The Value of 360-Degree Networking

27. March 2013

Arti Agrawal

At conferences, well-known scientists and speakers are often surrounded by a group of eager attendees. Those who are perceived as powerful (directors of research centers, heads of departments, presidents of organizations and so forth) are in very high demand, because it is desirable to have an influential person in one’s network. People want to ask more about their work, get their opinions or advice, ask them for jobs, etc. There are numerous reasons why it is useful to make such connections.

We all attempt to create networks that will benefit us professionally, and good networking skills are highly prized (see my blog post: The Networking Connection). To this end, we diligently try to meet people whom we see as potentially useful. Generally, this means seeking out individuals who are well-placed or higher up in the hierarchy than oneself.

I wonder, though, if sometimes we miss half of the picture?

Naturally, we look to those at a more advanced stage of their careers to find mentors and sponsors. But for sustained progress, we need more than just these associations. I believe that we must network with our peers and those who are junior to us as well.

We generally consider our contemporaries to be on the same level as us, and so we may not think of them as valuable contacts. But instead of ignoring these people or seeing them as competitors, we should view them as potential collaborators and partners. With that perspective, we can build strong, supportive relationships that help us throughout our careers. The parallel growth of an entire generation produces the leaders for the future. It’s important to know the person who may head the company of your competitor or supplier, or help you recruit the best talent for your business, or work with you on the best research paper of your life.

It’s also critical to cultivate relationships with those on the lower rungs of the proverbial “career ladder.” These are the people who will still be working when we approach retirement. Although they are are the youngest faces in our teams now, they are our future! I think that it is eminently sensible to support and mentor them as we have been (or wanted to be), and to treat them as valuable colleagues and friends. The most wonderful thing that younger people offer is a fresh and unique outlook. That’s why I really enjoy meeting students at conferences (although I am not yet ready to think of myself as “old”).

Setting aside any career advantage, connecting with folks of all ages and career stages will enhance your life with new perspectives and friendships. Simply put, the best way to network is to realize the value of people, and not just the positions they occupy.

Arti Agrawal ( is a lecturer at City University London in the department of electrical, electronic and information engineering at the School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences. To follow her personal blog, visit 


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Designing a Better Boss: Applying a Consultant’s Mindset to An Academic Job

20. March 2013

Damon Diehl

I stumbled into my career. I started working as a "consulting scientist” while waiting to defend my Ph.D. thesis. I had a knack for helping customers distinguish between what they really need and what they think they want. The customers’ needs, not all of which are technical, become additional input and output requirements when solving their problems. I then give them technical advice in terms that they understand. My angle proved to be successful, and within a few months, my gig as a consulting scientist turned into a full-time job.

Making a transition.
Last year I made a career change from full-time scientist to full-time undergraduate professor. Some colleagues were concerned that I wouldn’t like the change in the scope of my work. However, I’m actually doing the same thing: I evaluate what my students need and then give them technical instruction in terms that they can understand. Sure, generating 15 hours of lecture material every week is demanding, to say the least, but it lines up with what I’m best at. I enjoy it immensely.

Adjusting to authority.
The culture shock came from an unexpected quarter: having a boss—four layers of them, to be exact.  As a professor, I have immediate responsibilities to the department chair, the dean, the vice president and the president of the college. Separately, I must also answer to the people who control the way the college uses its money, time and facilities. That all adds up to a lot of bureaucracy. For example, I discovered this semester that having pizza delivered to campus, while not technically impossible, requires a purchase order, two weeks’ notice, and a variance for not using the on-campus cafeteria. After a while, I started to feel like I was trapped in an invisible mesh of rules designed to stop me from getting things done.

Creating a customer.
My solution came from a change in perspective. I have learned to view the college as my customer. This is not a stretch—they are paying me to do something, which is the definition of a customer/vendor relationship. I am still mindful of requests and demands from folks up the authority chain, but now I  take a step back and separate what they request from what they need. I make sure I understand the real problem, and then I let my engineering brain solve it within the allowed parameters. This has two advantages: It is more intellectually fulfilling for me, and it produces more effective results. In learning to shift my view and cut to the heart of the matter, I have reduced extraneous demands on my attention … leaving more time to grade the four-inch stack of lab reports, homework assignments and exams on my desk.

Damon Diehl ( is an assistant professor and program coordinator of Optical Systems Technology at Monroe Community College in Rochester, N.Y., U.S.A. He is also the founder and owner of Diehl Research Grant Services.

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How to Prepare for a Postdoc

12. March 2013

Yanina Shevchenko

Although a postdoc appointment might only last for a few years, it can have a tremendous influence on a scientist's career. A good way to approach the process of choosing one is to think about your long-term career objectives, identify your research interests and find a laboratory where you can leverage your strengths.

Like many people, I started my postdoctoral work right after finishing my Ph.D. I enjoyed joining a new lab and starting fresh research projects. Here I offer a few tips that could help current students to prepare for this important transition.

Plan ahead.

There is no such thing as preparing for your postdoctoral position too far in advance. I have colleagues who started planning two years before they completed their degrees, and it completely paid off. It takes time to choose a new research direction, identify the main players in the field, go through the interview process, and move to a new place. Last-minute arrangements might not be as rewarding as a well-researched decision.

Seek external funding.

There are generally two ways to fund postdoctoral work: through the research grants of a professor for whom you work, or with your own funding from an external source.

