A Roadmap to Consulting

24. October 2012

Jennifer Kruschwitz

At last week’s Frontiers in Optics meeting, OSA member and thin-film consultant Jennifer Kruschwitz shared her advice about how to prepare for a career in consulting during a Minorities and Women in OSA event. Jennifer was recognized as Digital Rochester’s 2012 Technology Woman of the Year.

There are a lot of reasons why one might want to pursue a career in consulting. For me, self-employment was something I’d always wanted to do. It was in my nature: Both my parents and siblings owned their own businesses, and I viewed the prospect as familiar and doable.

Others might find that they’ve hit a wall in their current job; even though they always get excellent reviews at work, they consistently get passed over for promotions. For still others, consulting could be the option that allows them the flexibility they need to balance work and family or to circumvent the frustrating “two body” problem, in which professional couples must figure out how to live in the same geographic location when relevant jobs there are limited for one of them.

No matter what your reason, you’ll need to prepare well before embarking on your journey toward consulting by taking the following steps.

Gain expertise in your field. In whatever job you have, you can set the stage for a consulting career by becoming the go-to person for challenging tasks. Find ways to add value to any project you are involved with and learn how to be productive between projects, so your expertise is always growing. Also, the more you can publish and present your scientific work, the better. Getting your name out to the community is critical.

Build your network. As you build your reputation, grow your network as well. You’ll want to get to know not only other scientists, but other professionals in the small business community. Volunteering with professional societies is a great way to start.

Put yourself on solid financial footing. Try to start your business from a strong financial position. You can do this by reducing your personal debt and saving as much money as possible. Before you get started, you’ll need to research your rates so that you can justify them to your clients and yourself. If you set your rates too high, you may not get any business; it you set them too low, others may perceive your work to be of low quality. Finally, think about how willing you are to be flexible with clients based on their particular situations.

After you’ve taken the plunge, the next step is to build your business. You might pursue one of more of the following options.

Partner with a larger firm that doesn’t have your specialty. Keep on top of the businesses in your field and related areas so you can identify those that provide a good, strategic fit. Then set up a time to talk with a contact there about how you can work together to your mutual benefit.

Work for a previous employer on a contractual basis. This possibility is one reason you shouldn’t burn bridges when you leave any job. You can never count out any company as a potential client or partner down the line.

Complement your business with another form of income. Whether it is a teaching position or research gig, having another role can help sustain you financially while also contributing to your portfolio of skills.

By being prepared, you can position yourself strongly as a fledgling business. Don’t let a lack of confidence get in your way. If you are nervous about being a consultant … pretend you’re somebody else! You (or your alter ego) can do it!

Jennifer D.T. Kruschwitz (jkconsult@kruschwitz.com) is a Senior OSA member and principal optical coating design engineer at her own company, J.K. Consulting, Rochester, N.Y., U.S.A. She is also an adjunct professor at the University of Rochester and an adjunct associate professor at the University of Arizona.

Career Path, Communication Skills, Consulting, Job Search, Nontraditional Science Careers, Small Business and Entrepreneurs , , , ,

Career Advice from Top Entrepreneur Milton Chang

16. October 2012

Milton Chang

At this week’s Frontiers in Optics meeting, Milton Chang shared his advice about how to forge a path toward entrepreneurship at the OSA Student Leadership Conference. Here are highlights from his talk.

Many of you are already off to a good start toward constructing a fulfilling technical career: You have shown active involvement in your community and picked a technical field for your future. You will find your niche and do well.

I was once where you are: wondering what to do with my career. I immigrated from Hong Kong for college; worked my way through my undergraduate years; and was employed by an aerospace company for a few years. Then I joined a start-up as the 7th employee. Eventually I became president of that company—The Newport Corporation—and took it public.

You too can build a successful future. With your technical know-how, you can do anything you want, as long as you continue to broaden yourself, learn and study. Here’s how to ensure that your career will move in the right direction over the long term:

Gain as much expertise as possible to compete for opportunities. Hiring managers are looking for someone with expertise who can get the job done. Having a graduate degree is a great starting point—

but don’t stop there. Learn as many skills as possible to gain access to jobs that others will not have. Often having the combination of a few skills will lead you to many more opportunities than you would have with just one area of expertise: 1+1=10.

