My Science Mid-Life Crisis: Too Old to Be the Prodigy, Too Young to Be the Authority

2. August 2012

Andrew Forbes

Although I feel like I graduated from university just yesterday, it recently dawned on me that I own a pair of hiking boots older than some of my graduate students. This realization came as a bit of a shock, and it led me to reflect on my current place as a middle-aged scientist in my field. Scientists my age are often stressed out, either because they haven’t made it big or because they have.

Publish or perish

Here is a quick pop quiz: Is your h-index about half your age? If not and you are 40 years old, then by my reckoning, you are not destined to join the halls of fame or win a Nobel Prize—unless, of course, you plan to work well into your 80s. (And, let’s face it, when was the last time you saw a member of the Academy of Sciences who appeared to be under 80 years old?) I was startled to learn that a recent visitor at my institution had published more than 500 journal papers. How did he manage such a feat? By my estimate, if you start writing papers seriously at age 30 and have a 30-year career, then you need to publish one journal article every three weeks to match this rate of publication. Don’t these people take holidays?

Scientific competition

It ultimately comes down to comparison and competition. Scientists love sizing up their work in relation to that of others. They also love seeing their names in print, being invited to speak at conferences, and getting selected to lead a team of researchers. I certainly do. Perhaps one way to avoid the science mid-life crisis is to work in a boring subject area where you will have little competition for the spotlight. The more arcane, the better. I believe there’s only one brave soul in stochastic singular optics, for example.

Unfortunately, however, that is unlikely to make you happy in the long run. I tell my students that it doesn’t really matter what you end up doing--whether it is academic, industrial or commercial--as long as you enjoy your work and you are very good at it. Sometimes we scientists forget the bigger picture. We are working towards the advancement of knowledge and society, and we all have an important contribution to make, no matter how small.

Making a difference

I recently read the thoughtful comments by Diana Antonosyan on this blog about the many challenges facing young scientists in developing countries. The situation she describes is true in my home country of South Africa—but with challenges come opportunities. In South Africa, and I imagine other developing countries as well, there is the chance to really make a difference. For example, my small research group is one of only a handful working in optics. I know all the other photonics researchers in the country on a first-name basis, and various government officials too. The community is small, and each individual effort counts.

In a context like this, one also tends to move up more quickly. The time between finishing a Ph.D. and leading a research group is astonishingly short. Before you know it, you are 40 and considered an expert in the country. Elsewhere, it would be much harder to distinguish yourself from the crowd. It is rare to be able to work in a place where what you do really matters. I encourage young people from developing countries to return to their homes and make a difference. I’m glad I did—even if it’s a small difference and I haven’t yet made my way into the Academy.  

Andrew Forbes ( is chief researcher and research group leader at the CSIR (South Africa), and serves on various national and international committees, including OSA.

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Perspectives on Studying Abroad

27. July 2012

Zuleykhan Tomova

During my childhood in Russia, my family moved quite often and I was exposed to many lifestyles and opinions. When I got to university, I knew I wanted to continue to broaden my horizons.

Deciding to study abroad
I enjoyed studying at Lomonosov Moscow State University, where I completed my specialist degree (equivalent to the master’s degree in the United States). As the oldest university in Russia, it is an excellent school with a rich history. But for the next phase of my education, I wanted to learn about the lives of students in other countries and experience a different education system. As an undergraduate student working in a research group for the first time, I was also very excited about experimental research. With these ideas in mind, I decided to apply for graduate school overseas.

Finding useful information
Applying for graduate school in another country may sound simple, but the process is actually quite complicated when you lack knowledge and resources. To learn more, I attended summer and winter schools and international conferences. These events allowed me to meet new people and get their advice about making my plans a reality, while at the same time staying abreast of research being done all over the world.

Because of the distance between Moscow and the rest of Europe, it can be difficult for Russian students to attend scientific meetings abroad. Travel is expensive and young scientists’ salaries are not very high. However, I received a number of travel awards to help with the cost. There are many opportunities for awards like these in developing countries, and summer schools and programs offer travel grants. It just takes effort and dedication to find them.

