Three Simple Steps to Networking Success

10. July 2014

Arlene Smith

I want to address a topic that is almost essential for career progression but can strike fear in an introvert’s heart: networking. Although it may feel like you’re the only one who gets nervous in networking situations, you’re not alone. Everyone fears rejection or embarrassment, but you don’t need to be afraid!

If speaking with your optics idol or asking a question makes you queasy, the following approach can quell your fears. I urge you to try it out.

1. Make your approach
The first step is deciding how to approach someone and begin a conversation with him or her. If you are in a panel session, approach a speaker and say, "I have a question and I would like to hear your thoughts." This shows the panelist that you value his or her opinion.

 If you are in an informal networking situation, try approaching a group and simply asking, "May I join you?" Remember, networking is about meeting new people. They want to meet you, too.

When deciding who to approach and how, ask yourself, "What’s the worst thing that could happen?" The very worst possibility is that the panelist or group isn't friendly, in which case you just move on. A better question to ask is, "What’s the BEST thing that could happen?" If you don’t put in the effort, you could miss out on great opportunities.

2. Have a conversation
After introducing yourself to someone and exchanging basic information, start asking him or her questions. I estimate that 90 percent of networking is showing interest in other people, so be sure to focus on the person to whom you’re speaking. Sometimes conversation flows naturally, but other times it might take more effort. Here are some good questions to get a dialog started: 

What are you currently working on?
• What result do you expect to see?
• What has challenged you?
• What has been your biggest success?
• Is there anyone here you hope to meet?

3. Follow up
When it is time to move on, exit the conversation by simply saying, "It was nice to speak with you. May I have your business cards/emails? I need to see a few more people today, but we should get in touch." Make sure to follow up:

• Write down a relevant detail from the conversation as soon as possible. This will help you remember the conversation and reconnect with that person later.
• Within two days, make contact and mention a specific point that you discussed. If you meet a lot of people, prioritize your list and contact the individuals you deem most likely to be helpful first. Contact the others at a later time.
• Make an effort to keep in contact with important people. Don't let them forget about you.

Arlene Smith (arlsmith@umich.edu) is a research fellow in the department of internal medicine at the University of Michigan, U.S.A.

 

Career, Communication skills, Conferences, Job Search , , , , , , ,

Pursuing Science in South Africa

19. June 2014

Yaseera Ismail

I have worked and studied at South African universities since beginning my undergraduate degree. I started my research career at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which is one of 10 national research facilities, and I am currently based in the Quantum Research Group at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). Here, I will reflect on some of my experiences studying in South Africa.

Freedom of choice

One benefit of attending university in South Africa is the unique structure of the degree system. The arrangement is unusual in that there are four exit points during the completion of three degrees. We start off with a three-year Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) degree, followed by a year of honors studies. The masters and doctoral degrees begin after the honors year. If you are not pursuing a career in research, you have the option of completing your education after earning a B.Sc. This allows students to tailor our honors year material to the research area we wish to pursue during our M.Sc. and Ph.D., and so we are more prepared and focused when beginning those higher-level degrees.

Availability of resources and funding

South Africa has a growing scientific community, but the opportunities for collaboration and networking are still limited. This can impact the level of research and the growth of facilities taking place in the country. If you are trying to build a research group, it may take more effort and time than other places. However, the lack of certain resources encourages us to look elsewhere for necessary expertise. This helps us build relationships with researchers across the globe. There is also funding available to promote and host national and international conferences, and there are extensive online resources to help fill any gaps.

A prerequisite for registering for a M.Sc. or Ph.D. degree at any South African university is a source of funding for the duration of your studies. Most candidates are awarded a scholarship either by the Department of Science and Technology, the National Research Foundation or national facilities such as the CSIR. The South African government recently set a target of spending 1.5 percent of its budget on research and development by 2018. Funding is also provided by universities such as UKZN, which has its own scholarship program.

