Taking It as It Comes: My Unexpected Path to Career Satisfaction

11. January 2012

by Jemellie Houston

I was a graduate student at the University of Maryland working on a Ph.D. in chemical physics, and I had a plan: I would finish my Ph.D. and then do a postdoc before starting a career in research. At the time, I was working on the high-speed generation of entangled photons with the quantum cryptography laboratory at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. I adhered to my path religiously and went the extra mile through my involvement in extracurricular activities. For example, I was an OSA student chapter president and IONS North America organizer. And then … life got in the way.

Forks in the road

I went through several life-altering circumstances, including losing my mother and getting engaged and married. I became aware that my career was now part of a bigger picture that included my life with my husband, who was also pursuing a Ph.D. in addition to doing his full-time job. I also found myself surrounded by postdocs and recent Ph.D. graduates who were unable to find permanent positions. Between the economy and the scarcity of full-time positions, I decided it would be more practical for me to obtain my master’s degree and gain some real-world experience rather than complete my Ph.D.

It was a very difficult decision for me. I struggled because I felt like I was digressing from THE path, like a black sheep that had lost its way. Until then, I had only known of one way in which a scientific career could progress.

A path beyond academia

Immediately after finishing my M.S., I found employment at Mettler-Toledo, Autochem Inc.—a division of Mettler-Toledo that makes precision instrumentation for spectroscopy and other optical measurement equipment. I applied for a software test engineer position.

During the interview process for the engineering position, my potential employers deliberated about whether or not I would be a better fit for a position on their research and development team, since I had a solid research background. In the end, I got the engineering position, and in hindsight I am fortunate to have been given the opportunity to strengthen my skills in electrical and computer engineering.

I have now been with the company for more than three months. In anticipation of a product line launch in a couple of years, I am again being encouraged to join a research and development team. I am thinking about this and figuring out my next move. I like what I do now, but I am open to other opportunities as well.

One of the perks of my job is that my company will pay for my classes if I pursue another scholastic degree. I plan to take advantage of this opportunity as well in the next academic year.

Learning to adapt

The moral of my story is that opportunities arise unexpectedly in places that may be unfamiliar to us. We shouldn’t have a rigid mindset about how to get where we want; we also need to open our minds to other perfectly good opportunities. This not only opens doors for your career but also gives you a chance to learn more about yourself.  Although I am not a gambler by nature, I am glad I took a risk. If I hadn’t, I would not likely be as happy as I am right now. I like where I am and where I am headed.

Jemellie Houston (Jemellie.Houston@mt.com) is a software test engineer at Mettler-Toledo AutoChem Inc. in Columbia, Md., U.S.A.

 

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Leaving Academic Science: What to Expect

11. November 2011

by Aida Baida Gil

Are you considering leaving academic science to pursue a different career path? Making a change that is more in line with your true calling can be incredibly rewarding, but you’ll also probably experience stress, uncertainty, self-doubt and even a sense of loss. Leaving academia is a major change in your life, especially if you’ve worked for a long time as a scientist. When I made a transition from academia to my job as a career coach, I had a hard time dealing with it—even though my new position was exciting, improved my quality of life, and allowed me to make a difference in people's lives. I know now that my feelings were completely normal. This post contains some tips for navigating this important transition.

Prepare to shift into a new role. You’ve probably been a scientist for a long time, and you may have wanted to be one for well before that. Thus, academia is likely to have become an important part of your identity. Changing that may feel like a loss.

Leaving my scientific career after 11 years to become a career and life coach was a huge leap. It was difficult to change my mindset from that of a scientist to a business owner, and a large portion of my identity vanished. I needed to invent a new one. It’s important to understand that being a scientist does not define you. Rather, it is one role you’ve played in your life—an important one, but nevertheless a role.

Don’t idealize the past. After you've taken the leap, you might start idealizing your previous situation, and that may make you wonder if it was the right decision after all. In my case I idealized how much I loved working on the bench. When I thought about it honestly, though, I did not love working on weekends and certain other aspects of my scientific career. However, because coaching was completely new for me, it was easy to feel that I didn’t fit and that I was better off as a scientist. You might feel like that too, but don’t worry; it will get better with time.

Get the support you need. Because this is an important challenge for you, you will want and expect everybody's support. But your friends and family may be resistant; they also need time to let go of that old identity of yours. And of course they don’t want you to fail. Because we want their approval, we may try to convince them that we made the right choice instead of simply informing them of our decision. You can wind up second guessing yourself and getting discouraged—and that doesn’t feel good. That’s why you need support from anyone and everyone who can respect your decision and help you along the way. This will make a difference in the way you handle the change, so start creating a support circle now.

Believe in yourself. Let’s be honest: Science is a tough world full of bright, competent people. Some will think that, if you leave, it’s because you are not a good scientist. Unfortunately that’s a very common belief, and it may have a huge impact on your self-confidence. What’s important here is that you don’t agree with them! Leaving academia is a decision. It has nothing to do with being good enough! As one of my coaches once told me when I was experiencing this stage: You are smart enough to be a good scientist AND a good coach (or substitute your new position)—and, I´ll add, you are also brave enough to take action!