Having a breadth of knowledge enables you to make sound decisions. When choosing your career path, you don’t want to have blinders on—so make sure you learn about subjects beyond your technical area. In particular, having business acumen and an understanding of management can make you more effective on the job as an engineer and also provide you with more career options.

Your reputation and your network are your resources. There are two types of networking you can engage in as a professional: The “shoulder slapping” variety, in which you forge friendly connections with a wide range of others, and the stronger relationships you have with a few confidantes. Both types are important to your career.

For those interested in pursuing the entrepreneurial path, here’s how to get started:

Be really good at what you do and know your industry. This is the #1 requirement for being an entrepreneur. You need both technical expertise and knowledge of business and management. Avoid pursuing an idea that is outside of the industry you know intimately; instead go for a niche that capitalizes on your expertise and grow the business over time as you gain experience.

Start by joining a well managed company. Perish the thought of starting a company right out of school—you simply don’t know enough yet. Strive to succeed by first learning what it takes to succeed and by building your professional reputation and network.

Take on project management. You don’t want to just grind away at a narrow task or technology that could at some point become obsolete. Engaging in big-picture project management will help you gain well-rounded skills, build your network and learn how the world works. This is what will make you become more valuable over time. Volunteering for a professional society is a great way to start.

In summary, I recommend that you think broadly about your career first, and then decide later if entrepreneurship is right for you. For more specifics on starting a business, read my book Toward Entrepreneurship: Establishing a Successful Technology Business.

Milton Chang (miltonchang@incubic.com) is the director of Precision Photonics, mBio and Aurrion, a trustee of Caltech, and a member of the SEC Advisory Committee on Small and Emerging Companies.

Career Path, Job Search, Nontraditional Science Careers, Small Business and Entrepreneurs , , , , ,

Social Media Tips for Scientists

10. October 2012

Catherine de Lange

This post is adapted from one that initially appeared on the Naturejobs blog with the kind permission of the author.

For many scientists, the thought of spending time on social media sites is distinctly unappealing. To some it’s just a question of time: Why add to your already long to-do list? For others it’s more to do with social media itself; they find the idea of sharing thoughts and ideas with the whole world pointless or self-indulgent.

If that sounds like you, it might be time to reconsider your options—social media includes much more than the usual suspects like Facebook and Twitter, and there are even sites dedicated to academics. Indeed, a vast number of scientists are using social media for tremendous gains— whether that be forming new contacts and collaborations, sharing ideas, communicating science, inspiring others or just entertaining them. Why not join them?

Starting out in the world of social media can be daunting, especially when you have a serious professional reputation to uphold. So what are the rules and where do you start? At last month's Naturejobs Career Expo in London, social media guru Nicola Osborne offered her tips on how scientists can get the best out of social media. You can find her tweeting at @suchprettyeyes if you’re already on Twitter. If you’re not, then follow her advice and you soon will be.

Why use social media?

Social media sites are go-to places for expertise and advice, so if you’re not taking part, you’re missing out. You also get much more control over your profile –you can put up what you want, which often isn’t the case for the highly formatted profiles you are used to seeing on academic websites. And social media sites give you direct access to all sorts of people, from networks of peers to potential employers, which opens the door to all manner of new opportunities.

What types of social media should I use?

Blogs are great, says Osborne, not least because they can move with you across different roles. If you’re thinking of setting up a blog, she recommends WordPress as it is straightforward to use and appears nicely on search engines. Twitter is really good for peer support, sharing resources and building up your networks. Video and audio are a bit more demanding, “but really good if you want to do public engagement, especially television, in the future,” says Osborne.  LinkedIn is a good way of sharing your CV and professional networking, as well as Academia.edu which lets you build a profile. Researchgate and Mendeley let you update your research publications.

What type of information should I share?

Share your work, and details of your research to the extent that it is acceptable, but you should certainly check any existing privacy, non-disclosure, or social media agreements that you have with your employer or the journals that publish your research. Do also share quirky or playful content around your work or research: “even the weirdest and wonderfullest of images can be a great way to link through to an interesting piece,” Osborne says.