Networking opportunities

I have been fortunate enough to attend 22 academic conferences since completing my M.Sc. Conferences are excellent platforms to grow within your field and expand your network of colleagues and friends. There is one major national physics conference in South Africa, known as the South African Institute of Physics Conference. It is hosted annually by various institutes and is currently in its 59th year. My research group also hosts the Quantum Information Processing Communication and Control (QIPCC) Conference each year. This meeting is focused on quantum optics and information science, and is an initiative of the South African Research Chair for Quantum Information Processing and Communication.

Joining professional associations is also a great way to network, and there are several options in South Africa. The South African Institute of Physics is a prominent association for researchers. It has student memberships and provides discounts for student conferences. There are also three OSA Student Chapters: Durban, Pretoria and Stellenbosch. I am part of the newly formed Student Chapter at the UKZN, Durban. Since we joined OSA, we have had numerous avenues opened to us. I recently attended an IONS conference in Montreal, Canada, which was a wonderful experience for me and gave me lots of ideas for growing our Chapter at UKZN.

As a South African student, networking opportunities and the increasing availability of resources have played a major role in expanding my opportunities as a young researcher. I am happy to be contributing to the developing community of scientists in my country.

Yaseera Ismail completed her masters at the CSIR-National Laser Centre in Pretoria, South Africa, where her research focused on novel laser beam shaping for optical trapping and tweezing. She is currently completing her Ph.D. in quantum communication within the Quantum Research Group based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa.

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Building Your “Soft Skills”

5. June 2014

Lauren Celano

This post was adapted from content on the Propel Careers website and BioCareers.com. It is reproduced here with the author’s kind permission.

I often advise Ph.D. students on career planning and the various job options available to them. When I ask them to discuss their specific skills, many of them focus only on their research and technical skills. These are “hard skills,” such as genetics, computer science, chemistry or pharmacology. When I inquire about “soft skills,” I am often met with looks of confusion. Below are a few examples of “soft skills” that can help scientists become well-rounded job candidates in many different fields.

Teamwork
A Ph.D. student who works on a multi-disciplinary project team, for example, a cell biologist who works with a biochemist and a pharmacologist to understand a disease pathway, must have good teamwork skills to be successful. The same is true for someone who works on or leads a collaborative project with other labs in and outside of their institution, industry partners and foundations. These experiences provide examples that can be shared with potential employers to illustrate how one successfully worked on or led a team and learned through the process of working with others.

Non-Technical Writing
Many scientists are accustomed to writing manuscripts, grants, review articles, and of course, the ever-popular thesis. While this type of scientific communication is important, the ability to communicate with those outside your field of study is invaluable.

In fact, Albert Einstein is often credited with saying, “If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” To develop these skills, students can make an effort to write for different sources, such as the school newspaper, departmental newsletter, association publication or a personal blog.

Verbal Communication
Public speaking is a valuable asset for the career scientist. Students can build this skill through teaching and speaking at conferences, departmental meetings, association conferences, as well as foundation and charity events. One should also take on leadership roles in student organizations and associations (for example, OSA Student Chapters) as well as groups such as Toastmasters.

Networking
Formal and informal networking opportunities are everywhere; you just need to know where to look. Examples include participation in student government, technical interest groups and clubs and professional and industry organizations. Some professional organizations even have student affiliates.

More generally, you can find networking avenues are through common interest, advocacy and charitable groups, and social and professional networking events. In fact, I would bet that there is a networking opportunity to be had just about every night of the week. You just have to be willing to seek it out, and more importantly, gather the courage to attend and participate. You never know who you might meet—it’s truly up to you.

In today’s job market, hard skills are not always enough to get you into that perfect role. Employers are looking for “the whole package”: people who have the right mix of both soft and hard skills. Take the initiative to immerse yourself in opportunities to grow and develop in new directions. The effort will pay off.

Lauren Celano (lauren@propelcareers.com) is the co-founder and CEO of Propel Careers, a life science search and career development firm focused on connecting talented individuals with entrepreneurial life sciences companies.

 

Academic careers, Career, Communication skills, Conferences, Job Search, Ph.D. Perspectives , , , , , , ,

A Woman's Place Is in the Lab

1. April 2014

Arlene Smith

As a female engineer, one becomes accustomed to being a minority: in the lecture theatre, in the graduate lab and in the workplace. We have come a long way from the days when women scientists were an anomaly, but the number of women choosing STEM courses and careers still lags behind our male counterparts. Increasing female representation in STEM, from the classroom to leadership roles, requires increased support not just within the research and education communities, but also from hiring managers in industry.

