Is Consulting Your Calling?

3. December 2010

By Jennifer D.T. Kruschwitz

The Webster’s Dictionary definition of a consultant is “one who gives expert or professional advice.” An individual looking to make a career out of consulting would probably change the definition to “one who gives expert or professional advice to a customer for a fee.” People choose careers in consulting for many reasons. Some have made becoming a consultant a personal goal. The recently retired may want to continue on in business outside the confines of a 9-to-5 job.
Some people are seeking a way to transition out of a conventional job that no longer satisfies them. Others look to consulting when changes in family life make a more flexible work schedule necessary. Whatever the reason, before starting out it’s important that one know how to make the transition into self-employment and how to qualify oneself as a consultant.
Many books have been written on the topic of consulting as a career. Two that I believe give helpful insights are The Overnight Consultant, by Marsha D. Lewin, and The Scientist As Consultant, by Carl J. Sindermann and Thomas K. Sawyer. Both books qualify the successful consultant as an expert in his or her field.
The necessary expertise can be attained by extensive academic study and work, including graduate degrees, post-doctorate studies and professorships, and/or by time spent working and doing research in a particular field.
But expertise in your field is only part of the recipe for success. Sindermann points out that for the scientific consultant, networking, marketing and running a business are equally important areas, in which scientists may have shortcomings. Here is a quick checklist to consider before diving head first into consulting:
Do you like to work with people? The best way to maintain a healthy business is by networking. Maintaining personal relationships with colleagues, customers and potential clients is an important part of a successful consulting business.
Are you self-motivated? As a consultant, there will be times when you will have to initiate activities that may not strike you as being particularly exciting. For examples, you may be involved in a project that isn’t challenging or making phone calls to potential clients.
Can you communicate and translate your craft to those outside your field? A consultant often has to make presentations or prepare proposals or reports for customers who have no background in his or her science. Consultants who can articulate their work to people of any academic level will be the most successful.
Are you prepared to multitask? The self-employed are not only the presidents of their own businesses, they are also in charge of administration, information technology, Web design, advertising, sales, marketing and janitorial duties. A successful consultant can wear many different hats simultaneously and still be productive.

Jennifer D.T. Kruschwitz is an OSA member and senior optical coating design engineer at her own company, J.K. Consulting, Rochester, N.Y., U.S.A.


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Preparing for an Engineering Career

19. November 2010

By Stephen D. Fantone

 In this era of rapid technological, industrial and economic change, it is challenging to build a technical career. Engineers entering today’s workplace can be assured that many of their skills will soon become obsolete. So the challenge for future engineers is not about mastering specific tools, but rather learning how to think and approach complex problems. Here are some recommendations to help students gain a competitive edge.
Develop problem-solving skills. Virtually all companies need engineers with problem-solving skills that transcend disciplines. I'm not talking about typical “homework” problems; I’m referring to problems that defy easy quantification; that involve ambiguous situations; and that require nuanced judgment.
Try to put yourself in situations where you must solve problems on your own. As an employer, I often assess problem-solving skills in young engineers. For example, I might ask how many gas stations there are in the United States. Nobody knows the right answer, but anyone with a mathematical inclination should be able to give you some process by which they can come up with an estimate. An example of a good process might be: "I came from a town with 40,000 people and we had about 20 gas stations. The population of the U.S. is around 250 million, the equivalent of about 6,000 towns like mine. So I guess there must be roughly 120,000 gas stations."
Few problems in the real world are as clean as those presented in textbooks. Some universities offer courses outside the normal curriculum that focus on a case-study approach of how to solve product design problems. Take them if you can.
Study successful people. They probably succeeded for good reasons. In watching successful engineers, I've learned that they tend to have an intense personal interest in—and even a personal relationship with—their technology. They're not in it for the money. They have a passion for their work.
Study hard while you are in school, for learning will never be easier. As your career progresses, there will be less and less time for classes and training. More than anything, in school you are acquiring and refining your ability to learn. Certain areas may seem irrelevant to the career you have planned. However, even those subjects present a challenging opportunity to improve your skills.
Acquire an interdisciplinary education. Companies need optical engineers who understand electronics; electrical engineers who are sensitive to packaging problems; and mechanical engineers who can deal with optics and electronics. For almost any product development, you need some understanding of mechanical, electrical and optical engineering. Narrowly educated people can't understand the context of a problem; someone else has to explain that context and establish a framework for them to work in. That's inefficient.
In addition, many of the most important problems that a technical specialist must address are non-technical in nature. Narrow technical skills may get you in the door, but what moves you up the ladder will be the ability to communicate, to cooperate, and to understand the context, both inside and outside the corporation, for the area in which you apply your technical specialty.
Interpersonal skills are also very important in a technical organization. You can't do it all yourself. You have to be able to work effectively with people from other specialties to negotiate interfaces and deal with all of the system-level problems that crop up.
Develop practical hands-on skills. It's possible to get through engineering school without developing the hands-on skills that are basic to your profession. Don't fall into that trap. All of us see some mechanical engineers who can't read blueprints; electrical engineers who don't know how to solder; and optical engineers who don't know how to grind and polish a lens.
These people become a burden to their first employer. When I was in graduate school, one professor told me I was spending too much time in the optical shop. I answered him by quoting Bob Dylan: "Time will tell who has failed and who has been left behind as you go your way and I go mine." I left the discussion and went straight to the optical shop. I'm not proud of that remark, but I tell the story anyway to emphasize that you might have to insist on preparing yourself adequately for what is essentially a hands-on profession.
Finally, let me add that students with relevant summer work experience have a distinct advantage over others. These experiences tend to motivate the student during their schooling and ensure a minimum level of engineering competence.

