Think Beyond Academia in Your Job Search

30. August 2010

By Danny Rogers

When I was a grad student about to enter the job market a couple years ago, I attended a panel session at an American Physical Society meeting about non-traditional careers for physicists. The first speaker, Don Engel, described a realization he had had while he was a grad student. One day he looked around at his lab mates and counted seven other students and four post-docs, all working for one relatively senior professor. In all, he counted 12 people being trained to take over one job.

The math didn’t work out. The job ads seem to indicate that academic positions outnumber industrial ones 3 to 1. And yet, with all of these students and post-docs competing for one professor’s job, where were the other 11 going to go?

If they aren’t entering academia after graduation, where are all of these other jobs to which they’re flocking? We don’t hear about a lot of unemployed physicists, even in these challenging economic times. It is a legitimate question that should dawn on every student as they near the end of grad school.

What is the lesson for new job seekers?

Be creative. Most of us begin our searches in the same place—with our advisers. However, more often than not, our advisers’ advice simply reflects their own career paths, which always have the same ending: an academic professorship. To fully consider your options, think more broadly and creatively. What kinds of jobs outside of academic science would benefit from someone with your unique skill set? What other interests of yours, whether food or fashion or finance, have a strong scientific or mathematical component that you may not have considered?

Be open-minded. Try searching mainstream job boards like Monster.com or SimplyHired.com for science-related positions, and be open to opportunities that may not be what you initially had in mind. I recently had lunch with a senior scientist for Tropicana. You know, the juice company? Turns out there is a lot more science to producing fresh-tasting orange juice year-round than simply building a giant factory full of squeezing machines. 

Market yourself. Bill yourself as a scientist who can do math. Point out that what you really learned in grad school was not just your thesis topic, but the ability to deeply analyze and excel in challenging new subjects.

Be persistent. Even through you may apply for literally dozens of jobs, and you may be rejected from many, you only need one. Check your ego and keep trying.

Match who you are with what you do. Academia is about scholarship and teaching, so before simply being herded in that direction, think carefully about whether it would be a good fit for your personality. Are you willing to put up with the lower pay and long, uncertain track to tenure? Do you like teaching young people? If not, industry may be more suitable. However, industry often requires a faster pace, longer hours, and broader communications and management skills than we typically learn in graduate school. Other options might include public policy, science communications, and entrepreneurship. Which options plays best to your strengths?

Network, network, network. Instead of limiting your search to the back pages of Physics Today, look around and, more important, ask around. What are the “other 11” you know doing after graduate school?

Don’t try to write the story of your career before it has happened, and don’t be afraid to become one of the other 11—I did, and I have never looked back.

Danny Rogers (danny@dannyrogers.net) graduated with his Ph.D. in chemical physics from the University of Maryland in 2008. He is currently a member of the professional staff at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Md., U.S.A. For more advice from Danny, read his related column in the Career Focus column of Optics & Photonics News this October.

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A Conversation with Yanina Shevchenko

30. August 2010

By Kylee Coffman

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Yanina Shevchenko, Ph.D. student at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada and President of OSA’s Ottawa-Carleton Student Chapter. We discussed her research and her new career-focused column in Optics and Photonics News (OPN). Always active in the OSA community and busy balancing a million different projects, this female scientist is one to watch!

You are in your third year of a Ph.D. program at Carleton University, where you are working under supervisors Dr. Jacques Albert and Dr. Maria C. DeRosa. What is the focus of your research and what has been your biggest challenge?

My Ph.D. research has been very interdisciplinary from the moment it was started. I am working on developing surface plasmon resonance biosensors in the Advanced Photonics Components Lab at Carleton. In two projects that I am doing for my Ph.D., I have to apply a sensor platform for measuring different chemical and biological processes. For these particular projects, we have been collaborating with colleagues in the department of chemistry, and from the onset it has been challenging to form bridges into the worlds of chemistry and biochemistry because my background is primarily in photonics. Although this experience has been quite difficult, it has also been incredibly stimulating and interesting. I always wanted my research to be applied in the biomedical field, so I am very thankful that I had this project for my graduate research.

You received your bachelor’s degree in engineering and technology at Saint-Petersburg State University in Russia, the country where you grew up. Has it been difficult studying at universities in two different countries (Russia & Canada) with different science cultures?

Without a doubt, it was a very useful experience to study in two countries with very different educational systems. It was not particularly easy for me to adjust immediately from one system to the other, but it was an experience that has allowed me to develop a well-rounded education, and I would not exchange it for anything. There are obviously advantages and disadvantages in both systems, but the exposure to both can provide you with a very fresh perspective. Sometimes students hesitate to move to a different country in order to continue their education, especially if doing so requires them to learn a new language. I would suggest taking the risk because the advantages of traveling to a new country while starting work in a new field is definitely worth all the trouble.

What do you hope to accomplish after obtaining your Ph.D.? Do you think the current economic climate will have an impact on your degree and/or career opportunities?

If we look at the statistics, we can find that only 20-30% of Ph.D.s stay in academia as researchers, and less than 50% remain in the R&D sector. These are very strong numbers indicating that the majority of students will have to apply themselves somewhere else. During any scientific Ph.D. program, students have the opportunity to develop very strong analytical and problem-solving skills that are required by the nature of research itself; these abilities are key for finding employment in other fields. There are numerous examples of people going into industry (R&D and sales), starting their own businesses, and positioning themselves in consulting and science communication roles. I have not completely decided what I am going to do. I know that I enjoy the intellectual challenge of doing research, and I hope that, after my Ph.D. studies are completed, I will continue to be driven by the challenge.