 A recent study carried out by U.S. business school professors at Columbia University, Northwestern University and the University of Chicago found that a gender bias is still present at the hiring level for STEM roles. Hiring managers, both male and female, were asked to rate candidates based on their completion of simple mathematical tasks. When the managers were provided with no information other than appearance, men were twice as likely to be hired for a mathematical task then women. If a woman’s performance on the task was equal to that of a man, the man was still 1.5 times more likely to be hired for the role. The authors also concluded that, in an interview scenario, males tend to overestimate future performance, whereas women underestimate. Employers do not appreciate the extent of this bias, nor do they compensate for it at the point of hire.

In February 2014, the AIP Statistical Research Center released the results of a survey of U.S.-based Ph.D. graduates. The year 2012 saw an increase of 131 percent in the number of women completing Ph.Ds. in physics, compared with 2001. However, this accounts for just 20 percent of the total physics Ph.D. graduates in 2012. While this trend is encouraging, it’s clear that women are still underrepresented in the field and thus the graduate job market.

To increase female participation, there is an onus on women in the field to foster change, to take action and become involved. We need to communicate more, both with each other and with our male colleagues. This can mean outreach to middle and high schools, or staffing an industry booth at a career fair. You can show your support through mentoring programs and local and national societies and networks. Involvement is not limited to women— you don’t have to be female to recognize the advantages of a diverse workforce and support equality in the workplace. If women no longer fear that they will have to struggle against unfair prejudice in a STEM career, then more women will choose to study those subjects.

Luckily, we are not starting from scratch. Minorities and Women in OSA and SPIE Women in Optics provide seminars and networking opportunities for female scientists and engineers in optics. Connecting Women in Science, Technology and Entrepreneurship (WiSTEE Connect), established in 2013, provides an opportunity for connectivity and mentorship among women in science and engineering. I encourage you to educate yourself on these groups, as well as others on your campus or in your workplace, and support their efforts in building a more diverse and equal optics community.

What does it mean to be a female optical scientist today? For me, it means being part of an established, vibrant and growing community. What will it be like tomorrow? The trajectory will likely have its peaks and valleys, but we have every reason to be optimistic about the future—because it is ours to shape.

Arlene Smith (arlsmith@umich.edu) is a research fellow in the department of internal medicine at the University of Michigan, U.S.A.

 

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Learning by Teaching

13. January 2014

Takayuki Umakoshi

The people in my family are not very familiar with science. I sometimes wish that I could discuss my work with them, but it is not easy to explain my research to people without a scientific background. This is just one of the many instances in which we as scientists need to communicate our work to people without extensive scientific knowledge. Communication skills are crucial to your success—for example, when applying for government funding for your research. Even if you get tremendous results, they won’t have an impact if you cannot explain them properly and make their significance understood.

Engaging children with science
My OSA/SPIE student chapter at Osaka University, Japan, recently held an outreach activity called “Super HIKARIJUKU.” During this annual event, we invite about 50 elementary school students to our campus and showed them how fascinating science can be through optics-related experiments. This year I served as a student chair, and the event was very successful. The kids had a great time and learned a lot about light. After helping to organize the event, I realized that discussing science with children taught me some important lessons about how to communicate scientific topics with non-scientific people.

Communicating successfully
In order to get our message across to the students, we had to do a lot of research. We asked parents and teachers what the children already knew, so we were aware of their level of scientific knowledge. We also found out about the latest popular cartoon characters, so that we could use fun images and concepts that children already recognize and enjoy to engage them even further. Practicing and testing our demonstrations was also very important—we showed the experiments to non-scientific people so that they could give us advice on the best way to make ourselves understood and to get kids excited about the subject matter. It took quite a bit of planning and effort, but we ended up with a really good set of experiments. Our thoughtful, hands-on demonstrations allowed us to explain complex concepts to children who might not have understood them otherwise.

