Peer Review 101: Building your Reputation as a Journal Reviewer

8. April 2012

by Carlos López-Mariscal and Julio Gutierrez-Vega

As a young scientist, when you publish your first papers in prestigious peer-reviewed journals, you announce your presence to the scientific community. In this way, you are in the process of becoming a recognized expert of your field. Eventually, you will also receive requests from journal editors to review manuscripts submitted by other scientists. These invitations are both a privilege and a responsibility.

Taking part in the review process is critical to developing a scientific career. It helps you build relationships with journal editors; it improves your critical thinking abilities; it gives you a better understanding of the state of the art in your field; and it enhances your writing skills so you can better present your scientific ideas. In addition, good reviewing is recognized and rewarded by colleagues and scientific societies.

As you start reviewing others’ work, the fundamental principle to keep in mind is the notion of reciprocity. Follow this golden rule: You should review a manuscript in the same way that you would want your manuscript to be reviewed. Here are some other best practices to keep in mind:

Respond promptly to requests. This is quite important—whether or not you accept the invitation to review. One of the worst things you could do is ignore a request for review, along with accepting it and then not honoring the request. If you are unable or unwilling to accept, it only takes a couple of minutes to notify the editor of your decision. The editor will appreciate it if you can suggest other potential reviewers.

Complete the review on time. This point is crucial to guarantee the timeline of the journal. It is unfair to authors (and editors) to be delayed by tardy reviewers. If you need extra time, contact the editor as soon as you can. Most are flexible and will agree to give you additional time in exchange for a good review.

Do not review a manuscript whose topic is unfamiliar to you. Stick to topics that you know well in order for your reviews to be the most credible and useful.

Enumerate your comments and suggestions. Again, think about how you would want someone to review your own paper. Organize your thoughts in a way that will be easy for someone to absorb and follow up on.

Read the journal’s review criteria. Make sure you spend time on the journal and/or publisher’s website so you understand what is expected of both authors and reviewers. This will help to ensure that your review is aligned with the publisher’s expectations.

Be specific. Indicate as precisely as you can what the problems are and how they may be overcome.

Focus on the science.Avoid effortless reviews that comment only on minor grammatical errors, typos or language problems. However, if a manuscript is written in language so poor that it is difficult to understand, point this out to the editor.

Follow up. If you are reviewing a revised manuscript, make sure the authors actually made the appropriate changes in the manuscript as recommended in the first review.

Be discreet and complete. Always maintain confidentiality and notify editors of any potential conflict of interest or suspicions of plagiarism that you may have.

If you are interested in reviewing, let your academic advisor know. He or she probably gets requests regularly and will be grateful for your initiative. You can also contact the topical editors of the journals you have published in—or introduce yourself to them at a conference. Researchers are often invited to review manuscripts as a direct result of their own published work.

Good reviewers are not as easy to come across as you might think, so don’t be shy. Take the initiative and get involved.

Carlos López-Mariscal and Julio Gutierrez-Vega are both experienced reviewers and members of the Optics & Photonics News Editorial Advisory Committee. Gutierrez-Vega is also an associate editor for OSA’s peer-reviewed open-access journal Optics Express.  

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How Scientists Can Build Better Websites

29. March 2012

Marc J. Kuchner

Have you ever wondered what your colleagues think of your website? I have. I know from experience that our colleagues judge us partly by our presence on the Web. Hiring committees often search online to learn more about job candidates, and review panels use our sites to help decide whether to fund us. 

An experiment
I did an experiment to learn more about what our colleagues look for in a website. I organize a Facebook group called “Marketing for Scientists,” where scientists, engineers, and other interested professionals discuss issues related to science communication, science advocacy and careers. I suggested that we take turns critiquing each other's websites. Altogether, 26 colleagues volunteered.

I asked each volunteer to review three URLs. I instructed them to play with each site for 30 seconds or a minute and then write a few sentences about what they liked and didn’t like. I asked them to address the following questions:

• What impression does the site give about the person who made it? 
• Does the site make you want to find a way to work with him/her?
• How could the site be improved?