Applying for programs
I learned a great deal from the people I met at conferences, as well as from Internet research. To apply for graduate school in the United States, I had to take the TOEFL and the GRE General and Physics exams. I was also required to submit many documents, including my transcripts and diploma, which had to be translated. The second half of 2009 was one of the most stressful times in my life. At the same time that I was finishing my studies in Russia, I had to prepare for and take a whole other set of exams and compile all my official documents. Taking exams in a foreign language was an additional challenge.

Studying in the United States
Fortunately, my efforts paid off, and I am currently pursuing my Ph.D. at the University of Maryland in College Park. I have a job that I like and a decent stipend. Although I was aware that there would be differences between studying in the United States and Russia, I didn’t realize how dramatic they would be. In Russia, students have up to 10 classes during the semester, in contrast to only two to three classes in the United States. This generally means that American students have a greater depth of knowledge in certain areas, whereas Russians gain a more universal perspective on physics. 

U.S. students have the freedom to choose many of their own classes, whereas in Russia, all students of the same year in a given department must follow the same curriculum. Perhaps the most important difference is that American graduate schools combine the master’s and doctoral curricula, and so students spend five to six years in one school, whereas Russian and European programs are separate. This gives students the opportunity to move between research groups as their careers progress.

Coming to the United States for graduate school has been a great opportunity to learn about a country and people very different from my own. I believe that this cultural exploration is the greatest learning experience that I have had in graduate school.  Studying abroad will help you to discover what your values really are. The practical, day-to-day differences between graduate programs will seem minor in comparison to the broad new perspective you will gain.

Zuleykhan Tomova ( is a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland, College Park, Md., U.S.A and International Coordinator of IONS Project.

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Reflections on an Optics Education

20. July 2012

Danuta Bukowska

My path to a career in optics has been an adventure. Although I have only worked in the field for four years, I have learned a lot in that time and come to love this branch of physics. Before I started my Ph.D. studies, my background in optics was fairly limited. Fortunately, my advisor didn’t view that as a problem. He was looking for students who were passionate, hard-working, curious and ready to take on challenges. As surprising as it may seem, you don’t have to be a specialist in the field when you begin your Ph.D.

In a team environment, people can do the work that best suits their tastes and strengths. That is one of the reasons why joining the Optical Biomedical Imaging Group at Nicolaus Copernicus University was such a wonderful choice for me. My colleagues are not only talented and helpful; they have also become good friends. There is always someone available to discuss difficulties in the lab or problems with theoretical work.

No one is expected to do everything. For example, I’ve never had much patience for writing long mathematical formulas or doing computer simulations, so someone else takes on that role in the lab. With this division of labor, work gets done faster and more effectively. The team shares work, knowledge, problems and our different perceptions of optics.

But getting your Ph.D in optics is about more than just working in a lab. In the past four years, I have attended eight conferences, mostly in the United States. I have written grant applications and publications and collaborated with scientists from institutions in Poland and abroad. I am also involved with the Nicolaus Copernicus University SPIE Student Chapter, which inspired me to establish an OSA Student Chapter two years ago. 

I have gotten a lot of personal satisfaction from my student chapter activities. Working with children as part of our outreach activities has been a special joy; I enjoy their curiosity and sense of wonder. The chapter has also given me the opportunity to meet fantastic people from all around the world. Because we live in an international optics community, networking can lead you to find collaborators from many other places. For example, I helped to organize the international OPTO Meeting for Young Researchers in Torun in cooperation with people from Romania, Russia and Ukraine.

After four years, I have a solid knowledge of optics. I’m experienced in working in the lab, presenting my research in front of a global audience, educating children in science, organizing international optics meetings, and writing grant applications. My experiences in the field have prepared me to face new challenges and live up to the demands and expectations of the world after graduate school. I look forward to my next big adventure!

Danuta Bukowska ( is a Ph.D. student at Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun, Poland. She belongs to Optical Biomedical Imaging Group guided by Maciej Wojtkowski. Her research interests include optical coherence tomography and laser spectroscopy applied to biomedical imaging. 


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Launching Your Science Career in a Developing Country

11. July 2012

Diana Antonosyan

Albert Einstein once said that, “Science is a wonderful thing if one does not have to earn one’s living at it.” This perfectly describes the predicament of working in science in a developing country. As I began my career in Armenia, I was excited and passionate about physics. But when I started my own research, I was forced to confront the catastrophic lack of money for scientific research typical in emerging nations.

