Writing Up a (Scientific) Storm

30. July 2013

Arti Agrawal

As a Ph.D. student, I was exposed to only two kinds of science writing: textbooks and journal articles. When our work reached a sufficiently advanced stage, we wrote our own papers and submitted them to journals. I still remember the excitement of submitting my first paper—and the disappointment of my first rejection. My energy and attention, like those of other graduate students I knew, were focused on research. Writing about our work was a bit of a chore.

However, since that time my perception of writing in science has changed dramatically. Today, I see it as a creative process almost on par with research. Writing should be an enjoyable process of content creation that allows you to present your research in an effective manner and express your individual style.

Not only can writing be personally fulfilling, it’s also professionally important. Doing good science is fantastic, but if that work does not reach other people, then much of our purpose remains unachieved. Having well-written papers can help get you published—which can be critical to progressing in your career. Increasingly, employers are also looking for examples of less technical writing skills. Writing does not have to be a hardship—you just have to start thinking about the task in a new way.

Consider writing a blog. The potential outlets for your work are more varied than ever before. For example, a blog (such as OSA’s blog, this career blog, or my own blog) is a great way to communicate more informally about topics in science. This format gives you a lot of freedom in choosing the subject matter, technical level and content type of your posts. You can express opinions on other people’s work, policy and current issues in science.

Take advantage of new opportunities in traditional publications. Science magazines such as OPN allow for more creative writing than peer-review journals do. They include letters to the editor, reviews, opinions and interviews. Even with journals, the ability to upload supplementary data, videos and other multimedia means we can be quite innovative in how we engage others with our work. Papers no longer need to be collections of static graphs and text.

Utilize social media. By using social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, we can target information to specific people or to large groups. On Twitter, we can draw attention to a piece of work by using just 140 characters. Online availability of content means we can open a window and speak to the whole world—an exciting development! What you write today can be read all over the world in a way that wasn’t possible just a decade ago.

These days, I miss writing if I don’t do it every so often—something I never would have imagined. In fact, I like it so much that I co-wrote an entire book! The more you write, the easier it gets, so take advantage of every opportunity and seek out new ways to practice your skills.

Arti Agrawal (arti_agrawal@hotmail.com) 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 http://artiagrawal.wordpress.com.

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To Find the Right Job, Learn How to Ask the Right Questions

22. July 2013

Lisa Balbes

This post was adapted from content on the Career blog of the American Chemical Society (ACS) with the kind permission of ACS and the author.

While I was in graduate school and for a few years afterwards, I excelled at finding good apartments as I moved from place to place. Eventually, I returned to my hometown and became ready to buy a house. When my father asked me what I was looking for, I started to list all the qualities I had sought in an apartment. He pointed out that many of those things didn’t matter when one is looking for a house, and vice versa. While both apartments and houses are places to live, there are significant differences between them.

I was recently reminded of this incident when a graduate student came to me for help in finding a job after graduation. I asked her what she was looking for in a new position, and she proceeded to talk about the techniques that she had used in school—instruments with which she was familiar and classes that she had taken. While those are all important parts of your education, they are not what you want to focus on when looking for a new job.

When determining your requirements for your next job, think more broadly. Identify not just what you did, but what you accomplished and why it was important. Most candidates make the mistake of being too specific in their description of their previous job. They use their resume to list what they’ve done, often in excruciating detail. The odds of another company hiring you to do exactly what you did previously is fairly small –and you probably want to try something at least a little bit different anyway.

Ask yourself not “Exactly what have I done?” but “How can I generalize my skills to cover more territory?” This makes your skills applicable to a much broader range of employers. Since so many resumes are electronically searched for certain keywords, it’s even more important to make sure your resume includes the general terms employers are using, not the narrower ones that describe precisely what you did before.

At the same time, be specific when it comes to “softer” skills such as communications, teamwork and leadership. While most of the resumes I see are too specific when it comes to technical abilities, they are often overly general with these softer proficiencies. Virtually every resume claims that the applicant has “excellent communication skills” (probably because someone told them that was important), but few include tangible examples.

In this case, ask yourself not “What skills do I have?” but “What particular accomplishment do I have that demonstrates my proficiency?” For example, did you write more than 25 standards for manufacturing procedures, resulting in an 18 percent decrease in production errors? Or did you testify before Congress about the importance of your research, resulting in a 150 percent increase in funding for your field over the next three years? Both demonstrate communication skills, but in very different ways. Are you better at oral or written communication? Are you more comfortable debating technical issues with other scientists, or explaining theories to non-scientists?

Once you learn how to categorize, generalize and apply your specific technical accomplishments to other areas—and to identify concrete examples of softer skills—you will be in a good position to prove that you can do whatever you say you can. In other words, you’ll have the right answers when others start asking the questions.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists: New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press.

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How to Find the Right Postdoc Position

16. July 2013
Ming Li
 
Many recent Ph.D. students would like to land a faculty position at a university or research institute soon after graduating. However, there are only a few of these opportunities available every year. For each opening, there will likely be many qualified applicants from all over the world, with very strong CVs and publication records. In this climate, it is extremely challenging to break into academia immediately following grad school, and so a postdoctoral position has become an important springboard to a tenure-track academic job.
 
