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/.

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And So It Begins: Scientific Stereotypes

12. December 2012

David McGloin

This post is reproduced from the blog Dundee Physics with the kind permission of the author.

Recently, my daughter was asked to do a writing and comprehension exercise related to her science class. On the surface, it was a simple assignment: Look at an image and write descriptive words and phrases about it, and then put these into context in a few sentences. The exercise was linked to her current project work on magnets and their properties. (It was rather straightforward, as she is only in Primary 3.) But the picture that the teacher had chosen was what caught my eye. It was of a “scientist” in the old man, Einstein mold with a set of test tubes.

Although I don’t have a problem with the assignment itself, I do take issue with the way that this particular image reinforces the tired old cliché of the stereotypical scientist. This is the type of thing that seeps into kids’ minds and influences the way that they conceptualize the sciences. While it may not put them off entirely, it could lead them to perceive science as being uncool or only for a limited group of people. At a young age, I think many kids love science. They like doing experiments and discovering things. But after years of being bombarded with images like these, that can begin to change. I think my daughters are capable of anything, including becoming much better scientists than I am. However, in spite of their potential, years of reinforcement of the idea of scientists as disheveled old men could ultimately take its toll.

This is a deeply entrenched image in society, and it is not a simple problem to fix. The misconception should be addressed on multiple levels, and so science communication needs to extend much further than just the pupils. The solution begins with teachers. The instructors at a primary school may not know better. They too have grown up with these stereotypes, and they may be, through no fault of their own, unaware that this is an issue.  That is why we in the science community need to raise awareness among educators so that our teachers can help take on the lack of female students in the sciences. 

I have watched with interest the development of projects like Sciencegrrl and Geek Girl Scotland. For quite a while, I have sympathized with their cause and seen the need for such initiatives. However, before I had my own daughters, it didn’t hit quite so close to home. Now the issue seems much more personal. I have ordered a Sciencegrrl calendar to pass on to my local school. In addition, as the Head of Physics at Dundee University, I will try to look at ways to improve our attractiveness to female applicants. As a community, we need to explore ways in which we might help out more in the community to try and counter such stereotypes. As a start, I have ordered a Science Grrl calendar to donate to my kids’ school. You should get one too.

David McGloin (d.mcgloin@dundee.ac.uk) is head of the division of physics and a senior lecturer at the University of Dundee, Scotland. 

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Should You Follow the Science Fashion of the Day?

5. October 2012

Arti Agrawal

I want that gorgeous Chanel bag. I do!

Is there any logic behind it? While I’m not sure what’s behind my urge, I suspect that Chanel has it down to a science (and art)!

Surely the fashions sold to us are not merely the unfettered creative output of talented designers? I believe there is plenty of science behind how trends change and how new products are introduced to the market. As this blog post from IonPsych explains, designers may even draw on optical illusions to create clothes that help elongate the body or emphasize flattering aspects of a person’s figure.

So if fashion follows science, does science follow fashion?

After all, we’ve all seen that certain “hot topics” in science often crop up that attract the attention of policy-makers, grant-giving bodies, journal editors and reviewers. And the work done in these areas tends to get more funding, publications and attention than that in less “fashionable” ones.

The advantages of channelling resources into trendy areas is that it allows us to rapidly develop technology in strategically important areas and to realize a quick potential return to taxpayers, investors, industry and the public. With limited funding resources, it is essential to have a method of prioritizing.

On the other hand, some areas can get over-funded at the expense of other deserving options. Trendy science can cause us to neglect promising potential developments and restrict creativity and diversity in thought.

Science is frustratingly enigmatic: We can't always predict which seemingly obscure development or outlandish piece of research will lead to a fantastic new technology or product that changes our lives. Nor can we be sure that the hot area that many work on will deliver the goods on schedule.

This fickle quality is what makes science so exciting to work in. You can’t really know what the work of today will create for tomorrow.

