From Academia to Industry, Diversity Is Key

23. April 2013

Balint Horvath

As laser pioneer Herwig Kogelnik said in an interview, “[breakthroughs] seem to be happening at the interface between disciplines.” Indeed, the precursor to the laser—the maser—was itself born outside the realm of optics, in the field of microwave engineering. Such cross-pollination can happen on a smaller scale too, in a university or industrial research lab. Regardless of whether you choose to pursue a career in academia or industry after you finish your Ph.D., chances are that you’ll need a diverse set of skills to do your job well.

I chose to step outside of academia but to remain in research: I joined the corporate research lab of a large engineering company in Switzerland called ABB. Our ultimate goal was to make a profit rather than to “merely” enrich our scientific knowledge base—quite a departure from the philosophy of my professors in graduate school. The research topic was also foreign to me, as it was more closely linked to plasma physics than optics. However, my knowledge of optical technologies helped me to understand this unfamiliar subject area, and I found it both enlightening and satisfying to dig into a vast new field. My multidisciplinary team regarded problems as challenges that we could attack from multiple angles due to our varied backgrounds.

In today’s competitive environment, companies are realizing the necessity of hiring people with a multitude of skills. This diversity ultimately benefits the organization as a whole. Studies have shown that multidisciplinary teams provide three times more high-quality solutions to problems than non-diverse ones.

For a diverse team to work together effectively, its members must have “soft” skills, such as the ability to promote trust, respect each other and exhibit kindness, in addition to their core capabilities. Just as with technical abilities, these proficiencies will vary from person to person, and a team benefits from having a variety of personalities with complementary skills.

In addition to encouraging diversity in the teams with whom you work, you should cultivate it in yourself by developing a well-rounded portfolio of personal and professional skills. Here are a few suggestions for how to do that:

• Figure out what your strengths and weaknesses are. This will help you to recognize what you have to offer a group and identify areas for improvement.
• Get involved. I helped to set up the first OSA student chapter in Germany in 2007 and the IONS network shortly thereafter. These activities were a fun, helpful way to make new connections.
• Truly listen to others, regardless of their place in the hierarchy. Quieting your own thinking allows you to really learn from someone else. It also shows the other person that his or her thoughts are appreciated.
• Fully immerse yourself in different cultures by occasionally traveling alone. This independence will give you the confidence you need to actively seek new challenges and experiences.
• Read about other disciplines and attend conference sessions outside your field. This will help you to cultivate new interests and find different applications for your work.

Diversifying my skills and knowledge has opened many doors for me. I encourage you to do the same and keep an open mind about the direction your career path may take. Who knows—maybe we’ll bump into each other at a conference where we both learn something new.

Balint Horvath (balint.horvath@gmail.com) received his Ph.D. in physics from the Max-Planck-Institute of Quantum Optics in 2009. Shortly afterwards he joined ABB Switzerland Ltd's Corporate Research Lab, where he conducted research related to switchgear devices. Recently, he has joined another energy company's R&D program in a lower management position.

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The Elusive Search for Career Freedom

17. April 2013

Bob Jopson

A recent entry into the world of paychecks described his new job to me as “really fun,” but then added regretfully that he did not have the “freedom” he desired. Over the years, I have heard “freedom” used in this context many times, and the lack of it is almost always described in a wistful tone. A job might be challenging, fulfilling and well-paying, but somehow this is all for naught if the job lacks “freedom”– a code word for the sad fact that you usually cannot work on whatever strikes your fancy. Not surprisingly, the company, agency or university that is paying for your equipment, travel and salary expects something in return, and you can’t always choose the tasks required of you.

Our expectations of “freedom” arise in college or graduate school, when professors are our closest examples of professionals in our chosen field. We aspire to be just like them. They often encourage us to explore and pursue any wild idea we may have, so it may seem that they themselves are working without constraints. Well, hardly. The work day of most professors I know is consumed by committee work, teaching obligations, proposal writing and various support tasks. In their spare time, they can work on anything they want—so long as it does not require students, equipment or travel. Otherwise, they need to find someone to fork over the cash to fund the project. Once the contract is signed, the professors are obligated to satiate the person providing the funding.

Your job search will be easier and more successful if you seek an employer who needs whatever it is that you want to do, rather than looking for flexibility in the job description. This will allow you to do work that you like and keep your employer happy at the same time. Most people’s technical interests evolve in response to their environment, so your activities will tend to remain aligned with those of your organization.

You will soon be consumed by matters and problems arising in your job, which will stimulate new interests as well. You may even find that working under the constraints of a well-defined project unleashes your creativity in a way that you never would have expected. It is therefore important that you find employment that challenges your abilities and provides the opportunity to learn something. It helps when the work environment allows coworkers to discuss matters frankly without engendering hard feelings. 

Also consider which aspect of “freedom” is most important to you—is it the freedom to choose your hours, select your favorite tasks or projects, or create your own vision of something? Many people want to make a difference in the world: to make better devices, devise a better way of doing something, discover new effects, send forth well-educated graduates, etc. A number of my acquaintances have left comfortable situations for the uncertainties of startups, working stressful 16-hour days with very narrowly defined goals. Most find it to be stimulating, and if the start-up folds, they seek another one. They have almost no freedom on technical topics, but maximal freedom to make an impact. Many have told me that you cannot imagine the satisfaction you feel when a product on which you have been toiling for a year or two finally hits the marketplace, and you see it spreading throughout the country or world.