…but don’t ever post

… commercially sensitive data, personal information that might impact on your professional reputation such as images of drunken parties. And, needless to say, don’t do anything illegal online! Watch out for automatic app updates, for example that Facebook app that shares with everyone the fact that you are reading Fifty Shades of Grey. Likewise, look out for old forgotten online discussions that could come back to haunt you.

How can I reflect my true identity online?

First things first: Google yourself. What comes up? Are your existing online presences findable and effective? When it comes to your online voice, if you aren’t sure where to start, look for role models—people who you think are doing a good job (scroll down for links to some great sites that Osborne recommends). When building your online social media profile, try to decide which tools suit your style, expertise and time availability, says Osborne. For instance, there’s no point in setting up a blog if you simply don’t have the time and motivation to update it. In which case, perhaps Twitter would be a better option. If your work generates incredible images that you’re keen to share, try Flickr, and if you simply want a more solid and static profile, try the academic sites like Mendeley.

What information should I include in my profile?

It might feel like a chore, but make sure you complete your profile carefully, and use it to connect to your other online presences. For instance, if you tweet and blog, include a link to your blog on your Twitter profile, and add a Twitter widget to your blog so visitors can easily find and follow you there.

What user name should I go for?

“I think a sensible name is useful,” says Osborne, and a name that is indicative of the content will work best. For a blog, a quirky name can age really badly, she says, although quirky content in the blog post itself can be good. Always think about who your audience is. Also, make sure you include your real name in your profile, which will help with continuity between all your accounts, and will generally be more transparent.

How can I judge the right tone?

Get a colleague to have a look and give you a second perspective when you start blogging to see if the voice is right, says Osborne. When you start, err towards the formal and loosen up later, but, “if your quirky stuff is in good taste, it should go down fairly well.”

Can I get rid of any discriminating evidence?

Even if you don’t tend to use social media, that doesn’t mean other people won’t be posting content about you, uploading pictures of you to Facebook, for instance, or blogging about a fascinating presentation you gave at a conference. In fact, that’s another reason to start using social networks—by being part of the conversation, you can see what’s being said about you.

If you Google yourself and see things you’d rather not share, there are a number of things you can do. It’s easy enough to un-tag yourself in Facebook pictures, and if you really don’t want the image up there you can always ask the person who posted it to take it down. Likewise, if there is information about you on a website that you don’t like, just get in touch with the administrator and ask them to remove it. If you don’t like what comes up in your Google search results, you can actually use social media to change them. That fan mail you wrote to your favorite fishing magazine that you didn’t know was going to be published online, for instance, will soon be replaced with your blog, Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin profiles, shunting the embarrassing search results further down the list, where people are less likely to see them.

How can I manage my social media activity?

Once you are up and running, there are a number of ways to monitor and manage your presence online, to see how people are interacting with you and responding to your content. Apart from searching for your name in search engines like Google or Bing, you can also search in Twitter to see who’s mentioning you even if they don’t use your official Twitter handle. Who Talking, Icerocket, Social Mention and Topsy let you search across several social media platforms at once. You can also set up alerts to see what people are saying about you using Google alerts, Tweetbeep or IFTTT.

For inspiration, here are some links to sites that Osborne thinks make exceptionally good use of social media to communicate science. Good luck!

• What’s on my blackboard?
• Science in the open
• A Don’s Life
• Mr. Blobby the blobfish on Facebook
• Inside science  (good use of pictures)
• Francis Rowland on Flickr
• Marta Mirazon Lahr on Academia.edu (an informative and well maintained profile)
• Prabhav Kalaghatgi on Figshare (a site which allows people to share research techniques)

Catherine de Lange (naturejobseditor@nature.com) is a science journalist and the web editor of Naturejobs. She tweets at @catdl

Nicola Osborne is social media officer for EDINA, a national academic data centre based at the University of Edinburgh which provides digital resources for staff and students in further and higher education. She tweets at @suchprettyeyes.

