Do You Have the Right Attitude?

27. January 2014

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.

Have you ever had a great day, where everything was going right and one success just seemed to lead into the next one? Conversely, have you ever had a bad day, where you started off in a poor mood, and all you could see was the bad in everything? Did those good or bad days sometimes extend into weeks?

We’ve all experienced stretches of time where things seem to keep going in the same direction. But did you ever stop to consider that it might be your attitude that is the driving factor?

Sometimes, having a somewhat negative attitude towards a particular task can be a productive thing. For example, if you are a technical editor, you start a project by thinking, “What is wrong with this document, and how can I change it to better meet the needs of the intended audience?” You go in looking for things that are wrong, knowing that they are there, and don’t stop looking until you find and fix them.

While working from the hypothesis that “there’s something wrong and I must find it” is helpful in some cases, approaching every situation that way can work against you. If you are in the habit of always looking for problems and mismatches, you will be at a decided disadvantage when you are searching or interviewing for a new job.

Instead of focusing on how well you fit the company and how your professional accomplishments are ideally suited to the requirements of the job, you may continue looking for problems and ways that you don’t fit.

There is no job that is absolutely perfect for you—there will always be something you don’t like or don’t know how to do. What you’re looking for is a position where the good outweighs the bad, and you enjoy doing the good parts so much that the other parts are only minor annoyances. When looking for a new job, it is important to focus on the positive, looking at the skills and experiences that make you qualified for that position instead of dwelling on areas where you don’t fit.

This becomes even more important when you get to the interview stage. The interviewer expects you to convince him or her not only that you can do the job, but that you really want it. You should describe in detail how perfectly suited you are for the position, and how your prior accomplishments have prepared you to do exactly what they need. In order to sell yourself to the interviewers, you first have to sell yourself to yourself.

After all, if you can’t convince yourself that you’re perfect for the job, how do you expect to convince a potential employer? So the next time someone tells you to keep a positive attitude about your job search, remember that they are right. Be positive that there is a job out there for which you’re the perfect candidate—and keep looking until you find it.

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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Learning by Teaching

13. January 2014

Takayuki Umakoshi

The people in my family are not very familiar with science. I sometimes wish that I could discuss my work with them, but it is not easy to explain my research to people without a scientific background. This is just one of the many instances in which we as scientists need to communicate our work to people without extensive scientific knowledge. Communication skills are crucial to your success—for example, when applying for government funding for your research. Even if you get tremendous results, they won’t have an impact if you cannot explain them properly and make their significance understood.

Engaging children with science
My OSA/SPIE student chapter at Osaka University, Japan, recently held an outreach activity called “Super HIKARIJUKU.” During this annual event, we invite about 50 elementary school students to our campus and showed them how fascinating science can be through optics-related experiments. This year I served as a student chair, and the event was very successful. The kids had a great time and learned a lot about light. After helping to organize the event, I realized that discussing science with children taught me some important lessons about how to communicate scientific topics with non-scientific people.

Communicating successfully
In order to get our message across to the students, we had to do a lot of research. We asked parents and teachers what the children already knew, so we were aware of their level of scientific knowledge. We also found out about the latest popular cartoon characters, so that we could use fun images and concepts that children already recognize and enjoy to engage them even further. Practicing and testing our demonstrations was also very important—we showed the experiments to non-scientific people so that they could give us advice on the best way to make ourselves understood and to get kids excited about the subject matter. It took quite a bit of planning and effort, but we ended up with a really good set of experiments. Our thoughtful, hands-on demonstrations allowed us to explain complex concepts to children who might not have understood them otherwise.

Applying these skills
The communication skills that we learned by working with children are also applicable to adults outside of our very specific fields. I discovered that you need to be able to break down complicated ideas into simple, understandable pieces so that they can be useful to a wider audience. Think about what language will be most comprehensible and interesting to your listeners. Where possible, hands-on demonstrations are extremely helpful and can make seemingly abstract concepts much more engaging. If you are capable of making your research easier to understand, then it will be much easier to communicate its importance. Through my work with OSA, I realized that outreach activities like these are not only informational for our audiences, but also teach us how to communicate effectively. Teaching is learning.
 
Takayuki Umakoshi (umakoshi@ap.eng.osaka-u.ac.jp) is a Ph.D. student at Osaka University, Japan, and president of the Osaka University OSA/SPIE student chapter. For more information, please check out his website: https://sites.google.com/site/takayukiumakoshiwebsites/.

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Combatting Engineering Stereotypes

8. January 2014

Brian Monacelli

Quick! Think of a well-known engineer, real or fictional, from pop culture.

I bet that took longer than expected, right?

Perhaps Scotty from Star Trek came to mind. He is admired among his fictional peers because the fate of the crew often depended on his technical prowess, but this chief engineer seldom made the promotional posters for the series.

Maybe you thought of Dilbert, the fictional comic nerd-hero who is disgruntled and unpopular in his own world. Though humorous, his frustrations with his job are not always relevant to engineering. However, he does share with real engineers the reputation of being unsocial.

Even in our modern society that relies so heavily on technology, engineers and scientists have a fairly negative social reputation. Though there are a handful of notable, socially visible scientists held in high regard in popular culture—Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye and Carl Sagan, to name a few—I’m hard-pressed to think of any publically familiar engineers (not counting technically savvy entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk or Bill Gates).

The Wikipedia page for “engineer” is telling—there is an entire section specifically about public perception of the profession:

“…engineering has in the popular culture of some English-speaking countries been seen as a dry, uninteresting field and the domain of nerds. One challenge to public awareness of the profession is that average people lack personal dealings with engineers, even though they benefit from their work every day.”

Engineering is challenging, but not uninteresting. Most of us rely on our engineered devices, so much so that they are often the first things we reach for in the morning or watch before we sleep. If engineering is dull, why are over 2.5 million people in the United States alone (per the 2010 U.S. Census) employed as engineers?

Wikipedia identifies the problem well: people don’t often have the opportunity to meet the person who designed their phone display or aligned their camera lenses. Layers of corporate customer service often prevent consumers from providing direct feedback to an engineering team, and technical topics are mired in nuanced jargon.

However, I find that it is both refreshing and efficient to have a technical discussion in which specialized topics are broken down into basic concepts that can be understood by an interested, but less experienced person. It’s key to find the right balance of precise technical terminology and universal language for your particular audience.

I suggest that public opinion of engineers can be improved if those of us making the technology spent a few hours during the day in a classroom or discussing technical projects with non-technical peers. Optical engineers in particular should be able to relate to most people, since almost everyone interacts with light every day, whether it’s something as simple as their rearview mirror or as complex as their head-mounted display of a 3-D video that was downloaded via an optical fiber link. If you can convey complex technical topics simply and directly to anyone you meet, then you stand a better chance of being crystal clear when you interact with your professional colleagues.

This new year, consider how you can alter the negative stereotype by reaching out to a young person, a family member or a peer to educate them about your passion for engineering. Understanding technology is awesome, so make it a story that’s told over and over again. Become a better storyteller, and maybe someone in your audience will consider engineering as a career.

Brian Monacelli is an optical engineer. He also teaches photonics at Irvine Valley College, Calif., U.S.A.

 

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