Take photonics for example. It has many applications and is often thought of as an enabling technology. In my view, the current trend is largely to focus on experimental work. Theoretical ideas are sometimes regarded with a jaundiced eye in the peer review process: If you can't or haven’t fabricated a prototype or demonstrated your predictions, reviewers and editors cannot be easily convinced about the potential of the idea.

But look at how the laser came to be. The principle behind this transformative technology was published years before the first prototype was demonstrated. Today lasers are everywhere: in our printers, DVD reader/writers, medical equipment, industrial equipment. It is nice to see that Charles Townes, whose early work led to the laser, was recently recognized for taking risks when he received a “Golden Goose award,” which was intended to highlight how federally funded research that once seemed pointless can ultimately transform society.

Would this wonderful idea have survived the peer review of today?

Another example is that of left-handed or negative index materials. The concept of a negative refractive index was predicted by Veselago in the 1960s when no experimental verification of the concept was possible: Fabrication was not feasible with the technology of the day, and no known examples existed in the natural world.

Yet the work was published. Moreover, since the 1990s, it has led to a huge research effort globally. By now, everyone has heard of metamaterials! Whether these exotic materials will give us the breakthroughs that researchers expect remains to be seen.

And so I feel we need to encourage a more balanced perspective—and resource allocation—and not lean too heavily in any one direction, lest we ignore incredible ideas that can transform science.

Arti Agrawal (arti_agrawal@hotmail.com) is a lecturer at City University London in the School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences. To follow her personal blog, visit http://artiagrawal.wordpress.com.

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Peer Review 101: Building your Reputation as a Journal Reviewer

8. April 2012

by Carlos López-Mariscal and Julio Gutierrez-Vega

As a young scientist, when you publish your first papers in prestigious peer-reviewed journals, you announce your presence to the scientific community. In this way, you are in the process of becoming a recognized expert of your field. Eventually, you will also receive requests from journal editors to review manuscripts submitted by other scientists. These invitations are both a privilege and a responsibility.

Taking part in the review process is critical to developing a scientific career. It helps you build relationships with journal editors; it improves your critical thinking abilities; it gives you a better understanding of the state of the art in your field; and it enhances your writing skills so you can better present your scientific ideas. In addition, good reviewing is recognized and rewarded by colleagues and scientific societies.

As you start reviewing others’ work, the fundamental principle to keep in mind is the notion of reciprocity. Follow this golden rule: You should review a manuscript in the same way that you would want your manuscript to be reviewed. Here are some other best practices to keep in mind:

Respond promptly to requests. This is quite important—whether or not you accept the invitation to review. One of the worst things you could do is ignore a request for review, along with accepting it and then not honoring the request. If you are unable or unwilling to accept, it only takes a couple of minutes to notify the editor of your decision. The editor will appreciate it if you can suggest other potential reviewers.

Complete the review on time. This point is crucial to guarantee the timeline of the journal. It is unfair to authors (and editors) to be delayed by tardy reviewers. If you need extra time, contact the editor as soon as you can. Most are flexible and will agree to give you additional time in exchange for a good review.

Do not review a manuscript whose topic is unfamiliar to you. Stick to topics that you know well in order for your reviews to be the most credible and useful.

Enumerate your comments and suggestions. Again, think about how you would want someone to review your own paper. Organize your thoughts in a way that will be easy for someone to absorb and follow up on.

Read the journal’s review criteria. Make sure you spend time on the journal and/or publisher’s website so you understand what is expected of both authors and reviewers. This will help to ensure that your review is aligned with the publisher’s expectations.

Be specific. Indicate as precisely as you can what the problems are and how they may be overcome.

Focus on the science.Avoid effortless reviews that comment only on minor grammatical errors, typos or language problems. However, if a manuscript is written in language so poor that it is difficult to understand, point this out to the editor.

Follow up. If you are reviewing a revised manuscript, make sure the authors actually made the appropriate changes in the manuscript as recommended in the first review.

Be discreet and complete. Always maintain confidentiality and notify editors of any potential conflict of interest or suspicions of plagiarism that you may have.

