my PhD project. He is a very motivating person and very, very talented on the academic level where he especially has this ability to go extremely fast into difficult topics. At the same time, he is very good at operating at a more general level which became clear when he led the EU-project that my PhD was a part of. So I also feel like he taught me a lot in relation to the management responsibilities, which I use on a daily basis in my job at Mekoprint.
Why did you decide to do a PhD, and would you have chosen differently if you were to do it today?
I am very glad to have had the opportunity to perfect my skills and go into detail with a specific topic for three more years. That possibility to really immerse myself and being part of moving a specific research area forward has been quite important to me. I could probably have had the position that I have today without obtaining a PhD degree, but I still think that it contributes to my working day: It simply gives me a better foundation and credibility in both my relation to our clients and in my relation to the engineers in my team.
What advice would you give to current PhD fellows at AAU that want a career outside academia?
I think that what helped me in getting a smooth transition from PhD life to the industry was that already during my PhD I was in contact with many different companies. So, a piece of advice from me would probably be to grow a relevant network during the PhD, so you become more conscious about how to manage yourself among commercial and/or other external partners. Especially, if there is not already companies or other external partners involved in your PhD project in one way or another.
What are your dreams for the future?
Our team is growing, so I am looking forward to continuing to develop this part of the business – also in relation to management. In the longer run I hope to be able to take another step up in the hierarchy of the company. I think I have really landed in the right position, and I don’t think I will go back to the very specialized area. Instead I think I will emphasize the more general level within management and strategy. But at the same time I also wish to continue to be in a position where I can have at least some professional back-and-forth with the engineers on the technical matters, because that’s also part of what I find really interesting and motivating.
About Tobias Holmgaard Stær
Place of birth: Hammel, Denmark
Current employment: Business Manager, Mekoprint
MA programme and university: Master of Science in Engineering, Applied Physics, Aalborg University
Department at AAU: Physics and Nanotechnology
Year of graduation: 2006/2009 (PhD)
Title of PhD dissertation: Dielectric-loaded guiding of surface plasmon polaritons
This portrait is made on the basis of an interview, and it is made in collaboration with Science for Society, an interreg project which focuses on PhD careers outside of academia.