A serious obstacle
Early-career scientists sometimes don’t prioritize their salary and instead do research for the love of it. However, even if one doesn’t expect or need to make much money, there are still obstacles to overcome. These include limited access to scientific journals, a lack of modern technologies in laboratories, and the inability to present one’s results at major conferences because of insufficient funds. All of these barriers exclude young and talented researchers from the international scientific community and impede their progress. As a result, these scientists may become uncompetitive or leave the field.

Finding support and solutions
So what is one to do? There are a number of ways to overcome these problems. My solution was to leave my country and continue my work in one of the leading universities in the world, where there was better funding. But I did many other things before I made this decision. I realized that attendance at conferences was a very important prerequisite to becoming a competitive scientist, so I started to look for conference funding.

I recommend that all aspiring researchers join their local OSA and SPIE student chapters. This is an excellent first step that links you with the international scientific community. There are many benefits from membership, from notifications about conferences, to discounts and even travel grants for attendance. Another possibility is obtaining international funds that support early career students, particularly from developing countries. You can also find support at home. There are non-profit groups with funds available and professional organizations at most universities that support talented young students.

The importance of making contacts
My main advice is to talk to people. At conferences you should make an effort to connect with professors and other scholars. This can sometimes seem difficult. You may feel shy because of language barriers, afraid to ask a silly question, or nervous about being rejected by famous or experienced scientists. However, you need to forget these fears in order to be successful. Be prepared, goal-oriented, active and confident. As a result, you may get good advice or even an invitation from a leading group in your field to continue your research, as happened to me.

All of this demands effort: outstanding results in research, the ability to write well to present projects, and excellent communication skills to interact with potential sponsors. If you are seeking a career in science, you have to work hard to develop these personal traits.

The hard truth is that success won’t wait for you and won’t be given to you.  You will only find it by having big dreams and working hard and persistently to make them come true, regardless of where you start your career.

Diana Antonosyan ( received her Master’s degree from Yerevan state University in 2008. She was awarded “The Best Female Student Prix of 2010” from the Republic of Armenia President in the IT sphere. She is currently doing her Ph.D. research in nonlinear optics and quantum information technologies at NLPC, RSPE, the Australian National University.

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Lessons from an Editorial Term

5. July 2012

Pablo Artal

OSA Fellow Pablo Artal recently finished his second and final term as a topical editor of the Journal of the Optical Society of America A. Here, he shares his advice to authors and reviewers based on his six years of experience.

For scientists, writing is as vital as planning and executing experiments. Soon after a researcher has published a few articles in a field, it is typical for him or her to be asked to serve as a reviewer. This can be looked at as both a responsibility to the community and a career-development tool for yourself.

When I became an editor, I gained a whole new perspective. For those authors and reviewers who have not yet served as an editor, perhaps you can learn something from my experiences.

Be thorough and professional. I believe that a research area’s strength is related to the quality of the reviewers for its journals. Good reviewers behave like invisible mentors—combing through the data, suggesting additional experiments and giving specific, actionable feedback.

Expect to be treated equal to your colleagues. If you are an editor for long enough, you may have to reject a paper submitted by a friend or close colleague. A fundamental principle for editing and reviewing is that every author should be treated equally. If you can’t do this, you should not edit the paper. Real friends understand that you have to follow the same rules for everybody.  

Be generous with citations. Most authors are very gracious about citing the work of others. Of course, there are some who avoiding citing other groups in favor of noting their own previous work. Self-citations are in many cases necessary. However, when relevant papers from others are missing, it can signal a low-quality paper to an editor. So be generous; it’s good for others and good for you.

Be alert for plagiarism. A fundamental task for editors is to detect and reject articles that are either clearly wrong or direct copies of previously published articles (plagiarism). More sophisticated forms of plagiarism, including self-plagiarism, can be difficult to find. I realized that many cases occur due to lack of author education or differing norms. For example, some researchers do not view it as wrong to duplicate their own research. Part of the editor’s job is to clearly communicate what is acceptable, what is not, and why. 