Applying these skills
The communication skills that we learned by working with children are also applicable to adults outside of our very specific fields. I discovered that you need to be able to break down complicated ideas into simple, understandable pieces so that they can be useful to a wider audience. Think about what language will be most comprehensible and interesting to your listeners. Where possible, hands-on demonstrations are extremely helpful and can make seemingly abstract concepts much more engaging. If you are capable of making your research easier to understand, then it will be much easier to communicate its importance. Through my work with OSA, I realized that outreach activities like these are not only informational for our audiences, but also teach us how to communicate effectively. Teaching is learning.
 
Takayuki Umakoshi (umakoshi@ap.eng.osaka-u.ac.jp) is a Ph.D. student at Osaka University, Japan, and president of the Osaka University OSA/SPIE student chapter. For more information, please check out his website: https://sites.google.com/site/takayukiumakoshiwebsites/.

Career, Communication skills, OSA Student Chapters , , , , , ,

How to Build Your Online Brand Using LinkedIn

12. November 2013

Lauren Celano

This post is based on content that has already appeared on the Propel Careers website and BioCareers.com. It is reproduced here with the author’s kind permission.
 
Your online personal brand—the way that you portray yourself on the internet and how others perceive you—is very important for networking and job searching. Even if you are not currently looking for a job, you can use social media sites like LinkedIn to your advantage. Below are a few examples of how developing your LinkedIn profile can help you progress in your career.

Networking

After meeting new colleagues at a networking event, you probably follow up with a LinkedIn request. When someone clicks on your profile, what will they see? Will they only see your job titles, or something more descriptive, like details about what you have done in each of your positions? Will they see a photograph or a blank space where your profile picture should be? Will they see organizations that you belong to and articles that you have published, or has this information been left out entirely?

When people look at a LindedIn profile, they like to see a professional profile picture (so that they can figure out if they remember you), along with details about your background, experience and education. If you have a nicely filled out profile, then it shows that you are serious about your professional persona and by extension, your career.

Informational interviews

If you ask for an informational interview, the person you ask will almost always look at your LinkedIn profile before speaking with you, even if you send them your resume. They want to learn more about you and also find out if you happen to have any connections in common. Having some background and additional details about you will help them provide the most useful and relevant information during the interview.

Job interviews

If you are actively interviewing for a new job, it’s also extremely likely that the people interviewing you will look up your LinkedIn profile. As in the previous example, if your profile does not have a lot of detail, then it isn’t helpful to the interviewer. You will have missed an opportunity to showcase yourself early on and leave a positive impression before the interview even starts.
 
Recruiter searches

Recruiters, either internal or external to a company, routinely search LinkedIn to identify individuals who could be good matches for jobs they are working to fill. They search using keywords as well as title, company, education, etc. If your profile isn’t complete, then you won't be easily picked up by their searches. Even if they do manage to find you, without important information in your profile, recruiters may not contact you since they won't be sure if your skills and experience are relevant to the position.

In today's web- based world, information is everywhere. The way people brand themselves online matters more than you might think. You can give yourself an advantage by spending some time to ensure that your LinkedIn information is complete and up-to-date. Good luck building out your profile—the effort will go a long way!

Lauren Celano (lauren@propelcareers.com) is the co-founder and CEO of Propel Careers, a life science search and career development firm focused on connecting talented individuals with entrepreneurial life sciences companies.

 

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Want to be A Professional Scientist? Join the Facebook Group

9. October 2013

Marc Kuchner

This post is adapted from content that first appeared on the Nature blog with the kind permission of the author.

 Planetary scientist Heidi Hammel was at the telescope when Facebook alerted her to an important new target: a comet had just crashed into Jupiter. She said, “I learned about one of the impacts on Jupiter via Facebook, and we were able to do immediate follow-up.” It is no secret that, scientists are increasingly using social media not just for outreach or for fun, but to do real, ground breaking, earth-shattering science.
 
There are many websites devoted to science news and amateur science—but where do scientists go online to interact with their colleagues professionally? I asked my colleagues on the Marketing for Scientists Facebook group (mostly astronomers) to share their social networking advice. I think their answers point to a fascinating shift in the social fabric of the scientific community.
 