If you are interested in reviewing, let your academic advisor know. He or she probably gets requests regularly and will be grateful for your initiative. You can also contact the topical editors of the journals you have published in—or introduce yourself to them at a conference. Researchers are often invited to review manuscripts as a direct result of their own published work.

Good reviewers are not as easy to come across as you might think, so don’t be shy. Take the initiative and get involved.

Carlos López-Mariscal and Julio Gutierrez-Vega are both experienced reviewers and members of the Optics & Photonics News Editorial Advisory Committee. Gutierrez-Vega is also an associate editor for OSA’s peer-reviewed open-access journal Optics Express.  

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How Scientists Can Build Better Websites

29. March 2012

Marc J. Kuchner

Have you ever wondered what your colleagues think of your website? I have. I know from experience that our colleagues judge us partly by our presence on the Web. Hiring committees often search online to learn more about job candidates, and review panels use our sites to help decide whether to fund us. 

An experiment
I did an experiment to learn more about what our colleagues look for in a website. I organize a Facebook group called “Marketing for Scientists,” where scientists, engineers, and other interested professionals discuss issues related to science communication, science advocacy and careers. I suggested that we take turns critiquing each other's websites. Altogether, 26 colleagues volunteered.

I asked each volunteer to review three URLs. I instructed them to play with each site for 30 seconds or a minute and then write a few sentences about what they liked and didn’t like. I asked them to address the following questions:

• What impression does the site give about the person who made it? 
• Does the site make you want to find a way to work with him/her?
• How could the site be improved?

The volunteers were a mix of faculty and postdocs, with a few science communication professionals thrown in. Soon my inbox was flooded with critiques that offered a wealth of advice and some real surprises. Here are the major lessons I learned. 

Include the basics. First, I heard a cry for more basic information. Andras Paszternak, a chemist at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the founder of The International NanoScience Community social network, said in a review, “place a direct contact address (email) on main page.”  In today's world of social networking, it's easy to forget about good old email.

Add video and graphics with captions. Next, there was a demand for images and video. “I would supplement your homepage with more graphical things,” said Robert Vanderbei, chair of the department of operations research and financial engineering at Princeton University. “Please use some color and/or pictures,” said Stella Kafka from the Carnegie Institute of Washington, department of terrestrial magnetism.

Although many of us recognize the importance of images, we often forget to add captions.  These photos are important to us, but they are unidentifiable to the people who visit our sites. “Nice photo.  Is it decoration? Art? Should it have a caption? Are we supposed to guess what it is?” asked Nancy Morrison, professor emerita of Astronomy at the University of Toledo.  I heard that sentiment several times.

Be passionate. One element that multiple reviewers mentioned caught me by surprise. If I could summarize it in a word, it would be passion.

“Maybe the homepage could include your personal motivation,” suggested Phil Yock, professor in the department of physics at the University of Aukland.  “I really like to know what scientists are passionate about, so I’d love to see a short write-up of what fascinates you the most about the universe,” said Emilie Lorditch, the news director and manager at the American Institute of Physics.

Share materials. The reviewers also expressed a desire for generosity. “I was impressed that you offer PowerPoint slides, poster presentations and data from your papers—It's generous and collaborative and makes me want to follow your example,” commented Yale astronomy professor Debra Fischer about one site. Sharing was not a value that was emphasized when I was in graduate school, but science has evolved since then. In today’s collaborative environment, it is a sought-after trait.

Next time I’m up late tweaking my website, I’ll know just what to post: full contact information with email address up top; video and pictures with descriptive captions; a passionate description of my research; and generous freebies that my colleagues can download.

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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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.

 

Academic careers, Career, Job Search, Nontraditional science careers, Ph.D. Perspectives, Small business and entrepreneurs, Women in Science , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Professional Etiquette for Scientists

2. February 2011

By Alaina G. Levine

Sometimes we are inclined to argue that our skills, talents and reputation alone will secure us advancement opportunities in the fields of science and engineering. But here’s a truth that your scientific advisor may not have mentioned: Manners matter too.

