Curriculum Vitæ: Some Dos and Don'ts

27. November 2012

Jean-luc Doumont

Whether on paper or in electronic format, the résumé or curriculum vitæ still plays a crucial role in job applications. By analyzing a draft CV kindly provided by OSA student member Matt Weed, this article offers some dos and don'ts toward effective communication.

Compared to many résumés I have seen lately, Matt's draft CV shows many positive qualities. It sets the name of the candidate very visibly (top left) with unique contact data (top right), rather than multiple addresses or phone numbers that can confuse a potential employer. It focuses on competencies and goes beyond the mere research experience to include public policy and leadership. In terms of style, it puts forward specific achievements with action verbs.

On the other hand, the CV is on the long side (more than two pages), with page breaks in the middle of sections and a third page 75 percent empty. With some tweaking of the text and/or page layout, it can either be brought back to exactly two pages (my recommendation) or perhaps be extended to three, with the third page devoted solely to publications and presentations, almost as an appendix.

More important still, the otherwise effective structure is not very visible. Despite being set in small caps bold, the headings do not stand out. Whatever white space is left on the first page ends up separating related information horizontally (such as degrees and dates) rather than separating distinct sections vertically. Similarly, the dates on the right are a little lost.

While I know it is common practice, I am always skeptical about career objectives and other so-called profile information. The objective stated here is vague, hence hardly useful. It is best moved to the application letter and written specifically toward a given company or job. On the CV, it can be replaced by some sort of tagline under the candidate's name, summing up his qualifications and, indirectly, previewing the structure of the CV.

As for style, perhaps the best advice I ever received is that good writing is read-out-loudable. Matt's CV uses conjugated verbs but without the subject (understood to be I), probably in an effort to be concise. The outcome is compact and consistent yet would not read out loud well. For example, many readers may not recognize “image” to be a verb in “image devices and processing steps”. Along the same lines, beware of industry jargon. In the sentence “Developed quantitative naval periscope image resolution metrics across functional groups”, I did not know what exactly was quantitative (the periscope, the image, the resolution, or the metrics) and I could not quite place the phrase “functional groups” (which, to me, evokes hydroxyl or alcohol groups on organic molecules).

Finally, a word of caution for those of you applying for jobs internationally. Matt's draft CV is US-centric, with phrases such as “Annually visit DC” or “Orange County schools”, a phone number without country code, and no information whatsoever on language skills. Even the full name “Matthew Davidson Weed” would confuse many people outside the United States, who are not used to middle names, especially when these sound like family names: To a Latin reader, “Davidson Weed” is a perfectly normal compound family name for the son of Mr. Davidson and Ms. Weed. For international communication, I recommend sticking to one given name and one family name (in that order), perhaps with the family name set in small caps to clarify which is which, given that not all cultures place the family name last.

In the attached PDFs, I propose a revised version of Matt's draft CV and I provide more detailed comments on both draft and revised versions.

Jean-luc Doumont (jl@principiae.be) holds a Ph.D. in applied physics from Stanford University. He now devotes his time and energy to training researchers and others in effective communication. He is a traveling lecturer for OSA.

Matthew Weed (mweed@creol.ucf.edu) is a Ph.D. Candidate in Optics studying integrated, chip-level lasers and photonic systems at the University of Central Florida. You can visit his website at www.MattDWeed.com

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How to Manage a Research Group

29. June 2012

Jean-luc Doumont

Managing a research group is tricky. Ph.D. programs selectively breed individuals who like nothing better than to do things their own way. How do you manage a group of those—especially when you are one of them yourself?

To make matters worse, group leaders in academia are usually selected for their research achievements, not their leadership abilities. They may not have any natural talent and are unlikely to have been trained for the job. As a result, bad practices propagate by replication, just like viruses. To follow is some advice for getting it right.

Assess yourself. The first step toward self-improvement is probably self-assessment. If you have been leading a group for awhile, systematically question what you are doing and how you are doing it. When in doubt, get feedback from your group members. And if you are just facing the prospect of becoming a group leader, think about how your group leaders have managed you. What did they do that you found useful? What do you wish they would have done differently? Why?

