Career Paths: A Conversation with Jannick Rolland

29. May 2013

OSA Director-at-Large Jannick Rolland talks with Optics & Photonics News about her path to academia. Thanks to OSA member Brooke Hester for working with Jannick to gather her insights.

What is your background prior to becoming a professor?

I was a postdoc at an academic institution that evolved into a research staff position. I was there for a total of six years. 

How did you enter academia?

My funding was beginning to dry up, so I decided that it was time to look for a new position. Shortly thereafter I spoke with my former advisor at an OSA Annual meeting, and he recommended that I tell everyone that I was looking for a job. So that’s exactly what I did. I mentioned to an old classmate that I was back on the job market, and he introduced me to M.J. Soileau, who was then the director of the Center for Research and Education on Optics and Lasers (CREOL) at the University of Central Florida. About eight months after that meeting, I applied at CREOL and was offered a position. I also interviewed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; however, because I was not a U.S. citizen at the time, I decided that it was not my best option. 

What are your current responsibilities?

A few years ago, I joined the Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester. I am currently a chair professor, the Brian J. Thompson Professor of Optical Engineering, the director of the R.E. Hopkins Center and also the director of the planned NSF Center for Freeform Optics. My responsibilities are teaching, research, mentoring students on every aspect of their work (and sometimes on a more personal level) and serving the Institute of Optics, my university, various societies and scientific communities locally and globally. For example, I am a professor invitee at the Institute d'Optique in France , and I help teach some short courses in optical instrumentation. 

How does your role now differ from your previous roles?

My responsibilities have only grown over time. Now, in addition to my other tasks, I have to raise funds to support as many as 20 people and keep them employed through economic ups and downs. That is considerably more accountability than I had as a graduate student focused on my Ph.D. topic, or as a postdoc working on only a couple of projects.

What was the biggest challenge you faced?

It was securing funding for my research in instrumentation innovation. This work requires working in multiple disciplines, and getting funding can be quite difficult—particularly because it can take years to complete a project. Although the National Institutes of Health was a good fit for my work, it was difficult to obtain grants from there because my institution was not well-positioned for medical research. I had to develop a business strategy that allowed me to focus on the science, rather than just fundraising. It hasn’t been easy, but I still have a passion for medical instrumentation, and I have succeeded through relentless effort.

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

Get as much experience as you can as a postdoc or research scientist for up to three years before entering the tenure track. Your mentors during this period will be your advocates for life. If possible, also work in industry for up to six years. Try to get a position in a reputable company, so that you can build your network along with your skills. Look for an institution that fits with your long term goals. That said, you can make some shorter-term strategic decisions while building your long-term plans and looking for the best way to advance your vision.

Jannick Rolland ( is the Brian J. Thompson Professor of Optical Engineering and Director of the R.E. Hopkins Center for Optical Design & Engineering and the Planned Center for Freeform Optics at the University of Rochester.


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Read to Succeed

20. May 2013

Milton Chang

I began reading several business publications when I was in graduate school in the 1960s. I had a hard time understanding them at first, but it became progressively easier, and over time, they gave me valuable insight into that world.

Whether you plan to start a company or not, I believe that every engineer can benefit from knowing something about business and management. You’ll have a better sense of how technology fits into real-world enterprises; become more effective on the job; learn how to interact with management; and lead people and projects, even when you make engineering decisions.

Moreover, as a practical matter, it is almost impossible to maintain an edge in a 40-year career as a pure technologist. Learning about business and management enables engineers to move into managerial positions and to remain vital and productive. It gives a technical person the opportunity to oversee projects that follow a product’s development from the idea stage to market application. Moreover, anyone who does want to start a business will embark on the process with less fear of the unknown and avoid fatal mistakes from the start.

Reading business magazines and newspapers is a good way to begin learning about the business world. There are four publications on my can’t-miss reading list: Bloomberg Businessweek, Forbes, Fortune and The Wall Street Journal. While some of these periodicals overlap in content, each one offers a different emphasis and perspective.

Bloomberg Businessweek (formerly Business Week)
If you only subscribe to one business magazine, this should be it. I like the section on “Global Economics,” which offers useful background information that helps drive decision-making in industry. I also like the “Technology” department, which keeps me abreast of what’s new with a wide range of products and businesses beyond optics and photonics.