You have been such a voice and friend to so many students in the OSA community. Over the past few years, you’ve served as President to the Ottawa-Carleton Student Chapter of the OSA. How did you first hear about OSA student chapters? What is your secret to sustaining it for so many years?

I first heard about OSA chapters during my undergraduate studies in Saint-Petersburg, and I thought it would be great to get involved, given the opportunities that OSA provides to members of the student chapters. When I started graduate studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, I saw that the Ottawa-Carleton Chapter was looking for new executive board members, and I decided to take that chance.

I think that student involvement with OSA chapters is beneficial in many ways, but mainly it provides the opportunity to meet with peers and discuss research in an informal atmosphere. To sustain an active chapter, it is important to have members who have a sincere interest in being involved, while also ensuring that the group environment is welcoming to all, and that the topics discussed are relevant to the student’s research.

My involvement with OSA over the last three years has exceeded all of my expectations. I have participated in and helped organize several conferences-which in turn helped me to grow as a researcher. By taking part in the activities organized by OSA, I have had the chance to get involved in the Young Professionals program and have since started working on the ‘Career Focus” column in OPN. Last but not least, I have met numerous students from different countries, many of whom have become very good friends. Overall, I would definitely recommend the student chapter experience to anyone who has an opportunity to be involved in one.

That’s very exciting news about your column in Optics and Photonics News (OPN)! Can you please tell us more about the focus of this new career-focused column?

This is a very exciting project that was started earlier this year. After speaking with several students at the OSA Leadership meeting last October about possible career prospects for recent Ph.D.s, I learned that Optics and Photonics News magazine was starting a new initiative aimed at exploring various career-related issues. The main idea was to create a column in OPN that would be of interest to Ph.D.s, postdoctoral fellows and everyone else who is interested in further career development.

The column will focus on different career options for professionals with science and engineering backgrounds, internships, interview tips and the use of social media tools for job searches. I plan to finish my Ph.D. next year, and my work on the column in this context has been undoubtedly useful in terms of identifying new career prospects and speaking with people who chose different career paths. The first column appears in the July/August issue of OPN, so be sure to check it out. I encourage anyone who has an interest to become involved by contributing an article, raising points for discussion, or starting their own blog on OPN’s website. I find the OPN editorial advisory committee and staff to be exceptionally welcoming of new ideas, and this is a great way to become engaged with the OSA community.

You are also the founder and vice president of the Women in Leadership Foundation Club at Carleton University, which you started in 2008. What is the main mission of this group? Being in a younger generation of scientists, do you see a change in the traditionally male-dominated field of science? Do you have suggestions for how female scientists can support each other’s career and development?

My experience with the Women in Leadership club was very good; it helped me meet with students from other departments, and that in turn allowed me to understand the gender issues occurring in other areas of study. Disregarding the field of study, it became immediately apparent that all fields need more role models, mentors and support networks. I think it is important to have someone who not only inspires you, but who also helps to shape your future career path. Currently there are considerable changes occurring in the field of science, and women in graduate and postdoctoral studies are part of this recent push for change. Although there has been quite a lot of progress on this issue, there are still so many outstanding issues that need to be addressed, such as the salary gap between male and female colleagues (which is characteristic to many fields), and, more important, understanding that women usually take on the biggest part of the household load at home.

Amazingly enough, during your many years of studying, research, and volunteering, you’ve also managed to develop so many hobbies like yoga and your art school studies. You must be a master at time management. What is your advice for balancing one’s professional and personal life? Do you have any new interests you’d like to share?

I wish I could say I am very good at time management, but I think this is where I definitely could learn more from someone else. Through my graduate study experience, I came to the realization that time management is one of the most useful skills that graduate students can learn and utilize while at school. I think the key is to prioritize and always try to improve upon your existing skills. I also noticed that, if you work on something that you find very interesting, you will exceed your own expectations and will always find extra hours to complete the project.

You’re an active presence on social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, GroupSite, and LinkedIn. Have you found technology to be a useful tool for connecting to other scientists? Who are your favorites to follow on Twitter?

Very often people ask, “So, what is in it for me? What can I get from spending time on these social networks?” It definitely takes time to sustain your presence on all social media websites and the benefits of being there can seem somewhat subtle. One of the main reasons why I use them is that they enable me to connect with like-minded people around the world. In general, one’s circle is limited to people from the same school, to colleagues, to people living in the same city and maybe to people attending the same conferences. With the help of social media, you can go beyond your already established network and meet people who you would not normally meet or approach.

I really enjoy using all kinds of social media tools, but probably my favorites are LinkedIn and Twitter. On Twitter, I mostly follow OSA tweeple, some of the personal branding experts and various science news outlets. I would definitely recommend that people at least try social networks; it can be a lot of fun and lead to unthinkable opportunities.

A few of Yanina’s Favorite Follows on Twitter: @Brandyourself, @Scientist Coach, @PolymerPhD, @OSASC, @kikilitalien, @MsEditor, @KyleeCoffman, @keithferrazzi, @MacleansMag, @PostDocsForum 

Kylee Coffman (kcoffm@osa.org) is OSA's Education and Membership Specialist.

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