‘This is happening right now’

As quantum technologies enter market, Chicago Quantum Recruiting Forum connects students to fast-growing field

Angel Zhang, a fourth-year University of Chicago student, knew she was interested in quantum science, and she knew she wanted to pursue work that would impact people’s lives. But quantum seemed like a field with far-distant applications; she wasn’t sure what it would mean to pursue it now.

Photo of Angel Zhang
Angel Zhang

But as she listened to scientists and industry experts at the third annual Chicago Quantum Recruiting Forum last month, she learned that the quantum field was moving forward faster than she thought.

Panelists at the March 31 event, which drew students and trainees to UChicago’s William Eckhardt Research Center from undergraduate, graduate, and postdoc programs across the Midwest, talked about the growing number of quantum jobs available in academia and industry as quantum technologies enter the market. Quantum sensing devices that can detect minute changes in the environment are already commercially available, and researchers are testing quantum communications—including on a 124-mile quantum network in the Chicago region.

“There are impressive quantum encryption networks emerging around the world in Asia, Europe, Australia, and of course right here in Chicago,” said David Awschalom, the Liew Family Professor of Molecular Engineering at UChicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering and the director of the Chicago Quantum Exchange, as he addressed a packed room of students and trainees at the start of the event. “Quantum sensors are being deployed in commercial products. It’s exciting to see that computing, communication, and sensing technologies are appearing, and will impact all of us.”

This was welcome news to Zhang, who is majoring in public policy and economics and is a policy intern at a quantum startup. Quantum technology uses the science of the very small—atoms and other particles—to push the boundaries of what’s possible with classical technology. The principles of quantum mechanics were discovered more than 100 years ago, but scientists and engineers are just beginning to explore its myriad potential applications.

“It’s really great that this is happening,” Zhang said as she networked with potential employers at the event’s career fair. “I liked getting to hear [panelists] talk about technical opportunities within the field, but also how those opportunities have been expanding. … It'll be really exciting to see more applications come to fruition.”

The event, organized by the Chicago Quantum Exchange (CQE) and UChicago’s Office of Career Advancement, drew 232 attendees. That was the largest turnout yet—a sign, perhaps, of growing interest in the rapidly expanding field.

“Quantum is very fun in the sense that I really love how fast it’s growing, and just how much progress has happened in the past five or ten years,” said Victory Omole, senior quantum software engineer at Boulder, Colorado-based quantum company Infleqtion, during the event’s industry panel. “And the best part is, it’s only going to get better from here.”

A field of possibilities

The recruiting forum offered attendees from a variety of disciplines the opportunity to explore quantum careers in academia, industry, and national labs by connecting them with leaders in the field, including many in the region. The Midwest, where inclusive opportunities for workers, researchers, and businesses are transforming the region into the heart of the nation’s quantum economy, is home to leading universities, two national labs, two U.S. Department of Energy National Quantum Information Science Research Centers, two National Science Foundation Quantum Leap Challenge Institutes, and a growing number of quantum companies.

Discussions at the event highlighted the interconnectivity of the quantum ecosystem, both regionally and more broadly. Speakers noted that it is possible for workers to move between different quantum technologies and applications as well as between universities, corporations, and national labs.

“The skills that you gain from doing quantum are transferable,” said Diana Franklin, associate professor of computer science at UChicago. “I think it's important when you go into quantum to learn not only the specifics of quantum, but the higher-level takeaways so that you can apply it to another field.”

Degrees and other job requirements were a common topic, as attendees asked panelists how much experience they would need to join the quantum workforce. The answer: not as much as they might think.

Omole mentioned that he was “allergic” to graduate school and learned a lot by self-educating via Wikipedia and other sources, while Mark Jackson of Quantinuum, one of the largest integrated computing companies, said that he had to expand upon his knowledge from his PhD in physics by learning quantum computing through industry organizations. Elena Glen of Chicago-based quantum startup EeroQ said that the company CEO comes from a classical software background, and the company’s director of policy was previously a practicing lawyer.

"The majority of our current employees are PhDs in physics, but I don’t want that to deter anybody,” Glen said. “That was the first round of hires necessary to start the company. However, as quantum startups grow, I do not think having a PhD in physics will be a requirement to work in these types of companies. Ultimately, startups are looking for people who are really flexible and willing to learn.” 

Jiefei Zhang, an assistant scientist at Argonne National Laboratory, noted that while there are certain positions that do require specific skills, those skills often can be learned quickly if one has a strong foundation.  

“I don't worry if you [say], ‘Oh, I haven’t done anything related to cryogenic, can I work on this?’” she said. “Of course, you can learn this very quickly. Good communication skills and knowing how to tackle a problem with logical reasoning, being able to think outside the box, I think are the most important skills.”

Caleb Williams, a fourth-year physics and electrical engineering student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the event reaffirmed “just how broad the opportunities in this field are,” including when it comes to building skills.

“One thing that surprised me was that a lot of the quantum computing companies hold hack-a-thons and challenges where they … pose a difficult problem for teams who sign up to solve [them],” Williams said. “As president of UIC's Quantum Information Science Club, things like Quantinuum's Inquanto Quantum Chemistry Challenge are definitely something I think students from my institution could participate in as club projects in the future and gain valuable experience from.”

Katie Harrison, an undergraduate physics student at the University of Wisconsin­­–Madison and a member of CQE’s inaugural class of the Open Quantum Initiative Fellowship last summer, said she particularly enjoyed hearing UChicago’s Franklin share research on how children learn about quantum concepts.

“It was fascinating to hear her insights, as I strongly believe in creating accessible pathways for sharing knowledge,” Harrison said. 

In addition to the panels, the event also hosted hands-on workshops for attendees to learn how to use quantum software resources: IBM’s Qiskit, Quantinuum’s InQuanto, and qBraid Learn. The workshops were followed by a career fair and networking reception featuring 18 companies.

“As a student who's planning to graduate later this summer, it was nice to get a bunch of different perspectives,” said Kevin He, a physics graduate student at UChicago. “I learned that there's a lot more than just working in the lab that you can do with knowledge in this field.”

The Chicago Quantum Recruiting Forum is part of a larger global effort to invite more people to join the quantum community and learn how quantum is changing the world. Another initiative, World Quantum Day, was held last week on April 14.

“Quantum, to me, is something that does not yet have any ground rules,” said panelist Hanl Park, a member of Boston Consulting Group’s Deep Tech practice. “And the fact that there are no rules for engagement is an extremely exciting opportunity to … go ahead and set the standards and really be a difference maker.”