Many factors enter into a search for a position. Be wary of putting undue emphasis on the chimera of “freedom.” There are other factors that are more important and enduring.

Bob Jopson (virgin@alcatel-lucent.com) works on optical communications at Bell Labs, Alcatel-Lucent.

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Making the Most of Your Ph.D. Experience in a Developing Country

9. April 2013

Angela Dudley

I like being different. In fact, one of the reasons I decided to pursue a career in physics is that there are very few scientists in South Africa, and even fewer female scientists. My thinking was that fewer people in the game meant less competition and more opportunities. Each year, there are only about 23 Ph.D. graduates produced per million South African citizens (and this encompasses all academic disciplines, not just the sciences.) Here, I provide a few tips for getting your Ph.D. in a country where high-level degrees are not the norm.  

Find a dynamic mentor.
At the end of my undergraduate studies, I chose the topic of my research project based not only on my interests, but also on the potential supervisors with whom it would put me in contact. Having a helpful ally is important for any graduate student, but even more so for those in a country that has fewer resources available for Ph.D. students. I had a checklist for the mentor I wanted. He or she needed to be:

• Available and approachable
• Able to provide me with the opportunity to attend and present at conferences (even if they were only local ones)
• Good at sourcing funding, and
• Well-connected in the South African science community.

While on vacation from university, I got a short-term position at the CSIR’s National Laser Centre that enabled me to test the waters for future opportunities. This was the ideal interview process: I got to see if I enjoyed the environment and the research, and my future Ph.D. supervisor was able to assess if I was a good fit for the group.

During this time, I saw that my mentor was ambitious and dynamic. He had an impeccable track record at securing funding and many local and international contacts. I could tell that, if I wanted to distinguish myself in my field, he could teach me how to do exactly that.

Be proactive. 
Where networks don’t exist, you must create them. Our student body formed local OSA and SPIE student chapters, which opened up many opportunities for me and other students, including travel grants, funds to bring in world-renowned lecturers, the possibility of hosting our own student conference (IONS) and discounts on publications. The OSA Recent Graduates program will also provide you with volunteer opportunities, so that you can gain experience and showcase your potential to science and business leaders from around the world.

Return the favor.
Admittedly, I pursued this field in part because I knew I would be a minority. But I hope this will not always be the case. I would like to encourage young people in South Africa and other developing nations to take advantage of the opportunities in the sciences and use their influence to help others along the same path. I intend to give back to the community by becoming as effective a teacher as my mentors have been for me.

Angela Dudley (ADudley@csir.co.za) conducted her Ph.D. research at the CSIR National Laser Centre based in Pretoria, South Africa. She received her Ph.D. in June 2012 from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and subsequently commenced her current position of Postdoctoral Fellow within the Mathematical Optics group at the CSIR National Laser Centre.

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Do I Really Have to Go to All Those Meetings?

2. April 2013

Pablo Artal

OSA Fellow Pablo Artal has kindly allowed OPN’s Bright Futures career blog to adapt and 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 Pablo: I have a faculty position and am rather active in research. I publish about one paper per year, but I never attend conferences or meetings because I hate traveling and I am not very good at giving talks. Do you think I will be able to further advance in my scientific career? Why do meetings still seem to be so important in this Internet era? Are there any alternatives? –Andrew, Canada

Many scientists wonder how important it is to go to different meetings: How many should they attend, and which meetings should they choose? I travel so often that I used to joke with my colleagues that I sometimes felt more like a traveling salesman than a professor!

Science is a social field, so getting acquainted with colleagues is a fundamental part of this business. I know some people who travel nearly all the time, some who go on a few trips per year and others who never attend any meetings at all. It is therefore possible to have a career without attending many conferences, but in my opinion one cannot be very successful (sorry!). The personal aspect is critical—everyone likes to put a face to a familiar name, and you will have more opportunities for collaboration with this type of exposure. You need to make yourself and your research known, and to take the opportunity to meet others in your field. There is no replacement for direct, face-to-face contact, although it is true that Skype and teleconferences can save you a few trips.

The number of meetings that you should attend depends on many variables, including your field and where you are in your career. Lack of funding can be an obstacle, but even if you are short of money, remember that this will be a good investment for your future. In many cases, with good planning and low-cost airfares, you can stay within a reasonable budget. In general, regardless of other factors, you should always try to accept invitations to give invited lectures. Taking part in this “invitation” circuit is crucial for advancing your career. It is a part of the system and a way to promote your research and yourself.

In short, you should plan to attend and participate in at least some meetings. I assure you that I understand how difficult it can be to travel. However, in this case, it’s in your best interest to force yourself out of your comfort zone. Initially, go to small meetings rather than large conferences. You will have easier access to key people, and the social interaction is usually much better. If you’re worried about your presentation skills, check out my blog post for some tips on giving successful talks.

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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