Clearly articulate the purpose of your paper. Sometimes a paper receives reviews indicating that it seems to be correct, but the point of the research is not clear. In a good journal, these papers are often rejected. Before submitting an article, be honest with yourself: Is this a paper I would like to read myself? Does it advance the field?

Don’t assume friends make the best reviewers. Most journals, including JOSA A, ask the author for reviewer recommendations. Usually, authors tend to suggest someone they know well. I was initially surprised in cases when I followed an author’s recommendation and received reviews that were perhaps unduly negative. Surprisingly, the most critical reviews can come from close colleagues—possibly because they are the ones who are closest to the details of your research area. Be aware of the possibility of bias, both positive and negative.

Review as you would like to be reviewed. OSA journals would not be possible without the tireless work of devoted volunteers. However, there are a few people who consistently refuse to review papers. It is not acceptable to systematically avoid this duty if you are an active scientist. Think twice when you are asked to review a paper, remembering the Golden Rule—Do unto others as you would like them to do unto you.

Get it right. As an editor, I was worried about the possibility that I would accept a paper that was completely wrong. A paper whose conclusions miss the mark is not necessarily a problem; there are many of those out there and they are consubstantial with scientific development. However, if a published paper contains simple and fundamental mistakes, the editor is to blame, so be careful.

Serving as an editor was a great experience that I would highly recommend. You learn more about your field and human nature. Hopefully it will make you a better scientist and person.

Pablo Artal ( is an OSA fellow and professor of Optics at the University of Murcia, Spain. His blog covers optical research and related aspects (

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How to Manage a Research Group

29. June 2012

Jean-luc Doumont

Managing a research group is tricky. Ph.D. programs selectively breed individuals who like nothing better than to do things their own way. How do you manage a group of those—especially when you are one of them yourself?

To make matters worse, group leaders in academia are usually selected for their research achievements, not their leadership abilities. They may not have any natural talent and are unlikely to have been trained for the job. As a result, bad practices propagate by replication, just like viruses. To follow is some advice for getting it right.

Assess yourself. The first step toward self-improvement is probably self-assessment. If you have been leading a group for awhile, systematically question what you are doing and how you are doing it. When in doubt, get feedback from your group members. And if you are just facing the prospect of becoming a group leader, think about how your group leaders have managed you. What did they do that you found useful? What do you wish they would have done differently? Why?

Focus on purposes and strategies, not procedures. Make a list of all you would like to accomplish as a leader of a research group, such as to secure funding, to buy equipment, to attract great people, and to obtain visibility through publications. As always with this kind of exercise, cluster and prioritize the purposes you have thus identified. Then think of the most effective ways to reach your purposes with the means at your disposal.
Strike a balance between maximizing the group’s scientific production, in quantity or quality, and fostering the individual development of group members. If you are too keen on getting a paper accepted, for example, you might be tempted to rewrite large parts of a student’s imperfect manuscript. Unfortunately, this student is unlikely to learn much from having his or her work redrafted. Students will learn more if you can identify what is suboptimal in the manuscript and explain why; then let them attempt the rewriting themselves.

Striking a balance applies to decision-making, too. If your leadership style is participative, you probably work hard to reach a consensus on decisions, but you may have experienced the process as slow and the decisions as unsatisfactory. In contrast, if you are more of an authoritarian, you likely prefer to decide everything yourself; however, your group members may resent never being involved. A compromise may be to encourage everyone’s input in a group discussion and then decide yourself on the basis of this discussion. Whatever you do, make sure that the rules of the game are clear: Lack of clarity is even worse than unpopular (but clear) rules.

Nurture your group. Managing a group of young researchers is not unlike parenting—another job for which very few of us have been prepared. At times, you may have little availability, leaving your children to figure things out on their own. In contrast, when you want something done fast and well, you may prefer to do it yourself.  You are busy enough as it is and don’t need another mess.

Still, to learn and grow, your children need opportunities. They need guidance and supervision—not too much (leave place for discovery and initiative) and not too little (make sure they learn efficiently and safely). You may well know better what is good for them, but you might still listen to them before deciding. Similarly, you may insist that they obey the rules, yet allow them to challenge them.