The volunteers were a mix of faculty and postdocs, with a few science communication professionals thrown in. Soon my inbox was flooded with critiques that offered a wealth of advice and some real surprises. Here are the major lessons I learned. 

Include the basics. First, I heard a cry for more basic information. Andras Paszternak, a chemist at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the founder of The International NanoScience Community social network, said in a review, “place a direct contact address (email) on main page.”  In today's world of social networking, it's easy to forget about good old email.

Add video and graphics with captions. Next, there was a demand for images and video. “I would supplement your homepage with more graphical things,” said Robert Vanderbei, chair of the department of operations research and financial engineering at Princeton University. “Please use some color and/or pictures,” said Stella Kafka from the Carnegie Institute of Washington, department of terrestrial magnetism.

Although many of us recognize the importance of images, we often forget to add captions.  These photos are important to us, but they are unidentifiable to the people who visit our sites. “Nice photo.  Is it decoration? Art? Should it have a caption? Are we supposed to guess what it is?” asked Nancy Morrison, professor emerita of Astronomy at the University of Toledo.  I heard that sentiment several times.

Be passionate. One element that multiple reviewers mentioned caught me by surprise. If I could summarize it in a word, it would be passion.

“Maybe the homepage could include your personal motivation,” suggested Phil Yock, professor in the department of physics at the University of Aukland.  “I really like to know what scientists are passionate about, so I’d love to see a short write-up of what fascinates you the most about the universe,” said Emilie Lorditch, the news director and manager at the American Institute of Physics.

Share materials. The reviewers also expressed a desire for generosity. “I was impressed that you offer PowerPoint slides, poster presentations and data from your papers—It's generous and collaborative and makes me want to follow your example,” commented Yale astronomy professor Debra Fischer about one site. Sharing was not a value that was emphasized when I was in graduate school, but science has evolved since then. In today’s collaborative environment, it is a sought-after trait.

Next time I’m up late tweaking my website, I’ll know just what to post: full contact information with email address up top; video and pictures with descriptive captions; a passionate description of my research; and generous freebies that my colleagues can download.

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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Taking It as It Comes: My Unexpected Path to Career Satisfaction

11. January 2012

by Jemellie Houston

I was a graduate student at the University of Maryland working on a Ph.D. in chemical physics, and I had a plan: I would finish my Ph.D. and then do a postdoc before starting a career in research. At the time, I was working on the high-speed generation of entangled photons with the quantum cryptography laboratory at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. I adhered to my path religiously and went the extra mile through my involvement in extracurricular activities. For example, I was an OSA student chapter president and IONS North America organizer. And then … life got in the way.

Forks in the road

I went through several life-altering circumstances, including losing my mother and getting engaged and married. I became aware that my career was now part of a bigger picture that included my life with my husband, who was also pursuing a Ph.D. in addition to doing his full-time job. I also found myself surrounded by postdocs and recent Ph.D. graduates who were unable to find permanent positions. Between the economy and the scarcity of full-time positions, I decided it would be more practical for me to obtain my master’s degree and gain some real-world experience rather than complete my Ph.D.

It was a very difficult decision for me. I struggled because I felt like I was digressing from THE path, like a black sheep that had lost its way. Until then, I had only known of one way in which a scientific career could progress.

A path beyond academia

Immediately after finishing my M.S., I found employment at Mettler-Toledo, Autochem Inc.—a division of Mettler-Toledo that makes precision instrumentation for spectroscopy and other optical measurement equipment. I applied for a software test engineer position.

During the interview process for the engineering position, my potential employers deliberated about whether or not I would be a better fit for a position on their research and development team, since I had a solid research background. In the end, I got the engineering position, and in hindsight I am fortunate to have been given the opportunity to strengthen my skills in electrical and computer engineering.

I have now been with the company for more than three months. In anticipation of a product line launch in a couple of years, I am again being encouraged to join a research and development team. I am thinking about this and figuring out my next move. I like what I do now, but I am open to other opportunities as well.

