How to Find the Right Postdoc Position

16. July 2013
Ming Li
 
Many recent Ph.D. students would like to land a faculty position at a university or research institute soon after graduating. However, there are only a few of these opportunities available every year. For each opening, there will likely be many qualified applicants from all over the world, with very strong CVs and publication records. In this climate, it is extremely challenging to break into academia immediately following grad school, and so a postdoctoral position has become an important springboard to a tenure-track academic job.
 
For the past four years, I was a postdoctoral research fellow in two Canadian photonics research groups: the Microwave Photonics Research Laboratory at the University of Ottawa, under the supervision of Jianping Yao, and the Ultrafast Optical Processing group at the Institute National de la Recherche Scientifique (INRS), under the supervision of José Azaña. My time as a postdoc has been a great experience that others could benefit from as well, and so here I provide my personal perspective and advice about how to find and take advantage of a postdoctoral position.
 
Find the right match for your research interests. A postdoctoral research contract is usually for about two years. Due to this short timeline, professors are looking to hire researchers who can be immediately involved in the research activities of the group and make meaningful contributions, particularly in the form of journal publications or conference presentations. The capability of the postdoc to bring new ideas into ongoing projects is critical to hiring professors when they are assessing candidates.
 
Use your network. A nice recommendation letter from someone who is familiar with the professor with whom you’d like to work can play a key role in successfully applying for a postdoctoral position. Professors often approach friends and colleagues to recommend a candidate who has the necessary background and capabilities. Try to take advantage of your existing connections, and work to broaden your network in addition to strengthening your CV.
 
Hone your communication skills. In Canadian labs, a postdoc serves as the liaison between students and the professor. In addition to working on his or her own research, a postdoc also assists the professor in guiding students, scheduling experiments, arranging group meetings, etc. Therefore, interpersonal skills are crucial, in and out of the lab. I learned these abilities from my two supervisors and practiced them throughout my time in Canada. Now, I use these important skills when working with my own students in China.
 
Seek out useful collaborations. On a related topic, it is important to take advantage of opportunities to form helpful relationships between different research labs. A postdoc must be able to negotiate and communicate with the people in other groups in order to complete projects in the most effective way. These collaborative experiences not only helped me to finish some of my most interesting research, but also to build a large professional network—which can be even more important in the long-term.
 
Although it can be difficult to get the tenure-track position that you’re hoping for immediately after finishing your Ph.D., don’t be discouraged. There are many valuable skills that you can learn as a postdoctoral researcher, and this experience will put you on the right track to accomplish the rest of your career goals.
 
Dr. Ming Li (ml@semi.ac.cn) is a full professor at the Institute of Semiconductors at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. 

Academic Careers, Career Path, Communication Skills, Graduate School, Job Search, Ph.D. Perspectives, Postdocs , , , , , , ,

The Career Uncertainty Principle

2. July 2013
Rocío Borrego-Varillas 
 
In physics, the uncertainty principle states that we cannot precisely measure the position and momentum of a subatomic particle at the same time. Many students approaching the completion of their Ph.D. experience a unique career-related variation of this principle: The closer they get to graduation, the more difficult it is to make plans for the future.
 
Although it’s exciting to complete your degree, facing a new professional stage can be stressful.  You can minimize this anxiety by planning early and developing the skills you’ll need to reach your long-term goals. Certain abilities are valuable regardless of whether you want to pursue a career in academia or in industry. These “transferable skills” include networking, communication and fund management. 
 
There are many ways to develop your transferable skills. In fact, some doctoral programs even include specialized courses on these proficiencies. Here are some of my suggestions:
 
Develop your oral communication skills. You can find many resources on the Internet. I especially like “English communication for scientists,” a free tool from Nature Education with tutorials on topics ranging from giving conference presentations to preparing lectures. Many conferences also provide very helpful seminars on scientific communication (for example, Jean-luc Doumont’s video and OPN article on “Creating Effective Slides”).
 
Become a better writer. Although we have many day-to-day writing obligations for school or work, it is a good idea to build your non-technical writing skills as well. There are a wide variety of outlets where you can practice: write for a blog, local newspaper, magazine or outreach book (like “El laser, la luz de nuestro tiempo”). For example, you can write for Optics & Photonics News (OPN), the membership magazine of The Optical Society; OPFocus, an independent magazine reviewing important recent developments in the fields of optics and photonics; and of course OPN’s Bright Futures career blog! 
 
Create a network. Student-oriented conferences such as the IONS meetings offer a great chance to build a professional network and meet colleagues. Conferences and technical meetings in general will help you to learn about different subject areas and introduce you to potential employers. Many offer professional development events, such as presentations by journal editors or meetings with entrepreneurs, which provide insight into different professions and the qualifications they require.
 
Learn fund raising and grant management. A good way to practice is to help your supervisor with his or her proposal by writing the paragraphs corresponding to your project description. Another good opportunity to get experience in this realm is through an OSA student chapter, as you will often file activity grants applications and raise funds to support chapter events. 
 
My advice for those of you running up against your “uncertainty principle” is to make it work in your favor—by keeping as many doors open as possible and learning as you go. With so many exciting possibilities to explore, perhaps certainty is overrated.
 
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, Conferences, Graduate School, Job Search, OSA Student Chapters, Postdocs , , , , , , , ,

How to Find the Right Advisor

24. June 2013

Shoresh Shafei and Sean Mossman

When you enter grad school, you are immediately faced with a barrage of choices: which courses to take, where to find funding, which topic to study, etc. It’s easy to see how finding an advisor can fall to the bottom the list. Yet it is one of the most important steps you can take toward launching a successful scientific career, since a good advisor can help you to tackle all those other decisions effectively. Everyone has different needs and priorities, but here are a few factors we think are crucial to consider.

