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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IONS Helped Build my Career—and Many Friendships

16. June 2011

Zuleykhan Tomova
 
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.

Skills obtained, lessons learned
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 process
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.
 
Positive IONS
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 (
ztomova@umd.edu) is a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland, College Park, Md., U.S.A and International Coordinator of IONS Project.

 

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A Conversation with Yanina Shevchenko

30. August 2010

By Kylee Coffman

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Yanina Shevchenko, Ph.D. student at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada and President of OSA’s Ottawa-Carleton Student Chapter. We discussed her research and her new career-focused column in Optics and Photonics News (OPN). Always active in the OSA community and busy balancing a million different projects, this female scientist is one to watch!

You are in your third year of a Ph.D. program at Carleton University, where you are working under supervisors Dr. Jacques Albert and Dr. Maria C. DeRosa. What is the focus of your research and what has been your biggest challenge?

My Ph.D. research has been very interdisciplinary from the moment it was started. I am working on developing surface plasmon resonance biosensors in the Advanced Photonics Components Lab at Carleton. In two projects that I am doing for my Ph.D., I have to apply a sensor platform for measuring different chemical and biological processes. For these particular projects, we have been collaborating with colleagues in the department of chemistry, and from the onset it has been challenging to form bridges into the worlds of chemistry and biochemistry because my background is primarily in photonics. Although this experience has been quite difficult, it has also been incredibly stimulating and interesting. I always wanted my research to be applied in the biomedical field, so I am very thankful that I had this project for my graduate research.

You received your bachelor’s degree in engineering and technology at Saint-Petersburg State University in Russia, the country where you grew up. Has it been difficult studying at universities in two different countries (Russia & Canada) with different science cultures?

Without a doubt, it was a very useful experience to study in two countries with very different educational systems. It was not particularly easy for me to adjust immediately from one system to the other, but it was an experience that has allowed me to develop a well-rounded education, and I would not exchange it for anything. There are obviously advantages and disadvantages in both systems, but the exposure to both can provide you with a very fresh perspective. Sometimes students hesitate to move to a different country in order to continue their education, especially if doing so requires them to learn a new language. I would suggest taking the risk because the advantages of traveling to a new country while starting work in a new field is definitely worth all the trouble.

What do you hope to accomplish after obtaining your Ph.D.? Do you think the current economic climate will have an impact on your degree and/or career opportunities?

If we look at the statistics, we can find that only 20-30% of Ph.D.s stay in academia as researchers, and less than 50% remain in the R&D sector. These are very strong numbers indicating that the majority of students will have to apply themselves somewhere else. During any scientific Ph.D. program, students have the opportunity to develop very strong analytical and problem-solving skills that are required by the nature of research itself; these abilities are key for finding employment in other fields. There are numerous examples of people going into industry (R&D and sales), starting their own businesses, and positioning themselves in consulting and science communication roles. I have not completely decided what I am going to do. I know that I enjoy the intellectual challenge of doing research, and I hope that, after my Ph.D. studies are completed, I will continue to be driven by the challenge.

You have been such a voice and friend to so many students in the OSA community. Over the past few years, you’ve served as President to the Ottawa-Carleton Student Chapter of the OSA. How did you first hear about OSA student chapters? What is your secret to sustaining it for so many years?

I first heard about OSA chapters during my undergraduate studies in Saint-Petersburg, and I thought it would be great to get involved, given the opportunities that OSA provides to members of the student chapters. When I started graduate studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, I saw that the Ottawa-Carleton Chapter was looking for new executive board members, and I decided to take that chance.

I think that student involvement with OSA chapters is beneficial in many ways, but mainly it provides the opportunity to meet with peers and discuss research in an informal atmosphere. To sustain an active chapter, it is important to have members who have a sincere interest in being involved, while also ensuring that the group environment is welcoming to all, and that the topics discussed are relevant to the student’s research.