The Naturejobs blog is regularly updated with expert science career advice as well as news updates and events that can help you succeed in your next career move. It also runs themed series of blog posts, guest posts and podcasts. If there's something you'd like to see covered, or you’d like to pitch an idea for a blog post please email the Naturejobs web editor, Catherine de Lange, at naturejobseditor@nature.com and follow us on Twitter: @naturejobs

Academic Careers, Career Path, Communication Skills, Job Search , , , , , , ,

Should You Follow the Science Fashion of the Day?

5. October 2012

Arti Agrawal

I want that gorgeous Chanel bag. I do!

Is there any logic behind it? While I’m not sure what’s behind my urge, I suspect that Chanel has it down to a science (and art)!

Surely the fashions sold to us are not merely the unfettered creative output of talented designers? I believe there is plenty of science behind how trends change and how new products are introduced to the market. As this blog post from IonPsych explains, designers may even draw on optical illusions to create clothes that help elongate the body or emphasize flattering aspects of a person’s figure.

So if fashion follows science, does science follow fashion?

After all, we’ve all seen that certain “hot topics” in science often crop up that attract the attention of policy-makers, grant-giving bodies, journal editors and reviewers. And the work done in these areas tends to get more funding, publications and attention than that in less “fashionable” ones.

The advantages of channelling resources into trendy areas is that it allows us to rapidly develop technology in strategically important areas and to realize a quick potential return to taxpayers, investors, industry and the public. With limited funding resources, it is essential to have a method of prioritizing.

On the other hand, some areas can get over-funded at the expense of other deserving options. Trendy science can cause us to neglect promising potential developments and restrict creativity and diversity in thought.

Science is frustratingly enigmatic: We can't always predict which seemingly obscure development or outlandish piece of research will lead to a fantastic new technology or product that changes our lives. Nor can we be sure that the hot area that many work on will deliver the goods on schedule.

This fickle quality is what makes science so exciting to work in. You can’t really know what the work of today will create for tomorrow.

Take photonics for example. It has many applications and is often thought of as an enabling technology. In my view, the current trend is largely to focus on experimental work. Theoretical ideas are sometimes regarded with a jaundiced eye in the peer review process: If you can't or haven’t fabricated a prototype or demonstrated your predictions, reviewers and editors cannot be easily convinced about the potential of the idea.

But look at how the laser came to be. The principle behind this transformative technology was published years before the first prototype was demonstrated. Today lasers are everywhere: in our printers, DVD reader/writers, medical equipment, industrial equipment. It is nice to see that Charles Townes, whose early work led to the laser, was recently recognized for taking risks when he received a “Golden Goose award,” which was intended to highlight how federally funded research that once seemed pointless can ultimately transform society.

Would this wonderful idea have survived the peer review of today?

Another example is that of left-handed or negative index materials. The concept of a negative refractive index was predicted by Veselago in the 1960s when no experimental verification of the concept was possible: Fabrication was not feasible with the technology of the day, and no known examples existed in the natural world.

Yet the work was published. Moreover, since the 1990s, it has led to a huge research effort globally. By now, everyone has heard of metamaterials! Whether these exotic materials will give us the breakthroughs that researchers expect remains to be seen.

And so I feel we need to encourage a more balanced perspective—and resource allocation—and not lean too heavily in any one direction, lest we ignore incredible ideas that can transform science.

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

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

Are You an Entrepreneur?

25. September 2012

Lisa Balbes

This post was adapted from content on the Career blog of the American Chemical Society (ACS) with the kind permission of ACS and the author.

Recently, I encountered several graduate students who were considering starting their own businesses. While many people dream about being an entrepreneur, a significantly smaller number are willing to put in the time and effort it takes to make their dream a reality. A colleague who has been running his own company for over 20 years said that, when people ask for his advice on starting a business, he tries to talk them out of it to gauge how dedicated they are to the idea. When he started his own business, he noted that “the only thing that would have stopped me from doing it was if my wife had told me no!”

If you have that kind of dedication, you just might be an entrepreneur.

Starting point
A great place to begin is by writing a business plan—a document in which you completely describe the business. Forcing yourself to write it down will make you step back and really plan out the venture. The living document then serves as a roadmap as you move forward and start to involve other people. 

