Postdoc Perspectives: My Experience Working Abroad

25. March 2011

By Elena Silaeva

One of the great advantages of having a Ph.D. is that it gives you the opportunity to work abroad. Compared to people in other professions, scientists seem able to work in another country fairly easily. When I was pursuing my thesis in my homeland of Russia, I often dreamed about taking a position in another country after I graduated.

This year, my dream came true. I have been in France for two months for a postdoc position in the laser-matter interaction group at the University of Saint-Etienne. I have already adapted to the local culture, regulations and climate. I have become accustomed to my everyday life and absorbed in my work.

Expectations vs. reality
Before I left Russia for France, I felt completely differently. My excitement about getting a job quickly gave way to anxiety—about everything from shifting to a new research topic, meeting and getting along with people, and communicating when I did not know the language. (Although there are people from all over the world in the lab where I work, most of them are fluent in French.)

Happily, my transition went much more smoothly than I had imagined. After I arrived in France, my panic quickly turned into euphoria: My exciting new life had begun. In the laboratory, my advisor and colleagues were all very friendly and welcoming. They showed me where everything was in the lab and clearly explained the objectives that I was expected to meet. I quickly made friends who have helped me to address all the challenges I have encountered as a foreigner. Although I have not been in my new position very long, I have already had an invaluable experience.

Science and scientists in France and Russia
Overall, I think that people from the scientific community are quite similar to one another, despite their differences in citizenship and nationalities. Thus, it has not been all that difficult for me to integrate into a new research group in another country.

At the same time, science in France is different from that in Russia. At Moscow State University, where I did my Ph.D., most of the work that was being done was fundamental in nature, and it moved at a rather slow pace. In France, however, I notice that researchers direct maximum effort into real applications—and that requires fast, dynamic work. I have also observed a big difference from the financial side. Academia gets more funding in France than in Russia. To be honest, this was also an important factor that I considered when I was choosing a position.

In France, my laboratory equipment is generally in better condition that it was in other universties where I have worked. That has opened up many more possibilities for realizing scientific ideas and achieving my goals.

The benefits of a “real job”
I have often thought of my Ph.D. studies as a stepping stone on the way to earning a degree and choosing a career. By contrast, my postdoc already feels like a “real job.” It is strange and at the same time exciting to realize that, after many years of studying, I am not a student anymore. Having some financial independence is also very satisfying.

Overall impressions
On the whole, I think that science is international. It does not matter much what country you come from or where you choose to do your work. The most important thing is that you choose your position wisely and that you have smart and supportive colleagues. I was very lucky.

Elena Silaeva (elena.silaeva@univ-st-etienne.fr) is a postdoc in the laboratory Hubert Curien at the University of Saint-Etienne, France. She is also a member of the editorial advisory committee for Optics & Photonics News.

 

Academic Careers, International Careers, Job Search, Ph.D. Perspectives, Postdocs, Women in Science , , , , , , , , , , ,

Using Informational Interviews to Broaden Career Horizons

17. March 2011

By Marcius Extavour

Some job seekers are hesitant to ask a potential employer to give them an informational interview. Why would any busy person agree to such a request? And why should you bother?

Informational interviews are not just a means to an end—in other words, getting a job. They can be valuable tools that inform your career choices, help you to explore new paths, and introduce you to new people. This post highlights the benefits of informational interviews for early-career science professionals as well as people changing careers and those who are simply curious about another field. It also aims to help you feel less intimidated about requesting an interview.

If your goal is to get a job
This is the classic reason for doing an informational interview: You are a job seeker reaching out to a prospective employer to discuss the employer’s work and the organization in general, rather than responding to a specific, advertised vacancy. The goal is near-term employment, and the target has already been identified as someone or someplace you would like to work for.

To set up the interview, contact a manager or hiring director to explain your interest in their work and the organization, and be sure to submit a polished resume with your request. At the interview, ask about specific ongoing projects, any new developments or trends within the organization, and whether the organization has any current or near-future plans for hiring.

If you’re looking to explore a new field
Informational interviews can be a great way to test the waters of a new area of interest and to expand your network. 

Start by contacting any individuals in the new field with whom you have come into contact, or representatives from organizations you are familiar with. These could be the same people or groups who first engaged your interest in the field. If you are well acquainted with any professionals in your field of interest, contact them first.

If not, do not be afraid to reach out to strangers. Just be sure to make it clear that you are seeking information, not direct employment. In preparing for the interview, focus on clearly articulating why you are interested in the area, what skills from your present work might be transferrable, and why you are looking to shift into a new field. Prepare a resume beforehand, but be ready to modify it after the interview based on what you learned. (You can even seek direct feedback on your resume itself at the interview. This is an exploratory interview, after all!)

Ask questions about the work environment at particular organizations and/or the general culture of the field of interest. And make sure to ask for recommendations of other people or organizations you can follow up with. Referrals from professionals in the new field can be one of the most valuable outcomes of such an interview.