Stephen D. Fantone is OSA’s treasurer and the president of Optikos Corporation in Wakefield, Mass., U.S.A.


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From Science to Policy: New OSA/SPIE Congressional Fellow Shares Early Lessons

12. November 2010

By Marcius Extavour

After a busy day at the office last Monday, I settled in for a long night of poll-watching and punditry. As I scanned the Web for ballot results, comments and analysis about the U.S. mid-term election, I realized that, more than ever, I have a real professional stake in the results. Regardless of the exact political outcome, the nature of my job in energy policy with the United States Senate will certainly be affected.

I am only a few months into my term as an OSA/SPIE Guenther Congressional Science and Technology Fellow on Capitol Hill, but I have already learned a great deal about the nexus of science, technology, policy and politics. I am spending my fellowship year in the majority staff office of the Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources. This committee’s main function is to write, review and research legislation within the broad scope of energy policy, minerals and natural resources, public lands and parks.

My day-to-day work includes writing memos; summarizing technical and policy issues for the Chairman and other committee members; planning and organizing committee hearings related to emergent issues or pending legislation; and meeting with subject matter experts from academia, industry, government, and other stakeholder groups to ask questions and hear public concerns.

I have learned a few valuable lessons the hard way, even on the first few weeks on the job. Mostly, it’s been about shifting from the priorities of a laboratory scientist to the priorities of an active policy staffer. Here are a few lessons I’ve taken away from my experience so far. 

Get to the point. Concision is a virtue; verbosity a vice. Many of my assignments consist of summarizing complex technical material or policy history for a Senator or their staff--in one page or in a few bullet points! There is a tremendous appetite for accuracy and detail, but little tolerance for expansive treatises, no matter how eloquent.

Deadlines matter. In my academic career, a deadline could be sacrificed in the name of accuracy, improved analysis or added nuance; the focus was on producing the best product, even if it was delivered a bit late. Around Capitol Hill, timing is everything, and late material quickly becomes irrelevant. Accuracy and speed are both prized and expected.

Networking is key. A network is a group of trusted colleagues who can be counted on to give good advice in a pinch. As a new Fellow, this has meant introducing myself and my skills broadly to colleagues, and then finding out how we can work together. Career-wise, it has meant approaching people whom I admire and respect, and asking them how they got to where they are. I’ve found that most people who are good at what they do and who enjoy their work love talking about it!

With the national campaigns over and done with, policy discussions will likely intensify as electoral politics and strategy retreat. I hope that developing new skills will serve me well as I work with colleagues to advance the conversation on issues related to science, technology and especially energy policy.

Marcius Extavour, most recently a quantitative risk analyst at Ontario Power Generation, is currently serving on Capitol Hill as the OSA/SPIE Arthur H. Guenther Congressional Science and Engineering Fellow.


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A Guide to Structures for your Small Business

4. November 2010

By Bill Greener 

Thinking about a start-up? More and more enterprising scientists are applying their knowledge of technology and industry to their own new businesses. What does it take to shape one’s vision into a sustainable business? A solid business plan is obviously important. However, even before that, you must figure out which type of business entity will best suit your needs. This decision will affect everything from the amount of taxes and paperwork you’ll face to your personal liability to the bottom line. Here are the major options you have, along with their advantages and drawbacks.