This magazine zooms in on the business strategies of specific companies. The “Technology” section highlights interesting new products and innovative ideas. “Entrepreneurs” covers the process that entrepreneurs go through to start companies and explores how they deal with the challenges they encounter along the way. “Investing” provides valuable information that guides how to make wise investment choices.

Fortune gets into more specifics about successful, high-profile individuals. What do these people do and how do they live? I always find an interesting scoop in the “Scandals” section. It describes ill-gotten wealth and serves as a good reminder that we cannot always believe what we encounter.

The Wall Street Journal
Published six days a week, this is a great day-to-day resource that provides up-to-date information about what’s going on in business. It is a must-read for anyone who wants to optimize their investment in anything—whether it is in the stock market or real estate.

Other gems
Through reading, you can open yourself up to a vast array of career options—and simply broaden your perspective on life. With that in mind, I also recommend reading a local newspaper every day and following the Economist to learn more about the rest of the world.

And, of course, I wish more people would read my book, Toward Entrepreneurship, Establishing a Successful Technology Business. It is an easy read, and it covers much of what you’ll learn in an MBA program, but it is customized for the individuals in our industry.

Yes, you are successful because you were focused enough to become an expert in your field. Broadening a bit to strike a balance can help you to accomplish even more. Reading these publications is a painless way to start!

Milton Chang ( is the managing director of Incubic Management and an OSA Fellow. He was president of Newport and New Focus, and he took both companies public. He is the director of mBio Diagnostics and Aurrion. He is a trustee of Caltech and a member of the SEC Advisory Committee on Small and Emerging Companies.

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Building a Good Team: The Rule of 8 Percent

15. May 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 am a young faculty member in a physics department working to establish myself, and I need the help of good students and post-docs to move forward. I was surprised to find that dealing with the personal issues within my group is even more difficult than obtaining funding. Do you have any advice on how to form a good team? Andreas, U.S.A.

Building and managing a good team is a challenge in all fields, particularly during the early stages of your career. Many scientists struggle with this, and there is no simple trick that can guarantee your success. However, I can offer some advice to help you along the way.

In an ideal world, all of the people on your team would work together productively and without conflict. However, in practice, that likely won’t be the case. My experience and that of many of my colleagues leads me to believe in the “rule of 8 percent” -- the idea that, in most group settings, roughly 8 percent of the people will be problematic to work with.

You will invest a lot of time and energy in your group members: training and teaching them, introducing them to other colleagues, promoting them, etc. This is normal and appropriate; it only becomes a problem when you receive little in return for your efforts. When you reach the point where you feel that your time is being wasted, it is time to address the issue. Sometimes, regardless of what you do, you will not be able to turn people into good colleagues.

Unfortunately, it is often difficult to identify the “8 percent” individuals at the outset, since it takes time to get to know people and their work habits. If possible, you should start new employees with a short training period as a trial before offering a longer-term position. However, this is not always an option due to the policies of academic institutions.

So, if someone in your group is making your life miserable, try to stay calm. First, have a conversation with him or her about the problems you are having. Sometimes it is possible to resolve even serious conflicts through open, honest communication. If this doesn’t work , you may want to suggest that the person leave your group. If you can think of another position for which he or she would be a better fit, try to help him or her make a smooth transition. If this is not possible, do your best to remove the person from your important projects and be sure that any sensitive information is difficult to access. Talk to university officials for help and stay firm. If you do nothing and allow the situation to get out of control, it could demoralize your strong contributors and hurt the group as a whole. The sooner you act, the better off you will be.

Although group problems can seem overwhelming, the good news is that the majority of your team should be much easier to work with. Focus on identifying everyone’s strengths and how they can complement one another. Finding what your students love to do and delegating their activities accordingly is a crucial part of your job as team leader. Although I have certainly worked with some difficult people over the course of my career, they are not the ones who stick out in my mind. More important are the other 92 percent of my students and colleagues who have been a joy to work with.

Pablo Artal ( 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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Working at a U.S. Military Lab: What You Can Expect

7. May 2013

Michael Duncan

Sometimes people ask me what it’s like to work at a military laboratory. Having worked at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) for my entire career, I can’t really compare it to other work environments—but my experience has been good overall. My job has allowed me to pursue a diverse array of projects and to expand my horizons, both in fundamental and applied optics.  It also gave me the opportunity to work for a few years at the Office of Naval Research, the Navy’s science and technology funding organization. Here’s what to expect if you go to work for a national lab like NRL.

