Is Your Wokplace Diverse? Why Not?

27. September 2016

The National Science Foundation (NSF) provided a grant asking this very question. Now Joan C. Williams and Kate Massinger of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law are posing a possible answer: harassment.

In their recent article in The Atlantic, How Women Are Harassed Out of Science, Williams and Massinger share the experiences that STEM students and professionals have encountered at all levels of their careers, ranging from sexual harassment to pregnancy harassment. Some of these instances were overt; others were more subtle threats to funding and snide remarks. 

Although this study seems to offer a discouraging and depressing prognosis for women in STEM, it is actually one of several forums bringing this “open secret” into conversation. At the 2015 American Geophysical Union annual meeting, a town-hall session was held to discuss harassment. Other steps towards progress are occurring as well—of the 1,000 women postdocs surveyed by the authors, 59% belonged to institutions with maternity leave policies and 53% reported supportive supervisors. Some funding sources, such as NSF, provide supplemental funding to their supported projects for parental leave needs.

American Association of University Women and Know Your IX, both mentioned in the article, are two valuable resources available to support both women and parents experiencing difficulty in the workplace.


Is Finding Time to De-Stress Too Stressful? There’s Now an App for That

14. September 2016

Surely every busy professional has noticed the new mindset emerging that as more time-saving technology is being developed, there must now be more time available to allocate to other tasks—and these tasks should probably be work related! This additional time for tasking means less time for relaxing and more opportunity for stress to build up. With only so many productive hours available, there is a new movement to turn de-stressing into the latest multitasking activity.

Luckily, has saved us time by doing the research and gathering together a list of 13 Brilliant Gadgets and Tools to Help Stress Management. With the exception of the HoMedics Thera-P Shiatsu Kneading Massage Pillow, which requires laying on the pillow for the maximum effect, each of the apps and devices are designed to fit into busy schedules and can be used in almost any setting.

Many of the stress combatants on the list use biofeedback data, from mood tracking and breathing pattern awareness to brain wave measurement, to teach users to properly recognize stress and to deal with it as it occurs. Some of the devices play music or meditation games while others identify which pressure points are the most effective for that late afternoon headache. The full list, including prices and where to get the items, is here.


As The Days Shorten, Do You Have Room For A Shadow?

14. September 2016

For many, the arrival of September coincides with a longer commute, the return of pumpkin flavored commodities, and a new semester for ourselves and our children. These first few months are often full of energy and the excitement of discovery that each new academic year brings. What better time is there to think about the future of STEM education and your impact upon it?

With all of the advances being made within STEM fields, there is not a shortage of career paths, but will there be a shortage of STEM professionals? How do we encourage future generations to choose a STEM career when it is rarely glamorous on a daily basis and years of minutely detailed work go into each moment of invigorating certainty—a moment that may occur only once a decade?

It may be as simple as inviting high school students to come work with you for a day.

Science Daily's recent article, High school students who experience 'job-shadow' opportunities in STEM environments more likely to consider a STEM career pathdiscusses a new study published in National Communication Association's Journal of Applied Communication Research. Researchers have found that among the 229 high school students surveyed, “only a few students (1.8 percent) reported that they had received messages that made them aware of the opportunities for women and minorities in STEM fields, or of the general need for more professionals in these fields.”

While it may not be practical to host an entire high school class once a semester, providing a few opportunities for students to experience the different facets of working in STEM could be a great way to play a part in inspiring the future.


Bright Futures Q&A: Michelle Xu

27. October 2014


OPN: Many people in science initially envision themselves in an academic career. Was that your initial goal? If not, what career trajectory were you envisioning for yourself?

I did not initially consider an academic career because I was told that I was not smart. On one of my first grade tests, I thought that 1+1=11.

As I got older, however, I discovered “grit”, and started to excel academically as well as in sports, art and music. When it was time to pick a college major, I had the option to attend programs in fine arts, business or engineering. The three disciplines, all of which I loved, sat in orthogonal planes. There was no Venn diagram or spreadsheet could help evaluate the pros and cons, so instead I relied on my instincts. Ultimately I wanted to engage in a practical and tangible discipline, so, I picked engineering.

My career goal is to provide solutions that benefit society, such as sensors and computing devices that collect, store, and analyze data to forecast trends and enable preventative measures. Private sector organizations like Intel work closely with the end-users and the products, and so I believe my goals can be implemented and achieved much faster here.

