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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Designing a Better Boss: Applying a Consultant’s Mindset to An Academic Job

20. March 2013

Damon Diehl

I stumbled into my career. I started working as a "consulting scientist” while waiting to defend my Ph.D. thesis. I had a knack for helping customers distinguish between what they really need and what they think they want. The customers’ needs, not all of which are technical, become additional input and output requirements when solving their problems. I then give them technical advice in terms that they understand. My angle proved to be successful, and within a few months, my gig as a consulting scientist turned into a full-time job.

Making a transition.
Last year I made a career change from full-time scientist to full-time undergraduate professor. Some colleagues were concerned that I wouldn’t like the change in the scope of my work. However, I’m actually doing the same thing: I evaluate what my students need and then give them technical instruction in terms that they can understand. Sure, generating 15 hours of lecture material every week is demanding, to say the least, but it lines up with what I’m best at. I enjoy it immensely.

Adjusting to authority.
The culture shock came from an unexpected quarter: having a boss—four layers of them, to be exact.  As a professor, I have immediate responsibilities to the department chair, the dean, the vice president and the president of the college. Separately, I must also answer to the people who control the way the college uses its money, time and facilities. That all adds up to a lot of bureaucracy. For example, I discovered this semester that having pizza delivered to campus, while not technically impossible, requires a purchase order, two weeks’ notice, and a variance for not using the on-campus cafeteria. After a while, I started to feel like I was trapped in an invisible mesh of rules designed to stop me from getting things done.

Creating a customer.
My solution came from a change in perspective. I have learned to view the college as my customer. This is not a stretch—they are paying me to do something, which is the definition of a customer/vendor relationship. I am still mindful of requests and demands from folks up the authority chain, but now I  take a step back and separate what they request from what they need. I make sure I understand the real problem, and then I let my engineering brain solve it within the allowed parameters. This has two advantages: It is more intellectually fulfilling for me, and it produces more effective results. In learning to shift my view and cut to the heart of the matter, I have reduced extraneous demands on my attention … leaving more time to grade the four-inch stack of lab reports, homework assignments and exams on my desk.

Damon Diehl (ddiehl4@monroecc.edu) is an assistant professor and program coordinator of Optical Systems Technology at Monroe Community College in Rochester, N.Y., U.S.A. He is also the founder and owner of Diehl Research Grant Services.

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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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The Benefits of an Industry Internship: OPN Talks with Jung Park

24. May 2012

This week, OPN talks with Jung Park, an OSA recent graduate member. Jung found an industry internship with Intel Corporation while completing his Ph.D. in 2010 at the University of California, San Diego, U.S.A.  He discusses how he got the internship and why he believes Ph.D. students can benefit from stepping outside of academia, whether or not they decide to stay there.

 OPN: What made you decide to pursue an internship in industry?

Jung: During my graduate studies, I was mostly encouraged to pursue a career in academia. While I had some interest in doing so, I wasn’t certain that I was ready to commit to the long and arduous path to a tenured position at a university. When the time came to decide what to do next, I kept myself open to a variety of options, including jobs in industry as well as positions in government research labs and academia. I started researching to find out what types of positions I could pursue after I graduated.

OPN: How did you get your internship?

Jung: While attending the Frontiers in Optics conference, I met someone who worked for Intel Corporation in photonics research and development and discovered that the company was offering an internship. I interviewed for the position and was fortunate enough to receive an offer.  Although I came upon the internship somewhat by chance, I recognized it as a unique opportunity and jumped at it without hesitation.

OPN: How did you benefit from your internship?

Jung: I benefitted in a number of ways. Technically, the work was quite interesting and challenging, but it was very different than what I had done in an academic setting. While in graduate school, I had the freedom to satisfy my intellectual curiosity by conducting my own experiments. As an intern, however, I was working with a larger team of people that had a broad range of technical backgrounds and areas of expertise. We had to deliver on much more clearly defined goals. In a fairly short time, I became exposed to a variety of research areas.

Ultimately, being part of such a team gave me a new perspective and helped me to identify my place in the field. Although I found my graduate project interesting, I did not feel like I was working on something real until I applied what I had learned to my work in industry. Over the course of my graduate research, I became less interested in “pushing” ideas produced from research in the hope that they would be adopted for commercial or practical applications. Instead, I became more intrigued by the idea of “pulling” innovative solutions from demonstrated principles to solve real world problems.
While in academia, I worked to discover new principles and sought to produce high-impact publications. After working in industry, I realize that what I find most rewarding is not publications, citations and recognition, but rather developing the potential of a burgeoning technology.

OPN: What advice would you give to graduate students considering an industry internship?

Jung: I would highly encourage any graduate student to consider an internship in industry. It is important to learn about a variety of areas and to see things from different viewpoints. Even those whose ultimate goal is to pursue an academic career can benefit from this experience. In practical terms, industry experience provides a competitive advantage and makes one’s resume stand out, since many Ph.D. students have only done academic research. It also provides invaluable networking opportunities, which I encourage all students to take advantage of as much as possible. You never know when an opportunity might come up. I have no doubt that my industry internship led to my current position, in addition to the many invaluable lessons that I learned.

Jung Park (jung.s.park@intel.com) received his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of California, San Diego in 2010. He is currently a member of the Photonics Technology Lab at Intel Corporation, where he works to integrate silicon photonics devices for optical interconnects in computing applications.