I highly recommend researching the scientific funding agencies in the country where you plan on working and applying for existing external postdoctoral fellowships. Having your own funding not only looks good on your resume; it also provides you with some flexibility in choosing an institution and a research group. Additionally, the application process is a useful exercise that allows you to polish your grant-writing skills and think about specific projects that you would like to work on. It is helpful to ask professors and other postdocs about available sources of funding as some of the fellowships are not very widely publicized or may be offered only within certain organizations.

Consider your long-term career objectives.

Are you preparing for an academic career and need to publish intensively in a certain research domain? Or are you thinking of broadening your research skillset in preparation for transitioning into industry? Depending on the answers to these questions, some people prefer to work in the area where they completed their Ph.D. in order to build a stronger reputation and deepen their expertise. Others choose to work in a completely different field in order to diversify their skills and learn about emerging research trends. Which direction you choose depends on your long-term career goals.

Choose a research group with care.

Before selecting a specific research group, find out as much information as possible about their work. Everything is relevant: the group's research priorities, their size and dynamics, the principal investigator's management style and expectations, etc. It helps to discuss these issues with other students, postdocs or former lab members. Time invested in learning these details will pay off, as it will help you to find a lab where you will be the most comfortable and productive.

"Try to find a group, not a place," says Carlos Lopez-Mariscal, a research scientist at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. "That is, get a postdoc at XYZ group because of its merits and reputation, rather than getting one with ZYX group at Harvard just because it is at Harvard."

Approach a potential supervisor.

Some postdocs meet their supervisors at a conference or through collaboration during their Ph.D. Others are referred by a mutual colleague or someone who knows a professor personally. However, soliciting people directly via email can also be a great way to find someone to work with. Before contacting a potential supervisor, it is important to spend time putting together a comprehensive cover letter. Showcase how your experience would be useful for that particular lab and include ideas for future research. Familiarize yourself with the group's current efforts, and make sure that the cover letter is personalized--not just a copy of a letter that was sent to another researcher.

Overall, working as a postdoctoral researcher allows you to learn new skills, broaden expertise and establish new connections. Even if you have not made up your mind about your ultimate career goals, doing a postdoc can help you figure out your next steps. It can also provide you with an opportunity to relocate to a different country or start working in a new field. Although a postdoc takes some planning, it is a very rewarding experience that is worth all the hard work.

Yanina Shevchenko ( is the NSERC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Whitesides Research Group, department of chemistry and chemical biology, Harvard University, U.S.A.


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Breaking into Academia: OPN Talks with Audrey Ellerbee

7. March 2013

OSA member and Stanford assistant professor Audrey Ellerbee talks with Optics & Photonics News about her path into academia. Thanks to OSA member Brooke Hester for working with Audrey to gather her insights.

What is your background prior to becoming a professor?

My background is pretty typical for someone in my field, but two things stand out. First, my appointments spanned several disciplines. I received my B.S. in electrical engineering, went on to graduate school for my Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in chemistry and chemical biology. Second, I took time off to do other things between career transitions. Before I started my Ph.D., I spent a year teaching math and computer science in the department of infocommunications technology at Ngee Ann Polytechnic in Singapore through the Princeton-in-Asia program. Immediately after completing my degree, I did a year-long fellowship working in public policy as the 2007-8 OSA/SPIE Arthur H. Guenther Congressional Fellow. Although non-traditional, these career choices were very helpful in broadening my skill set and experience.

How did you enter academia?

The beginning of my career was a little unusual in that I was offered a position directly out of graduate school but did not actually begin my work until three years later. It was during that time that I did the policy fellowship and postdoctoral work.

What are your current responsibilities?

I can categorize them into five areas: research, teaching, mentoring, service and administration. Of these, research is the broadest and most difficult to define because my progress is intimately tied with that of my graduate students. Research tasks include writing proposals and papers, conducting experiments, analyzing data and giving talks. Teaching encompasses everything from generating new content for a course to preparing lectures and homework assignments to managing teaching assistants. My mentoring work involves tracking the progress of my graduate students and any other students or mentees to whom I play an advisory role. Service includes any work for university committees, my department or my professional communities. Finally, my administrative responsibilities are day-to-day things such as managing budgets, hiring people, planning travel, ordering equipment, etc.

How does your role differ from the one you had as a grad student or postdoc?

The major differences are the volume of responsibilities and the authority to manage people. As a graduate student, I did some work in all of the areas I just described, but most of it was optional and limited in scope. For example, my decision to serve as student body president meant that I worked on many university committees, but that was a voluntary extracurricular activity. The teaching I did (apart from my work in Singapore) was as a teaching assistant, and I only gave one lecture as a graduate student; I never had to design a new course. Now, I have a much greater number and broader range of tasks that I am expected to do.

Managing people is also very new to me. It takes time to learn to hire the right people, to help students stay on track, and to build a work culture that is consistent with your vision. This last goal is the biggest challenge that I face. I believe that my lab will run much more smoothly if the culture is right. Although it is not always that simple, I make an effort to be systematic in my approach to the work environment so that it is easier for people to connect with and work well in my lab.

What advice would you give to others looking to break into academia?

Develop a clear vision for what you would like to do and begin planning before you start your postdoctoral work. If at all possible, choose a postdoc that will complement your current background, broaden your experience, and allow you to move into a new area.

Audrey Ellerbee ( is an assistant professor of electrical engineering in the department of applied physics at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., U.S.A.

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