The Marie Curie Actions: Tips to Apply for a Postdoctoral Fellowship

6. June 2013

Rocío Borrego-Varillas 

Are you about to finish your Ph.D. and thinking of doing a postdoc? If so, the Marie Curie Actions Research Fellowship Program (MC) could be a great opportunity for you. A European Union (EU) initiative to promote research and innovation, the MC is one of the most renowned postdoctoral fellowship programs. As Yanina Shevchenko pointed out in a recent Bright Futures post, “having your own funding not only looks good on your resume; it also provides you with some flexibility in choosing a research group.” These fellowships are a good way to achieve this goal.

Individual MC grants are available to experienced researchers, regardless of their nationality, through three programs: Intra-European Fellowships for Europeans who wish to carry out projects in the EU, International Outgoing Fellowships for Europeans willing to pursue their projects outside the EU and International Incoming Fellowships for non-Europeans who wish to receive research training in the EU.

Apart from the generous funding (they are probably the best paid postdoctoral fellowships in Europe), these fellowships provide young scientists the opportunity to join an excellent research group and gain experience abroad. This allows you not only to expand your technical knowledge, but also to learn practical skills that will be useful for your career. Additionally, fellows are provided with a monthly stipend to cover expenses derived from research training.

However, the MC is very competitive—the acceptance rate is around 16 percent. To give you an idea, the last Intra-European Fellowship call received more than 3,700 proposals, of which almost 3,000 had a score above 70/100. Only those with scores above 89/100 received funding. Writing a good proposal is crucial and can be the deciding factor in getting your application funded. Below are some tips to help you apply successfully:

• Attend a workshop. Many universities organize colloquia and workshops about the program, so stay tuned for these events at your institution.

• Prepare in advance. Take into account that writing the proposal requires a lot of time (it took me three weeks!), so plan well in advance.

• Be sure your application is complete. The referees check carefully to see if all the parts of the application have been covered, so be sure you have addressed every point. It may be useful to structure your proposal with subheadings and sections, closely following the “Guide for applicants”.

Be aware of the aims of the framework programme. “In each framework programme (currently FP 7), there are particular points that are supported with increased emphasis,” says Dr. Zsuzsanna Major, a former MC fellow at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics. “It is very useful for the proposal to be aware of these particular aims while writing it."

• Avoid vague statements and provide specific examples. Don’t use generic phrases that could be applied to any field in any context. For example, instead of writing “this project will help to develop professional skills,” state that “the fellow will supervise two Masters students and help the group leader to write grant proposals. This will allow him/her to cultivate professional skills such as leadership and fundraising.” You can also include any relevant training courses that you plan to take at the host institution or professional societies you belong to (see the OSA Young Professionals Program).

• Be realistic. The project must be ambitious but feasible to complete in 1-2 years. Give a detailed plan of tasks and objectives including a Gantt chart. Provide a backup plan in case some parts of the project fail.

• Ask for advice. Your own university or the host institution should be able to help you with legal issues or other questions about the application.

• Get feedback from your peers. In addition to reviewing your proposal several times with your future supervisor, I also recommend getting feedback from colleagues whom you trust. I sent my proposal and the evaluation criteria to two of my peers and asked them to act as referees. Their revisions were tremendously helpful.

If you would like to apply for a MC fellowship, the call for 2013 is now open with a deadline of 14 August. Good luck!

Rocío Borrego-Varillas (rborrego@uji.es) received her Ph.D. from the University of Salamanca, Spain. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Universitat Jaume I, Spain and has been recently awarded a Marie Curie Fellowship to conduct her research at the Politecnico di Milano, Italy.

Academic Careers, Career Path, Communication Skills, Graduate School, International Careers, Job Search, Postdocs , , , , , , ,

Networking My Way to a New Job

6. June 2013

Miaochan Zhi

Every job search is different, but there are certain tactics that you can apply to most situations. I have often been told about the importance of networking, and that’s exactly how I found my new job at a national institute: I practiced my elevator talk and seized every opportunity to speak to experienced researchers in my field.