Use Facebook as a forum for scientific debate.
If you have a lot of Facebook friends, you can have professional scientific discussions right on your wall. Angela Speck told me, “Since a significant fraction of my friends are scientists they do respond to science questions. And then the ensuing wall discussion is like a chat over lunch.” Keep in mind that it takes time and effort to build that long list of followers or friends, and then more effort to keep up with them and sort through their status updates, so that tactic won’t necessarily be effective for everyone.
 
Join Professional Facebook or LinkedIn Groups.
Instead of building large contact lists themselves, more and more scientists are working with colleagues through Facebook groups. For example, Adam Burgasser told me, “Our ‘Low Mass Stars and Brown Dwarfs’ group has been a great place to post papers, promote astro apps, announce conferences, ask about pesky references etc.” Joining such a group is like instantly acquiring hundreds or thousands of high-powered new friends and followers.
 
LinkedIn groups are also a fertile home for scientific research. As Mark Eisner said, “In my field of hydrogeology, or more generally environmental consulting, I belong to 50. So much I cannot keep up.” These groups are a great forum for scientific discussion and career networking in particular.

Facebook and LinkedIn groups have become new incubators for scientific progress, providing important virtual places for scientists to work and to mingle. The trouble is that there’s no good directory of these groups of professional scientists on social networks. The most reliable way to find the professional Facebook groups for scientists seems to be to “friend” lots of colleagues whose interests overlap with yours, and look at their Facebook pages to see what groups they belong to. Then you have to ask permission to join. Otherwise, you need to start your own group and hope one doesn’t exist already for the topic you chose.

Perhaps one day, an organization like OSA or the American Association for the Advancement of Science will maintain a directory of Facebook and LinkedIn groups where active professional scientific collaborations are taking place. Such a tool would help young scientists meet established scientists, and help established scientists move into new fields where they don’t already have contacts.
 
In the meantime, the rise of this informal network of professional scientist groups makes it clearer than ever: in science, it matters who your friends are.

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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What's Your Science Maturity Level?

5. September 2013

Marc Kuchner

 This post is adapted from content that first appeared on the blog Marketing for Scientists with the kind permission of the author.

I went to a scientific talk the other day that seemed to leave half the audience inspired and the other half frustrated. My frustrated colleagues insisted that the speaker did not present any true “results.” However, he did make some fascinating predictions about what would be discovered 10 or 20 years from now—forecasts that may be crucial for marketing exercises and expensive experiments.

Was this a good talk or a bad talk? Science or marketing?

Maybe it’s just a matter of taste. Some of us will never be satisfied by a talk unless we see a hypothesis confidently confirmed or discarded. Others may find the realm of topics subject to such clear decisions too limiting and yearn for a glimpse into the more distant future.

Still, we often argue over the quality of our colleagues’ presentations. When it is hiring time, for example, and faculty candidates are parading through your department, no doubt a common topic of conversation is who gave the best talk. And the maturity level of the research is often a contentious point.

With these conversations in mind, I’d like to suggest a numerical scale we can use to describe scientific talks. This scale is not meant to weigh the overall quality of a talk, but rather to resolve some of the tension between those who prefer solid conclusions and those who enjoy more nebulous forecasting. The first steps are about development of an idea by an individual scientist or research group; the last about the acceptance of the idea by the community.

Science Maturity Level (SML)

1. This talk presents a path that might one day lead to a testable new hypothesis or new data. An SML1 talk does not even strive to present scientific conclusions. Nonetheless, it can surprise and delight by illuminating a new research avenue that has become within arm’s reach, and it can shape the future of the field by its creativity and prescience.

2. The speaker presents a testable hypothesis with no constraining data or data whose interpretation is beyond the reach of state-of-the-art theoretical calculations. Such a talk can be boring, or it can be trendsetting, pointing the community to a fruitful direction for new work.

3. An SML 3 talk applies the full scientific method to the problem at hand, in whatever form the method is customarily used in the field. It compares a hypothesis to a data set and derives an unambiguous interpretation. However, so far the conclusion has garnered only limited attention from the scientific community, perhaps because it mainly confirms or reproduces previous work—or perhaps because it is new and thrilling.

