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Advice / Career Paths / Exploring Careers

How I Went From Working in a Lab to Landing a Startup Engineering Job

Matt Novenstern, a fairly new member of The Muse’s engineering team, spent the majority of his professional years thus far working in labs—until now. He compares working in a lab to working in a startup, observing that both often have weakly-defined separations of responsibilities.

In each environment, things are constantly evolving. Clearly, Novenstern fits right in at this fast-paced workplace. I sat down with him recently to get more intel on his newly-minted engineering career (he holds a degree in physics) and to learn how far talking points will get you.

Tell Us About Yourself! Give Us Your Elevator Speech!

I’ve been a lot of things: page at a library, mailman at college, usher at a concert hall in NYC, physicist at a few places, engineer now.

What’s Your Job Title? What Does This Actually Mean in Terms of What You Do Each Day?

Full Stack Engineer. This basically means it’s reasonable for me to be asked to do anything for the website: fix a broken server, change colors and fonts, or add new pages to the site.

What Were You Doing Before You Landed This Job?

Freelancing! Personal projects! Practicing being very lazy!

What’s the Coolest Project You've Worked on So Far or One You're Really Excited About?

Probably generating entangled photons. Basically, this project had me working in a pitch-black basement lab with only laser light available to see things. I loved working on the experimental apparatus required for the research, and to me, the long hours and insane attention to detail brought me into a zen state.

What’s the Worst Job You’ve Ever Had?

Does being a grad student count? As a masters student in experimental physics, you’re expected to live in your lab. There’s no concept of work-life balance, and it made me miserable. Leaving halfway through the program and getting a job outside of academia, where I could transfer my skills and knowledge was the best decision for me.

If Money Was Not a Factor, What Would You Be Doing Career-Wise?

Building my own web apps and seeing if I can make something helpful.

Best Piece of Advice for Someone Who Wants a Job Like Yours or Who Is Stuck in a Difficult Job Hunt Right Now?

You can talk your way into just about anything if you’re persistent.

Before my foray in grad school, I convinced a lab professor at Columbia to let me into his research group, even though I only had a B.A. in physics, and it’s super rare for non-graduate students to be allowed into that circle. But, since I could explain the research I’d worked on and how I could be an asset, I was able to literally sell myself and talk my way into more than one lab job.

And I suppose that’s also how I made it here. I’m a self-taught engineer with a physics degree; you better believe I know how to market myself and prove I’ve got the necessary qualifications to do the job and do it well.