Focus on purposes and strategies, not procedures. Make a list of all you would like to accomplish as a leader of a research group, such as to secure funding, to buy equipment, to attract great people, and to obtain visibility through publications. As always with this kind of exercise, cluster and prioritize the purposes you have thus identified. Then think of the most effective ways to reach your purposes with the means at your disposal.
 
Strike a balance between maximizing the group’s scientific production, in quantity or quality, and fostering the individual development of group members. If you are too keen on getting a paper accepted, for example, you might be tempted to rewrite large parts of a student’s imperfect manuscript. Unfortunately, this student is unlikely to learn much from having his or her work redrafted. Students will learn more if you can identify what is suboptimal in the manuscript and explain why; then let them attempt the rewriting themselves.

Striking a balance applies to decision-making, too. If your leadership style is participative, you probably work hard to reach a consensus on decisions, but you may have experienced the process as slow and the decisions as unsatisfactory. In contrast, if you are more of an authoritarian, you likely prefer to decide everything yourself; however, your group members may resent never being involved. A compromise may be to encourage everyone’s input in a group discussion and then decide yourself on the basis of this discussion. Whatever you do, make sure that the rules of the game are clear: Lack of clarity is even worse than unpopular (but clear) rules.

Nurture your group. Managing a group of young researchers is not unlike parenting—another job for which very few of us have been prepared. At times, you may have little availability, leaving your children to figure things out on their own. In contrast, when you want something done fast and well, you may prefer to do it yourself.  You are busy enough as it is and don’t need another mess.

Still, to learn and grow, your children need opportunities. They need guidance and supervision—not too much (leave place for discovery and initiative) and not too little (make sure they learn efficiently and safely). You may well know better what is good for them, but you might still listen to them before deciding. Similarly, you may insist that they obey the rules, yet allow them to challenge them.

Like parents with their children, group leaders should help young researchers along on the path to independence. If you are managing a group, are you doing everything you can so your members can soon become leaders of their own?

Jean-luc Doumont (jl@principiae.be) holds a Ph.D. in applied physics from Stanford University. He now devotes his time and energy to training researchers and others in effective communication. He is a traveling lecturer for OSA.

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Challenging Myths and Traditions in Scientific Communication

5. April 2012

By Jean-luc Doumont

Jean-luc Doumont, a regular contributor to OPN’s career column and blog, has generously allowed us to adapt this content from his new booklet on effective communication, Traditions, templates and group leaders. You can download this free 16-pp. resource directly from Jean-luc’s website.

I have been running sessions on effective scientific communications for 20 years, and they are largely about challenging traditions. Ideally, traditions converge to best practices. But doing things “the usual way” without questioning whether it is the most effective method is hardly a guarantee of success. Critical thinking is as useful for communication as it is for research.

Here, I take a look at some ineffective traditions and myths in conference talks and scientific writing.

Opening a talk with the speaker’s name and presentation title. At the start, attendees want to decide whether it is worth staying. The speaker must thus first of all create interest and establish credibility. A self-centered opening is unlikely to achieve either, and the name and title of the talk are usually on screen.

Going over the preview of the talk at the very start. Attendees are not ready to assimilate such a preview until they know what the talk is all about. They first need to know the research need, how the speaker went about it, and his or her main message. The preview should outline the body (just before it), not the whole talk.

Thanking attendees for their attention. Thanking attendees suggests they paid attention as a favor. If you wish to show respect, make the talk interesting for them. Get their attention, motivate them and adapt to them. Make them want to thank you.

Writing a highly specialized abstract for a paper. Usually, the abstract is read by everyone, including the least expert readers, whereas the paper itself is read by more expert readers, who want details. While short, abstracts should not be overly technical. They should focus on the motivation and outcome.

Putting up with bad talks because conferences are supposedly more about networking. Networking can admittedly be a significant benefit of conferences. Still, talks should incite networking, not hinder it by reflecting poorly on the speakers or obscuring their topics. As for other things in life, if talks are worth doing, they are worth doing well.