4. This talk compares a hypothesis to a data set and appears to derive an unambiguous interpretation. Crucially, other researchers have confirmed or disputed this result in their talks and publications.

5. The speaker describes data and calculations that the community recognizes as part of its culture and history. Perhaps it describes the roots of a research paradigm that continues to spawn textbooks and doctoral theses. Perhaps it is about an old paradigm that has since been superseded. Attending such a talk can provide new insights, or it could be more about the pleasure of simply meeting a scientific celebrity.

It’s tempting to say that talks in the 1-2 range are more about marketing than science, but I’m not sure that’s the case. It seems to me that science is the process of moving from 1 to 5—and that this progress emerges from the community as a whole, not from any one scientist. So you can’t really describe a single talk as more “scientific” than another.

Also, I believe that talks at all points on the scale can be engaging and full of useful information, or dull and tiresome. The “marketing” is ultimately about whether the talk meets the needs of the audience—whether the needs are for information about the natural world or inspiration about future projects. So a talk on any research at any stage can be good or bad marketing.

Curiously, I’ve found that different scientific institutions seem to prefer different kinds of talks. Perhaps academic departments gravitate towards talks with higher SMLs, while government labs tend to prefer lower ones. Maybe that’s because government labs often focus on big projects that require lots of planning. That seems to be something to keep in mind when you are applying for jobs.

Ultimately, I think there is a place for all kinds of talks in our scientific universe. Perhaps the 4s and 5s belong at the beginning of a conference session, while the 1s, and 2s belong at the end. Talks about String Theory are often 1s, while review talks are 4s or 5s.

What do you think? Should your department focus on 1s and 2s, or 4s and 5s? Or should it aim to hire scientists who operate at both ends of the spectrum. What is the SML of your scientific talks?

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/.

Academic careers, Career, Communication skills, Conferences , , , ,

Are All Citations Created Equal?

14. August 2013

Pablo Artal

OSA Fellow Pablo Artal has kindly allowed OPN’s Bright Futures career blog to adapt and 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 Pablo, I am confused about what works to cite in my scientific papers. Should I cite only the papers that helped me with my research? Or should I expand the list to include those that I found clearly wrong or even misleading? –Bruno, Italy.
 
I believe the proper approach is to cite everything that you actually used during your research. This includes seminal papers that may have inspired your project, articles on the methods you used, papers presenting similar previous work, and even research that you may consider incorrect or biased—although you should mention why you think it is invalid. This is an important part of the scientific process, and it will help your colleagues in the future.
 
Your question brings up an issue that I have long found troubling. As you know, the number of citations a scientist receives on his or her papers can be a deciding factor in receiving grants, academic jobs and prestige. The so-called h-index, referring to the number of papers that a scientist has with the same or higher number of citations, is a particularly important metric. For instance, if I have an h-index of 41, that means that 41 of my articles have received 41 or more citations. Some time ago, I covered this issue in more detail in my other blog in Spanish.
 
Although the number of citations is a better measure of scientific performance than simply counting the number of published papers, it is far from perfect. There are many possible problems with this system. For example, the differences in the number of publications and citations among different scientific fields generally make it difficult to compare between subject areas.
 
You can get an automatic count of citations on an article in Google Scholar or Web of Science, but this doesn’t take into account the fact that citations are not all equal—maybe you know a scientist whose work has a large number of citations, but some of them are actually negative. To avoid problems like this, I propose that we classify citations into four categories. I’ve listed them below with some examples obtained from actual papers.
 
Seminal citations:
“We followed the approach proposed and first implemented by (ref) to perform the current experiment…”
 
Positive citations:
“The results of figure 5 are in good agreement with those presented in (ref)”
“Figure 3 compares our results with those of previous works (ref)”
 
Neutral citations:
“Although we followed the same procedure, we were not able to reproduce their results. This may be due to some individual variability. However, several other authors’ findings were similar to ours.”

Negative citations:
“The suggestion by (ref) is clearly incorrect…”
“An additional problem in this study is the surprising lack of details provided on some of the most relevant methods and procedures used.”
 