You can expect to write proposals, since NRL is mostly funded by customers outside of the lab. (This is now probably a constant for any working scientist in industry, government, or academia!) Thus, you certainly need to write coherently and well.

You can also expect to work in a small group of 2 to 5 colleagues, so the ability to work and communicate well with other people is critical. At the Ph.D. level, you will be looked at as an expert in a certain area (a subject matter expert, or SME, in government-speak), but you will need to quickly use your training to expand your knowledge into related areas.

Publishing and presenting your work at conferences is important, but you might not be using the same venues that you did as a student. Classified research is a likely component of what you do, but probably not everything. You won’t be teaching, although government scientists often have adjunct professorships at local schools. To work in a U.S. military lab, you must be a citizen of the United States.

In a government or military lab, you are hired because of your research specialty and your ability to solve problems. You will be more constrained on your research topics than you would be in academia, but you can also contribute to solving a much broader range of problems, from basic science to applied technology. This is the aspect of my career that has been the most satisfying.

All of the armed services have a kind of “dual-track” for advancement as a scientific professional. There is the traditional approach of moving from research into management, and there is also a “science and technology” track that allows you to advance in stature and pay without having to become a manager.

Sometimes having a position in a military lab can isolate you from the broader technical field you work in, so it is extremely important to stay active in a professional organization such as OSA. The Optical Society has allowed me to remain connected to the larger field of optics and the people doing the most innovative research. This has not only benefitted me; it has also made me a more valuable employee to NRL.

In my view, the less favorable aspects of working for the military are the heavy amount of government paperwork, the training and security requirements, and some of the research limitations. Overall, though, I’ve found that a career in a military lab provides great opportunities to work with government and military organizations to advance science and technology. You will interact with many smart and motivated people, in and out of uniform, and you may work with world-class equipment and test platforms such as F/A-18 jets, aircraft carriers, and nuclear submarines. Your position can lead you to other careers in government as well. In short, investing in your country can be a great way to invest in yourself.

Michael D. Duncan ( is a research physicist at the Naval Research Laboratory.

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Looking into the Career “Crystal Ball”

2. May 2013

Arti Agrawal  

Throughout our professional lives, we ask ourselves many questions: When and how will I get my dream job? Will I be as successful as I hope to be? Why haven’t I been promoted? Is my job secure? Although it may seem that only a fortune teller can provide answers, this isn’t actually the case.                             

I recently took an online class on strategic thinking, and it struck me that we’re probably asking the wrong questions. Rather than focusing on big, abstract ideas, we should be thinking about specifics that we can control. Below are some factors to consider when you are attempting to predict your career future. 

What are the goals of my institution, and how does my work contribute to them?

Demonstrating that you understand the long-term vision of your organization increases your job security and chances of promotion. For example, my university is currently making strategic changes. I need to be aware of where the organization is headed and figure out how my work fits into our new goals. If I can demonstrate this awareness to my department head, then I become a more integral part of the future of the organization.

What are the trends in the sector that I work in, and is my organization keeping up?

It is important to be aware of the state of your field, and how your organization is doing in the current environment. Are there new opportunities that you can take advantage of, or areas that your department could improve upon? You should be honest with yourself if you don’t like what you see. If your area of research is shrinking and funding is scarce, is this really where you want to be?

Am I prepared to adapt to change?

Consider the example of digital cameras: They completely changed the way we take pictures, and now almost no one uses film cameras. Could something similar happen to me? My expertise is in numerical modeling methods. Before the advent of commercial software, modeling was the domain of experts. Today, this is not the case—people don’t always need extensive training or experience with modeling methods to simulate devices. What does that indicate for my future? How should I deal with this change and ensure that my skills remain relevant?

Why me?

Even for a position for which my expertise will be very useful, I have to make the case for myself. Why pick me? Amongst the many applicants for this position, what makes me special?

These questions still require a lot of thought, but with some research, it is possible to come up with concrete answers that will help keep your career on track.

There are a number of tools that can help guide your thinking. The website mindtools has a very good collection of helpful resources (some of my favorites are the TOWS matrix, Core Competence Analysis, USP analysis and Scenario Analysis). There is also some fascinating reading to be found in The Economist and the Harvard Business Review.

I guess this means some homework for me—and maybe for you too!

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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