Summary
One of the first sections of the business plan will be the executive summary. You should be able to describe your business in several different levels of detail. Are you going to sell a product or a service? What is your targeted industry? What will make your offerings compelling to potential customers?

Legal structure
Will you start a sole proprietorship, partnership, limited liability company, C or S corporation? The form you select will have implications for taxes, liability, staffing and complexity. Make sure you understand all the options and implications, and choose what’s right for you. 

Products and services
While you may have an idea of what you’re going to sell, in a written business plan you’ll have to detail your offerings. How many different products/versions will you have to offer in the beginning? How is your offering going to be different/better from other things already on the market? Will you offer customization? How will you protect your intellectual property? Will you patent your ideas, or keep them trade secrets?

Market analysis
Describe the industry in which you will be working, including historical, current, and projected future size. What subsection constitutes your target market? What is the critical problem your offering is going to solve? What alternatives are they currently using?  What are their geographic and demographic characteristics? Who is your ideal customer? Are there any seasonal or cyclical purchasing patterns you’ll have to work around? What market share do you expect, and why?

Marketing plan
Once you have your product and target market, you have to get the two together. What is your marketing plan? How are those ideal customers going to find out about your offering? Will you exhibit at trade shows or conferences? Offer free trials?

Competitive intelligence
Who exactly is your competition? It could be other companies—or possibly even your own potential customers if they have the capability to devise internal solutions to the problem you aim to address? What are the strengths, weaknesses and market share of each? How important is this market to your competitors? What are barriers to entry to this market? What other offerings will present to differentiate you from the pack? What is on the horizon from other companies?

Organization and management
Who is going to run the company? What is their expertise and experience? If you are plan to hire employees, you become responsible for bringing in enough business to cover their salary, and taxes, while reporting requirements get more complicated. Depending on the number of employees you have and the state in which you are operating, various other regulations start to apply as headcount numbers increase. How will you address the various regulatory requirements?

Pricing
How much is it really going to cost to make your product or service, and how will you price it? Are you going to compete on low cost and high volume? Or high cost and high quality? Is your offering a need or a want for your customers, and will that affect what they are willing to pay?

Revenue
Will you reply on repeat customers, subscriptions, or contracts? Will you sell over the Internet or are face-to-face sales required? Will you hire your own sales force, or use distributers? Where will start-up money come from? How will you ensure enough money to cover operating expenses until substantial profits arrive? Will you seek investors? If so, how will you attract them and what will you offer them?

There are many more questions your business plan will have to answer, but if you’ve already thought about all these issues, congratulations! You are well on the way to becoming an entrepreneur. If not, you now know how to get started. For more resources, see the US Small Business Administration or SCORE for more ideas, and the new ACS Entrepreneurship Initiative (EI).

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes (lisa@balbes.com) of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a technical writer/editor and author of Nontraditional Careers for Chemists, published by Oxford University Press.

Career Path, Job Search, Nontraditional Science Careers, Small Business and Entrepreneurs , , , ,

Myths and Tricks from a Hiring Professional

18. September 2012

 Lisa M. Balbes

This post was adapted from content on the Career blog of the American Chemical Society (ACS) with the kind permission of ACS and the author.

I recently had the pleasure of listening to a presentation by Jill Lynn, a human resources professional at BASi, which provides research to the global pharmaceutical industry. It’s always interesting to hear from someone on the other side of the hiring process, and she graciously allowed me to share some of her insights with you.

She began by debunking three myths about the job application process.

Myth 1: “My professional experience and skills are the most important thing, and that’s all that matters to get the job, right?” Nope, sorry! A lack of interpersonal skills is the most frequently cited reason for not hiring someone (2005 Leadership IQ Survey), so they are crucial. How well you fit into the corporate culture is a major factor in the hiring decision, and many companies will “hire for attitude and train for aptitude.”