During a symposium I attended, a speaker mentioned an available position in a national institute where I have always wanted to work. After his talk, I approached him and asked him about the opening. It turned out that this position had opened only a few days before, so I was able to get in the door early. Fortunately for me, we had already become acquainted during other conferences and he knew my work pretty well. This worked to my advantage, and I got the job two weeks later without going through the normal interview process.

Through personal contacts, I was also able to learn about unadvertised positions. For example, I started chatting informally with a professor about his research during a poster session at a conference.  He mentioned that he had a postdoc position opening up, but that he was looking to find potential applicants from friends and colleagues rather than by advertising externally. By the end of our conversation, he had invited me to apply. Had I not approached him to talk about something else entirely, I never would have known that the opportunity even existed! Building personal relationships with colleagues is extremely valuable.

Even in instances when I didn’t land a job as a direct result of networking, I gained some very valuable advice. I talked to newly hired assistant professors to get a sense of what their lives and work were like. I asked them what they wished they had done differently in their own careers, and whether they have been able to benefit from their experience. Based on this input, I have discovered that running a lab is actually a lot like managing a startup company. As a result, I have started to pay attention to lab management resources and attended workshops to learn about how to handle conflicts among my team.

My colleagues also helped me to discover other helpful resources for job searching. I thought I knew many of the online job sites, such as workinoptics.com, monster.com, etc. However, a friend who recently moved to a faculty position used sites that I hadn’t even heard of:  academickeys.com and indeed.com.

In addition to making the most of your network, you must also plan for your future and be prepared for the opportunities that arise. I knew that I was ultimately interested in biomedical imaging, so I made an effort to branch out into that area of research over the past few years. I always have a few recommendation letters ready to go, along with an up-to-date CV that I have revised many times. Because I had thought ahead, I was able to submit an application within a week of finding the right job opening. 

Miaochan Zhi (mczhi@tamu.edu) is a research physicist at NIST. She received her Ph.D. in ultrafast optics from Texas A&M University.

Career Path, Communication Skills, Conferences, Job Search, Women in Science , , , , , , ,

Career Paths: A Conversation with Jannick Rolland

29. May 2013

OSA Director-at-Large Jannick Rolland talks with Optics & Photonics News about her path to academia. Thanks to OSA member Brooke Hester for working with Jannick to gather her insights.

What is your background prior to becoming a professor?

I was a postdoc at an academic institution that evolved into a research staff position. I was there for a total of six years. 

How did you enter academia?

My funding was beginning to dry up, so I decided that it was time to look for a new position. Shortly thereafter I spoke with my former advisor at an OSA Annual meeting, and he recommended that I tell everyone that I was looking for a job. So that’s exactly what I did. I mentioned to an old classmate that I was back on the job market, and he introduced me to M.J. Soileau, who was then the director of the Center for Research and Education on Optics and Lasers (CREOL) at the University of Central Florida. About eight months after that meeting, I applied at CREOL and was offered a position. I also interviewed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; however, because I was not a U.S. citizen at the time, I decided that it was not my best option. 

What are your current responsibilities?

A few years ago, I joined the Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester. I am currently a chair professor, the Brian J. Thompson Professor of Optical Engineering, the director of the R.E. Hopkins Center and also the director of the planned NSF Center for Freeform Optics. My responsibilities are teaching, research, mentoring students on every aspect of their work (and sometimes on a more personal level) and serving the Institute of Optics, my university, various societies and scientific communities locally and globally. For example, I am a professor invitee at the Institute d'Optique in France , and I help teach some short courses in optical instrumentation. 

How does your role now differ from your previous roles?

My responsibilities have only grown over time. Now, in addition to my other tasks, I have to raise funds to support as many as 20 people and keep them employed through economic ups and downs. That is considerably more accountability than I had as a graduate student focused on my Ph.D. topic, or as a postdoc working on only a couple of projects.

What was the biggest challenge you faced?

