"Plan better than me! I realize that I’ve been very lucky. It's still risky to apply for scholarships or faculty positions without a Plan B [...]. It's never nice not knowing what's going to happen in a couple of months, if the funding is going to stop, if you're going to have to stop what you're doing: it's burdensome and better planning would have solved a lot of problems.”
Thibault Vatteri obtained his PhD in Information Systems at the Faculty of Business and Economics (HEC) at UNIL in 2016. He is currently Assistant Professor in the Department of Statistics at Columbia University in New York.
Thesis title: Generalized Additive Modeling for Multivariate Distributions
GC: Can you introduce yourself in a few words?
TV: I was born and raised in Geneva. I moved to Lausanne for my studies. I now live and work in New York.
Why did you decide to do a doctorate?
It’s not necessarily because I was convinced that I wanted to stay at the university and do research. I probably felt that I hadn’t finished my studies and that I didn't know enough by the time I finished my Master's degree. I also wanted to go deeper with certain subjects. I didn't especially have the prospect of an academic career in mind, but more a desire to continue my studies and learn more. I had a foretaste of research because my Master's project at EPFL was a very academic project. I had really enjoyed it, and I told myself that continuing for three or four more years and learning more about the subject I had chosen would in any case not close doors for me for the rest of my life.
Did you have a career plan during your doctorate?
Not at all. Well, yes and no. There was one, but it changed very regularly.
You’re now an assistant professor at Columbia University. The day of your defence, would you have imagined being in this position today?
No, not at all. I had decided to leave the academic world after finishing my doctorate. At the time of my defense in March 2016, I had been working for eight months in finance at a consulting firm in Zurich. It was during this time that I learned that I was going to move to the United States. I followed my wife to New York and had no job when I arrived here. I finally found a job at Columbia University. I first did postdoctoral research with a mobility grant from the Swiss National Research Foundation (SNSF) and then I got my current position.
What do you like most about this position?
To be honest, a professor's career at a university is more determined by their research than by their ability to be a good teacher. Thus, when applying for a university job, it’s more your academic production that will be evaluated. Personally, I enjoy teaching very much. The most satisfying moments in my career have not been the papers accepted, but when I first taught a course with 280 students over one semester in 2019. In the last class, the students stood up and applauded. I was very touched by that.
Apart from your teaching and research activities, do you carry out other activities or do you have other commitments within the framework of your function?
At Columbia University, I co-manage the organization of research seminars in the Department of Statistics, which has forty professors, sixty doctoral candidates and about the same number of postdocs. We invite professors from all over the world to give presentations. I am also a member of a commission in the field of banking compliance, which brings together academics with professionals from private banking.
Is there a link between the subject of your thesis and what you are doing today?
I do methodological statistics, which can be applied to many different fields. I continue to tackle some of the themes I developed in my thesis, the main difference is that I have broadened my interests enormously.
Can you tell us about the path that led you to your current position?
There have been many coincidences. During my Bachelor's studies in physics at the EPFL, I realized that it wasn't necessarily a field I was interested in and that I would potentially have trouble finding a job I liked after my Master's. During my Master’s project, I developed an interest in finance and statistics. It was during this period that I met Professor Valérie Chavez-Demoulin at the HEC, with whom I was taking a course. I asked her if there was a possibility of undertaking a thesis. She hired me for a PhD in a field far removed from physics, at the intersection between statistics and finance. When I started my research, I realized that what interested me most was statistics. At the end of my PhD, I wanted to go back to the field of finance and I worked for a few months in a company. But I realized that I liked the academic side of things. So I came back to academia for a few months in 2016 with two postdocs, one at EPFL and the other at UNIL, knowing that I was going to go the following year to the United States where my wife had a job. When I arrived in New York in 2017, I didn't really know if I wanted to continue in academia or go into industry. I applied to some tech companies (Google, Facebook). With the new US administration, the climate was not conducive to hiring foreigners without visas or permanent resident cards, which was my case. I found a postdoc position at Columbia University with a colleague of my thesis supervisor. I wrote to him, he wrote back to me a few days later and I found myself in a postdoc position at Columbia two weeks later. I then obtained a mobility grant from the SNSF and applied for the assistant professor position I currently hold.
What advice would you give to a doctoral student or postdoc researcher preparing for the next stage of their career?
Plan better than me! I realize that I’ve been very lucky. It's still risky to apply for scholarships or faculty positions without a Plan B - which was my case when my mobility grant was about to end. There have been stressful moments. It's never nice not knowing what's going to happen in a couple of months, if the funding is going to stop, if you're going to have to stop what you're doing: it's burdensome and better planning would have solved a lot of problems. Opening doors by applying in advance for a number of jobs and having a better idea of the possibilities is part of that planning.