Stefanie Elgeti: My advice to PhD students is to have fun: If something works, then go home and enjoy it.
Text: Marieke Kootte
Stefanie Elgeti is professor of Lightweight Design at TU Wien. She studied Mechanical Engineering, but always had an interest in Mathematics, so she decided to do her PhD in a new group focusing on Computational Analysis of Technical Systems. Stefanie got inspired by her PhD supervisor to see her students as a persons and to turn them into honest and reliable researchers that perform high quality research. She is a very positive person that creates from every situation an opportunity. Her main advice for PhD students is to make sure to have fun and don’t take advice too personal.
I was one of the few students that always thought there is not enough mathematics in our study program.
Welcome Stefanie. I saw you have a professorship at both RWTH Aachen and TU Wien (Vienna). Can you take me on your career path and elaborate on how you started with Mechanical Engineering, decided to focus more on Computational Analysis, and eventually coming back to Mechanical Engineering?
I studied Mechanical Engineering in Aachen and during my study program, I was one of the few students that always thought there is not enough mathematics in the program. During my Diploma Thesis, I focused on Production Engineering and here I discovered Finite Elements. I really liked this combination. It combined what I learned during my program and what I liked about Mathematics.
Coincidentally, at the same time and place where I was doing my Diploma Thesis, they were setting up this new chair on Computational Analysis of Technical Systems. This seemed like a perfect fit, so I then decided to apply there and that is where I did my PhD.
I had very little experience with Numerical Mathematics, so it was tough to get started on my PhD, but I liked it immediately. I had an amazing boss and we worked really well together. After completing my PhD, I stayed here and became Senior Engineer, then Adjunct Professor and Vice Head of the Institute. I had a group that focused on modelling, simulation, and optimization in Production Engineering. So that brought me back to the beginning.
In 2019, I was appointed Full Professor at Technical University of Vienna in Lightweight Design. Here, we work on the numerical design of components and related production processes. I still have some PhD students in Aachen, so that’s why I still have a contract there, but at some point that will end.
I think it is super important to choose your PhD supervisor well. I got very lucky with mine, he was an amazing boss.
You immediately say that you had an amazing boss during your PhD. What was so special about him?
The job interview that I had with him was already great. I went there, having a one-and-a-half year-old daughter and being pregnant of the second. The interview went really well and we certainly liked each other, but I thought that this might be a problem for him. But he actually congratulated me on it and asked me where the problem was. That was a good start.
He’s also one of the supervisors that is extremely good at sharing. He shares his network with you and he lets people develop as researchers by giving them responsibilities. He focusses on the person and is not concentrated on his own well-being. I try to be like that too. I think it is very important to see your employees, your students, as a person. Help them develop and do not exploit them, but try to be understanding for the constraints in their private and professional lives.
I think it is super important to choose your PhD supervisor well. I didn’t really pay attention to it, but I just got very lucky. But I would recommend new PhD students asking former students about their experiences. Check how long it took them to finish a PhD, where they ended up after, whether they have won any prizes, etc. There is a lot of support that helps indicating it.
I really like developing new ideas, to have visions and to see these visions come into reality.
I reckon that it was a big step to stay in Academia while you were also responsible for raising a young family. The temporary contracts might not give you the security you want at that moment. What made you decide to apply for the position?
I applied for the PhD position, because I wanted to do something very creative. I wanted to develop something and discover something new. It still is the main driver why I stayed in research. I really like developing new ideas, to have visions and to see these visions come into reality.
I also enjoy researchers, we are in a nice group of people where it is just a lot of fun. I think that is my main message to anybody: if your PhD is not fun, then there is something wrong. Related to that, I would like to give the following advice: “When something works, go home and enjoy it”. If you win a prize, or when your proposal gets funded, don’t just run on, but take a moment to enjoy.
About the temporary contracts, I was extremely lucky because I got a permanent contract one year after I became a Senior Engineer, so very early. I am very grateful for that and don’t know if I would have stayed in Academia if this had not been the case.
A PhD is always frustrating, so it is advisable to do something besides it. My children were my distraction.
Was it difficult to combine your PhD with having two young children. I think it is really unique, a PhD is a full-time job with a lot of stress already. How was your experience?
One problem that many people have with a PhD is the time management. They are interested in a lot of things and it is easy to get distracted. If you have two kids, you cannot afford to get distracted. So it was actually a benefit, it really helps you to focus. Furthermore, I had an amazing work environment and my family helped me a lot.
But I think if you really want it, you have to give up other things, like hobbies. But for any PhD student, it is advisable to do something besides the PhD. Because a PhD is always frustrating in my experience. If you have nothing else than the PhD, the doubt will bring you down. The two kids were my distraction.
I have students that are impressive: They can write code and it compiles immediately!
How do you like supervising students. Do you learn from them as well?
I learn a lot from them! I try to select students that have talents that are complementary to mine. I, for example, have students that are excellent programmers. They can write code and it compiles immediately. It’s very impressive.
Furthermore, it’s important that you are a good collaborator. I like this saying: “If you want to move fast, walk alone. If you want to go far, walk together. I think that it is very true and it is how I interpret research. So, I try to work together with my students and it is one of the things I enjoy the most. To brainstorm with others, to develop ideas, and to develop solutions to these ideas.
I know that it can be hard to collaborate with people and then, later on, compete with them for funds, prizes, or positions. But I try to ignore this. I’m going all-in and they can know everything about me. I cannot say that I have had any disadvantages because of that. I always tell my students: “There are enough research questions for everybody”.
In the beginning you were saying you like to develop new ideas, have visions and see these visions turn into reality. What is your vision for the field you are in now?
I think the idea of Autonomous Systems is going to be very important. When I started in production, the idea of optimization was not so common. We were used to build something and iterate it on the machine until it works.
At the time, people had only recently discovered they can also iterate in simulation programs. Now the idea of numerical optimization is super common and I think we are moving further in this direction. As a person, you then don’t have to choose your parameters anymore, but there is an autonomous system that somehow chooses the optimization space and then finds an optimum in there.
I think that is super exciting and also a bit scary. Because you don’t know where the system is going to. This is why it is important for the researcher to make the processes transparent to the users. I think this is all very interesting and it is super exciting to be in such an interdisciplinary field.
Stefanie will speak on our Numerical Analysis Seminar, April 16.