OPN: How did you end up at Intel?

I have a long history with the company—my first job offers after completing both my undergraduate degree and doctorate were from Intel. However, after both offers, I felt I needed to learn more basic science and satisfy my inquisitive mind, so I decided to stay in school. By the time I was a postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley, I had studied electronics, photonics, control theory, programming, cell molecular biology, chemistry and atomic physics.

While I was contemplating how to apply all that I had learned in my almost 30-year academic career, an Intel manager found and recruited me. This time, I joined the company. Now, I am more knowledgeable and confident, and I am able to better contribute to Intel’s roadmap. I’m glad that I waited.

OPN: What was it like to transition from your lab to a large company like Intel?

It was great transitioning from Berkeley to Intel. I find it very exciting to start a new role in a new setting and to meet new people. Of course, I don’t move just for the excitement; instead, I pursue opportunities. I would be willing to relocate to the middle of a war zone for a good position—I have a very high tolerance for the difficulties associated with transitions like this, so there’s little I’m not willing to do for the right opportunity.

OPN: What is the culture like at Intel? How does it differ from other environments you’ve worked in?

Intel has 107,600 employees around the world, so the company culture is not homogeneous. Just like studying in different academic groups, the departments at Intel can vary greatly. I have held two positions at Intel: research assistant to Intel President Renee James, and engineer in the Intel Data Center Group. The culture in the first group is very professional and office-like, while the engineering group is similar to a university research lab setting.

OPN: What is your typical work day like and how does that differ from other work settings you’ve been in?

I have held two vastly different positions at Intel, so it really depends on the specific role. As the assistant to the president, I started working at 5:30 am and my days ended when I went to bed at 9:00 pm.

Now, as the data center engineer, my days start at 8:30 am. Because my team is distributed around the world, I work around the clock. Also, because I work with physical servers, I often stay in the server lab late into the evenings.

OPN: What are some of your own, personal characteristics that made the move to an industry career look particularly attractive?

I am compassionate, result-oriented, meticulous yet impatient, and ethically-minded. I am grateful that Intel values these qualities, in addition to my technical competencies.

OPN: What advice would you give to others looking to work with a large company such as Intel?

Regardless of whether you work for a large or small organization, it is important that you discover the career path that is best for you as an individual, by following your instinct and finding your passion.

Michelle Ye-Chen Xu is a member of the Intel Data Center Group, where she works in server rack networking and integration. Xu also served as the research assistant to Intel President Renee James. She received her Ph.D. in electrical engineering from University of Toronto, Canada, and was a postdoctoral fellow in atomic physics at U.C. Berkeley, USA. Xu was the President of University ofToronto OSA Student Chapter.


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How to Give a Great Research Presentation

23. October 2014

Andrea Brear

This post is based on content that has already appeared on the Propel Careers website. It is reproduced here with the author’s kind permission.

How many times have you sat through a research presentation either nodding off or squinting at an image on the screen? Giving an effective and engaging research presentation requires proper preparation and practice. Realizing that you are the expert on your own research will help you market yourself and your work and convince your audience of the importance of your research.

Have a structure.
Your presentation can be broken down into three basic parts: introduction, results and conclusion. The content and extent of the introduction depends on the composition of your audience. If there are a number of attendees from outside your field, you should include more background to bring everyone up to speed. This is your chance to give some context on the field and how your work fits into it. At the end of this section, clearly state the question you will be addressing throughout the presentation. In the results section, you will provide answers to this overarching question. The conclusion should reiterate the key results and why they are important in order to give the audience members concise and interesting takeaways.

Beautify your slides.
Make your slides as attractive and eye-catching as possible. Use a high-contrast color scheme and make figures, graphs, tables and images as large as the space allows so that people sitting in the back can easily see what’s on the screen. Because the projector may display images differently than your computer screen and because the room may have poor lighting, it's best to prescreen your slides on the projector to make sure the slides are at optimal brightness and contrast. Avoid overwhelming your audience with too much information or boring them with too much text. Try to stick to the "keep it simple" rule when composing a slide: start with a concise title (which should be a statement, not a question,) as little text as possible and a nice diagram or two (no more than three).

