From exchange student to Ph.D. student to Lifer – story of the stubborn

Ivan hangs up the call, makes a stunned gaze in front of him, and starts to scream. Roommate Nikita hears it and opens the door. “You got the job right?!”. Just like Nikita himself (who just earlier had been offered a job through Startuplifers the week before), an absurd feeling of reaching a dream that came to a realization in an out-of-the-blue kind of way fills Ivan as well. A night to remember for both two.
One+ year earlier:
Originally from Kazakhstan, Ivan is doing his fourth year in St Petersburg in Applied Mathematics. Alongside with his studies, he had learned computer science as a side project. Trying out something new and going abroad fascinated him and his friend. Aalto seemed like an attractive alternative with its image as an institution on top of the tech wave.
While spending the fall semester of 2016 in Aalto, Ivan bumped into a few Startuplifers’ flyers.
Pretty awesome, he thought.
“I contacted the team to ask whether I had to be a degree student and two days later I met the team at the Aalto TalentIT fair. There, Aleksandr [current Lifer at BetterDoctor] had told him that the program
only accepts degree students.”

Bummer.
 

Change of setting


A lot of stuff happened afterward, and Ivan tried to not think about the opportunity that had just passed by. Eventually, after returning to Russia, the time came for Ivan to consider where to continue study-wise from St. Petersburg. It was a rather serious process. Ivan made all kinds of pros n cons -lists. “I loved Finland, almost everything about it except for the weather [points out to the window],” he laughs.
Disclaimer: there was a snow storm on the day of the interview ????️.
While conducting the comparison list, one massive plus for Aalto weighed remarkably in the scale. “They had the Startuplifers internship program, and I could eventually apply.” Ivan grins.
Ivan does not hold a Master’s degree nor does he need to pursue one. He applied for a doctoral track at Aalto CS, a program that shifts students straight after finishing the Bachelor’s to conduct Ph.D. research. He applied to the program, had an interview, wrote a motivational letter, and got in.
Out of the different doctoral tracks, Ivan studies in the Machine Learning program, which is pretty much a mixture of mathematics and computer science.
 

Learn, grow, learn, grow, succeed.


As we go through Ivan’s journey up to this day, I realize this guy knows what it is to work hard for something. If you’ve ever read
Mindset by Carol Dweck, you know what growth mindset stands for.
Ivan matches the description by a 110%.

You could say that Ivan was pretty experienced with tech interviews by the time his soon-to-be employer in San Francisco came on the line. Frankly, he did a shitload of interviews during his studies.
“I just applied to any companies only to know what kind of questions there were asked and to figure out what skills I still needed to gain.” At some point, he had as much as 60 interviews in the record back in Russia. That corresponds one interview per week on a continuous basis. All the interviewing parties were big companies, though. He failed a lot of them, BUT analyzed all of his fails in detail and made progress.
However, the interview for Agent IQ was his first interview for a startup.
 

“If you’ve ever read Mindset by Carol Dweck,
you know what growth mindset stands for.
Ivan matches the description by a 110%.”

 
Aside from doing interviews, Ivan sure did some work as well. He did an internship each summer between his studies, and in the fourth year, work and studies went parallel.
He had his first interview after his first year of studies. He just went to the Department of Applied Mathematics and Computer to ask for coaching. Back then, he didn’t know anything about programming languages nor technologies related to them. So with no prior knowledge, he worked for one month and did various tasks related to computer vision with the advice from the staff.
As if the university studies weren’t enough, Ivan also applied for a free evening school that was organized by a few big Russian companies (where the competition to get in was pretty tight) and got accepted. The companies were called Yandex and JetBrains, both of which he worked for in the later years.
 

The Interview Process


Interviewing for Agent IQ was pretty comfortable for Ivan. He had three interviews altogether, in the last one of which the offer eventually was made. The two first interviews were technical with some coding tasks.

“The tough thing was that you were only supposed to program in the editor, plain notepad without highlighting the syntax of the code. But that’s pretty common, for example, Google has the same kind of interviews – or at least had two years ago when I was interviewed”, Ivan recalls.

Even though Ivan found the interviews not to be among the toughest ones he’s had, he sure had done his homework. He had prepared questions to ask at the end of each interview and carefully studied the product
that the company develops.

“I showed my interest towards their product, and we got the conversation going on a deeper level. I asked a lot about what kind of machine learning models they use”, he says.

The time gap between the interview stretched as long as three weeks, which made Ivan already doubt having been rejected. However, he persistently kept following up the guys at the firm via email. Another disclaimer: If you ever end up interviewing a startup, remember to follow up regularly. It’s important!
In the third interview, Ivan was asked what kind of stuff would he like to work with. He started talking about different kinds of machine learning models.

“I had pointed out my interest in doing research with different machine learning models to see what works and what doesn’t. This would also support my Ph.D. studies back in Finland.”

Ivan tried to ask if there was something he should read through or study in advance, but the answer was a typical one for a startup: “They said that by the time I come, everything might be changed, so there is no point of really preparing too much. ‘Let’s talk about it when the time comes,’ they would say.”
 

“I showed my interest towards their product,
and we got the conversation going
on a deeper level.”

 
Whatever the task turns out to be, this new adventure sure widens the professional toolkit for later. He hasn’t worked with machine learning in the industry before. “I’ve always wanted to have this kind of AI experience in the industry. I’m also hoping to get some new ideas for my research”, Ivan says delightfully.
 
For the future applicants, Ivan has a few pieces of advice to give.

  1. You have to apply! It’s a fantastic opportunity.
  2. It’s important to ask the company more in-depth questions, not just general ones. Show your interest towards the company and their product. And always take the interviews seriously.
  3. Stay stubborn. Never ever give up when you’re doing what you’re doing.

 
I can’t but wish the best of success for Ivan in all his future endeavors. I’ve again been shared a story of the power of determination and where proper preparation leads.
 


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