Being professional means demonstrating that you are serious about your craft. Having good manners and proper business etiquette for all occasions promotes and amplifies your level of professionalism—in optics or any other field. Here are a few tips to ensure that you are always perceived as a professional, intelligent, hard-working, respected, talented scientist or engineer:

Make a good first impression. When you first meet someone, introduce yourself, shake the person’s hand, look them in the eyes, smile, and say their name back to them (so they know you are listening and that you pronounced their moniker correctly). The hand shake should employ two pumps, up and down, and then conclude.

Demonstrate keen communications acuity. Whether you are networking, participating in a job interview, or giving a seminar, it’s important to express great respect for the people with whom you are conversing. If you are having a one-on-one conversation at a mixer, don’t interrupt or over-talk the person. In fact, you should strive to listen approximately 80 percent of the time and speak only 20 percent. Maintain eye contact. Have business cards ready and don’t be afraid to ask for those of others. And when your meeting concludes, excuse yourself appropriately and bid them farewell—don’t just walk away.

Honor your audience. When giving a speech—whether to 1 or 100—acknowledge the audience and thank them for their time. Speak slowly and project your voice. When someone publicly asks a question, express gratitude for the inquiry, repeat it (in case it wasn’t heard by others) and do your best to answer. If you don’t know the answer, say so, and offer to pursue it further at a later time. Never insult the question or embarrass the questioner.

Sport the right uniform. You send a critical message with your garments, even in lab-based fields such as science and engineering, and you want it to be one of professionalism. So if you are interviewing or participating in an important meeting that could lead to a job or a fellowship, I recommend dressing a few notches better than you (and your colleagues) normally would in the lab.

For industry meetings, a suit is usually your best bet. For get-togethers in academic or national laboratory settings, you’ll likely do fine with a nice pair of chinos, sport coat and button-down shirt for men, and a conservative skirt or dress pants with a nice shirt and jacket for women.

Understand the culture. Whether you are in the United States, Japan or Qatar, it is crucial to know and master the cultural nuances that dictate how business is conducted. For example, in Asian cultures, when dining with chop sticks, never thrust the sticks vertically into a bowl of rice, because this rather severe visual brings to mind funerary practices—no need to bring death to the table! Similarly, in the Middle East, a formal negotiation doesn’t officially begin until you and the other party have sat and relaxed for a while, often over tea. And never sit with the souls of your feet facing another individual. Of course academia and industry have their own cultural norms as well, so wherever you are, research and implement the proper and professional etiquette that can lead to scientific success.

Portions of this article first appeared in InsideHigherEd.com.

Alaina G. Levine is an internationally known career development consultant for scientists and engineers and a science writer. She can be reached through her website at www.alainalevine.com.

Portions of this article first appeared in InsideHigherEd.com. Copyright, 2011, Alaina G. Levine.

 

 

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Launching Your Consulting Career

13. January 2011

by Jennifer Kruschwitz

In a previous post, Jennifer Kruschwitz helps optics professionals to determine if consulting is the right career path for them. Here she provides advice for how to start your business once you’ve decided to make the leap into the consulting world.

You’ve made the decision: You want to be a consultant. If the opportunity to do a little “pre-launch” planning is available, the first thing to do is pay off any accumulated debt. It is often said that consultants make large amounts of money. That might sometimes be true, but the money often comes in waves. There may be times you are so busy that the money seems to be rolling in, but these may be followed by periods when it’s a struggle to find work.

Start from a strong financial position. Be sure that you have a financial safety net in place for the lean times. When things are going well, you should always be prepared to contribute a significant percentage of your earnings to your safety net.

Get your paperwork in order. You’ll need brochures to describe your abilities, invoices, business cards and letterhead. Stick to a budget: flashy items are expensive, so keep everything simple.

Learn to be a legal eagle. You will need a good understanding of contracts, nondisclosure agreements, and so forth. If you can acquire legal counsel before launch, get acquainted with key aspects of intellectual property and ownership law. Most contracts are very specific in that the customer retains rights to all of the IP that comes out of the consulting agreement. Make sure that the confidentiality of any information provided to a customer will not stop you from being able to work for other clients.