 

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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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Looking for a Job? Use the Skills in Your Scientific Toolbox

8. October 2010

By Kelly Goss

Finding the right job can be a daunting task. As I recently began searching the wealth of online resources available, it became apparent to me that there are a set of skills needed for finding a job: identifying job opportunities, writing a resume, striking up a conversation at networking events, and negotiating a salary, to name just a few.

Fortunately, as students and professionals in optics and photonics, we already have a number of relevant skills that we can use to find a job. In this post, I list a few examples:

Apply your critical thinking skills to your job search. Critical thinking is a key skill—and one that is often listed as necessary in scientific job postings. It includes observation, interpretation, analysis and evaluation. We can use our skills of interpretation when responding to a job post and determining the critical elements that the employer is looking for. We can also observe and analyze trends in the job market to know which skills are in high demand and where the appropriate jobs are. And finally, evaluating our options helps us to know where we feel our best fit is.

Do your homework by gathering resources. Graduate students and young science professionals manage resources every day. Whether it is information, equipment, money, people or time, we all have our own ways of finding and directing these precious commodities. There is a seemingly limitless amount of job-related resources out there, including books, blogs (like this one), Twitter accounts, career advisors, professional head hunters, research articles in human resources, friends with advice, colleagues with connections, and the list goes on.

Use them! Apply your critical thinking skills to determine which resources will best serve you—but the key thing is to use them! Many people, billions actually, have solved this problem before and found jobs. Learn from what others have done; there is no need to re-invent the wheel. I started working on my job search a few months ago when OPN's Career Focus column began, and I am amazed at the resources available and what I have learned in such a short time.

Use your technical writing skills to build the perfect resume. Being in a technical field, we all have skills and experience in writing about optics and photonics. We are able to write technical reports about scientific research conducted by Noble laureates; we can describe how a laser functions and explain nanophotonics and other phenomena that are invisible to the human eye. These skills can be directly translated into communicating our skills, talents, and strengths, which are sometimes complex and invisible.

Approach writing your resume or C.V. like you would a journal article or technical report: Be clear on your main contribution, know your audience and provide proof for your claims.

These are just some of the many skills that we already have to draw on from our work in optics and photonics. As a community, we have applied these skills with great effort. As a result, our field is not only growing—but making huge contributions to technology and society. By applying these skills with the same earnestness to our job search, we are bound to be successful!

Kelly Goss (kcgoss@ucalgary.ca) is a Ph.D. student in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada.

 

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Think Beyond Academia in Your Job Search

30. August 2010

By Danny Rogers

When I was a grad student about to enter the job market a couple years ago, I attended a panel session at an American Physical Society meeting about non-traditional careers for physicists. The first speaker, Don Engel, described a realization he had had while he was a grad student. One day he looked around at his lab mates and counted seven other students and four post-docs, all working for one relatively senior professor. In all, he counted 12 people being trained to take over one job.

The math didn’t work out. The job ads seem to indicate that academic positions outnumber industrial ones 3 to 1. And yet, with all of these students and post-docs competing for one professor’s job, where were the other 11 going to go?

If they aren’t entering academia after graduation, where are all of these other jobs to which they’re flocking? We don’t hear about a lot of unemployed physicists, even in these challenging economic times. It is a legitimate question that should dawn on every student as they near the end of grad school.

What is the lesson for new job seekers?

Be creative. Most of us begin our searches in the same place—with our advisers. However, more often than not, our advisers’ advice simply reflects their own career paths, which always have the same ending: an academic professorship. To fully consider your options, think more broadly and creatively. What kinds of jobs outside of academic science would benefit from someone with your unique skill set? What other interests of yours, whether food or fashion or finance, have a strong scientific or mathematical component that you may not have considered?

Be open-minded. Try searching mainstream job boards like Monster.com or SimplyHired.com for science-related positions, and be open to opportunities that may not be what you initially had in mind. I recently had lunch with a senior scientist for Tropicana. You know, the juice company? Turns out there is a lot more science to producing fresh-tasting orange juice year-round than simply building a giant factory full of squeezing machines. 

Market yourself. Bill yourself as a scientist who can do math. Point out that what you really learned in grad school was not just your thesis topic, but the ability to deeply analyze and excel in challenging new subjects.

Be persistent. Even through you may apply for literally dozens of jobs, and you may be rejected from many, you only need one. Check your ego and keep trying.

Match who you are with what you do. Academia is about scholarship and teaching, so before simply being herded in that direction, think carefully about whether it would be a good fit for your personality. Are you willing to put up with the lower pay and long, uncertain track to tenure? Do you like teaching young people? If not, industry may be more suitable. However, industry often requires a faster pace, longer hours, and broader communications and management skills than we typically learn in graduate school. Other options might include public policy, science communications, and entrepreneurship. Which options plays best to your strengths?

Network, network, network. Instead of limiting your search to the back pages of Physics Today, look around and, more important, ask around. What are the “other 11” you know doing after graduate school?

Don’t try to write the story of your career before it has happened, and don’t be afraid to become one of the other 11—I did, and I have never looked back.

Danny Rogers (danny@dannyrogers.net) graduated with his Ph.D. in chemical physics from the University of Maryland in 2008. He is currently a member of the professional staff at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Md., U.S.A. For more advice from Danny, read his related column in the Career Focus column of Optics & Photonics News this October.

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