Look for a leader. Labs run more smoothly with a strong leader, so you should take the management techniques of the advisor into account. A research group may include several postdocs, graduate students and undergrads, in addition to long- and short-term visitors. These people most likely have different motivations and goals, and they may come from diverse cultural backgrounds. A group leader must be able to balance these varied interests, help the members to work together constructively, and minimize conflicts.

Understand that training is key. He or she should spend time teaching you the skills you need to become a successful scientist. A graduate student isn’t just extra help around the lab; he or she is a mentee! The ultimate goal should be for students to become original thinkers, not to learn how to run an experiment on autopilot without interpreting data or coming up with ideas of their own.

Learn communication skills. A good mentor should communicate effectively and urge you to do the same. He or she should encourage you to prepare and present talks at conferences, make informative and eye-catching posters, and build a helpful network of colleagues. You need to be thinking about all aspects of your education, and your advisor should too.

Consider your mentor’s accessibility. Many graduate students complain about having to wait for a long time to meet with their advisor or receive a response to their emails. Regular one-on-one interaction with your mentor is crucial to making the most of your relationship. It can be difficult to know in advance how available your advisor will be, but you can ask current or former group members about their experiences.

Think about research standards and reputation. Your future advisor’s research standards will become yours as well. Think about how his or her research projects are conducted, results are analyzed, and findings are reported. Is the emphasis on getting research published as quickly as possible, or does quality take precedence? What matters most to you? Finding an advisor with a good reputation will help you to build your own, especially as a young scientist preparing yourself for the job market.

Although there are many factors that contribute to your success in graduate school, having an effective and supportive advisor is extremely helpful. Do yourself a favor and give this decision the time and consideration it deserves by thinking about it early. The more information you have, the better choices you’ll make.

We would like to dedicate this article to Prof. Mark Kuzyk, a great friend and outstanding advisor, for his 55th birthday.

Shoresh Shafei (shafei@wsu.edu) and Sean Mossman are with the department of physics and astronomy at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash., U.S.A. 

 

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What to Wear? Advice from Scientists about Dressing for Success

19. June 2013

 Marc Kuchner  

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

Studies show that how we dress affects what people think of our personalities and capabilities, and scientists are unlikely to be immune to these biases. For this reason, I recently posted an interview with image consultant Kasey Smith, who offered me her professional advice about what image consultants do and how to dress to improve my image. To my delight, the interview received more comments than any of my previous blog posts. From this feedback, I picked up more good tips about clothing and fashion in the scientific world, which I share here.

Dress Up for Interviews and Meetings With Non-Scientists.

It’s probably no surprise that we need to dress up when we give talks and want to impress non-scientist decision makers. “I think it’s very important to be cognizant of these kinds of things, especially when we meet with VIPs such as provosts and university presidents and the like, not to mention potential donors to the college or university,” said one department chair. So there’s a time and a place to kick it up a notch and add that third piece, as Kasey suggested—perhaps a scarf or a jacket.

Don’t Overdo It.

Be aware that when you’re dressing to impress, it’s possible to overdo it.  In one comment, a biophysicist told me, “I’m more likely to believe the science of somebody wearing a nice pair of khaki pants and a shirt than somebody wearing the whole ‘CEO costume.’”  In another email, an astronomy professor reminisced about watching a job candidate botch his interviews by failing to observe the casual dress code at the institution where he was applying. “He gave his talk in a suit, which in any other environment would be perfectly appropriate. However, given the laid back nature of [our institution], it was really overkill and actually was distracting.”

Also, if you’re planning to buy a special outfit for job interviews, remember what another scientist told me: “Once you’ve bought your clothes, wear them a couple of times before your interview. Clothes just out of the rack are rather stiff, and (at least to some of us) it’s very obvious when somebody is wearing a suit that he just bought.”

Use Clothing to Define Your Brand.

Another trick of some successful senior scientists is to use clothing to help define their personal brands.  “I have taken to wearing white. It is a way for people to easily recognize me,” said an astronomer and filmmaker. “Everything I own is grey, black, or a pattern with both,” said a physics professor.  I also heard from scientists who consistently wore Western wear and others who were proud of their tattoos. Cultivating a distinctive look can help you connect with your colleagues and the public.

Postdocs, Beware: The Wrong Image Can Turn Off Your Mentors.

If you are at the stage of your career where you need to impress senior scientists in order to land your next job, it may be safer to dress conservatively. One senior planetary scientist told me that she takes the outfits of her colleagues very seriously. “You can get away with looking like Einstein if you ARE Einstein, and otherwise, you just look like a loser.”

A postdoc also told me that he felt like he fit in better with senior scientists when he dressed more like one. “Dressing like an ‘adult’,” he said “made me feel like an adult who was ready to be a professional scientist.”

There’s Still Room for Fun.

The comments I received sent the message that appearances do matter to our scientific colleagues.

But the good thing is that being a scientist—a senior one at least—comes with tremendous freedom to decide which image we would like to project. Dressing more formally may win us points in administrative and political circles. Wearing more daring clothing can help you make a strong impression with the public. Thankfully, there’s more than one way to do it right.

As one scientist from the Netherlands told me, “I think the biggest difference is made if your outfit shows that you take care of your clothes and yourself.” That sounds like good marketing advice. Thanks to everyone for the feedback!

P.S. For more thoughts about how women scientists should dress, you might enjoy this article about a double standard for men and women in science.

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

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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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