Remember, it’s normal to feel scared and unsure, but it will pass. I don’t have any doubts anymore, and I have never regretted my decision. I know that I'll be a scientist at heart my whole life. Don’t be afraid to find out what else your career may have in store for you!

Aida Baida Gil (www.experimentyourlife.com) is a certified career coach. She holds a Ph.D. in genetics.

 

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Ph.D. Perspectives: How to Go from Grad Student to Professor in 12 Months or Less

15. July 2011

Brooke Hester

The beginning of my story is probably familiar to many of you. In late 2009, I was a University of Maryland Chemical Physics graduate student working in the Optical Tweezers (OT) Laboratory at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md., U.S.A. A typical day would consist of realigning the laser (turn knob, read meter, repeat), spending hours collecting data (make slide, turn knob, hit key, view screen, repeat), and partaking in the required physical functions of eating and sleeping (repeat as needed). I was the only person working in the OT lab, so the days were long and lonely. Music was my only companion.

(Looking back, I realize that I didn’t have it so bad, but at the time the combination of prolonged redundancy and solitude had started to make me crazy.)

Eventually, the day came when I decided it was time to move on. While I could have used another six months to a year to complete my Ph.D. thesis project, my desire to start a new career adventure outweighed my desire to formally finish. I started to think about the possibilities and search for positions.

After I determined that teaching was my primary goal, I received some excellent advice from my advisor: He suggested that I apply for one-year university teaching positions. He knew that, without a post-doc on my CV, it would be tough to land a tenure-track position right out of grad school. However, if I could get a year or more of university-level teaching experience under my belt, I might stand a chance of securing at least a semi-permanent position later on. Learning that I was pregnant in early 2010 heightened my determination to extreme levels.

In May of 2010, I was offered and accepted a one-year teaching position at Appalachian State University’s department of physics and astronomy. After that, things began to move very quickly. I moved to Boone, N.C., and began a new job as a visiting assistant professor in August 2010, gave birth in September, wrote a Ph.D. thesis and defended it in November, and started a new research lab of my own in December.

With the help and support of my family and my new home department, I survived those months. I was able to establish the new optical tweezers lab at Appstate thanks to an equipment loan from NIST as well as a large deposit of optics equipment from the physics and astronomy department at Appstate. Currently, three undergraduates and two master’s students are constructing and carrying out experiments there.

I am now teaching full time, juggling too many projects, and barely getting the necessary items completed. Still, I love my work and life here and I hope I can give back enough, or at least match, what I have been fortunate enough to receive.

What did I learn from this transitional experience that may benefit others? A few things:

• You can and will finish your Ph.D., although it may require extreme determination (or is it stubbornness?). That same quality will allow you to teach yourself multitudes throughout your career. Applying for and securing a job can give you a clear motivator to finish. It provides a very scary and realistic due date.

• Don’t be afraid to teach for the first year out of your Ph.D. You can go from grad school to a professorship. You will learn as you go while getting the opportunity to live in a new and interesting place and strengthen your CV.

• It’s okay to graduate without completely finishing all your projects. Open-ended experiments will give you something to work on right away when you move to the next institution.

• A good support system is critical. I recommend a spouse who is also a chef and stay-at-home dad.

• Time management is key. This means you won’t get any sleep at all during the first semester of your teaching job—whether you have a newborn or not.

• Teaching and research in physics and astronomy is the best job in the world. The colleagues are all nice sane people (OK, maybe a little kooky, but in a good way) and the hours and location are somewhat flexible (you can work real late at home if you want to). In addition, at most universities, you have your summers off to pursue research, to teach for extra pay if you choose, and to take some time for you and your family.

And when you feel like your life really sucks, just remember—at least you’re not realigning a laser … or at least not for long.

Brooke Hester (hesterbc@appstate.edu) is a lecturer in the department of physics and astronomy at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., U.S.A.
 

 

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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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Resources for Finding an International Job or Internship

30. September 2010

By Christina Folz

Each month, as I edit the pages of OPN and witness the growth of OSA, I think more and more about what a global Society (both a big and little "s" apply here) we have become. OSA just launched its website on Optics and Photonics in Latin America; this month OPN publishes an editorial about the hassles associated with acquiring a visa for scientific travel; and, in a future Career Focus column, we will highlight how one Canadian student's internship experience in Australia helped land him a job at home.

All of this underscores the fact that, in today's global world, your job search may not necessarily end at your country's borders. Here are some resources I came across that can help you launch and focus your own search for a job or internship abroad.

 

I hope you find these resources useful. My apologies that they are all U.S.-based. (I simply went with the sites that Google brought me!) I would love to hear from others from all over the world about your resources, tips, and tricks for finding and landing the right job abroad.

Christina Folz (cfolz@osa.org) is the managing editor of Optics & Photonics News.

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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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