One of the perks of my job is that my company will pay for my classes if I pursue another scholastic degree. I plan to take advantage of this opportunity as well in the next academic year.

Learning to adapt

The moral of my story is that opportunities arise unexpectedly in places that may be unfamiliar to us. We shouldn’t have a rigid mindset about how to get where we want; we also need to open our minds to other perfectly good opportunities. This not only opens doors for your career but also gives you a chance to learn more about yourself.  Although I am not a gambler by nature, I am glad I took a risk. If I hadn’t, I would not likely be as happy as I am right now. I like where I am and where I am headed.

Jemellie Houston (Jemellie.Houston@mt.com) is a software test engineer at Mettler-Toledo AutoChem Inc. in Columbia, Md., U.S.A.

 

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Leaving Academic Science: What to Expect

11. November 2011

by Aida Baida Gil

Are you considering leaving academic science to pursue a different career path? Making a change that is more in line with your true calling can be incredibly rewarding, but you’ll also probably experience stress, uncertainty, self-doubt and even a sense of loss. Leaving academia is a major change in your life, especially if you’ve worked for a long time as a scientist. When I made a transition from academia to my job as a career coach, I had a hard time dealing with it—even though my new position was exciting, improved my quality of life, and allowed me to make a difference in people's lives. I know now that my feelings were completely normal. This post contains some tips for navigating this important transition.

Prepare to shift into a new role. You’ve probably been a scientist for a long time, and you may have wanted to be one for well before that. Thus, academia is likely to have become an important part of your identity. Changing that may feel like a loss.

Leaving my scientific career after 11 years to become a career and life coach was a huge leap. It was difficult to change my mindset from that of a scientist to a business owner, and a large portion of my identity vanished. I needed to invent a new one. It’s important to understand that being a scientist does not define you. Rather, it is one role you’ve played in your life—an important one, but nevertheless a role.

Don’t idealize the past. After you've taken the leap, you might start idealizing your previous situation, and that may make you wonder if it was the right decision after all. In my case I idealized how much I loved working on the bench. When I thought about it honestly, though, I did not love working on weekends and certain other aspects of my scientific career. However, because coaching was completely new for me, it was easy to feel that I didn’t fit and that I was better off as a scientist. You might feel like that too, but don’t worry; it will get better with time.

Get the support you need. Because this is an important challenge for you, you will want and expect everybody's support. But your friends and family may be resistant; they also need time to let go of that old identity of yours. And of course they don’t want you to fail. Because we want their approval, we may try to convince them that we made the right choice instead of simply informing them of our decision. You can wind up second guessing yourself and getting discouraged—and that doesn’t feel good. That’s why you need support from anyone and everyone who can respect your decision and help you along the way. This will make a difference in the way you handle the change, so start creating a support circle now.

Believe in yourself. Let’s be honest: Science is a tough world full of bright, competent people. Some will think that, if you leave, it’s because you are not a good scientist. Unfortunately that’s a very common belief, and it may have a huge impact on your self-confidence. What’s important here is that you don’t agree with them! Leaving academia is a decision. It has nothing to do with being good enough! As one of my coaches once told me when I was experiencing this stage: You are smart enough to be a good scientist AND a good coach (or substitute your new position)—and, I´ll add, you are also brave enough to take action!

Remember, it’s normal to feel scared and unsure, but it will pass. I don’t have any doubts anymore, and I have never regretted my decision. I know that I'll be a scientist at heart my whole life. Don’t be afraid to find out what else your career may have in store for you!

Aida Baida Gil (www.experimentyourlife.com) is a certified career coach. She holds a Ph.D. in genetics.

 

Academic careers, Career, Job Search, Nontraditional science careers, Ph.D. Perspectives, Small business and entrepreneurs, Women in Science , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

ONE Event, Three Perspectives on Optics Startups

24. October 2011

By Christina Folz

At last week’s Frontiers in Optics meeting, I attended the first meeting of OSA’s Network of Entrepreneurs (ONE), a new group intended to connect optics students and young professionals with mentors who are scientist-entrepreneurs.