Practice your timing.
Take the time to pace your presentation and set up transitions between the slides so that the wording flows nicely. It should sound like a scientific story. One minute per slide is a good general rule for timing, so that you can maintain an engaging pace. Practicing the presentation will help you identify any transitions that need to be smoothed out, as well as determine if the talk is too long or short. In order to make the presentation accessible to a general audience, you should practice it with colleagues in your field as well as colleagues from other subject areas. Be sure to project your voice and speak clearly, and avoid talking too quickly. If you have the opportunity to record yourself, this is a great way to identify ways to improve your delivery—including reducing unnecessary hand/body movements, identifying tics, or excessive use of "um" or "ah."

No matter how much you practice, you can’t anticipate everything. The projector may not work properly, someone's cell phone may ring or the fire alarm may go off. A well-prepared presentation will help you deliver the talk with ease and deal with any unanticipated issues.

Andrea Brear is an intern at Propel Careers. She has her Ph.D. in molecular and cell biology from Brandeis University, USA.


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Painlessly Managing Your Workload

2. October 2014

Arti Agrawal

I felt like I had spent the whole summer working without a vacation, and still my to-do list seemed endless. After spending a few days feeling frustrated and stressed at my lack of progress, I started reading up on how people manage to get it all done. It turns out there are a few tricks for managing your workload that I found very useful:

Take baby steps. When faced with a large task, I used to try to find a big block of continuous time to complete it. It was a challenge to block out such long slots in my schedule. Even when I managed to find the time, after a few hours I would get tired and lose concentration. This made the task take longer and caused me more stress. A better technique is to plan to do a smaller portion every day, and assign multiple sessions to the task. That way, you’ll come to your work with fresh eyes and operate at peak efficiency each time. Tasks get done faster with less mental pain!

Figure out your prime working hours. I find that if I work late into the night, I make more mistakes and wake up tired and cranky, so there isn’t much point in imitating my night owl colleagues. For me, the best time to work is immediately after I wake up, when I feel the most refreshed and focused. Figure out when you can concentrate best and do the most difficult or important work at that time.

“Open the file.” Sometimes I simply cannot motivate myself to complete an unwanted or boring task, so I procrastinate too long and get into trouble. Often, the hardest part is just getting started. This approach aims to address the problem. The idea is that if you get yourself to metaphorically “open the file” and jump into the project, you tend to work on it. Before you know it, you’ve made some progress.

Stop firefighting. I found that I was constantly dealing with tasks marked “urgent” and could not get anything done on other projects that were important to me. Color-coded, prioritized lists and turning off my email helped somewhat, but I needed more. To that end, I found the Eisenhower Decision matrix really useful. It helped me learn to prevent long-term projects from reaching the “urgent” state, and focus on what really mattered to me. It introduced an element of strategic thinking into my planning process.

Take a walk. Sometime the stress from work or other tasks can seem overwhelming. It becomes difficult to find energy and motivation, every task seems harder than it should and even ideas for research seem to dry up. You need inspiration and fresh air! Timely breaks, especially those spent walking or exercising outside, can wake your brain and freshen your mind. It helps calm the nerves and sparks creativity.

Arti Agrawal ( is a lecturer at City University London, U.K., in the department of electrical, electronic and information engineering at the School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences. To follow her blog, visit

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How to Tell Your Advisor That You're Leaving Academia

28. August 2014

Jena Pitman-Leung, Ph.D. 

This post is based on content that has already appeared on the Propel Careers website. It is reproduced here with the author’s kind permission.

Many people enter into a Ph.D. program or postdoctoral fellowship thinking that they’ll be in academia forever. But for about 70 percent of trainees, this plan changes along the way. Sometimes it happens over a long period of time, and sometimes it happens quickly. Either way, their advisor is usually the last person to find out. Despite the changing culture, many advisors simply do not want their trainees to leave academia.

One of the questions that I've been frequently asked since joining Propel Careers is, “How do I tell my advisor I'm leaving academia?” For many people, the anticipation of this conversation is worse than any other conversation with their advisor.

I wish I could remember how I told my postdoc advisor, but I was too flustered to remember the details. I do, however, remember the outcome–thankfully, I received understanding and support. I've had a number of years to look back on this experience and talk to others who've gone through it, and I’ve identified a few tactics that made this conversation easier.

Give enough notice
When you decide to leave academia, try to give your advisor enough notice to make him or her feel comfortable. Most Ph.D. students begin looking for a postdoc position about a year before graduating, so this would be a good time to tell them you plan to look for a different job.