My involvement with OSA over the last three years has exceeded all of my expectations. I have participated in and helped organize several conferences-which in turn helped me to grow as a researcher. By taking part in the activities organized by OSA, I have had the chance to get involved in the Young Professionals program and have since started working on the ‘Career Focus” column in OPN. Last but not least, I have met numerous students from different countries, many of whom have become very good friends. Overall, I would definitely recommend the student chapter experience to anyone who has an opportunity to be involved in one.

That’s very exciting news about your column in Optics and Photonics News (OPN)! Can you please tell us more about the focus of this new career-focused column?

This is a very exciting project that was started earlier this year. After speaking with several students at the OSA Leadership meeting last October about possible career prospects for recent Ph.D.s, I learned that Optics and Photonics News magazine was starting a new initiative aimed at exploring various career-related issues. The main idea was to create a column in OPN that would be of interest to Ph.D.s, postdoctoral fellows and everyone else who is interested in further career development.

The column will focus on different career options for professionals with science and engineering backgrounds, internships, interview tips and the use of social media tools for job searches. I plan to finish my Ph.D. next year, and my work on the column in this context has been undoubtedly useful in terms of identifying new career prospects and speaking with people who chose different career paths. The first column appears in the July/August issue of OPN, so be sure to check it out. I encourage anyone who has an interest to become involved by contributing an article, raising points for discussion, or starting their own blog on OPN’s website. I find the OPN editorial advisory committee and staff to be exceptionally welcoming of new ideas, and this is a great way to become engaged with the OSA community.

You are also the founder and vice president of the Women in Leadership Foundation Club at Carleton University, which you started in 2008. What is the main mission of this group? Being in a younger generation of scientists, do you see a change in the traditionally male-dominated field of science? Do you have suggestions for how female scientists can support each other’s career and development?

My experience with the Women in Leadership club was very good; it helped me meet with students from other departments, and that in turn allowed me to understand the gender issues occurring in other areas of study. Disregarding the field of study, it became immediately apparent that all fields need more role models, mentors and support networks. I think it is important to have someone who not only inspires you, but who also helps to shape your future career path. Currently there are considerable changes occurring in the field of science, and women in graduate and postdoctoral studies are part of this recent push for change. Although there has been quite a lot of progress on this issue, there are still so many outstanding issues that need to be addressed, such as the salary gap between male and female colleagues (which is characteristic to many fields), and, more important, understanding that women usually take on the biggest part of the household load at home.

Amazingly enough, during your many years of studying, research, and volunteering, you’ve also managed to develop so many hobbies like yoga and your art school studies. You must be a master at time management. What is your advice for balancing one’s professional and personal life? Do you have any new interests you’d like to share?

I wish I could say I am very good at time management, but I think this is where I definitely could learn more from someone else. Through my graduate study experience, I came to the realization that time management is one of the most useful skills that graduate students can learn and utilize while at school. I think the key is to prioritize and always try to improve upon your existing skills. I also noticed that, if you work on something that you find very interesting, you will exceed your own expectations and will always find extra hours to complete the project.

You’re an active presence on social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, GroupSite, and LinkedIn. Have you found technology to be a useful tool for connecting to other scientists? Who are your favorites to follow on Twitter?

Very often people ask, “So, what is in it for me? What can I get from spending time on these social networks?” It definitely takes time to sustain your presence on all social media websites and the benefits of being there can seem somewhat subtle. One of the main reasons why I use them is that they enable me to connect with like-minded people around the world. In general, one’s circle is limited to people from the same school, to colleagues, to people living in the same city and maybe to people attending the same conferences. With the help of social media, you can go beyond your already established network and meet people who you would not normally meet or approach.

I really enjoy using all kinds of social media tools, but probably my favorites are LinkedIn and Twitter. On Twitter, I mostly follow OSA tweeple, some of the personal branding experts and various science news outlets. I would definitely recommend that people at least try social networks; it can be a lot of fun and lead to unthinkable opportunities.

A few of Yanina’s Favorite Follows on Twitter: @Brandyourself, @Scientist Coach, @PolymerPhD, @OSASC, @kikilitalien, @MsEditor, @KyleeCoffman, @keithferrazzi, @MacleansMag, @PostDocsForum 

Kylee Coffman (kcoffm@osa.org) is OSA's Education and Membership Specialist.

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