Using “scientific language.” A tenacious yet often subconscious myth suggests that scientific prose requires a specific, unique writing style: “scientific language.” Group leaders are even known to criticize papers that “do not sound scientific enough,” as if credibility depended on obfuscation. If colleagues are grateful when you explain your research straightforwardly to them, why would you need to write differently, except to polish an imperfect use of the language?

Insisting on the passive voice (or the active one). Should research be reported in the passive voice? Certainly not when it makes for heavier sentences or omits an agent that matters, as in it is believed. Who believes this? The authors? The community at large? Readers will want to know. Should you write every sentence in the active voice? Of course not. The passive has legitimate uses as well, in particular to place the topic in subject position. Absolutes are convenient, but they are seldom tenable.

Do not let traditions stand in your way: Research is not about fostering mediocrity. Question habits. Identify ends before discussing means. In my experience, the scientific community accepts what is different if it is manifestly more effective.

Jean-luc Doumont (jl@principiae.be) holds a Ph.D. in applied physics from Stanford University. He now devotes his time and energy to training researchers and others in effective communication. He is a traveling lecturer for OSA.

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Communication Skills for Researchers

17. May 2011

By Jean-Luc Doumont

The time when an introverted scientist could happily hide in his or her lab with guaranteed funding for several decades is long gone. Nowadays, researchers spend a large share of their work time fighting for funding, managing people or departments, reaching out to society, and interacting with policymakers. Add global mobility to the equation and you understand how survival-critical it is to get the attention of an audience, to get messages across to them, and eventually to prompt them to action—possibly in what is not your native language or native culture.

The good news is, you can learn to communicate better at any point of your career path.

If you are a young researcher…
Look for opportunities to enroll in a training program—not (or not just) one focused on language, but one that discusses strategy and structure. Learn what to include—and what not to include—in an oral presentation or journal article, and in what order to include it (and why). Learn how to design an effective graph or slide.

If you hate speaking in front of an audience…
Grab every unimportant opportunity to do it: group meetings, student events, birthday parties and so on. We all learn by mistakes; if you avoid speaking in public until your first big meeting presentation, you will make all of your beginner’s mistakes when the stakes are highest. Similarly, avoid postponing the writing you have to do. Start early. For example, write the introduction to your paper or thesis well before you finish the research. Foresee time for iterations, too: Much of the learning stems from feedback and revisions.

If you are a senior professional…
Question your communication practices. Ask yourself how you learned to do what you do. Was it merely by imitating others or was it through searching for what works and what does not? Look for opportunities to learn further. If you no longer have the time (or the humility) to enroll in a full-fledged training program, at least read about how to communicate well or attend short sessions on the topic.

Above all, ask for—and listen to—feedback from your audiences. Ask specific questions, too. If you merely ask colleagues whether they liked your talk, they will likely give you a polite but possibly insincere yes, an answer from which you will not learn.

No matter how experienced you are…
You can keep learning forever by being highly critical of every presentation you attend, every document you read and every poster you look at. Effective communication is all about the audience; your intuition as a member of that audience is therefore a much better guide than the preconceived ideas you may have as a speaker or writer. You may find it hard, however, to learn from good examples: a brilliant piece of scientific or technical communication will have all of your attention on the content, with none left to notice what, exactly, has made the communication so effective (unless perhaps in retrospect).

Examples of what not to do are easier to analyze. Each time you get frustrated by a presentation or document, ask yourself why. What, specifically, did the speaker or author do that prevented you from understanding or that otherwise distracted you? Is a certain piece of information missing? Is the vocabulary inappropriate? Is the structure unclear? Is anything drawing attention onto itself rather than on the content?

Then think about what would be a more effective approach. You may contemplate whether to share part or all of this feedback with the speaker or author and thus help him or her to learn from it, too. But at least for yourself, let nothing pass: develop zero-tolerance for poor communication.

This post is excerpted from a longer article on the same topic, which will appear in the June 2011 Optics & Photonics News.

Jean-luc Doumont (jl@principiae.be) holds a Ph.D. in applied physics from Stanford University. He now devotes his time and energy to training researchers and others in effective communication. He is a traveling lecturer for OSA.

 

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