This post shares advice that was given at the event on how to jump into the startup world. The speakers included Greg Quarles, president and chief operating officer of B.E. Meyers; Michelle Holoubek, director in the electronics group at the intellectual property law firm Sterne, Kessler, Goldstein & Fox; and Tom Baer, executive director of the Stanford Photonics Research Center at Stanford University, cofounder of Arcturus Bioscience Inc. and 2009 OSA President.

Like a startup, ONE is still in development. Its organizers, including Bright Futures bloggers Brooke Hester and Danny Rogers along with Armand Niederberger of Stanford, are seeking volunteers to grow the program. Please contact Brooke, Danny or Armand if you are interested in joining this new community.

Greg Quarles: How to Act Like an Entrepreneur

Have clarity. Know why you do what you do. Successful entrepreneurs have a purpose, cause or belief that exists above and beyond the products or services they sell.

Have discipline. You must understand not only what product or service you plan to offer but how you intend to do it. Business owners cannot simply demand that their team “make it so,” in the fashion of Captain Jean Luc Picard on Star Trek. They must hold themselves and their teams accountable to a defined set of guiding principles or values.

Be consistent. Everything you do and say must prove what you believe. In this sense, YOU are the product—a critical part of your own brand. The product should reflect your core values, and you should adopt a winning attitude in all areas of developing your business. If you don’t believe in what you’re doing, how can others?

Michelle Holoubeck: Why Intellectual Property Matters
Intellectual property (IP) includes trade secrets, patents, copyrights and trademarks. Every fledgling entrepreneur should learn the fundamentals of IP to protect their growing business because it enables you to:

Guard your ideas and establish a competitive edge. IP is the only way that small companies can contend with larger ones on an otherwise skewed playing field. For example, when Microsoft was shown to have used XML technology that was patented by the small company i4i in one of its product releases, the software giant was ordered to pay i4i to the tune of several hundred million dollars.

Promote investments. Because funders want to protect their investments, they are unlikely to finance startups that have not developed IP safeguards.

Encourage disclosure of new ideas. Sharing exactly how a company’s products or processes work in a patent helps to drive further innovation in the marketplace, and it enables businesses and consumers to easily distinguish among different products and services.

Also keep in mind:
• Publically disclosing your invention—by describing it at a conference, for example—before filing a patent application may limit your ability to protect your invention.

• If you disclose some of your invention, you must disclose it all. You can’t keep the best components a secret.

• You don’t have to actually make an invention to patent it; you just have to describe how you would make it.

• Not everyone who works on a product is an inventor. Incorrectly attributing inventorship to someone who did not play a real role can damage your patent.

Tom Baer: Know your Market First
Contrary to popular belief, a product idea is not required to start a successful company. Here’s the process that worked for Tom:

Identify a market. A couple years ago, Tom worked with a team to develop the Stanford spinoff Auxogyn—without a specific product idea in mind. Instead, the team started by targeting the area of assisted reproduction, a market that is growing by about 20 percent per year, with about 1 in 6 couples facing infertility.

Look for people who can build your company. For Auxogyn, this included a diverse group of medical doctors, developmental biologists, engineers, imaging experts and others. Look for those with the skills you lack.

Study the market. Talk with customers and assess other businesses in your niche. How do they work? What will give your company a differentiable edge?

Find and develop your idea. As you do your homework, your idea will emerge. Once it does, create product models to show your customers and incorporate their feedback into the next version. For its product, Auxogyn ultimately decided on imaging platforms that monitor the developmental process of embryos in an incubator—allowing for the selection of the healthiest ones for in vitro fertilization.

Delay financing as long as possible. Once you have the right ideas and the right market, you can find investors. If you fail, it’s better to fail early—before you’ve invested significant time and funding into product development and pilot production.

Christina Folz (cfolz@osa.org) is OPN’s editor and content director.