Myth 2: “My resume should be unique, creative, and a reflection of my personality and style.”
Again, nope! Hiring professionals receive a huge flood of resumes. The thing they most want is an easy-to-read and electronically friendly resume (meaning one that scans easily and contains all the appropriate keywords). Resumes that are “unique” are often difficult to read. With so many candidates for companies to choose from, the less work the reader has to do, the better. Your resume should list your professional experience in reverse chronological order, using action words and phrases (not narratives). Make sure to use a professional email address. (
Hotbabe@domain.com may get you a date, but it will not get you a job.)

Myth 3: “A detailed job objective, and information about my hobbies and outside interests, will make me stand out.”
Perhaps, but they will not get you a job. Many hiring professionals view objective statements as “filler” for those who don’t have enough work experience, and hobbies can actually hinder your ability to land an interview because they distract from your professional experience.

Hiring professionals make their living researching and reading people. They may talk to your friends, family and co-workers, and they will read your online social networking profile and postings. Any publically available information is fair game (including your Facebook or Linked In profiles), so make sure you know what’s out there about you and start cleaning it up now, if needed. Be especially careful of whom you let tag you in online photographs or comment on your pictures or posts.

The interview begins not when you meet the interviewer, and not even when you enter the building, but the minute the company receives the first contact from or about you. From then on, everything you say and do is considered as part of the package. You are never off-stage.

Before you go in for the formal interview, make sure to research the company—and, even better, the person with whom you will be interviewing. Always be prepared with a few questions to ask when it’s your turn, and stay focused on the position and the organization.

During the interview, be professional. Dress to impress, matching the company style if possible. Try to connect to the people with whom you interview, but remember that they are investigating you, and may try to “trip you up” by asking the same question in a different way, to see if you give a different answer. Make sure to give a clear, concise, and always accurate, answer to each question. Before responding, think about what they are really asking. Do they actually care where you want to be in 10 years, or do they want to know what you’re most interested in now, and if you have considered your future? Are they genuinely concerned about what your biggest weakness is, or do they want to know how you are working to overcome it?

These few tips will go a long way towards making sure you shine during the hiring process. I hope you find the company that fits your skills, personality and ambitions.

Good luck!

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes (lisa@balbes.com) of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a technical writer/editor and author of Nontraditional Careers for Chemists, published by Oxford University Press.

Career Path, Communication Skills, Job Search , , , , , ,

Academia or Industry? How about Both?

10. September 2012

Yoshi Okawachi

Should I go into industry or stay in academia? Many of us have asked ourselves this question over the course of our grad school careers. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be an either/or choice. Over the past year, I’ve been fortunate enough to get involved in both.

Growing in place
I’m currently a research associate in Alexander Gaeta’s nonlinear optics lab at Cornell University. My career path has been a bit different than many others in that I’ve continued doing research at the same academic institution where I got my Ph.D, master’s and bachelor’s degrees. This past June was the 10-year anniversary of my first graduation from Cornell! 

While a position in a different lab would have offered a new perspective in terms of academic experience, ultimately I decided to stay where I was because it enabled me to expand upon the research that defined my Ph.D. career. That has been very rewarding. Luckily, I   have had a great advisor during my time here at Cornell. He has helped me to expand my resume while challenging me with opportunities to grow as a researcher and manager.

While I was an undergraduate, I never imagined that I would still be here after enduring so many snowy winters, but as it turns out, I’ve been quite happy. I still get great pleasure from stepping into the lab and getting into the thick of things. The days when I achieve exciting results make all the hard work worthwhile.

In my position as a research associate, I have taken on new responsibilities, such as mentorship, proposal writing and more interaction with collaborators. I’ve come to view my research team from more of a managerial perspective than I did as a Ph.D. student—which has been an interesting transition for me.

Exploring industry
Recently, I’ve also become a consultant with PicoLuz, a start-up company partnered with Thorlabs. One of their new products is a temporal magnifier, which is based on time-lens research done at Cornell just a few years ago. It’s been very exciting to see this being packaged as a commercial product after having also been a part of the academic research. For me, having a window into industry while working on cutting-edge laboratory research in an academic institution has been an ideal fit.

So while there are certainly many factors that go into making big career decisions, it’s a good idea to take a moment to reflect on what excites you.What gets you out of bed in the morning? Sometimes there are paths and opportunities that you don’t expect—even when your best next step means staying right where you started.