If you aim to identify options or narrow your focus

Finally, and especially for graduate students and post-docs, informational interviews can be a great source of professional advice, mentorship and exposure to the many professional options in front of them. Mentorship is a great asset, but mentors can be hard to find. Informational interviewing is a great way to meet people whose work you admire, and who in turn may take an interest in your aspirations. 

Seek advice for interview candidates from your peers, advisors, family and friends. People who love what they do usually also love to talk about it, so they are likely to be receptive to interview requests. Ask people how they got to where they are now. What steps did they take? What pitfalls did they avoid—or overcome and learn from?

Also, ask individuals representing specific organizations for advice on how your skills and experience can be best applied to their work and what additional skills you might want to acquire. This type of an interview might be formal, with an individual whom you do not know personally, or it could be informal, with an acquaintance whose career path appeals to you. Even informal lunch dates, telephone conversations, or e-mails can yield valuable information that helps you to generate new ideas and leads, or points you to relevant reading material to pursue on your own. Again, be sure to ask for referrals.

Parting thoughts
At an informational interview—unlike a traditional job interview—you must be prepared to lead the discussion. Approach the interview with a healthy list of questions. You need not follow a script—you are mainly there to listen and learn. Even so, have your questions ready. Also, remember that you are asking a favor of someone, so be grateful, courteous, punctual and direct. And brave. Good luck!

Marcius Extavour, most recently a quantitative risk analyst at Ontario Power Generation, is currently serving on Capitol Hill as the OSA/SPIE Arthur H. Guenther Congressional Science and Engineering Fellow.

 

Career Path, Graduate School, Job Search, Nontraditional Science Careers , , , , , ,

How to Have a Successful Academic Career in Science

10. March 2011

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: After several years working as a post-doc, I have just obtained a tenure-track academic position. What advice do you have for someone who is looking to embark on a successful independent career as a scientist. --Helena, North Carolina, U.S.A.

You have to behave now as an independent researcher, and I am sure that you and your new institution have the highest expectations for you. First, I am glad that you consider me a successful researcher, or at least someone who can provide valuable information to achieve that goal. To be honest, I am not sure if my comments will be helpful; everyone needs to find his or her own path. But here is some general advice, much of which is common sense.

 Ask the right questions. You need to have your own interesting and new ideas and your own important questions to be explored and eventually answered. This is critical. At this point, you know your field and you have the basic technical abilities needed to ask good questions and hopefully obtain some answers. You can frame your questions at any time—in bed, at meetings, driving... Of course, you will have to organize them later, and that is the difficult part.

Work hard and manage your time wisely. I presume your plan is to dedicate your time to your research projects nearly without limit. Hard work and organizational skills are key factors. Be generous with your time and efforts. If you are also teaching, do the best you can, but try to limit your dedication to teaching to what is reasonable. Academic life also usually demands that you spend time in useless meetings. Be strict about setting limits and attending only what is important for you.

Of course, the most difficult balance to strike is between work and your family or personal life. Everyone must decide for themselves how to do this. But keep in mind that you cannot be in the lab the whole day and every single weekend—nor should you be. Learn to take time off, and don’t work on holidays.

You will need money. Writing good grant applications is difficult, and I will not cover that here, but, first and foremost, it requires having a good idea or solution to a problem.

Select your lab members wisely. The ability (or luck) to have the best lab members is extremely important. It is better to start working alone than to have mediocre and unmotivated students working for you. Hiring a problematic team member would affect your ability to succeed. Of course, it is very difficult to know that in advance—but start by always asking for references when talking to students—preferably from those who you trust in your field. I have been extremely lucky in this area.

You also need to make friends within the scientific community in which you are working. Try to collaborate more than you compete, and keep in mind that you will have contact with some of these people for many years into the future. Building and maintaining good personal relationships with other colleagues is critical.

Focus and finish. In the first years and perhaps always, the risk of spreading yourself too thin is quite high. Try to focus and to finish all of your experiments and projects before taking on others. It is natural to always want to explore new areas, but it is better to wait until your current projects are solid enough for you to report on. Writing and presenting at meetings is a good way to maintain your focus.

Balance exposure and modesty. You should actively participate in scientific events, but you should also try to balance your exposure with reasonable modesty. We always know less than we should, and there will always be somebody else who is better or smarter. Be sure that you never underestimate any of your audiences.

Quality over quantity. In the long term, the quality of your research will outweigh its quantity. Keep your own standards high. This will help you to establish a (good) reputation in the field. That will be your most important asset.

Enjoy yourself. Of course, this will not be possible every minute, but you need to have fun and enjoy what you do. Then you will be able to transfer this enthusiasm to others and engage them in your research.

Most of this advice should apply to all levels of scientists, from those in their early student days to well-recognized senior-level scientists. Although this is an incomplete list, I hope you find it somewhat useful. I wish you the best of luck!

Pablo Artal (Pablo@um.es) 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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