Sole proprietorship: Someone who owns an unincorporated business by himself or herself. The main advantage is ease of formation. To get started, you need only perform a simple filing with a County Clerk’s office.  The tax implications and reporting requirements are straightforward, involving taxation at individual tax rates and standard IRS Schedule C filing. There is no separate entity tax. 

However, as your own boss, you are the sole risk manager and the profit/loss center—for better or worse. Your liability is unlimited, but you may have restricted sources of capital and funding.

General partnership: An association of two or more people who co-own a business for profit. These partnerships are generally easy to form at the state and county levels. Partners agree how to share profits and losses, which flow through the partnership to each partner’s individual tax return via a form K-1. General partnerships are typically not subject to federal or state business entity taxes. The general partners, however, are jointly liable for the obligations of the entity.

Limited partnership: One or more limited partners and at least one general one. Limited partners cannot be active in the business management; if they are, they risk losing their “limited” status.

Limited and general partnerships are similar in areas of taxation and what is referred to as “special allocation of income and loss.” Government fees for partnership formation may be higher for a limited partnership than for a general one, however. State regulations may require notices about the partnership formation to be published.

C-Corporations are your large business “Inc’s.” Corporate business entities provide greater segregation between their owners and the entity itself than is provided for in partnership arrangements.

Taxation issues are comprehensively addressed by the IRS, under subchapter “C” of the Internal Revenue Code. C Corporations require corporate officers and directors whose identities must periodically be reported to the state.

On the plus side, a C Corporation is taxed for income purposes as a separate corporate entity at both the federal and state levels. In addition, the number and types of shareholders are unrestricted. Shareholders have limited financial liability even if they participate in corporate management; rather, the corporate entity becomes the liable party. In a C Corporation, the retained corporate earnings can be kept in the business.

On the other hand, C Corporations are subject to double taxation; corporate income is taxed at the corporate level, while dividends are taxed at the individual (shareholder) level. The formal requirements of a C Corporation include government formation fees, significant record- and book-keeping, shareholder meetings and corporate elections, the issuance of stock certificates, and the sale of stock for raising capital.  Financial losses are only deductible at the corporate level.

S Corporation: A small business entity that makes a valid election with the IRS to be taxed differently than a C Corporation. S Corporations generally pay no corporate income taxes on their profits. Instead, shareholders pay income taxes on their proportionate shares of the corporate profits. Thus, an S Corporation is considered a pass-through entity similar to a partnership, but shareholders enjoy the limited liability of a corporate structure.

Among the limitations: These entities must be domestic corporations organized under state law, and shareholders are limited to fewer than 100 and to certain entities such as individuals, estates and trusts. All individual shareholders must be citizens or residents of the United States. Unlike a C Corporation, an S Corporation cannot have retained earnings.

Limited liability companies, or LLCs, are formed by filing Articles of Organization with a state’s secretary of state. The IRS taxes LLCs as if they were partnership entities.  There are no restrictions on the number or types of owners or the extent of owner participation in management. An LLC will be dissolved when certain events occur; for example, bankruptcy, the death of a member, or the incapacity or withdrawal of any member unless otherwise voted upon. Annual filing fees are required.

Bill Greener is a U.S. registered patent attorney who practices in Ithaca, N.Y. and is a partner in the firm of Bond, Schoeneck & King, PLLC. This blog post is based on an article that appeared in the May 2007 issue of Optics & Photonics News.


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For Women Scientists, Career Advice from a Certified Genius

28. October 2010

By Patricia Daukantas

Women have made huge gains in their pursuit of higher education: More than 50 percent of today’s U.S. bachelor’s degree recipients are female. However, women are still not getting as many of the topmost positions in science as their male counterparts. Why?

According to OSA Fellow Michal Lipson, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Cornell University (U.S.A.), women must work to combat subtle forms of discrimination that may cause them to be overlooked or their work to be ignored. Lipson is a rising star in science, and she recently shared her experiences and advice with the Minorities and Women in OSA gathering at OSA’s annual meeting in Rochester, N.Y.

Last month, Lipson became one of two OSA members to win a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant for her work on silicon photonic circuits. She’s also a married mother of two and a tenured professor. Here's how she advises women who want to advance their scientific careers.