Yoshi Okawachi (yo22@cornell.edu) is a research associate in Alexander Gaeta's group in the School of Applied and Engineering Physics at Cornell University.

Academic Careers, Career Path, Graduate School, Job Search , , , , ,

Reflections on my Congressional Fellowship

31. August 2012

Laura K. Povlich

The year that I’ve spent as the 2011-2012 Materials Research Society and Optical Society Congressional Science and Engineering fellow has been incredible. Not only did I work in a Congress member’s office, but for the last four months I filled the role of the health adviser. It’s difficult to believe that just a little over a year ago I was defending my Ph.D. in engineering, and now I’m advising a member of Congress on actions related to Medicare, Medicaid and other health policy topics.

I applied for the MRS/OSA fellowship because I was interested in exploring an alternative career path. At the time I wasn’t really sure what this meant, but I knew that I wanted to see what I could do with my Ph.D. besides lab research. I was hoping that the fellowship would give me the opportunity to experience a science policy career and decide whether it was for me. In the process, I’ve realized that there are so many science policy job options—in  Congress, government agencies, non-profits or think-tanks, industry, and academia—that  there is no single definition of a policy career path.

Although the countless choices might seem overwhelming, I heard a useful piece of advice at a fellowship career seminar. One of the speakers explained that those interested in science policy shouldn’t try to aspire to a certain position or title, but instead aim to do the work that they find most gratifying.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s not often how we think of setting up a career. Coming from an academic background, I had always aspired to the most prestigious title—professor. But now, I think of my career in terms of the impact that I want to have and the topics that I find fascinating. While this may not help me develop an end goal for my career, reaching a set target no longer seems so important.

As for where my career is going next, my fellowship in Congress has made me to realize that I don’t currently have a desire to work in politics. However, I would like to continue dealing with health policy issues. I also miss interacting more closely with scientific topics and other scientists, although not necessarily in an academic context. Therefore, I’ve accepted an AAAS Science & Technology Policy fellowship at the National Institutes of Health Fogarty International Center. I plan to use this position to guide policies and research that improve global health outcomes.

I am eternally grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to explore different science policy options through the MRS/OSA fellowship. It allowed me to jump into a congressional position that I would never have been hired for otherwise, and revealed just how valuable scientists can be in the policy world. I hope that other scientists who are interested in exploring non-traditional jobs apply for the fellowship and discover their own science policy career paths.

Laura K. Povlich (lpovlich@gmail.com) earned her Ph.D. in macromolecular science and engineering at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in 2011. Her passion for health policy developed in graduate school and also while serving as the 2011-2012 MRS/OSA Congressional Fellow in Rep. Sander Levin’s office. Laura is now the 2012-2013 AAAS Science & Technology Policy fellow at the NIH Fogarty International Center.

Career Path, Job Search, Nontraditional Science Careers , , , , ,

The Purpose of Grad School: A Socratic Dialog

23. August 2012

David Woolf

Last January, while I was at a conference to give a talk on my thesis work, I had a conversation with a professor over breakfast. It went something like this:

Professor:  What do you think is the number one output of academia?

Me: Groundbreaking research, discoveries and breakthroughs that push the forefront of what is possible further forward.

Professor: Wrong! Try again.

Me: What do you mean, “wrong”? What else could it be? There’s no other way to make progress. You have a huge number of problems to solve, so you throw a huge number of people at them. At least some of those individuals are capable of making a big discovery.

Professor: So how many people end up doing that?

Me: Oh, probably way less than one percent.

Professor: Right. So that tiny fraction of scientists will get fame and glory, but what about the other 99+ percent? What will they do?

Me: Well, some will become professors, but most will probably go into industry, or finance or something else altogether.

Professor: Exactly! They’ll take the skills they learned in grad school and apply them in the workplace, either within their field or outside of it.

Me: Sure, we all contribute, but most of us aren’t making any lasting difference. We aren’t discovering the laser, or the transistor, or…

Professor: Ahh, but you’ve got it backwards. Don’t get me wrong: Those discoveries were immensely important. But the greatest output of academia is not the science; it’s the students. Everyone who goes through graduate school is given a vast array of skills to apply in a thousand different ways—in industry, in business, in education, or otherwise. The whole process would be useless if this weren’t true. The great, world-changing discoveries are just a fortunate byproduct.