 

Career, Conferences, Nontraditional science careers, OSA Student Chapters, Profiles, Small business and entrepreneurs , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Ph.D. Perspectives: How to Go from Grad Student to Professor in 12 Months or Less

15. July 2011

Brooke Hester

The beginning of my story is probably familiar to many of you. In late 2009, I was a University of Maryland Chemical Physics graduate student working in the Optical Tweezers (OT) Laboratory at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md., U.S.A. A typical day would consist of realigning the laser (turn knob, read meter, repeat), spending hours collecting data (make slide, turn knob, hit key, view screen, repeat), and partaking in the required physical functions of eating and sleeping (repeat as needed). I was the only person working in the OT lab, so the days were long and lonely. Music was my only companion.

(Looking back, I realize that I didn’t have it so bad, but at the time the combination of prolonged redundancy and solitude had started to make me crazy.)

Eventually, the day came when I decided it was time to move on. While I could have used another six months to a year to complete my Ph.D. thesis project, my desire to start a new career adventure outweighed my desire to formally finish. I started to think about the possibilities and search for positions.

After I determined that teaching was my primary goal, I received some excellent advice from my advisor: He suggested that I apply for one-year university teaching positions. He knew that, without a post-doc on my CV, it would be tough to land a tenure-track position right out of grad school. However, if I could get a year or more of university-level teaching experience under my belt, I might stand a chance of securing at least a semi-permanent position later on. Learning that I was pregnant in early 2010 heightened my determination to extreme levels.

In May of 2010, I was offered and accepted a one-year teaching position at Appalachian State University’s department of physics and astronomy. After that, things began to move very quickly. I moved to Boone, N.C., and began a new job as a visiting assistant professor in August 2010, gave birth in September, wrote a Ph.D. thesis and defended it in November, and started a new research lab of my own in December.

With the help and support of my family and my new home department, I survived those months. I was able to establish the new optical tweezers lab at Appstate thanks to an equipment loan from NIST as well as a large deposit of optics equipment from the physics and astronomy department at Appstate. Currently, three undergraduates and two master’s students are constructing and carrying out experiments there.

I am now teaching full time, juggling too many projects, and barely getting the necessary items completed. Still, I love my work and life here and I hope I can give back enough, or at least match, what I have been fortunate enough to receive.

What did I learn from this transitional experience that may benefit others? A few things:

• You can and will finish your Ph.D., although it may require extreme determination (or is it stubbornness?). That same quality will allow you to teach yourself multitudes throughout your career. Applying for and securing a job can give you a clear motivator to finish. It provides a very scary and realistic due date.

• Don’t be afraid to teach for the first year out of your Ph.D. You can go from grad school to a professorship. You will learn as you go while getting the opportunity to live in a new and interesting place and strengthen your CV.

• It’s okay to graduate without completely finishing all your projects. Open-ended experiments will give you something to work on right away when you move to the next institution.

• A good support system is critical. I recommend a spouse who is also a chef and stay-at-home dad.

• Time management is key. This means you won’t get any sleep at all during the first semester of your teaching job—whether you have a newborn or not.

• Teaching and research in physics and astronomy is the best job in the world. The colleagues are all nice sane people (OK, maybe a little kooky, but in a good way) and the hours and location are somewhat flexible (you can work real late at home if you want to). In addition, at most universities, you have your summers off to pursue research, to teach for extra pay if you choose, and to take some time for you and your family.

And when you feel like your life really sucks, just remember—at least you’re not realigning a laser … or at least not for long.

Brooke Hester (hesterbc@appstate.edu) is a lecturer in the department of physics and astronomy at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., U.S.A.
 

 

Academic careers, Career, Graduate school, Job Search, Ph.D. Perspectives, Profiles, Women in Science , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

How to Have a Successful Academic Career in Science

10. March 2011

By Pablo Artal, OSA Fellow

OSA Fellow Pablo Artal has kindly allowed OPN’s Bright Futures career blog to 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 Prof. Artal: After several years working as a post-doc, I have just obtained a tenure-track academic position. What advice do you have for someone who is looking to embark on a successful independent career as a scientist. --Helena, North Carolina, U.S.A.