For the past four years, I was a postdoctoral research fellow in two Canadian photonics research groups: the Microwave Photonics Research Laboratory at the University of Ottawa, under the supervision of Jianping Yao, and the Ultrafast Optical Processing group at the Institute National de la Recherche Scientifique (INRS), under the supervision of José Azaña. My time as a postdoc has been a great experience that others could benefit from as well, and so here I provide my personal perspective and advice about how to find and take advantage of a postdoctoral position.
 
Find the right match for your research interests. A postdoctoral research contract is usually for about two years. Due to this short timeline, professors are looking to hire researchers who can be immediately involved in the research activities of the group and make meaningful contributions, particularly in the form of journal publications or conference presentations. The capability of the postdoc to bring new ideas into ongoing projects is critical to hiring professors when they are assessing candidates.
 
Use your network. A nice recommendation letter from someone who is familiar with the professor with whom you’d like to work can play a key role in successfully applying for a postdoctoral position. Professors often approach friends and colleagues to recommend a candidate who has the necessary background and capabilities. Try to take advantage of your existing connections, and work to broaden your network in addition to strengthening your CV.
 
Hone your communication skills. In Canadian labs, a postdoc serves as the liaison between students and the professor. In addition to working on his or her own research, a postdoc also assists the professor in guiding students, scheduling experiments, arranging group meetings, etc. Therefore, interpersonal skills are crucial, in and out of the lab. I learned these abilities from my two supervisors and practiced them throughout my time in Canada. Now, I use these important skills when working with my own students in China.
 
Seek out useful collaborations. On a related topic, it is important to take advantage of opportunities to form helpful relationships between different research labs. A postdoc must be able to negotiate and communicate with the people in other groups in order to complete projects in the most effective way. These collaborative experiences not only helped me to finish some of my most interesting research, but also to build a large professional network—which can be even more important in the long-term.
 
Although it can be difficult to get the tenure-track position that you’re hoping for immediately after finishing your Ph.D., don’t be discouraged. There are many valuable skills that you can learn as a postdoctoral researcher, and this experience will put you on the right track to accomplish the rest of your career goals.
 
Dr. Ming Li (ml@semi.ac.cn) is a full professor at the Institute of Semiconductors at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. 

Academic Careers, Career Path, Communication Skills, Graduate School, Job Search, Ph.D. Perspectives, Postdocs , , , , , , ,

The Career Uncertainty Principle

2. July 2013
Rocío Borrego-Varillas 
 
In physics, the uncertainty principle states that we cannot precisely measure the position and momentum of a subatomic particle at the same time. Many students approaching the completion of their Ph.D. experience a unique career-related variation of this principle: The closer they get to graduation, the more difficult it is to make plans for the future.
 
Although it’s exciting to complete your degree, facing a new professional stage can be stressful.  You can minimize this anxiety by planning early and developing the skills you’ll need to reach your long-term goals. Certain abilities are valuable regardless of whether you want to pursue a career in academia or in industry. These “transferable skills” include networking, communication and fund management. 
 
There are many ways to develop your transferable skills. In fact, some doctoral programs even include specialized courses on these proficiencies. Here are some of my suggestions:
 
Develop your oral communication skills. You can find many resources on the Internet. I especially like “English communication for scientists,” a free tool from Nature Education with tutorials on topics ranging from giving conference presentations to preparing lectures. Many conferences also provide very helpful seminars on scientific communication (for example, Jean-luc Doumont’s video and OPN article on “Creating Effective Slides”).
 
Become a better writer. Although we have many day-to-day writing obligations for school or work, it is a good idea to build your non-technical writing skills as well. There are a wide variety of outlets where you can practice: write for a blog, local newspaper, magazine or outreach book (like “El laser, la luz de nuestro tiempo”). For example, you can write for Optics & Photonics News (OPN), the membership magazine of The Optical Society; OPFocus, an independent magazine reviewing important recent developments in the fields of optics and photonics; and of course OPN’s Bright Futures career blog! 
 
Create a network. Student-oriented conferences such as the IONS meetings offer a great chance to build a professional network and meet colleagues. Conferences and technical meetings in general will help you to learn about different subject areas and introduce you to potential employers. Many offer professional development events, such as presentations by journal editors or meetings with entrepreneurs, which provide insight into different professions and the qualifications they require.
 
Learn fund raising and grant management. A good way to practice is to help your supervisor with his or her proposal by writing the paragraphs corresponding to your project description. Another good opportunity to get experience in this realm is through an OSA student chapter, as you will often file activity grants applications and raise funds to support chapter events. 
 
My advice for those of you running up against your “uncertainty principle” is to make it work in your favor—by keeping as many doors open as possible and learning as you go. With so many exciting possibilities to explore, perhaps certainty is overrated.
 
Rocío Borrego-Varillas (rborrego@uji.es) received her Ph.D. from the University of Salamanca, Spain. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Universitat Jaume I, Spain, and has been recently awarded a Marie Curie Fellowship to conduct her research at the Politecnico di Milano, Italy.

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