Be confident. Lipson said she cannot count the number of times that she and a male colleague got introduced to someone, and the person to whom they spoke addressed only the male colleague. The best way to combat this is with confidence. She advises: “When you are in a lecture, always sit in the front of the hall and ask a question.” Don’t be afraid to stand tall and give your opinion. “Remember that your career is just as important as anyone else’s,” she says.

Prioritize your career. One subtle form of discrimination is the notion that a woman’s career is always secondary to child-rearing. This message is pervasive. Even Lipson’s parents, who were the biggest supporters of her and her twin sister when they were growing up, told their daughters that they had to make an impact in their careers before they had children, “If I were male, they would never have said that,” she says. (Her twin sister is now an astrophysicist.)

But family and career need not be mutually exclusive. Make your career a priority by planning ahead and working with your partner to decide which roles each of you will take on, Lipson said. Often, men simply aren’t aware of work-and-family issues because they weren’t raised to think about them. However, by working together as a team, both partners can have fulfilling careers and family lives.

Lipson has strong family bonds with her husband, Hod Lipson, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Cornell, and their two sons, ages 6 and 13. The kids do well in school and they are extremely proud of their parents. They like to brag about Lipson’s MacArthur award to their classmates.

Keep your personal life personal. When Lipson—born in Israel, raised in Brazil and trained in Israel—first came to the United States as a postdoc, all the men in her department talked about their kids, while Lipson avoided mentioning hers. Her cover was blown one day when her 1-year-old got sick; her boss called her at home and heard crying in the background. The next day, he asked her, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Yes, it’s a double standard, but keeping your personal life personal may help women to avoid subtle forms of discrimination against working mothers.

Lay down your career path early. Despite all the advances in society, women are often the ones who follow their male partners when it comes to job relocation. Academic couples face a particularly daunting challenge known as the “two-body problem,” which refers to the difficulty of finding two viable tenure-track positions—often in different specialties—within the same geographical area. The longer a woman takes to “find herself,” the greater the chances that she may wind up following a spouse or partner who has already determined a career path. “It is critical for you to lay down your career path early, even if you change it later,” Lipson says.

Synchronize your job hunt with your partner’s. Lipson’s husband delayed his post-graduate-school job hunt for six months so that they could search together. If your partner is not in academia, you should still try to synchronize, Lipson says; schools are well aware of the need for spousal employment. 

Patricia Daukantas is a freelance writer specializing in optics and photonics. She holds a master’s degree in astronomy from the University of Maryland.


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How to Make Your Conference Presentation Shine

22. October 2010

By Pablo Artal, OSA Fellow

OSA Fellow Pablo Artal has kindly allowed OPN’s Bright Futures career blog to 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 Prof. Artal: As a graduate student, I have some experience presenting my research at meetings. But I must confess that I always feel extremely nervous and I am not satisfied with my talks. Could you please advise me on how to improve my presentation skills? --Clare, Holland.

Scientific meetings are very important for science and for scientists. They are even more critical for those of you starting your career as Ph.D. students. So, you should try to go to as many as possible. Approach your supervisor on this issue directly. I think all students should attend a minimum of one international meeting per year.

Perhaps the best reason to attend conferences is to get to know the important people working in your area. Networking is key for advancing your career. And of course you will also meet new friends from all over the world and have fun together. As for your question, here are some general guidelines for improving your presentation skills.

Before the conference, select your abstract wisely. Be sure you have something solid to present. Making a presentation is stressful enough without having to worry about the strength of your research. If your work is weak, the audience and moderators may be tough of you when asking you questions—although this is often dependent on your field and the specific meeting.

Show the audience your own enthusiasm for your results. Try to communicate what you enjoyed about your research and share your passion for your topic with the group. You spent a lot of your time working on this and you want to show why it was important.

Understand that no research is finished or perfect. Be prepared to recognize any weakness or non-complete part of your work. Don’t be afraid to state these things directly. However, if you are asked about additional issues with your work, do not try to hide any unclear parts of it. On the contrary, openly discuss limitations or difficulties.

Present a complete context for your work. Do not forget to introduce the area and mention why you wanted to study your particular topic before discussing your results. Also mention the main implications, potential applications and future areas for further investigation.

Don’t put too much information in your presentation. More details are not necessarily better. Be sure that your talk remains within the time allotted for it and ALWAYS practice your talk several times alone—or, even better, in front of your advisor—in advance of the meeting.

