Perspectives on Studying Abroad

27. July 2012

Zuleykhan Tomova

During my childhood in Russia, my family moved quite often and I was exposed to many lifestyles and opinions. When I got to university, I knew I wanted to continue to broaden my horizons.

Deciding to study abroad
I enjoyed studying at Lomonosov Moscow State University, where I completed my specialist degree (equivalent to the master’s degree in the United States). As the oldest university in Russia, it is an excellent school with a rich history. But for the next phase of my education, I wanted to learn about the lives of students in other countries and experience a different education system. As an undergraduate student working in a research group for the first time, I was also very excited about experimental research. With these ideas in mind, I decided to apply for graduate school overseas.

Finding useful information
Applying for graduate school in another country may sound simple, but the process is actually quite complicated when you lack knowledge and resources. To learn more, I attended summer and winter schools and international conferences. These events allowed me to meet new people and get their advice about making my plans a reality, while at the same time staying abreast of research being done all over the world.

Because of the distance between Moscow and the rest of Europe, it can be difficult for Russian students to attend scientific meetings abroad. Travel is expensive and young scientists’ salaries are not very high. However, I received a number of travel awards to help with the cost. There are many opportunities for awards like these in developing countries, and summer schools and programs offer travel grants. It just takes effort and dedication to find them.

Applying for programs
I learned a great deal from the people I met at conferences, as well as from Internet research. To apply for graduate school in the United States, I had to take the TOEFL and the GRE General and Physics exams. I was also required to submit many documents, including my transcripts and diploma, which had to be translated. The second half of 2009 was one of the most stressful times in my life. At the same time that I was finishing my studies in Russia, I had to prepare for and take a whole other set of exams and compile all my official documents. Taking exams in a foreign language was an additional challenge.

Studying in the United States
Fortunately, my efforts paid off, and I am currently pursuing my Ph.D. at the University of Maryland in College Park. I have a job that I like and a decent stipend. Although I was aware that there would be differences between studying in the United States and Russia, I didn’t realize how dramatic they would be. In Russia, students have up to 10 classes during the semester, in contrast to only two to three classes in the United States. This generally means that American students have a greater depth of knowledge in certain areas, whereas Russians gain a more universal perspective on physics. 

U.S. students have the freedom to choose many of their own classes, whereas in Russia, all students of the same year in a given department must follow the same curriculum. Perhaps the most important difference is that American graduate schools combine the master’s and doctoral curricula, and so students spend five to six years in one school, whereas Russian and European programs are separate. This gives students the opportunity to move between research groups as their careers progress.

Coming to the United States for graduate school has been a great opportunity to learn about a country and people very different from my own. I believe that this cultural exploration is the greatest learning experience that I have had in graduate school.  Studying abroad will help you to discover what your values really are. The practical, day-to-day differences between graduate programs will seem minor in comparison to the broad new perspective you will gain.

Zuleykhan Tomova ( is a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland, College Park, Md., U.S.A and International Coordinator of IONS Project.

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Reflections on an Optics Education

20. July 2012

Danuta Bukowska

My path to a career in optics has been an adventure. Although I have only worked in the field for four years, I have learned a lot in that time and come to love this branch of physics. Before I started my Ph.D. studies, my background in optics was fairly limited. Fortunately, my advisor didn’t view that as a problem. He was looking for students who were passionate, hard-working, curious and ready to take on challenges. As surprising as it may seem, you don’t have to be a specialist in the field when you begin your Ph.D.

In a team environment, people can do the work that best suits their tastes and strengths. That is one of the reasons why joining the Optical Biomedical Imaging Group at Nicolaus Copernicus University was such a wonderful choice for me. My colleagues are not only talented and helpful; they have also become good friends. There is always someone available to discuss difficulties in the lab or problems with theoretical work.

No one is expected to do everything. For example, I’ve never had much patience for writing long mathematical formulas or doing computer simulations, so someone else takes on that role in the lab. With this division of labor, work gets done faster and more effectively. The team shares work, knowledge, problems and our different perceptions of optics.

But getting your Ph.D in optics is about more than just working in a lab. In the past four years, I have attended eight conferences, mostly in the United States. I have written grant applications and publications and collaborated with scientists from institutions in Poland and abroad. I am also involved with the Nicolaus Copernicus University SPIE Student Chapter, which inspired me to establish an OSA Student Chapter two years ago. 

I have gotten a lot of personal satisfaction from my student chapter activities. Working with children as part of our outreach activities has been a special joy; I enjoy their curiosity and sense of wonder. The chapter has also given me the opportunity to meet fantastic people from all around the world. Because we live in an international optics community, networking can lead you to find collaborators from many other places. For example, I helped to organize the international OPTO Meeting for Young Researchers in Torun in cooperation with people from Romania, Russia and Ukraine.

After four years, I have a solid knowledge of optics. I’m experienced in working in the lab, presenting my research in front of a global audience, educating children in science, organizing international optics meetings, and writing grant applications. My experiences in the field have prepared me to face new challenges and live up to the demands and expectations of the world after graduate school. I look forward to my next big adventure!

Danuta Bukowska ( is a Ph.D. student at Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun, Poland. She belongs to Optical Biomedical Imaging Group guided by Maciej Wojtkowski. Her research interests include optical coherence tomography and laser spectroscopy applied to biomedical imaging. 


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Launching Your Science Career in a Developing Country

11. July 2012

Diana Antonosyan

Albert Einstein once said that, “Science is a wonderful thing if one does not have to earn one’s living at it.” This perfectly describes the predicament of working in science in a developing country. As I began my career in Armenia, I was excited and passionate about physics. But when I started my own research, I was forced to confront the catastrophic lack of money for scientific research typical in emerging nations.