Have a research plan in place
Present your advisor with an exit plan to ease any worries about you leaving the lab with unfinished experiments. Create a list of work left to do, along with a timeline and who you will hand tasks off to, if necessary. Include as much detail as possible!

Have a future plan in place
You may not know exactly what you want to do after leaving the lab, but hopefully you have an idea. Once you choose a career path, allow yourself enough time to assess your skillset and build any skills needed to transition into your new role. If this requires some time out of the lab, tell your advisor what your plans are, why they are important to your career development and how you will build the skills you need without interfering with finishing your research.

Don't present your choice as a bad thing
You may feel guilty or like you are disappointing your advisor. Even if you get a less-than-supportive response, it is important to stay positive. Present the news as an exciting career transition, NOT as a backup plan. The more self-reflection you do ahead of time and the more confident you are in your decision, the easier this will be. It's okay if it takes a little time to get to this point–just remember, this is your career, and you are in charge.

Make sure they know you value your training
Ph.D. and postdoc training is incredibly valuable. Even if it's not the experience you hoped it would be, you can’t get through without learning something. You want your advisor to feel that the training you received will not be wasted. Your technical abilities, communication skills, ability to collaborate and work with others, train junior colleagues, grasp complicated questions, think critically and see solutions are skills that will be useful in careers outside of academia.

Although research trainee success is still defined by many granting institutions as “success within academia,” this is changing. As you progress in your career, check in periodically with your advisor to update him or her on your successes. This way, you can be included in faculty boasting as the former trainee who “helped discover the cure for cancer while working on a team at X pharma,” or the former trainee who “developed a medical device used to diagnose X disease.” As a bonus for doing this, you may make it easier for your peers to have their own discussions with your mentor!

Jena Pitman-Leung, Ph.D., is a Career Development Consultant at Propel Careers and has been with Propel Careers since August, 2013. During her graduate studies at Northwestern University and postdoctoral studies at the University of Massachusetts Medical School she was the primary mentor of over a dozen undergraduate and graduate students; providing career advice, and training them to be independent scientists. Prior to joining Propel, Jena worked as a consultant at a Boston-area firm specializing in fatigue risk management in 24/7 industries.


Academic Careers, Career Path, Communication Skills, Nontraditional Science Careers, Ph.D. Perspectives, Postdocs , , , , , ,

Effectively Personalizing Your Resume

26. August 2014

Arlene Smith

I recently attended a career-themed panel discussion at an OSA Topical Meeting. Scientists and engineers from industry and academia were represented in the panel and the audience, so this was a great opportunity to hear from both sides how to most effectively write a resume and cover letter. Here are some of the highlights.

Tailor your resume.
Some of the take-away points on the age-old issue of resume layout and content were perhaps unsurprising. The panel reiterated the importance of tailoring your resume to each job application, listing experience and skills relevant to the position to which you’re applying. Be selective! An application for an industry role doesn’t require an in-depth publication list; a list of “selected publications” related to the role is sufficient. This becomes increasingly important as you get more experience and your project and/or publication lists grow. First, list the experience that is most applicable to this job opening, then, if space allows, additional information can be included. For each prospective job, rank your achievements and experience in order of pertinence and build your resume from there.

Personalize your cover letter.
While the resume conveys that you fill the prerequisites for the role, the cover letter is where you can show your enthusiasm. For example, you might highlight the experience and skills that are relevant not only to this role, but to the company’s mission statement or to the academic department’s broader research goals. The panel expressed their frustration with the frequency of generic cover letters crossing their desks, so put in the time and effort to make yours stand out and show that you’re passionate about the position.

Consider your personal interests.
Just how important is the “personal interests” section of a resume? Does a prospective employer actually pay attention to your extracurricular activities? This section is typically very short and devoted to showing a bit of your personality in just a few words. Do you love team sports? Craft beers? Rebuilding your robot vacuum cleaner so it can fetch your paper and brew your morning coffee? If so, be prepared to talk about it.

A hiring manager with several years of interviewing experience highlighted how this seemingly innocent list of hobbies can prove an important topic during the interview, and can be a potential downfall for a candidate. If an interviewee professes a love for playing basketball in their spare time, this manager will inquire as to the air pressure level they use when pumping up the basketball. When the audience expressed their shock at this line of interview questioning, the hiring manager simply explained that, in his view, a technically-minded person would know this information, or at least possess the skills to give a good estimate.