Make slides clear and easy to be read. Avoid small letters and low contrast. Pictures and schemes are important and, please, do not include tables full of small numbers that no one can see.

Don’t worry if you’re not a native English speaker. Most in the audience will not be affected by your accent, so don’t feel self-conscious about it. Simply try to speak as loudly and as clearly as you can. Avoid difficult expressions and try to go right to the point. In your first presentations, you can read some of the slides to help guide the audience. However, I would NOT recommend reading the entire presentation. It is not very natural, and you will not learn much that way.

Try to enjoy the moment. It’s natural to be nervous, but don’t let it get the best of you. Good presentations are essential for your scientific career, but your career is a lifelong work in progress. If things don’t go perfectly, you can always learn from it for your next presentation.

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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At FiO and Other Scientific Meetings, Networking Is a Key Career Move

14. October 2010

By Stephen Roberson

This post was republished with the kind permission of the author, Stephen Roberson, from his Frontiers in Optics blog.

Everywhere I look, people are talking about jobs. There is a good article in the October issue of Optics and Photonics News talking about post-Ph.D careers, in which young scientists discuss many possible career paths after graduate school. Another editorial in the same magazine talks about thinking outside of academia in your job search. 

I’ve noticed at conferences that many people only attend the talks and don’t go to other events like socials and mixers. What many new scientists don’t realize is that these gatherings are where people offer opportunities--and not at your brilliant talk. Yes, everyone’s talk is brilliant on some level, but the socials and mixers are where you have the opportunity to distinguish yourself as more than a good presenter. At OSA's annual Frontiers in Optics meeting, make sure to take advantage of all the opportunities to meet and greet people in the industry and in academia. 

Let people get to know you and get to know them in return. I’ve found that networking is not something that comes to a scientist naturally; usually we’re in labs by ourselves working alone. You have to work at it. Get out and meet people and get to know them in a professional and personal manner. Also, I’ve noticed that when scientists get together, they often engage in an “Are you smarter than I am?” contest. Don’t do that! Many of the people scientists will work for may not be more intelligent than them, but you don’t want to belittle the person that would hire you and authorize your paychecks. 

There are all sorts of strategies and books for getting jobs, and all of those sources have their pluses and minuses. But nothing can really relate to being on the radar of someone who is looking to hire a scientist like you because you met him or her personally. As a researcher at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, I know they get tons of applications from really smart people that are just tossed because nobody knows them. 

So get out there, press some flesh, and introduce yourself to the world.

Stephen Roberson is a research scientist at the Army Research Laboratory in Adelphi, Md., U.S.A.


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Looking for a Job? Use the Skills in Your Scientific Toolbox

8. October 2010

By Kelly Goss

Finding the right job can be a daunting task. As I recently began searching the wealth of online resources available, it became apparent to me that there are a set of skills needed for finding a job: identifying job opportunities, writing a resume, striking up a conversation at networking events, and negotiating a salary, to name just a few.

Fortunately, as students and professionals in optics and photonics, we already have a number of relevant skills that we can use to find a job. In this post, I list a few examples:

Apply your critical thinking skills to your job search. Critical thinking is a key skill—and one that is often listed as necessary in scientific job postings. It includes observation, interpretation, analysis and evaluation. We can use our skills of interpretation when responding to a job post and determining the critical elements that the employer is looking for. We can also observe and analyze trends in the job market to know which skills are in high demand and where the appropriate jobs are. And finally, evaluating our options helps us to know where we feel our best fit is.

Do your homework by gathering resources. Graduate students and young science professionals manage resources every day. Whether it is information, equipment, money, people or time, we all have our own ways of finding and directing these precious commodities. There is a seemingly limitless amount of job-related resources out there, including books, blogs (like this one), Twitter accounts, career advisors, professional head hunters, research articles in human resources, friends with advice, colleagues with connections, and the list goes on.

Use them! Apply your critical thinking skills to determine which resources will best serve you—but the key thing is to use them! Many people, billions actually, have solved this problem before and found jobs. Learn from what others have done; there is no need to re-invent the wheel. I started working on my job search a few months ago when OPN's Career Focus column began, and I am amazed at the resources available and what I have learned in such a short time.

Use your technical writing skills to build the perfect resume. Being in a technical field, we all have skills and experience in writing about optics and photonics. We are able to write technical reports about scientific research conducted by Noble laureates; we can describe how a laser functions and explain nanophotonics and other phenomena that are invisible to the human eye. These skills can be directly translated into communicating our skills, talents, and strengths, which are sometimes complex and invisible.