You have to behave now as an independent researcher, and I am sure that you and your new institution have the highest expectations for you. First, I am glad that you consider me a successful researcher, or at least someone who can provide valuable information to achieve that goal. To be honest, I am not sure if my comments will be helpful; everyone needs to find his or her own path. But here is some general advice, much of which is common sense.

 Ask the right questions. You need to have your own interesting and new ideas and your own important questions to be explored and eventually answered. This is critical. At this point, you know your field and you have the basic technical abilities needed to ask good questions and hopefully obtain some answers. You can frame your questions at any time—in bed, at meetings, driving... Of course, you will have to organize them later, and that is the difficult part.

Work hard and manage your time wisely. I presume your plan is to dedicate your time to your research projects nearly without limit. Hard work and organizational skills are key factors. Be generous with your time and efforts. If you are also teaching, do the best you can, but try to limit your dedication to teaching to what is reasonable. Academic life also usually demands that you spend time in useless meetings. Be strict about setting limits and attending only what is important for you.

Of course, the most difficult balance to strike is between work and your family or personal life. Everyone must decide for themselves how to do this. But keep in mind that you cannot be in the lab the whole day and every single weekend—nor should you be. Learn to take time off, and don’t work on holidays.

You will need money. Writing good grant applications is difficult, and I will not cover that here, but, first and foremost, it requires having a good idea or solution to a problem.

Select your lab members wisely. The ability (or luck) to have the best lab members is extremely important. It is better to start working alone than to have mediocre and unmotivated students working for you. Hiring a problematic team member would affect your ability to succeed. Of course, it is very difficult to know that in advance—but start by always asking for references when talking to students—preferably from those who you trust in your field. I have been extremely lucky in this area.

You also need to make friends within the scientific community in which you are working. Try to collaborate more than you compete, and keep in mind that you will have contact with some of these people for many years into the future. Building and maintaining good personal relationships with other colleagues is critical.

Focus and finish. In the first years and perhaps always, the risk of spreading yourself too thin is quite high. Try to focus and to finish all of your experiments and projects before taking on others. It is natural to always want to explore new areas, but it is better to wait until your current projects are solid enough for you to report on. Writing and presenting at meetings is a good way to maintain your focus.

Balance exposure and modesty. You should actively participate in scientific events, but you should also try to balance your exposure with reasonable modesty. We always know less than we should, and there will always be somebody else who is better or smarter. Be sure that you never underestimate any of your audiences.

Quality over quantity. In the long term, the quality of your research will outweigh its quantity. Keep your own standards high. This will help you to establish a (good) reputation in the field. That will be your most important asset.

Enjoy yourself. Of course, this will not be possible every minute, but you need to have fun and enjoy what you do. Then you will be able to transfer this enthusiasm to others and engage them in your research.

Most of this advice should apply to all levels of scientists, from those in their early student days to well-recognized senior-level scientists. Although this is an incomplete list, I hope you find it somewhat useful. I wish you the best of luck!

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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Team Dynamics: Understanding Your Role

20. January 2011

Alaina G. Levine

For every experience you have in your career, there will be one constant: You will always serve on teams. It doesn’t matter the task, the problem, the goal or the organization. Sometimes the group may be a trio or a duo, but even if you’re an uno, you will likely still have constituents that make a team.

You can contribute to your overall professional victory by honing vital skills related to team-building and team leading. Here are a few team dynamics fundamentals:

Always remember your goal. No matter who’s on your team, this group has one objective—to solve problems. This is not altogether different from your own goal as a professional. Your purpose in your career will always be to consistently, effectively and efficiently solve problems, and your team has been established for the same reason. Maintain your focus and promote a team climate that takes action according to its mission—to solve the organization’s problems.

