The Job Search: Dr. Summer Xia Hu
The Job Search is a series for international graduate students.
Spring is a great time to visit Wuhan, the capital city of Hubei Province, China. All kinds of cherry blossoms bloom all over the city -– the Japanese Cherry, the Weeping Cherry, the Yunnan Morning Cherry and more. Devoted visitors from near and far make the pilgrimage to see this annual wonder, very much in the same way that people congregate around the Jefferson Memorial.
Perhaps this is why Summer Xia Hu felt at home in our area. Hailing from Wuhan, she came to the University of Maryland in 2011 to earn her PhD in Applied Mathematics. Finishing in 2017, she now holds a position of Research Scientist at Facebook -– successfully fulfilling her intention to pursue a non-academic career path.
Interestingly, Hu’s road to the PhD started with a love of art, music and poetry. By middle school, she showed an aptitude and intuition for math. “Math puzzles fascinated me. I found them interesting and addictive -– and wanted more and more difficult problems,” recalls Hu. She even won a nationwide math competition medal -– still with the mindset of solving puzzles. It was during her undergraduate years at Wuhan University that her math focus took a much more serious turn. Doing ‘real math,’ as Hu calls it, was impressive, magical and enlightening. “I started to really appreciate the artistic side of math -– the beauty of simplicity, the cleverness of logic, and the wildness of one’s imagination. In some sense, I found math had so much in common with art,” says Hu.
Her parents, both professors, supported Hu. They kept their expectations low, and just allowed her the freedom to pursue her passions. Their version of influence was silent diligence and creating opportunities to observe the larger world. They took her to conferences and allowed her to join in the conversations between scholars. Hu listened to heated discussions on contemporary literature and mathematics and soaked in the speakers’ passion and way of thinking. “I think access to these conversations and places taught me how to observe and learn. I learned that I can be free to become who I want to be with enough motivation and determination,” remarks Hu.
This kind of approach worked well, when Hu started her job search in the United States. We sat down with her to learn more about her focus on industry and how she ended up at Facebook.
When you came wanted to study in U.S. what were your perceptions? Expectations?
I think I came with the hope that I’d eventually become a professor. But, later I realized this is not the route for me.
How is your field (applied math) perceived in your home country? Why did you come and study in the U.S.? What are challenges and opportunities?
I think most people in China view mathematicians as smart or nerdy. From an academic standpoint, the U.S. is considered one of the best countries to pursue higher education due to its abundant academic resources, opportunities, and diversity. Life-wise, studying in the U.S. helped me to realize one of my aspirations -– to explore the outside world, learn the unknowns, and meet new people. And that’s been exciting. When I first got here, the language and culture were definitely the biggest challenges. Even today, I sometimes still cannot follow some native speakers’ jokes. However, the opportunities here were also obvious -– by meeting people from diverse backgrounds and viewpoints, I developed a deeper understanding and empathy for others and the world. Through those interactions, I have had a chance to learn the diverse characteristics and mindsets of others.
How did you prepare for your non-academic job search?
The key to non-academic job search is to start early. As I recall, I actually started my preparations 3 years before graduation. I got a data scientist internship at Nielsen in 2015 by accident, which provided me with some early industry experience. This later led to another internship at Amazon in 2016. The scale and level of their industry machine learning was impressive. After getting a return offer from Amazon (together with an offer acceptance deadline), my friend who worked at Facebook (FB) referred me for a position there. I prepared for the interview by practicing coding problems and reading tech books/blogs. I did two rounds of phone interviews and 5 rounds of on-site interviews before I got the offer.
Did you do any informational interviews?
When I looked for my second internship (e.g., Amazon), my friend who worked in the banking industry kindly offered to do mock interviews with me -– mostly asking me questions from my resume. This was my first ‘phone interview,’ and I found it very hard to describe my past projects over the phone in less than 5 minutes. After realizing the issue, I started to practice project introductions carefully, and got myself prepared for any detail-related questions of my resume and background.
What experiences as a graduate student (beyond your research) contributed to finding a position at Facebook? What did you learn through those other experiences? How did it help or influence your job search?
I think there are two things about UMD that implicitly contributed to my later job hunting. First, I got my first internship at Nielsen through UMD’s Math Department. The data science manager at Nielsen was also a student in my program, so he sent the departmental email list a message about the internship. The rest is history. Even today, I am still very appreciative of that opportunity, because it built an important foundation for further internships and my eventual work at Facebook. Second, as the president of Women in Math in my department, I was responsible for inviting female speakers with math backgrounds from industry and academia to our seminars. In the process, I got to know a few accomplished, strong, and influential female mathematicians. Though they did not directly open networking channels for a job search, as role models, they motivated me to go further in the tech world.
What advice or tool worked well as you searched?
LinkedIn is a great tool for a job search. You need to make sure to have a full, updated profile. Some recruiters may reach out to you. You can also reach out to recruiters and alumni for information. Glassdoor and Quora are great resources for preparing interviews and getting to know a company’s culture.
Does a Facebook research scientist have a specialized skill set? If yes, what are they?
'Facebook Research Scientist' is a broad title - it means different things depending on your background and training. As far as I know, most FB research scientists have PhDs. For people with STEM backgrounds, a FB research scientist’s role is similar to that of a software engineer. In my case, my job is related to machine learning, so the skillset for me is: coding, machine learning, system design, and willingness to engage in life-long learning. And there is no ‘applied math’ here. I think going through the Applied Math PhD certainly boosted my problem solving and paper-reading abilities. At the end of the day, industry still prioritizes the engineering capability of the candidate -– being able to solve system-level complex problems and write up production-level code.
How did you work on your resume?
I wrote the first version of my resume after finishing the resume-writing workshop at UMD’s Career Center. I worked iteratively on this version, by reading the resumes of people with similar backgrounds/profiles on LinkedIn. This approach also gave me ideas on how I should improve and enrich my resume -– such as which additional projects or courses should be highlighted. I kept on building and polishing the resume for 3 years, and so, when it came to the job hunt, my resume was ready to go, without any pressure.
Career aspirations? What do you hope to do long-term?
Career-wise, I want to become an expert in machine learning and data mining. In the long run, I want to make music using AI.
What do you think a Chinese culture and/or mindset (or approach, if such differences exists) can add to your work?
I don’t think there is a big difference between the Chinese and global mindsets -– I think both value learning, growing, and sharing. It could be said that the traditional Chinese value humility, while people in the U.S. value boldness. But, even that’s a stretch and always changing.
Any advice to other international students?
I would suggest other international students to remain open to new people and cultures -– it's amazing how much you can learn from a stranger. Also start working on your resume early, and keep on revising it every semester -– you will be surprised at what you accomplish every half year. Lastly, be proactive and positive in school and life -- you will never know how good you can be.
More information about Dr. Summer Xia Hu can be found here.
(By Anna De Cheke Qualls)(Photo Credit: Summer Xia Hu)