A serious obstacle
Early-career scientists sometimes don’t prioritize their salary and instead do research for the love of it. However, even if one doesn’t expect or need to make much money, there are still obstacles to overcome. These include limited access to scientific journals, a lack of modern technologies in laboratories, and the inability to present one’s results at major conferences because of insufficient funds. All of these barriers exclude young and talented researchers from the international scientific community and impede their progress. As a result, these scientists may become uncompetitive or leave the field.

Finding support and solutions
So what is one to do? There are a number of ways to overcome these problems. My solution was to leave my country and continue my work in one of the leading universities in the world, where there was better funding. But I did many other things before I made this decision. I realized that attendance at conferences was a very important prerequisite to becoming a competitive scientist, so I started to look for conference funding.

I recommend that all aspiring researchers join their local OSA and SPIE student chapters. This is an excellent first step that links you with the international scientific community. There are many benefits from membership, from notifications about conferences, to discounts and even travel grants for attendance. Another possibility is obtaining international funds that support early career students, particularly from developing countries. You can also find support at home. There are non-profit groups with funds available and professional organizations at most universities that support talented young students.

The importance of making contacts
My main advice is to talk to people. At conferences you should make an effort to connect with professors and other scholars. This can sometimes seem difficult. You may feel shy because of language barriers, afraid to ask a silly question, or nervous about being rejected by famous or experienced scientists. However, you need to forget these fears in order to be successful. Be prepared, goal-oriented, active and confident. As a result, you may get good advice or even an invitation from a leading group in your field to continue your research, as happened to me.

All of this demands effort: outstanding results in research, the ability to write well to present projects, and excellent communication skills to interact with potential sponsors. If you are seeking a career in science, you have to work hard to develop these personal traits.

The hard truth is that success won’t wait for you and won’t be given to you.  You will only find it by having big dreams and working hard and persistently to make them come true, regardless of where you start your career.

Diana Antonosyan ( received her Master’s degree from Yerevan state University in 2008. She was awarded “The Best Female Student Prix of 2010” from the Republic of Armenia President in the IT sphere. She is currently doing her Ph.D. research in nonlinear optics and quantum information technologies at NLPC, RSPE, the Australian National University.

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Lessons from an Editorial Term

5. July 2012

Pablo Artal

OSA Fellow Pablo Artal recently finished his second and final term as a topical editor of the Journal of the Optical Society of America A. Here, he shares his advice to authors and reviewers based on his six years of experience.

For scientists, writing is as vital as planning and executing experiments. Soon after a researcher has published a few articles in a field, it is typical for him or her to be asked to serve as a reviewer. This can be looked at as both a responsibility to the community and a career-development tool for yourself.

When I became an editor, I gained a whole new perspective. For those authors and reviewers who have not yet served as an editor, perhaps you can learn something from my experiences.

Be thorough and professional. I believe that a research area’s strength is related to the quality of the reviewers for its journals. Good reviewers behave like invisible mentors—combing through the data, suggesting additional experiments and giving specific, actionable feedback.

Expect to be treated equal to your colleagues. If you are an editor for long enough, you may have to reject a paper submitted by a friend or close colleague. A fundamental principle for editing and reviewing is that every author should be treated equally. If you can’t do this, you should not edit the paper. Real friends understand that you have to follow the same rules for everybody.  

Be generous with citations. Most authors are very gracious about citing the work of others. Of course, there are some who avoiding citing other groups in favor of noting their own previous work. Self-citations are in many cases necessary. However, when relevant papers from others are missing, it can signal a low-quality paper to an editor. So be generous; it’s good for others and good for you.

Be alert for plagiarism. A fundamental task for editors is to detect and reject articles that are either clearly wrong or direct copies of previously published articles (plagiarism). More sophisticated forms of plagiarism, including self-plagiarism, can be difficult to find. I realized that many cases occur due to lack of author education or differing norms. For example, some researchers do not view it as wrong to duplicate their own research. Part of the editor’s job is to clearly communicate what is acceptable, what is not, and why. 

Clearly articulate the purpose of your paper. Sometimes a paper receives reviews indicating that it seems to be correct, but the point of the research is not clear. In a good journal, these papers are often rejected. Before submitting an article, be honest with yourself: Is this a paper I would like to read myself? Does it advance the field?

Don’t assume friends make the best reviewers. Most journals, including JOSA A, ask the author for reviewer recommendations. Usually, authors tend to suggest someone they know well. I was initially surprised in cases when I followed an author’s recommendation and received reviews that were perhaps unduly negative. Surprisingly, the most critical reviews can come from close colleagues—possibly because they are the ones who are closest to the details of your research area. Be aware of the possibility of bias, both positive and negative.

Review as you would like to be reviewed. OSA journals would not be possible without the tireless work of devoted volunteers. However, there are a few people who consistently refuse to review papers. It is not acceptable to systematically avoid this duty if you are an active scientist. Think twice when you are asked to review a paper, remembering the Golden Rule—Do unto others as you would like them to do unto you.

Get it right. As an editor, I was worried about the possibility that I would accept a paper that was completely wrong. A paper whose conclusions miss the mark is not necessarily a problem; there are many of those out there and they are consubstantial with scientific development. However, if a published paper contains simple and fundamental mistakes, the editor is to blame, so be careful.

Serving as an editor was a great experience that I would highly recommend. You learn more about your field and human nature. Hopefully it will make you a better scientist and person.

Pablo Artal ( is an OSA fellow and professor of Optics at the University of Murcia, Spain. His blog covers optical research and related aspects (

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