Lead, even if you are not the leader. You can be a leader even if you do not officially manage the team. A team leader incorporates and reflects the values of the team, understands the assignment and dynamics of the team, and helps to ensure that the team stays on mission. You do not need to be the anointed director of the team to help your co-workers keep their eye on the ball and endeavor to solve the problem at hand. Aim to set an example of a commitment to excellence and results for those around you.

Seek to resolve conflict efficiently and quickly. Conflict is inevitable within every cluster of Homo sapiens. Whether it’s an attoscale argument over a misplaced mug or a more serious clash relating to a project’s delayed timeline, every person in a conflict has a responsibility to find a solution as quickly as possible. Conflict resolution involves listening and understanding all the parties and seeking to identify the underlying issue. You can help determine what is motivating the conflict by acknowledging the problem, examining all of the information and evidence, and brainstorming a solution.

Encourage an environment that fosters diversity. Diversity is not just about attracting people from different nationalities and cultural backgrounds. It is a critical element in a results-driven team, and it specifically and significantly contributes to an organization’s bottom line. When a team’s constituents are diverse, they inherently stimulate a “diversity of ideas,” which in turn influences and leads directly to innovation and creativity.  Novel problem-solving methods are developed. New perspectives are noted and lead to an understanding of more choices and ideas. This nurtures the team and plays a crucial role in its success. After all, a winning team is one that always endeavors to be dynamic and flexible, and, in doing so, innovative. A losing team is one that lacks diversity and the correlated injection of creative approaches to problem-solving. Serve as an architect and devotee of diversity and everyone will benefit.

Remain professional. The relationships between members of the team must be preserved at all costs. This is the aspect of the team that ensures it is reaching its target. And although you should strive for a peaceful, fun work environment, never forget that these are your colleagues, and not necessarily your friends. So yes, enjoy a good optics joke here and there, but ultimately maintain your professionalism—even if those around you act differently. So for the sake of the team, stay professional. In the end, you will set a good example.

Alaina G. Levine is an internationally known career development consultant for scientists and engineers and a science writer. She can be reached through her website at www.alainalevine.com.

Copyright, 2011, Alaina G. Levine.

 

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Launching Your Consulting Career

13. January 2011

by Jennifer Kruschwitz

In a previous post, Jennifer Kruschwitz helps optics professionals to determine if consulting is the right career path for them. Here she provides advice for how to start your business once you’ve decided to make the leap into the consulting world.

You’ve made the decision: You want to be a consultant. If the opportunity to do a little “pre-launch” planning is available, the first thing to do is pay off any accumulated debt. It is often said that consultants make large amounts of money. That might sometimes be true, but the money often comes in waves. There may be times you are so busy that the money seems to be rolling in, but these may be followed by periods when it’s a struggle to find work.

Start from a strong financial position. Be sure that you have a financial safety net in place for the lean times. When things are going well, you should always be prepared to contribute a significant percentage of your earnings to your safety net.

Get your paperwork in order. You’ll need brochures to describe your abilities, invoices, business cards and letterhead. Stick to a budget: flashy items are expensive, so keep everything simple.

Learn to be a legal eagle. You will need a good understanding of contracts, nondisclosure agreements, and so forth. If you can acquire legal counsel before launch, get acquainted with key aspects of intellectual property and ownership law. Most contracts are very specific in that the customer retains rights to all of the IP that comes out of the consulting agreement. Make sure that the confidentiality of any information provided to a customer will not stop you from being able to work for other clients.

Determine your rates. Establishing an hourly fee is not as straightforward as you might think. One way to determine a ballpark rate is to take the amount of money you would like to earn in a year and divide it by the number of hours you plan to work. Or you could take the hourly rate currently being paid by an employer and multiply that number by two or three. Make sure your rate includes business costs as well as salary. These costs can include health care, life insurance, retirement, business overhead, legal and accounting fees and self-employment taxes. Whichever way you calculate your “worth” as a consultant, here are a few things to keep in mind:

• Research consulting rates for your field. Know what rate will allow you to maintain a competitive edge.