Approach writing your resume or C.V. like you would a journal article or technical report: Be clear on your main contribution, know your audience and provide proof for your claims.

These are just some of the many skills that we already have to draw on from our work in optics and photonics. As a community, we have applied these skills with great effort. As a result, our field is not only growing—but making huge contributions to technology and society. By applying these skills with the same earnestness to our job search, we are bound to be successful!

Kelly Goss ( is a Ph.D. student in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada.


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Resources for Finding an International Job or Internship

30. September 2010

By Christina Folz

Each month, as I edit the pages of OPN and witness the growth of OSA, I think more and more about what a global Society (both a big and little "s" apply here) we have become. OSA just launched its website on Optics and Photonics in Latin America; this month OPN publishes an editorial about the hassles associated with acquiring a visa for scientific travel; and, in a future Career Focus column, we will highlight how one Canadian student's internship experience in Australia helped land him a job at home.

All of this underscores the fact that, in today's global world, your job search may not necessarily end at your country's borders. Here are some resources I came across that can help you launch and focus your own search for a job or internship abroad.


I hope you find these resources useful. My apologies that they are all U.S.-based. (I simply went with the sites that Google brought me!) I would love to hear from others from all over the world about your resources, tips, and tricks for finding and landing the right job abroad.

Christina Folz ( is the managing editor of Optics & Photonics News.

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Finding the Right Internship as a Grad Student

24. September 2010

By Patricia Daukantas

In grad school, there's always plenty of work to be had through teaching or research assistant positions within your academic department. But if you want to broaden your exposure to different areas of research, or try on a different career path for size, an internship can be a great opportunity. You can spend part of your graduate career at another institution, get a public policy fellowship on Capitol Hill, or work in a nearby industrial lab.

But be aware that grad-school internships are not the same as the ones from undergraduate days. In many programs, you aren't expected to do an internship, so you will need to find such opportunities on your own—and then make the case to your professors that the off-site job is worth the time away from the laboratory.

The Career Focus column in the December issue of Optics & Photonics News will present case studies of three OSA young professionals who found success in internships before and during their graduate studies. Here are some advice and ideas gleaned from them:

Look at national funding agencies. In the United States, the National Physical Science Consortium offers graduate fellowships to U.S. citizens at several government laboratories. The U.S. National Science Foundation also provides a list of graduate-level opportunities, although not all of them are relevant to optics and photonics. Canadians can check out the Technology Exploitation and Networking (TEN) program offered by the Canadian Institute for Photonic Innovations.

If you're applying to graduate school, consider programs that already offer internships. For example, the University of New Mexico offers an internship option as one possible track toward an M.S. in optics. However, the student must do the internship at a nearby employer, so this option is most appealing to students already working at a local government laboratory, says Luke F. Lester, who heads the UNM graduate program in optical science and engineering.

Schools with a heavy focus on technology transfer—such as the University of Central Florida's CREOL—often encourage graduate students and faculty to partner with local photonics companies in order to help them create successful applications based on optics research. Internships are likely welcomed.

Prepare for paperwork. You (not your adviser) are responsible for visa applications, temporary work permits and other documents needed for an internship in another country. Even if you're working locally, you may have to write up a formal proposal beforehand or a written summary of the work you've done and how it ties in with your graduate research.

Keep an open mind. You may think you were hired as an intern for your expertise in nonlinear optics and then find yourself working in silicon photonics or on a terahertz-imaging system. You may need to learn how to use totally different lab equipment and/or software. It may be scary at first, but take it all in stride. Ultimately the internship will broaden your skills and make you more confident about your ability to handle new challenges.

That said, if an internship is so unstructured that you are not learning anything new or you are spending the vast majority of your time on administrative tasks, speak up. A good internship should benefit both you and your employer.

Ask questions. Use your inquiring mind to find out what other people outside your immediate workgroup are doing. You may discover a new interest that you never knew you had, or you might find interesting parallels with your own research.

Keep in touch. Your mentors and fellow interns may end up being future colleagues or mentors. At the very least, you'll already know some people the next time you go to a scientific meeting.

Bottom line: For motivated students, internships just during or after your graduate career can expose you to new research topics and valuable contacts that can pay dividends down the line.

Patricia Daukantas is the senior writer/editor for OPN. She holds a master's degree in astronomy from the University of Maryland.

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