It was securing funding for my research in instrumentation innovation. This work requires working in multiple disciplines, and getting funding can be quite difficult—particularly because it can take years to complete a project. Although the National Institutes of Health was a good fit for my work, it was difficult to obtain grants from there because my institution was not well-positioned for medical research. I had to develop a business strategy that allowed me to focus on the science, rather than just fundraising. It hasn’t been easy, but I still have a passion for medical instrumentation, and I have succeeded through relentless effort.

What advice would you give to others looking to break into academia?

Get as much experience as you can as a postdoc or research scientist for up to three years before entering the tenure track. Your mentors during this period will be your advocates for life. If possible, also work in industry for up to six years. Try to get a position in a reputable company, so that you can build your network along with your skills. Look for an institution that fits with your long term goals. That said, you can make some shorter-term strategic decisions while building your long-term plans and looking for the best way to advance your vision.

Jannick Rolland (rolland@optics.rochester.edu) is the Brian J. Thompson Professor of Optical Engineering and Director of the R.E. Hopkins Center for Optical Design & Engineering and the Planned Center for Freeform Optics at the University of Rochester.

 

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

Read to Succeed

20. May 2013

Milton Chang

I began reading several business publications when I was in graduate school in the 1960s. I had a hard time understanding them at first, but it became progressively easier, and over time, they gave me valuable insight into that world.

Whether you plan to start a company or not, I believe that every engineer can benefit from knowing something about business and management. You’ll have a better sense of how technology fits into real-world enterprises; become more effective on the job; learn how to interact with management; and lead people and projects, even when you make engineering decisions.

Moreover, as a practical matter, it is almost impossible to maintain an edge in a 40-year career as a pure technologist. Learning about business and management enables engineers to move into managerial positions and to remain vital and productive. It gives a technical person the opportunity to oversee projects that follow a product’s development from the idea stage to market application. Moreover, anyone who does want to start a business will embark on the process with less fear of the unknown and avoid fatal mistakes from the start.

Reading business magazines and newspapers is a good way to begin learning about the business world. There are four publications on my can’t-miss reading list: Bloomberg Businessweek, Forbes, Fortune and The Wall Street Journal. While some of these periodicals overlap in content, each one offers a different emphasis and perspective.

Bloomberg Businessweek (formerly Business Week)
If you only subscribe to one business magazine, this should be it. I like the section on “Global Economics,” which offers useful background information that helps drive decision-making in industry. I also like the “Technology” department, which keeps me abreast of what’s new with a wide range of products and businesses beyond optics and photonics.

Forbes
This magazine zooms in on the business strategies of specific companies. The “Technology” section highlights interesting new products and innovative ideas. “Entrepreneurs” covers the process that entrepreneurs go through to start companies and explores how they deal with the challenges they encounter along the way. “Investing” provides valuable information that guides how to make wise investment choices.

Fortune
Fortune gets into more specifics about successful, high-profile individuals. What do these people do and how do they live? I always find an interesting scoop in the “Scandals” section. It describes ill-gotten wealth and serves as a good reminder that we cannot always believe what we encounter.

The Wall Street Journal
Published six days a week, this is a great day-to-day resource that provides up-to-date information about what’s going on in business. It is a must-read for anyone who wants to optimize their investment in anything—whether it is in the stock market or real estate.

Other gems
Through reading, you can open yourself up to a vast array of career options—and simply broaden your perspective on life. With that in mind, I also recommend reading a local newspaper every day and following the Economist to learn more about the rest of the world.

And, of course, I wish more people would read my book, Toward Entrepreneurship, Establishing a Successful Technology Business. It is an easy read, and it covers much of what you’ll learn in an MBA program, but it is customized for the individuals in our industry.

Yes, you are successful because you were focused enough to become an expert in your field. Broadening a bit to strike a balance can help you to accomplish even more. Reading these publications is a painless way to start!

Milton Chang (miltonchang@incubic.com) is the managing director of Incubic Management and an OSA Fellow. He was president of Newport and New Focus, and he took both companies public. He is the director of mBio Diagnostics and Aurrion. He is a trustee of Caltech and a member of the SEC Advisory Committee on Small and Emerging Companies.