So, do you like to lift weights at the gym? Do you like playing the latest Call of Duty game interactively via a Bluetooth headset? Do you play racquet sports or guitar? If so, it’s time to do your homework. Be prepared to explain why you chose to include those particular personal interests, and explain how they could relate to the job that you’re applying for. This is another opportunity to make yourself stand out and show how uniquely qualified you are for a position.

Arlene Smith ( is a research fellow in the department of internal medicine at the University of Michigan, U.S.A.


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Helpful STEM Resources for Young Women

21. August 2014

On this blog and elsewhere, there has been considerable discussion of the dearth of women in STEM-related careers. A number of major tech companies (Google, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo and eBay, among others) recently released reports on the diversity of their workforces, and the results further reinforced the scope of this problem. The majority of employees at all of these companies are male: 70 percent at Twitter, 70 percent at Google, and 69 percent at Facebook. In spite of the advances being made by women and minorities, these fields continue to be dominated by white males.

Encouraging women and minorities to pursue STEM careers is a crucial step to increasing the diversity in the area, and there are a number of grassroots organizations currently working towards this goal. InformationWeek provided a helpful list of 12 such STEM resources. Take a look! 

You should also check out OSA’s Minorities and Women in OSA (MWOSA) program for information on our current initiatives to support women and minorities in optics and photonics. 


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Learning to Improve (and Enjoy) Your Public Speaking

20. August 2014

Antonio Benayas

Over the course of your career, one of the tasks you will likely face is speaking in public. This makes some people very nervous because the audience’s attention is focused solely on you. Public speaking is something you will learn to enjoy, not to fear. It doesn’t matter if you are describing research at your master’s degree examination, teaching undergraduate students, presenting results at a conference, or (hopefully someday!) giving a speech in Stockholm when receiving that prize—there are some universal steps that you can take to make any kind of public speech better and easier.

Define your topic: The first step is to decide exactly what you want to communicate to your audience. It’s okay to be ambitious in scope, but be sure that your ideas are clearly and concisely expressed. Your ultimate goal is to be understood, so quantity of concepts is far less significant than the quality and depth of your connection with the audience.

Prepare your script: Use a topic outline to structure your talk. At the beginning, this scaffold will be based mostly on your research and the list of facts you want to communicate. Gradually, as your talk evolves, you will also need to think about how the concepts and ideas you are going to present can best be delivered to the audience.

Think visually: There is much to be said on the topic of presentation visuals, but keep in mind that images or graphs are usually preferable over words. The rule “six per six but never thirty-six” means that you can have six lines or sentences on a slide, each composed of six words or less, but you should never reach both upper limits on the same slide. Practice, practice, practice: It’s natural to be nervous before facing an audience, especially if the crowd is made up of experts in your field. You can fight your fears by becoming completely comfortable with your talk and its contents well in advance. The only way to do this is to practice frequently. This might seem tedious; but I promise it is perfectly possible to enjoy the training process. Pay attention to how much your performance improves and your confidence increases with practice.

Get advice from others: It is always a good idea to practice your presentation in front of friends and colleagues and ask them for their honest advice. Their feedback will be invaluable for polishing your performance (tone of voice, pacing, body language, etc.) and the structure of your talk. You can adjust your script based on their input.

Be yourself: You likely admire speakers who connect with the audience and make a lasting impression. Try to identify the characteristics that make this speaker so good, and then think about how you can adopt or develop these features for your own presentations. However, you should try to find YOUR personal style as an outstanding public speaker. Don’t just imitate good speakers—use them as models for how to accomplish specific goals. There is no need to practice up until the last minute before your talk. Relax and enjoy your moment in the spotlight. Remember that everyone in the audience has almost certainly been in your shoes, and they are there to see you succeed.

Antonio Benayas Hernandez ( is an Eileen Iwanicki postdoctoral fellow (CIHR-BCSC) at Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique, Université du Québec, Canada. He completed his Ph.D. in Physics in the Autonomous University of Madrid, Spain. During his Ph.D. he participated in several international research projects at Heriot Watt University, UK, Federal University of Alagoas, Brazil, and University of Pittsburgh, U.S.A. He also worked for Galatea Consultores S.L. as a junior consultant for aerospace industries. His current research is focused on fluorescent nanoparticles for biomedical applications, nanothermometry and thermal imaging.


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