Me: I’m not sure I agree.

Professor: Well, think about it.

--------------

So I thought about it, and I realized he was right. Ph.D. programs are long but highly rewarding slogs, and it’s easy to end up with a skewed perspective. I’m lucky to have an advisor who has been supportive of both my research and of me personally, and yet I’ve still spent many years forgetting which was more important: my work or myself.

Grad school, though demanding, comes with great freedom and many opportunities for growth. In the past seven years, I’ve studied everything from plasmonics to optomechanics. I came to wrong conclusions more often than I came to right ones. I learned how to correct myself. I lectured on semiconductor laser physics and audited a class on the scientific and technological aspects of policy making. I picked up (and forgot) French. In short, I learned a lot.  Even if I never make a “big discovery,” I’ll be able to use the knowledge that I gained in grad school to contribute to the world in myriad ways. We invest so much in our educations that we often lose sight of how much our schools have invested in us in return.

David Woolf (dnwoolf@gmail.com) received his bachelor’s degree in optical science and engineering from the University of California, Davis in 2005, where he helped start and was president of the U.C. Davis OSA Student Chapter. He is currently finishing up his Ph.D. in applied physics at Harvard University. His research interests include optomechanics, plasmonics and the Casimir effect.

Academic Careers, Career Path, Graduate School , , , ,

Combining Science with Public Policy

17. August 2012

T.J. Augustine

When I started graduate school, I assumed that I would pursue a career in academics. However, about halfway through my Ph.D., I realized that that was not the right career path for me. I had always been interested in government and passionate about public policy issues. I began to wonder whether I could combine my background in science with my interest in public service. However, when I started talking to the people I knew in science, most had no idea how to help me get started. Since then, I have met many other scientists who have had similar experiences after deciding to pursue a career outside the traditional academic and industrial tracks. 

Now, six years after starting to think seriously about jumping into government, I have finished a year as an OSA/SPIE Congressional Fellow in the office of Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D.-Ill.) and started a new position in the U.S. Department of Energy as Special Assistant to the Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu. Recently, I’ve been asked by a number of grad students and post docs what steps I took to get these positions. I thought this would be a great opportunity to share some advice for current grad students who are trying to navigate a path into the policy world.

Make connections in the field. After finishing my Ph.D., I completed a master’s degree in public policy. Although an extra degree is not for everyone, it allowed me to meet people who have spent their careers working in policy. I was able to use these connections to track down scientists who had also worked in government. These people were fantastic resources, and they have served as role models at this early stage of my career. 

Get involved. No matter how you end up getting your first policy position, you need to build a resume that shows more than your educational background and some papers you published. Take advantage of any opportunity you can find to demonstrate your interest in public issues. Volunteer for a political campaign, start a club at your university, write an op-ed for a local newspaper, or even just sit in on a class that deals with policymaking. Taking that first step may place you outside of your comfort zone, but subsequent steps will be easier. 

Look for fellowships. Once you’ve gotten your start in policy, the science and technology policy fellowships sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science are a fantastic way to get involved in the federal government. My OSA/SPIE Congressional Fellowship is part of that program. It was a fantastic experience that played a crucial role in helping me to find my current position.

Scientists typically have the ability to think outside the box and solve problems. Such skills are incredibly valuable, especially at a time when the U.S. government is faced with shrinking budgets and rising levels of debt. There is no time like the present for young scientists to bring their expertise to bear. All you need to do is dive in.

T.J. Augustine (tjaugustine3@gmail.com) is the Special Assistant to the Secretary at the United States Department of Energy. Prior to that, he was an OSA/SPIE/AAAS Congressional Fellow in the office of Sen. Richard J. Durbin and also worked as an intern in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. T.J. completed his Ph.D. in chemistry and a master’s degree in public policy at Stanford University.

Career Path, Communication Skills, Graduate School, Job Search, Nontraditional Science Careers , , , , , ,