Like parents with their children, group leaders should help young researchers along on the path to independence. If you are managing a group, are you doing everything you can so your members can soon become leaders of their own?

Jean-luc Doumont ( holds a Ph.D. in applied physics from Stanford University. He now devotes his time and energy to training researchers and others in effective communication. He is a traveling lecturer for OSA.

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Marketing Your Science Using Mobile Barcodes

22. June 2012

Marc Kuchner

Mobile barcodes are the latest marketing fad. See an ad for your favorite rock band with a square barcode in the corner? Scan it in with your cell phone, and up pops the band’s website; the video rolls and the music starts playing. A mobile barcode transforms any visible surface into an internet gateway, helping potential customers find information, purchase products—even get free mp3s.

The popular QR (quick response) code was invented by a Toyota subsidiary called Denso-Wave; that one looks like pattern of black-and-white squares. Microsoft has its own proprietary mobile barcode system, simply called “tag.” The Microsoft codes contain colored triangles. Each type of barcode can be used to call up several different kinds of content: a URL, some text, a phone number or an SMS message. You can make the barcodes yourself for free on several websites, including and

How can we scientists take advantage of this new marketing tool?

Connect with your colleagues by giving out your phone number via barcode. You can display the code wherever people might go to look for your contact information. Barbara Rojas-Ayala, a graduate student at Cornell, told me, “I put one in my website because people are obsessed with their smartphones. If someone wants my info in his/her phone, they can have it easily with the QR code.” I might try putting one on my business card—or maybe even my CV if I’m feeling brave.

Use the barcodes on scientific posters. I like the idea of using barcodes on posters partly because it reminds us what a poster ought to be: an invitation to investigate further. Rojas-Ayala says that her partner, who is also an astronomer, saw a QR code on a beer bottle and thought it was a good idea for posters. Instead of printing 20-30 copies of the poster on letter-size paper with small figures, small characters, etc., they opted to add the QR code with all their professional info and a link to a PDF of the poster.

Katy Meyers, a graduate student in the department of anthropology at Michigan State University, tried a similar experiment at a meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. She found that her website received about 30 more hits on the days when her poster was hanging.

Using barcodes for marketing materials. A mobile barcode might also have a place on a different kind of conference poster. When I organized a scientific conference this past fall, I figured I would try adding a QR tag to the poster we are using to advertise. People saw the poster when they were roaming the hallways—in other words, when they had their cell phones handy but not a computer. 

Be sensitive to non-mobile users. Of course, not everyone is excited about mobile barcodes yet. University of Maryland grad student Jessica Donaldson told me, “It is kind of annoying if you don’t have a smartphone.” With this in mind, I shrank the image of the QR code and pasted it into the lower right corner of the poster, where it wouldn’t offend scientists who don’t have the technology.

Scientists can sometimes be resistant to new marketing concepts. It is our calling, after all, to get to the bottom of things, so we sometimes fear new communication tools until we’re sure we understand them enough to trust them. And it’s not yet clear how important this tool will ultimately become for us.

But so far I’ve found QR tags make memorable little conversation pieces. Even if they aren’t being used, they help me engage with my colleagues when I show them the poster. Often, that’s half the battle. As it says in the classic marketing book, Cluetrain Manifesto, markets are conversations—and anything that helps you start one can help you market your science.

This post is adapted from content that first appeared on the Postdocs Forum and Marketing for Scientists with the kind permission of the author.

 Marc J. Kuchner ( is an astrophysicist at NASA, a country songwriter, and the author of the book Marketing for Scientists: How To Shine In Tough Times. His website can be found at

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What I Learned by Serving on a Committee

15. June 2012

Ahmed Kablan

For the past eight months, I have had the privilege of working on the committee to organize the 5th annual NIH Career Symposium. Serving on the planning committee was a valuable experience, both personally and professionally. Below are some of the key things that I learned by volunteering as a committee member.

The importance of teamwork and time management.

It is crucial to communicate clearly with your team to avoid duplication of effort. My time management skills have improved, resulting in increased productivity. By learning to prioritize the issues at hand and work with a team, my life seems more manageable.

To practice leadership skills at all times.

You don’t have to be in a leadership position to build your leadership skills. Each one of us had the chance to take the lead on a certain issue and bring new ideas to the group.

