For Women Scientists, Career Advice from a Certified Genius

28. October 2010

By Patricia Daukantas

Women have made huge gains in their pursuit of higher education: More than 50 percent of today’s U.S. bachelor’s degree recipients are female. However, women are still not getting as many of the topmost positions in science as their male counterparts. Why?

According to OSA Fellow Michal Lipson, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Cornell University (U.S.A.), women must work to combat subtle forms of discrimination that may cause them to be overlooked or their work to be ignored. Lipson is a rising star in science, and she recently shared her experiences and advice with the Minorities and Women in OSA gathering at OSA’s annual meeting in Rochester, N.Y.

Last month, Lipson became one of two OSA members to win a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant for her work on silicon photonic circuits. She’s also a married mother of two and a tenured professor. Here's how she advises women who want to advance their scientific careers.

Be confident. Lipson said she cannot count the number of times that she and a male colleague got introduced to someone, and the person to whom they spoke addressed only the male colleague. The best way to combat this is with confidence. She advises: “When you are in a lecture, always sit in the front of the hall and ask a question.” Don’t be afraid to stand tall and give your opinion. “Remember that your career is just as important as anyone else’s,” she says.

Prioritize your career. One subtle form of discrimination is the notion that a woman’s career is always secondary to child-rearing. This message is pervasive. Even Lipson’s parents, who were the biggest supporters of her and her twin sister when they were growing up, told their daughters that they had to make an impact in their careers before they had children, “If I were male, they would never have said that,” she says. (Her twin sister is now an astrophysicist.)

But family and career need not be mutually exclusive. Make your career a priority by planning ahead and working with your partner to decide which roles each of you will take on, Lipson said. Often, men simply aren’t aware of work-and-family issues because they weren’t raised to think about them. However, by working together as a team, both partners can have fulfilling careers and family lives.

Lipson has strong family bonds with her husband, Hod Lipson, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Cornell, and their two sons, ages 6 and 13. The kids do well in school and they are extremely proud of their parents. They like to brag about Lipson’s MacArthur award to their classmates.

Keep your personal life personal. When Lipson—born in Israel, raised in Brazil and trained in Israel—first came to the United States as a postdoc, all the men in her department talked about their kids, while Lipson avoided mentioning hers. Her cover was blown one day when her 1-year-old got sick; her boss called her at home and heard crying in the background. The next day, he asked her, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Yes, it’s a double standard, but keeping your personal life personal may help women to avoid subtle forms of discrimination against working mothers.

Lay down your career path early. Despite all the advances in society, women are often the ones who follow their male partners when it comes to job relocation. Academic couples face a particularly daunting challenge known as the “two-body problem,” which refers to the difficulty of finding two viable tenure-track positions—often in different specialties—within the same geographical area. The longer a woman takes to “find herself,” the greater the chances that she may wind up following a spouse or partner who has already determined a career path. “It is critical for you to lay down your career path early, even if you change it later,” Lipson says.

Synchronize your job hunt with your partner’s. Lipson’s husband delayed his post-graduate-school job hunt for six months so that they could search together. If your partner is not in academia, you should still try to synchronize, Lipson says; schools are well aware of the need for spousal employment. 

Patricia Daukantas is a freelance writer specializing in optics and photonics. She holds a master’s degree in astronomy from the University of Maryland.


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How to Make Your Conference Presentation Shine

22. October 2010

By Pablo Artal, OSA Fellow

OSA Fellow Pablo Artal has kindly allowed OPN’s Bright Futures career blog to republish content from his popular blog Optics Confidential. In his blog, Artal fields questions from students, colleagues and other researchers on science, society and managing a career in optics.

Dear Prof. Artal: As a graduate student, I have some experience presenting my research at meetings. But I must confess that I always feel extremely nervous and I am not satisfied with my talks. Could you please advise me on how to improve my presentation skills? --Clare, Holland.

Scientific meetings are very important for science and for scientists. They are even more critical for those of you starting your career as Ph.D. students. So, you should try to go to as many as possible. Approach your supervisor on this issue directly. I think all students should attend a minimum of one international meeting per year.

Perhaps the best reason to attend conferences is to get to know the important people working in your area. Networking is key for advancing your career. And of course you will also meet new friends from all over the world and have fun together. As for your question, here are some general guidelines for improving your presentation skills.

Before the conference, select your abstract wisely. Be sure you have something solid to present. Making a presentation is stressful enough without having to worry about the strength of your research. If your work is weak, the audience and moderators may be tough of you when asking you questions—although this is often dependent on your field and the specific meeting.

Show the audience your own enthusiasm for your results. Try to communicate what you enjoyed about your research and share your passion for your topic with the group. You spent a lot of your time working on this and you want to show why it was important.

Understand that no research is finished or perfect. Be prepared to recognize any weakness or non-complete part of your work. Don’t be afraid to state these things directly. However, if you are asked about additional issues with your work, do not try to hide any unclear parts of it. On the contrary, openly discuss limitations or difficulties.

Present a complete context for your work. Do not forget to introduce the area and mention why you wanted to study your particular topic before discussing your results. Also mention the main implications, potential applications and future areas for further investigation.

Don’t put too much information in your presentation. More details are not necessarily better. Be sure that your talk remains within the time allotted for it and ALWAYS practice your talk several times alone—or, even better, in front of your advisor—in advance of the meeting.