Academic Careers, Career Path, Communication Skills, Nontraditional Science Careers, Small Business and Entrepreneurs , , , , , , ,

Building a Good Team: The Rule of 8 Percent

15. May 2013

Pablo Artal

OSA Fellow Pablo Artal has kindly allowed OPN’s Bright Futures career blog to adapt and 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 Pablo: I am a young faculty member in a physics department working to establish myself, and I need the help of good students and post-docs to move forward. I was surprised to find that dealing with the personal issues within my group is even more difficult than obtaining funding. Do you have any advice on how to form a good team? Andreas, U.S.A.

Building and managing a good team is a challenge in all fields, particularly during the early stages of your career. Many scientists struggle with this, and there is no simple trick that can guarantee your success. However, I can offer some advice to help you along the way.

In an ideal world, all of the people on your team would work together productively and without conflict. However, in practice, that likely won’t be the case. My experience and that of many of my colleagues leads me to believe in the “rule of 8 percent” -- the idea that, in most group settings, roughly 8 percent of the people will be problematic to work with.

You will invest a lot of time and energy in your group members: training and teaching them, introducing them to other colleagues, promoting them, etc. This is normal and appropriate; it only becomes a problem when you receive little in return for your efforts. When you reach the point where you feel that your time is being wasted, it is time to address the issue. Sometimes, regardless of what you do, you will not be able to turn people into good colleagues.

Unfortunately, it is often difficult to identify the “8 percent” individuals at the outset, since it takes time to get to know people and their work habits. If possible, you should start new employees with a short training period as a trial before offering a longer-term position. However, this is not always an option due to the policies of academic institutions.

So, if someone in your group is making your life miserable, try to stay calm. First, have a conversation with him or her about the problems you are having. Sometimes it is possible to resolve even serious conflicts through open, honest communication. If this doesn’t work , you may want to suggest that the person leave your group. If you can think of another position for which he or she would be a better fit, try to help him or her make a smooth transition. If this is not possible, do your best to remove the person from your important projects and be sure that any sensitive information is difficult to access. Talk to university officials for help and stay firm. If you do nothing and allow the situation to get out of control, it could demoralize your strong contributors and hurt the group as a whole. The sooner you act, the better off you will be.

Although group problems can seem overwhelming, the good news is that the majority of your team should be much easier to work with. Focus on identifying everyone’s strengths and how they can complement one another. Finding what your students love to do and delegating their activities accordingly is a crucial part of your job as team leader. Although I have certainly worked with some difficult people over the course of my career, they are not the ones who stick out in my mind. More important are the other 92 percent of my students and colleagues who have been a joy to work with.

Pablo Artal (Pablo@um.es) 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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Working at a U.S. Military Lab: What You Can Expect

7. May 2013

Michael Duncan

Sometimes people ask me what it’s like to work at a military laboratory. Having worked at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) for my entire career, I can’t really compare it to other work environments—but my experience has been good overall. My job has allowed me to pursue a diverse array of projects and to expand my horizons, both in fundamental and applied optics.  It also gave me the opportunity to work for a few years at the Office of Naval Research, the Navy’s science and technology funding organization. Here’s what to expect if you go to work for a national lab like NRL.

You can expect to write proposals, since NRL is mostly funded by customers outside of the lab. (This is now probably a constant for any working scientist in industry, government, or academia!) Thus, you certainly need to write coherently and well.

You can also expect to work in a small group of 2 to 5 colleagues, so the ability to work and communicate well with other people is critical. At the Ph.D. level, you will be looked at as an expert in a certain area (a subject matter expert, or SME, in government-speak), but you will need to quickly use your training to expand your knowledge into related areas.

Publishing and presenting your work at conferences is important, but you might not be using the same venues that you did as a student. Classified research is a likely component of what you do, but probably not everything. You won’t be teaching, although government scientists often have adjunct professorships at local schools. To work in a U.S. military lab, you must be a citizen of the United States.