To step out of my comfort zone.

Getting out of the lab, talking to other fellows, and doing a different kind of work helped me to discover skills I didn’t know I had. I learned that I could communicate my complex science in simple language. I also saw how skills that I had learned in the lab were applicable in other settings. These included planning a project, explaining it to the other key players, justifying the resources needed to complete the project, and communicating effectively with people of broad educational backgrounds.

How to build a network and witness why it is important.

You have heard it a million times, but networking is an important skill to develop. What is not always apparent is how easy it can be. Attending the Career Symposium social events was a great way to connect with the speakers and other attendees. The atmosphere was relaxed and everyone was there to network. I was able to see how we as a committee had used our network to make this event happen. The success of the Symposium relied on the ability of committee members and staff to identify potential speakers and invite them to come. Our networking skills helped us to put together dynamic and valuable panels.

The value of using social media effectively.

I have used LinkedIn more in the past few months than I did in the first six years after I signed up for it. I used it to advertise and start discussions around the information presented at the Career Symposium.

Giving back is highly rewarding.

Working on the committee to organize the NIH Career Symposium was also personally fulfilling. I have benefitted firsthand from a previous symposium, so by participating in this committee I hoped to help others find similar career guidance.

This post is based on content that was originally published on the OITE Career Blog, which is produced by the Office of Intramural Training and Education at the National Institutes of Health. It is reproduced with the kind permission of the author and the OITE Career Blog team. We hope that Ahmed’s compelling reasons to serve on a committee will help convince our readers to join a volunteer committee at OSA or another scientific organization.

Ahmed Kablan ( is a postdoc at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) in Bethesda, Md., U.S.A.

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Reflecting on Career/Life Balance

11. June 2012

Jannick Rolland

For many of us, work provides a way to contribute to society, and it is often a significant component of our lives. Unfortunately, it has become increasingly difficult to keep up with the demands of a career in today’s highly competitive landscape. Working in academia, for example, requires one to have the skills of running a small business. Besides teaching and serving our universities and professional societies, we must seek funding and support our graduate students.

At the same time, many of us are also charged with the demands of raising a family or caring for elderly loved ones. As our lifestyles become more complex, all of us—whether men or women—must develop strategies to balance our career with our personal lives. As a single parent of two for part of my journey, I have had to forge my own path.

For me, the most challenging aspect of being a working parent is the travel required to be successful on the job. These days, the option to seek help from a family member is not always there. I chose early on to explore a different model for pursuing my career in science and raising happy and successful children. I wanted my children to develop as happy, creative, independent and successful human beings regardless of their less-than-optimal circumstances at that point in time. 

Sacrificing my professional work to cook dinner and tuck them into bed every night was not realistic, and it was not the best way for me to meet my goals for them or me. I gave up on being “the perfect parent” and instead developed alternative ways of supporting my children—by raising them in an environment in which they could engage with a large pool of adults whom I trusted.

I believe that a family is happiest when each member of it is engaged in the activities that fulfill them the most. Both parents and children are most likely to thrive in an environment that is not only nurturing but stimulating.    

Giving children the chance to interact with people from diverse cultures is of tremendous value. As a scientist, I work with young professionals who are often single or who have limited social lives, particularly if they are working in a country far from their original home. These young professionals are typically more than happy to engage outside the work environment.

My children built relationships with many of my colleagues and students, who became part of our family. I think that is why my older son chose to visit a mosque with a Muslim graduate student at age 14 and why he decided to spend the summer in Seoul, South Korea, at 19 after having developed a strong friendship with one of my Korean students.

Another way I balanced my life and career was by making sure that I deeply connected with family in spite of our time-challenged lives away from my native home of France. In our case, this meant spending some summers abroad, with the goal of helping the children become bilingual. I thought that, by learning French, they could develop their family ties, better understand diversity, and learn to adapt to change. In addition to summers abroad, I took a full-year sabbatical in France when they turned 9 and 11. I conducted science while also connecting with family. 

While it was surely challenging for the children to spend a year away from home, it turned out to be a wonderful experience for them, and they are both thanking me for it today. They developed enduring friendships, and they are both fluent in French. 