• Be ready to justify your rates. If you are an expert, your rates should reflect that expertise. It has been observed that consultants who charge too little for their services are not taken as seriously by clients.

• Be flexible and know your market. There may be times when, to win a job, you need to change your rates to meet the range specified in a given proposal.

Don’t forget the IRS. Keep your financial records well organized. Open a separate checking account for the business—it makes it easier to keep track of your earnings—and pay yourself from that account. Keep all receipts related to business activities (i.e., parking, tolls, travel, supplies) in a central location and, if you can, enter them in a database. If the business is run from the home, save utility bills, phone bills and so forth. There are specific requirements governing the deductibility of expenses incurred by home-based businesses, and the consultant needs to be aware of them.

It’s a good idea to have a tax advisor available to get things up and running. The Web site HRBlock.com has helpful tips for the self-employed. There will be self-employment taxes to consider in addition to income taxes. Estimated taxes on your consulting income must be paid quarterly to the federal and your state government. There are heavy penalties associated with not paying quarterly taxes on time and in the proper amount. Organized recordkeeping and timely tax payments will make tax time a relatively painless experience.

Consultants are a fundamental component of today’s business marketplace, but consulting is not for everyone. Once you decide to start a consulting business, there’s no doubt there will be challenges ahead. The ways in which those challenges are met and overcome determine the ultimate success of the consultant.

Jennifer D.T. Kruschwitz is an OSA member and senior optical coating design engineer at her own company, J.K. Consulting, Rochester, N.Y., U.S.A.

 

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Ph.D. Perspectives: A Grad-to-Be Weighs How to Keep Her Options Open

8. December 2010

By Rebecca Schaevitz

My choices have been pretty obvious up until now. Go to school, do well, get a job. I have postponed the “get a job” portion for as long as I can (22nd grade…really?), and now I have a tough decision that will likely shape the rest of my career.

My goal has always been to keep my options open as long as possible. With every choice I make, I want to have the opportunity to change course at any point (just in case…). So what type of job would allow me that freedom?

A post-doctorate position is always a possibility. Practically speaking, that would allow me to just stay in school and defer a final decision for another year or two. However, I am not convinced that I want to delve into the arduous process of a tenure-track professorship position. Therefore, I will put that possibility on the back burner.

Working for a small company or start-up would be incredibly interesting and very different from being in school. These companies could provide me with the opportunity to explore very diverse roles within a company—from management to finance to research.

On the other hand, as a new graduate with limited business experience, I might not easily find my place, given that small companies typically lack structure and organization. In addition, due to the proprietary nature of new technology, there are few opportunities to publish or patent my advances. This could create a large roadblock for me if I decided that I wanted to migrate back to the world of academia at some point. I think I will save this opportunity for later in my career, when I know whether the industry management route is the choice for me.

Employment in a national or industrial research laboratory is a strong contender for me. Granted, both settings have the potential to limit publications and patents. However, in contrast to a start-up, they may also allow them as well. In terms of organizational structure, such labs are very different from one another. The free market influences industry more than a national lab, making its organizational structure more efficient.

In addition, the fast-paced environment of industry strongly attracts me. If I choose my position and my company carefully, I know I have the ability to walk the path toward either management or academia. Thus, working for an industrial lab may give me the most flexibility to reroute my career in the future.

My decision to move toward industry was guided by an internship I took after my fourth summer. At that time, I had the opportunity to intern at either a national lab or industry, and I chose the industrial setting.

In retrospect, I wish I had been able to do both internships and then compare the two. I also would have liked to have stayed for longer than the four months I did. For those who are starting out in their graduate program, I strongly urge you to take every opportunity to intern at very different companies and labs. 

Your decision might be a lot easier once you reach the 22nd grade.

Rebecca Schaevitz is a Ph.D. candidate and Intel Fellow at Stanford University in David A.B. Miller’s research group. Her thesis topic is on the electroabsorption mechanisms in germanium quantum well material for applications in optoelectronic devices such as modulators and detectors.

 

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