Make slides clear and easy to be read. Avoid small letters and low contrast. Pictures and schemes are important and, please, do not include tables full of small numbers that no one can see.

Don’t worry if you’re not a native English speaker. Most in the audience will not be affected by your accent, so don’t feel self-conscious about it. Simply try to speak as loudly and as clearly as you can. Avoid difficult expressions and try to go right to the point. In your first presentations, you can read some of the slides to help guide the audience. However, I would NOT recommend reading the entire presentation. It is not very natural, and you will not learn much that way.

Try to enjoy the moment. It’s natural to be nervous, but don’t let it get the best of you. Good presentations are essential for your scientific career, but your career is a lifelong work in progress. If things don’t go perfectly, you can always learn from it for your next presentation.

Pablo Artal ( is an OSA Fellow and professor of optics at the University of Murcia, Spain. He is an optical and vision scientist with an interest in visual optics, optical instrumentation, adaptive optics, and biomedical optics and photonics.


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At FiO and Other Scientific Meetings, Networking Is a Key Career Move

14. October 2010

By Stephen Roberson

This post was republished with the kind permission of the author, Stephen Roberson, from his Frontiers in Optics blog.

Everywhere I look, people are talking about jobs. There is a good article in the October issue of Optics and Photonics News talking about post-Ph.D careers, in which young scientists discuss many possible career paths after graduate school. Another editorial in the same magazine talks about thinking outside of academia in your job search. 

I’ve noticed at conferences that many people only attend the talks and don’t go to other events like socials and mixers. What many new scientists don’t realize is that these gatherings are where people offer opportunities--and not at your brilliant talk. Yes, everyone’s talk is brilliant on some level, but the socials and mixers are where you have the opportunity to distinguish yourself as more than a good presenter. At OSA's annual Frontiers in Optics meeting, make sure to take advantage of all the opportunities to meet and greet people in the industry and in academia. 

Let people get to know you and get to know them in return. I’ve found that networking is not something that comes to a scientist naturally; usually we’re in labs by ourselves working alone. You have to work at it. Get out and meet people and get to know them in a professional and personal manner. Also, I’ve noticed that when scientists get together, they often engage in an “Are you smarter than I am?” contest. Don’t do that! Many of the people scientists will work for may not be more intelligent than them, but you don’t want to belittle the person that would hire you and authorize your paychecks. 

There are all sorts of strategies and books for getting jobs, and all of those sources have their pluses and minuses. But nothing can really relate to being on the radar of someone who is looking to hire a scientist like you because you met him or her personally. As a researcher at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, I know they get tons of applications from really smart people that are just tossed because nobody knows them. 

So get out there, press some flesh, and introduce yourself to the world.

Stephen Roberson is a research scientist at the Army Research Laboratory in Adelphi, Md., U.S.A.


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Looking for a Job? Use the Skills in Your Scientific Toolbox

8. October 2010

By Kelly Goss

Finding the right job can be a daunting task. As I recently began searching the wealth of online resources available, it became apparent to me that there are a set of skills needed for finding a job: identifying job opportunities, writing a resume, striking up a conversation at networking events, and negotiating a salary, to name just a few.

Fortunately, as students and professionals in optics and photonics, we already have a number of relevant skills that we can use to find a job. In this post, I list a few examples:

Apply your critical thinking skills to your job search. Critical thinking is a key skill—and one that is often listed as necessary in scientific job postings. It includes observation, interpretation, analysis and evaluation. We can use our skills of interpretation when responding to a job post and determining the critical elements that the employer is looking for. We can also observe and analyze trends in the job market to know which skills are in high demand and where the appropriate jobs are. And finally, evaluating our options helps us to know where we feel our best fit is.

Do your homework by gathering resources. Graduate students and young science professionals manage resources every day. Whether it is information, equipment, money, people or time, we all have our own ways of finding and directing these precious commodities. There is a seemingly limitless amount of job-related resources out there, including books, blogs (like this one), Twitter accounts, career advisors, professional head hunters, research articles in human resources, friends with advice, colleagues with connections, and the list goes on.

Use them! Apply your critical thinking skills to determine which resources will best serve you—but the key thing is to use them! Many people, billions actually, have solved this problem before and found jobs. Learn from what others have done; there is no need to re-invent the wheel. I started working on my job search a few months ago when OPN's Career Focus column began, and I am amazed at the resources available and what I have learned in such a short time.

Use your technical writing skills to build the perfect resume. Being in a technical field, we all have skills and experience in writing about optics and photonics. We are able to write technical reports about scientific research conducted by Noble laureates; we can describe how a laser functions and explain nanophotonics and other phenomena that are invisible to the human eye. These skills can be directly translated into communicating our skills, talents, and strengths, which are sometimes complex and invisible.

Approach writing your resume or C.V. like you would a journal article or technical report: Be clear on your main contribution, know your audience and provide proof for your claims.

These are just some of the many skills that we already have to draw on from our work in optics and photonics. As a community, we have applied these skills with great effort. As a result, our field is not only growing—but making huge contributions to technology and society. By applying these skills with the same earnestness to our job search, we are bound to be successful!

Kelly Goss ( is a Ph.D. student in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada.


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