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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.
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.
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.
Academic Careers, Career Path, Graduate School, International Careers, OSA Student Chapters, Ph.D. Perspectives, Women in Science
Skills obtained, lessons learned
Organizing the IONS conference in Moscow had a tremendous impact on my global outlook—and my career. It contributed to my professional development by fostering skills in networking, project management, community building, fundraising and leadership.
The International OSA Network of Students (IONS) is a close-knit community of students who are united in our passion for traveling, visiting different research centers, meeting new friends and experiencing new cultures. Started six years ago, the IONS project has grown into a global network that connects young optics researchers around the world.
By the time I attended my first IONS conference—IONS-5 in Barcelona, Spain, in 2009—I had heard a lot about this project. I expected to meet new people, listen to interesting talks, have fun, and return to Moscow (where I was studying at that time) full of new ideas.
But I didn’t fully realize that I would take part in such a dynamic exchange of information and be surrounded by very enthusiastic people from many different cultural backgrounds. Such deep impressions defined my long-term involvement with IONS and led me to organize a conference in Moscow.
I chaired the organization of IONS-8, which took place in late June 2010 at Lomonosov Moscow State University and Bauman Moscow State Technical University, Moscow, Russia. Working with students from four Moscow and three international OSA/SPIE student chapters had an enormous effect on my professional development.
Looking back now, I cannot imagine any other activity that would have given me the same depth of experience or the same opportunity to sharpen professional skills such as networking, management and leadership.
The student chapter itself is a miniature model of a research group or company. The crucial skills that are essential for success include bringing an idea to life, marketing, recruiting people, managing teams, advertising and raising funds. Through IONS, students have a unique opportunity to develop these and other valuable proficiencies. While any student chapter activity contributes to students’ professional development, organizing an international conference is the most challenging: It has a high level of complexity and requires intensive planning.
The biggest challenge in the IONS-8 organization process was building a strong team at the very beginning and distributing duties among people. Every student in our team concentrated on a specific area, such as sponsorship, preparing documents for the hosting universities, advertising, food arrangements, etc.
Together we discussed the general issues of the conference program or housing arrangements for students and keynote speakers. My work as a coordinator was best described by one of my friends: “The conference coordinator does nothing and everything.” Although there is a student responsible for every organizational area, the coordinator is involved in every part, helping to solve problems and tracking overall progress against the schedule.
It was essential for me to have the assistance of someone reliable in planning the conference. In my case it was Vladimir Lazarev, OSA/SPIE BMSTU chapter president. However, perhaps the most important lesson that I learned is that effective responses from a group of students require personal engagement; that is, if you want a quick response it is important to ask individuals by name.
The first thing we did was settle on approximate days for the conference. IONS Moscow was longer than a typical IONS conference, lasting five days. We created the program and looked for resources to invite speakers for professional development and career networking sessions.
We collaborated with several Moscow and international chapters who generously offered their traveling lecturer grants. By working with the project team to find this additional funding, I helped to build fundraising skills that will be helpful in my scientific career.
Another useful experience was my work with industry partners on sponsoring the event. In the spirit of international collaboration, my co-organizers, Mena Issler from ETH Zurich, Switzerland, and Desire Whitmore from the University of California, Irvine, in the United States, contacted companies with a proposal to sponsor our conference. It was my first experience getting in touch with industry. Working with Desire and Mena on these proposals broadened my networking and grant-writing skills and showed me fundraising approaches used in different countries based on cultural backgrounds.
After setting the conference calendar, we concentrated on program highlights. In a typical IONS conference, the first couple days are comprised of presentations from students about their research and student chapter activities, lab tours, talks from keynote speakers and professors at the hosting institute, while the last day consists of social events and sightseeing. What really differentiates IONS from other conferences is its amazingly friendly atmosphere. We focused on creating this environment by scheduling many social events, such as a welcoming reception, coffee breaks, evening meetings and sightseeing each day.
IONS organizers have the good fortune of interacting with past organizers who share their experience with the next generation through personal contact and via the IONS Guidebook—a brochure that contains advice and notes from all previous organizers. It is an amazing opportunity to learn from the collective experience of many students.
I consider networking with experienced IONS leaders and students outside of our organization committee members to be one of the most valuable experiences in broadening my horizons, and it had an immense influence on my personal growth. For me, IONS is much more than another research conference; it is the forum through which I have met many good friends.
Zuleykhan Tomova (email@example.com) is a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland, College Park, Md., U.S.A and International Coordinator of IONS Project.
Academic Careers, Career Path, Communication Skills, Conferences, Job Search, OSA Student Chapters