In a government or military lab, you are hired because of your research specialty and your ability to solve problems. You will be more constrained on your research topics than you would be in academia, but you can also contribute to solving a much broader range of problems, from basic science to applied technology. This is the aspect of my career that has been the most satisfying.

All of the armed services have a kind of “dual-track” for advancement as a scientific professional. There is the traditional approach of moving from research into management, and there is also a “science and technology” track that allows you to advance in stature and pay without having to become a manager.

Sometimes having a position in a military lab can isolate you from the broader technical field you work in, so it is extremely important to stay active in a professional organization such as OSA. The Optical Society has allowed me to remain connected to the larger field of optics and the people doing the most innovative research. This has not only benefitted me; it has also made me a more valuable employee to NRL.

In my view, the less favorable aspects of working for the military are the heavy amount of government paperwork, the training and security requirements, and some of the research limitations. Overall, though, I’ve found that a career in a military lab provides great opportunities to work with government and military organizations to advance science and technology. You will interact with many smart and motivated people, in and out of uniform, and you may work with world-class equipment and test platforms such as F/A-18 jets, aircraft carriers, and nuclear submarines. Your position can lead you to other careers in government as well. In short, investing in your country can be a great way to invest in yourself.

Michael D. Duncan (michael.duncan@nrl.navy.mil) is a research physicist at the Naval Research Laboratory.

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Looking into the Career “Crystal Ball”

2. May 2013

Arti Agrawal  

Throughout our professional lives, we ask ourselves many questions: When and how will I get my dream job? Will I be as successful as I hope to be? Why haven’t I been promoted? Is my job secure? Although it may seem that only a fortune teller can provide answers, this isn’t actually the case.                             

I recently took an online class on strategic thinking, and it struck me that we’re probably asking the wrong questions. Rather than focusing on big, abstract ideas, we should be thinking about specifics that we can control. Below are some factors to consider when you are attempting to predict your career future. 

What are the goals of my institution, and how does my work contribute to them?

Demonstrating that you understand the long-term vision of your organization increases your job security and chances of promotion. For example, my university is currently making strategic changes. I need to be aware of where the organization is headed and figure out how my work fits into our new goals. If I can demonstrate this awareness to my department head, then I become a more integral part of the future of the organization.

What are the trends in the sector that I work in, and is my organization keeping up?

It is important to be aware of the state of your field, and how your organization is doing in the current environment. Are there new opportunities that you can take advantage of, or areas that your department could improve upon? You should be honest with yourself if you don’t like what you see. If your area of research is shrinking and funding is scarce, is this really where you want to be?

Am I prepared to adapt to change?

Consider the example of digital cameras: They completely changed the way we take pictures, and now almost no one uses film cameras. Could something similar happen to me? My expertise is in numerical modeling methods. Before the advent of commercial software, modeling was the domain of experts. Today, this is not the case—people don’t always need extensive training or experience with modeling methods to simulate devices. What does that indicate for my future? How should I deal with this change and ensure that my skills remain relevant?

Why me?

Even for a position for which my expertise will be very useful, I have to make the case for myself. Why pick me? Amongst the many applicants for this position, what makes me special?

These questions still require a lot of thought, but with some research, it is possible to come up with concrete answers that will help keep your career on track.

There are a number of tools that can help guide your thinking. The website mindtools has a very good collection of helpful resources (some of my favorites are the TOWS matrix, Core Competence Analysis, USP analysis and Scenario Analysis). There is also some fascinating reading to be found in The Economist and the Harvard Business Review.

I guess this means some homework for me—and maybe for you too!

Arti Agrawal (arti_agrawal@hotmail.com) is a lecturer at City University London in the department of electrical, electronic and information engineering at the School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences. To follow her personal blog, visit http://artiagrawal.wordpress.com

 

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From Academia to Industry, Diversity Is Key

23. April 2013

Balint Horvath

As laser pioneer Herwig Kogelnik said in an interview, “[breakthroughs] seem to be happening at the interface between disciplines.” Indeed, the precursor to the laser—the maser—was itself born outside the realm of optics, in the field of microwave engineering. Such cross-pollination can happen on a smaller scale too, in a university or industrial research lab. Regardless of whether you choose to pursue a career in academia or industry after you finish your Ph.D., chances are that you’ll need a diverse set of skills to do your job well.

