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.

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