Ph.D. Perspectives: A Grad-to-Be Weighs How to Keep Her Options Open

8. December 2010

By Rebecca Schaevitz

My choices have been pretty obvious up until now. Go to school, do well, get a job. I have postponed the “get a job” portion for as long as I can (22nd grade…really?), and now I have a tough decision that will likely shape the rest of my career.

My goal has always been to keep my options open as long as possible. With every choice I make, I want to have the opportunity to change course at any point (just in case…). So what type of job would allow me that freedom?

A post-doctorate position is always a possibility. Practically speaking, that would allow me to just stay in school and defer a final decision for another year or two. However, I am not convinced that I want to delve into the arduous process of a tenure-track professorship position. Therefore, I will put that possibility on the back burner.

Working for a small company or start-up would be incredibly interesting and very different from being in school. These companies could provide me with the opportunity to explore very diverse roles within a company—from management to finance to research.

On the other hand, as a new graduate with limited business experience, I might not easily find my place, given that small companies typically lack structure and organization. In addition, due to the proprietary nature of new technology, there are few opportunities to publish or patent my advances. This could create a large roadblock for me if I decided that I wanted to migrate back to the world of academia at some point. I think I will save this opportunity for later in my career, when I know whether the industry management route is the choice for me.

Employment in a national or industrial research laboratory is a strong contender for me. Granted, both settings have the potential to limit publications and patents. However, in contrast to a start-up, they may also allow them as well. In terms of organizational structure, such labs are very different from one another. The free market influences industry more than a national lab, making its organizational structure more efficient.

In addition, the fast-paced environment of industry strongly attracts me. If I choose my position and my company carefully, I know I have the ability to walk the path toward either management or academia. Thus, working for an industrial lab may give me the most flexibility to reroute my career in the future.

My decision to move toward industry was guided by an internship I took after my fourth summer. At that time, I had the opportunity to intern at either a national lab or industry, and I chose the industrial setting.

In retrospect, I wish I had been able to do both internships and then compare the two. I also would have liked to have stayed for longer than the four months I did. For those who are starting out in their graduate program, I strongly urge you to take every opportunity to intern at very different companies and labs. 

Your decision might be a lot easier once you reach the 22nd grade.

Rebecca Schaevitz is a Ph.D. candidate and Intel Fellow at Stanford University in David A.B. Miller’s research group. Her thesis topic is on the electroabsorption mechanisms in germanium quantum well material for applications in optoelectronic devices such as modulators and detectors.

 

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Is Consulting Your Calling?

3. December 2010

By Jennifer D.T. Kruschwitz

The Webster’s Dictionary definition of a consultant is “one who gives expert or professional advice.” An individual looking to make a career out of consulting would probably change the definition to “one who gives expert or professional advice to a customer for a fee.” People choose careers in consulting for many reasons. Some have made becoming a consultant a personal goal. The recently retired may want to continue on in business outside the confines of a 9-to-5 job.
 
Some people are seeking a way to transition out of a conventional job that no longer satisfies them. Others look to consulting when changes in family life make a more flexible work schedule necessary. Whatever the reason, before starting out it’s important that one know how to make the transition into self-employment and how to qualify oneself as a consultant.
 
Many books have been written on the topic of consulting as a career. Two that I believe give helpful insights are The Overnight Consultant, by Marsha D. Lewin, and The Scientist As Consultant, by Carl J. Sindermann and Thomas K. Sawyer. Both books qualify the successful consultant as an expert in his or her field.
 
The necessary expertise can be attained by extensive academic study and work, including graduate degrees, post-doctorate studies and professorships, and/or by time spent working and doing research in a particular field.
 
But expertise in your field is only part of the recipe for success. Sindermann points out that for the scientific consultant, networking, marketing and running a business are equally important areas, in which scientists may have shortcomings. Here is a quick checklist to consider before diving head first into consulting:
 
Do you like to work with people? The best way to maintain a healthy business is by networking. Maintaining personal relationships with colleagues, customers and potential clients is an important part of a successful consulting business.
 
Are you self-motivated? As a consultant, there will be times when you will have to initiate activities that may not strike you as being particularly exciting. For examples, you may be involved in a project that isn’t challenging or making phone calls to potential clients.
 
Can you communicate and translate your craft to those outside your field? A consultant often has to make presentations or prepare proposals or reports for customers who have no background in his or her science. Consultants who can articulate their work to people of any academic level will be the most successful.
 
Are you prepared to multitask? The self-employed are not only the presidents of their own businesses, they are also in charge of administration, information technology, Web design, advertising, sales, marketing and janitorial duties. A successful consultant can wear many different hats simultaneously and still be productive.

Jennifer D.T. Kruschwitz is an OSA member and senior optical coating design engineer at her own company, J.K. Consulting, Rochester, N.Y., U.S.A.

 

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