From Academia to Industry, Diversity Is Key

23. April 2013

Balint Horvath

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 (balint.horvath@gmail.com) 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.

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A Frog in a Well: How Photonics Broadened my Career Perspective

2. November 2012

Yosuke Ueba

The expression “frog in a well” is sometimes used to describe a person who cannot see the big picture because of the narrow or sheltered environment in which they find themselves. It is the opposite of a “frog in a field,” which broadly surveys its environment and takes advantage of the many possibilities available to it.

When I started my Ph.D., I was a frog in a well. I was convinced that there was only a narrow range of options open to me after I graduated. I assumed that I would go into academia or industry because those were the only paths I knew about. All the other Ph.D.s I met were in one of those two worlds, and in Japan that seemed to be the natural progression that one followed.

Ph.D. students often feel like they are in a tough situation: There are precious few jobs available for them outside of academia and industry, and yet the number of opportunities within those areas appears to be even smaller.

Fortunately, I came to learn that doctoral scientists actually have potential in many fields.

So how did this frog climb out of its well? I was able to do it because the research focus of my laboratory is photonics, and because I have become part of a much larger community through my OSA student chapter.

Like many areas of interdisciplinary research—including electronics, medical science, chemistry, biology and environmental science—photonics opens the door to a wide range of fields, academic societies and contacts. I have benefitted very much from being a part of Osaka University’s OSA/SPIE student chapter; it has 27 members who are studying diverse topics represented by no less than five academic departments. After I joined the chapter, my horizontal network dramatically expanded—and so too did my career prospects. Taking part in chapter activities also broadened my knowledge and contacts for future collaborative research or the founding of a company.

Furthermore, organizing chapter events with students beyond my own lab and institution has been an invaluable experience. For example, I collaborated with others to develop outreach activities for local schools and an international student conference in Asia. This gave me insight into diverse people and job possibilities that I could not get through my daily work in my lab. It spurred me to think for the first time about career possibilities beyond industry and academia.

I got acquainted with a group called Kashin Juku though personal networks that I had through my photonics and student chapter connections. Kashin Juku derives from the famous school for western learning named Tekijuku school, which was established in 1838; it educated many excellent people from broad fields who would come to play an important role in Japan's Meiji Restoration. We invited leading doctors from many fields—for example, a  politician, a novelist, a financier, a consultant, a corporate manager and a journalist—to talk about how having a Ph.D. expanded their potential in their chosen careers. These fruitful discussions broadened my view of the options one has available to them after acquiring a doctoral degree.

While I once believed that Ph.D.s have few options in Japan, the field of photonics and my student activities have shown me otherwise. I haven’t yet decided exactly how I will contribute to society, but I know I want to make effective use of my education and to make my career meaningful. Nowadays, this frog is right where he belongs: in the field.

Yosuke Ueba (yosuke.ueba@gmail.com) is a graduate student in photonics at Osaka University in Japan. He is president of Osaka Univ. OSA/SPIE Student Chapter, and he established Osaka Univ. JSAP (Japan Society of Applied Physics) Student Chapter in 2012. His research interests include thermal emission, plasmonics and metamaterials. To discuss or collaborate with him, visit him on Facebook

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