I chose to step outside of academia but to remain in research: I joined the corporate research lab of a large engineering company in Switzerland called ABB. Our ultimate goal was to make a profit rather than to “merely” enrich our scientific knowledge base—quite a departure from the philosophy of my professors in graduate school. The research topic was also foreign to me, as it was more closely linked to plasma physics than optics. However, my knowledge of optical technologies helped me to understand this unfamiliar subject area, and I found it both enlightening and satisfying to dig into a vast new field. My multidisciplinary team regarded problems as challenges that we could attack from multiple angles due to our varied backgrounds.

In today’s competitive environment, companies are realizing the necessity of hiring people with a multitude of skills. This diversity ultimately benefits the organization as a whole. Studies have shown that multidisciplinary teams provide three times more high-quality solutions to problems than non-diverse ones.

For a diverse team to work together effectively, its members must have “soft” skills, such as the ability to promote trust, respect each other and exhibit kindness, in addition to their core capabilities. Just as with technical abilities, these proficiencies will vary from person to person, and a team benefits from having a variety of personalities with complementary skills.

In addition to encouraging diversity in the teams with whom you work, you should cultivate it in yourself by developing a well-rounded portfolio of personal and professional skills. Here are a few suggestions for how to do that:

• Figure out what your strengths and weaknesses are. This will help you to recognize what you have to offer a group and identify areas for improvement.
• Get involved. I helped to set up the first OSA student chapter in Germany in 2007 and the IONS network shortly thereafter. These activities were a fun, helpful way to make new connections.
• Truly listen to others, regardless of their place in the hierarchy. Quieting your own thinking allows you to really learn from someone else. It also shows the other person that his or her thoughts are appreciated.
• Fully immerse yourself in different cultures by occasionally traveling alone. This independence will give you the confidence you need to actively seek new challenges and experiences.
• Read about other disciplines and attend conference sessions outside your field. This will help you to cultivate new interests and find different applications for your work.

Diversifying my skills and knowledge has opened many doors for me. I encourage you to do the same and keep an open mind about the direction your career path may take. Who knows—maybe we’ll bump into each other at a conference where we both learn something new.

Balint Horvath (balint.horvath@gmail.com) received his Ph.D. in physics from the Max-Planck-Institute of Quantum Optics in 2009. Shortly afterwards he joined ABB Switzerland Ltd's Corporate Research Lab, where he conducted research related to switchgear devices. Recently, he has joined another energy company's R&D program in a lower management position.

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The Elusive Search for Career Freedom

17. April 2013

Bob Jopson

A recent entry into the world of paychecks described his new job to me as “really fun,” but then added regretfully that he did not have the “freedom” he desired. Over the years, I have heard “freedom” used in this context many times, and the lack of it is almost always described in a wistful tone. A job might be challenging, fulfilling and well-paying, but somehow this is all for naught if the job lacks “freedom”– a code word for the sad fact that you usually cannot work on whatever strikes your fancy. Not surprisingly, the company, agency or university that is paying for your equipment, travel and salary expects something in return, and you can’t always choose the tasks required of you.

Our expectations of “freedom” arise in college or graduate school, when professors are our closest examples of professionals in our chosen field. We aspire to be just like them. They often encourage us to explore and pursue any wild idea we may have, so it may seem that they themselves are working without constraints. Well, hardly. The work day of most professors I know is consumed by committee work, teaching obligations, proposal writing and various support tasks. In their spare time, they can work on anything they want—so long as it does not require students, equipment or travel. Otherwise, they need to find someone to fork over the cash to fund the project. Once the contract is signed, the professors are obligated to satiate the person providing the funding.