Balance isn’t about counting the hours spent at home vs. work; it is about the value we create when we are faced with challenges. What will leave a positive long-term imprint on our children’s minds and their attitudes towards life? 

These days, balance comes a bit easier. In 2009, I remarried my dream partner, and I try to live every day to the fullest. Engineering and science are my passions, but I also like sharing dinners and conversing with friends from all walks of life. And I dearly love laughing with my children. This is my new balance.  

Jannick Rolland ( is the Brian J. Thompson professor of optical engineering at the Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester, N.Y., U.S.A.


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Three Roadblocks to a Successful Science Career

1. June 2012

Aida Baida Gil

In my experience as a scientist and a career coach, I’ve come to understand three roadblocks that could have a huge impact on your scientific career, the decisions you make, and your overall satisfaction. Here I describe them with some suggestions for overcoming them.

Letting others define success for you

Many believe that, in order to be a successful scientist, you must be well known, publish hundreds of papers in high-impact journals, and put aside your personal life. There are two problems with this definition. First, as Sheryl Sandberg mentioned in her magnificent TED talk, you might be tempted to “leave before you leave” – meaning that you won’t consider moving forward in your career because you don’t expect to make it, or you think you’ll have to sacrifice a lot. And number two, the pressure is so high that you don’t even consider other options. And so, you just move with the crowd, following the path you think you’re “supposed” to take.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that definition of scientific success, but it doesn’t have to be yours. Only you can decide what you want and how you define success, whether it entails winning a Nobel prize or balancing your work with other aspects of your life. There is no right or wrong decision. What’s important is that you feel satisfied with your choices.

You also don’t have to make all your career decisions right now. You can tackle them when the moment comes. None of us really knows what the future holds, do we? So there is no point in deciding during graduate school that you don’t want to pursue a scientific career because you plan to have children 10 years from now. Cross that bridge when you get there. Meanwhile, do what you really want right now.

Deeming yourself an impostor

In an article in a psychology journal, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes define the imposter syndrome as an inability to accept your own success. It’s the feeling that tells you that you are not as good as everyone thinks you are, that all your lab mates are smarter and that you ended up where you are by chance—not because you are intelligent, smart and capable. These feelings are very frequent in brilliant people, and they can jeopardize your career. Your lack of confidence might lead you to reject opportunities because you don’t feel like you measure up.

If you have this problem, work on your confidence and take comfort in the fact that almost everyone feels this way at one point or another. Fortunately, in most cases, it passes as you gain more experience.

Feeling like a failure

Lastly, I’d like to talk about an obstacle that is very frequent in scientists who decide to leave academia: feeling like a failure. This often happens even if your new job is related to science in some way. That makes the decision very painful, and in some cases it can even prevent people from making a move. Why?

• You feel that leaving academia is not what you’re “supposed to do” after investing so many years in it.
• You don’t think you can do anything else.
• You fear you may regret the decision.
• Changing careers equals failing in your mind. “Everyone” knows that if you leave academic science, you must not be good at it, right? NO!

I’ve been through all those stages, and if you are in this situation, you’ll probably go through them too. It’s normal and it will pass. Keep in mind:

• A career is not a life sentence. You can change your mind and experience different things.
• Changing careers does not mean you’re not good enough; it shows that you are braver than the rest and good at more than one thing!
• You are not your job. It’s easy to identify yourself with your job, and then feel as if you have lost your identity if you change jobs. But you are much more than a job title.

Finally, remember that feeling like a failure is something we all go through, and it can actually be a sign of something positive. I recently read a blog post by the marketing expert Marie Forleo that summarizes it perfectly. She said:

“Feeling like a failure is a natural part of becoming a success. It’s actually a good thing and means you’re taking action and putting yourself out there. Which is WAY more than most critics and naysayers have the balls to do.”

Being aware of these three roadblocks is the first step toward moving past them. What do you think? Have you experienced any of them yet?

This post is adapted from content that first appeared on the Agora blog with the kind permission of the author.

Aida Baida Gil is a certified coach and former geneticist. She helps scientists and professional women around the world to decide the next step in their careers and to make career changes. You can contact her at


Academic Careers, Career Path, Job Search, Women in Science , , , , , ,