I understand the technical difficulty of classifying different types of citations, but this system would provide a more accurate depiction of scientific value. Appropriate software could classify every citation within these categories, and each would be rated with points. For instance, seminal citations would be worth two points, positive ones would be worth one, neutral citations would have no points and negative citations would be negative one point.
 
A few decades ago, many of us were unhappy with the mere counting of papers as a measure of success, and the current system has helped address that. But other issues have cropped up. We could not begin to imagine at that time the large emphasis that would be placed on citation counts today. Perhaps the time has come to reevaluate.
 
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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The Marie Curie Actions: Tips to Apply for a Postdoctoral Fellowship

6. June 2013

Rocío Borrego-Varillas 

Are you about to finish your Ph.D. and thinking of doing a postdoc? If so, the Marie Curie Actions Research Fellowship Program (MC) could be a great opportunity for you. A European Union (EU) initiative to promote research and innovation, the MC is one of the most renowned postdoctoral fellowship programs. As Yanina Shevchenko pointed out in a recent Bright Futures post, “having your own funding not only looks good on your resume; it also provides you with some flexibility in choosing a research group.” These fellowships are a good way to achieve this goal.

Individual MC grants are available to experienced researchers, regardless of their nationality, through three programs: Intra-European Fellowships for Europeans who wish to carry out projects in the EU, International Outgoing Fellowships for Europeans willing to pursue their projects outside the EU and International Incoming Fellowships for non-Europeans who wish to receive research training in the EU.

Apart from the generous funding (they are probably the best paid postdoctoral fellowships in Europe), these fellowships provide young scientists the opportunity to join an excellent research group and gain experience abroad. This allows you not only to expand your technical knowledge, but also to learn practical skills that will be useful for your career. Additionally, fellows are provided with a monthly stipend to cover expenses derived from research training.

However, the MC is very competitive—the acceptance rate is around 16 percent. To give you an idea, the last Intra-European Fellowship call received more than 3,700 proposals, of which almost 3,000 had a score above 70/100. Only those with scores above 89/100 received funding. Writing a good proposal is crucial and can be the deciding factor in getting your application funded. Below are some tips to help you apply successfully:

• Attend a workshop. Many universities organize colloquia and workshops about the program, so stay tuned for these events at your institution.

• Prepare in advance. Take into account that writing the proposal requires a lot of time (it took me three weeks!), so plan well in advance.

• Be sure your application is complete. The referees check carefully to see if all the parts of the application have been covered, so be sure you have addressed every point. It may be useful to structure your proposal with subheadings and sections, closely following the “Guide for applicants”.

Be aware of the aims of the framework programme. “In each framework programme (currently FP 7), there are particular points that are supported with increased emphasis,” says Dr. Zsuzsanna Major, a former MC fellow at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics. “It is very useful for the proposal to be aware of these particular aims while writing it."

• Avoid vague statements and provide specific examples. Don’t use generic phrases that could be applied to any field in any context. For example, instead of writing “this project will help to develop professional skills,” state that “the fellow will supervise two Masters students and help the group leader to write grant proposals. This will allow him/her to cultivate professional skills such as leadership and fundraising.” You can also include any relevant training courses that you plan to take at the host institution or professional societies you belong to (see the OSA Young Professionals Program).

• Be realistic. The project must be ambitious but feasible to complete in 1-2 years. Give a detailed plan of tasks and objectives including a Gantt chart. Provide a backup plan in case some parts of the project fail.

• Ask for advice. Your own university or the host institution should be able to help you with legal issues or other questions about the application.

• Get feedback from your peers. In addition to reviewing your proposal several times with your future supervisor, I also recommend getting feedback from colleagues whom you trust. I sent my proposal and the evaluation criteria to two of my peers and asked them to act as referees. Their revisions were tremendously helpful.

If you would like to apply for a MC fellowship, the call for 2013 is now open with a deadline of 14 August. Good luck!

Rocío Borrego-Varillas (rborrego@uji.es) received her Ph.D. from the University of Salamanca, Spain. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Universitat Jaume I, Spain and has been recently awarded a Marie Curie Fellowship to conduct her research at the Politecnico di Milano, Italy.

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