Your job search will be easier and more successful if you seek an employer who needs whatever it is that you want to do, rather than looking for flexibility in the job description. This will allow you to do work that you like and keep your employer happy at the same time. Most people’s technical interests evolve in response to their environment, so your activities will tend to remain aligned with those of your organization.

You will soon be consumed by matters and problems arising in your job, which will stimulate new interests as well. You may even find that working under the constraints of a well-defined project unleashes your creativity in a way that you never would have expected. It is therefore important that you find employment that challenges your abilities and provides the opportunity to learn something. It helps when the work environment allows coworkers to discuss matters frankly without engendering hard feelings. 

Also consider which aspect of “freedom” is most important to you—is it the freedom to choose your hours, select your favorite tasks or projects, or create your own vision of something? Many people want to make a difference in the world: to make better devices, devise a better way of doing something, discover new effects, send forth well-educated graduates, etc. A number of my acquaintances have left comfortable situations for the uncertainties of startups, working stressful 16-hour days with very narrowly defined goals. Most find it to be stimulating, and if the start-up folds, they seek another one. They have almost no freedom on technical topics, but maximal freedom to make an impact. Many have told me that you cannot imagine the satisfaction you feel when a product on which you have been toiling for a year or two finally hits the marketplace, and you see it spreading throughout the country or world.

Many factors enter into a search for a position. Be wary of putting undue emphasis on the chimera of “freedom.” There are other factors that are more important and enduring.

Bob Jopson (virgin@alcatel-lucent.com) works on optical communications at Bell Labs, Alcatel-Lucent.

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Making the Most of Your Ph.D. Experience in a Developing Country

9. April 2013

Angela Dudley

I like being different. In fact, one of the reasons I decided to pursue a career in physics is that there are very few scientists in South Africa, and even fewer female scientists. My thinking was that fewer people in the game meant less competition and more opportunities. Each year, there are only about 23 Ph.D. graduates produced per million South African citizens (and this encompasses all academic disciplines, not just the sciences.) Here, I provide a few tips for getting your Ph.D. in a country where high-level degrees are not the norm.  

Find a dynamic mentor.
At the end of my undergraduate studies, I chose the topic of my research project based not only on my interests, but also on the potential supervisors with whom it would put me in contact. Having a helpful ally is important for any graduate student, but even more so for those in a country that has fewer resources available for Ph.D. students. I had a checklist for the mentor I wanted. He or she needed to be:

• Available and approachable
• Able to provide me with the opportunity to attend and present at conferences (even if they were only local ones)
• Good at sourcing funding, and
• Well-connected in the South African science community.

While on vacation from university, I got a short-term position at the CSIR’s National Laser Centre that enabled me to test the waters for future opportunities. This was the ideal interview process: I got to see if I enjoyed the environment and the research, and my future Ph.D. supervisor was able to assess if I was a good fit for the group.

During this time, I saw that my mentor was ambitious and dynamic. He had an impeccable track record at securing funding and many local and international contacts. I could tell that, if I wanted to distinguish myself in my field, he could teach me how to do exactly that.

Be proactive. 
Where networks don’t exist, you must create them. Our student body formed local OSA and SPIE student chapters, which opened up many opportunities for me and other students, including travel grants, funds to bring in world-renowned lecturers, the possibility of hosting our own student conference (IONS) and discounts on publications. The OSA Recent Graduates program will also provide you with volunteer opportunities, so that you can gain experience and showcase your potential to science and business leaders from around the world.

Return the favor.
Admittedly, I pursued this field in part because I knew I would be a minority. But I hope this will not always be the case. I would like to encourage young people in South Africa and other developing nations to take advantage of the opportunities in the sciences and use their influence to help others along the same path. I intend to give back to the community by becoming as effective a teacher as my mentors have been for me.

Angela Dudley (ADudley@csir.co.za) conducted her Ph.D. research at the CSIR National Laser Centre based in Pretoria, South Africa. She received her Ph.D. in June 2012 from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and subsequently commenced her current position of Postdoctoral Fellow within the Mathematical Optics group at the CSIR National Laser Centre.

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