Determine your rates. Establishing an hourly fee is not as straightforward as you might think. One way to determine a ballpark rate is to take the amount of money you would like to earn in a year and divide it by the number of hours you plan to work. Or you could take the hourly rate currently being paid by an employer and multiply that number by two or three. Make sure your rate includes business costs as well as salary. These costs can include health care, life insurance, retirement, business overhead, legal and accounting fees and self-employment taxes. Whichever way you calculate your “worth” as a consultant, here are a few things to keep in mind:

• Research consulting rates for your field. Know what rate will allow you to maintain a competitive edge.

• Be ready to justify your rates. If you are an expert, your rates should reflect that expertise. It has been observed that consultants who charge too little for their services are not taken as seriously by clients.

• Be flexible and know your market. There may be times when, to win a job, you need to change your rates to meet the range specified in a given proposal.

Don’t forget the IRS. Keep your financial records well organized. Open a separate checking account for the business—it makes it easier to keep track of your earnings—and pay yourself from that account. Keep all receipts related to business activities (i.e., parking, tolls, travel, supplies) in a central location and, if you can, enter them in a database. If the business is run from the home, save utility bills, phone bills and so forth. There are specific requirements governing the deductibility of expenses incurred by home-based businesses, and the consultant needs to be aware of them.

It’s a good idea to have a tax advisor available to get things up and running. The Web site HRBlock.com has helpful tips for the self-employed. There will be self-employment taxes to consider in addition to income taxes. Estimated taxes on your consulting income must be paid quarterly to the federal and your state government. There are heavy penalties associated with not paying quarterly taxes on time and in the proper amount. Organized recordkeeping and timely tax payments will make tax time a relatively painless experience.

Consultants are a fundamental component of today’s business marketplace, but consulting is not for everyone. Once you decide to start a consulting business, there’s no doubt there will be challenges ahead. The ways in which those challenges are met and overcome determine the ultimate success of the consultant.

Jennifer D.T. Kruschwitz is an OSA member and senior optical coating design engineer at her own company, J.K. Consulting, Rochester, N.Y., U.S.A.

 

Consulting, Profiles, Small business and entrepreneurs, Women in Science , , , , , , , , ,

Is Consulting Your Calling?

3. December 2010

By Jennifer D.T. Kruschwitz

The Webster’s Dictionary definition of a consultant is “one who gives expert or professional advice.” An individual looking to make a career out of consulting would probably change the definition to “one who gives expert or professional advice to a customer for a fee.” People choose careers in consulting for many reasons. Some have made becoming a consultant a personal goal. The recently retired may want to continue on in business outside the confines of a 9-to-5 job.
 
Some people are seeking a way to transition out of a conventional job that no longer satisfies them. Others look to consulting when changes in family life make a more flexible work schedule necessary. Whatever the reason, before starting out it’s important that one know how to make the transition into self-employment and how to qualify oneself as a consultant.
 
Many books have been written on the topic of consulting as a career. Two that I believe give helpful insights are The Overnight Consultant, by Marsha D. Lewin, and The Scientist As Consultant, by Carl J. Sindermann and Thomas K. Sawyer. Both books qualify the successful consultant as an expert in his or her field.
 
The necessary expertise can be attained by extensive academic study and work, including graduate degrees, post-doctorate studies and professorships, and/or by time spent working and doing research in a particular field.
 
But expertise in your field is only part of the recipe for success. Sindermann points out that for the scientific consultant, networking, marketing and running a business are equally important areas, in which scientists may have shortcomings. Here is a quick checklist to consider before diving head first into consulting:
 
Do you like to work with people? The best way to maintain a healthy business is by networking. Maintaining personal relationships with colleagues, customers and potential clients is an important part of a successful consulting business.
 
Are you self-motivated? As a consultant, there will be times when you will have to initiate activities that may not strike you as being particularly exciting. For examples, you may be involved in a project that isn’t challenging or making phone calls to potential clients.
 
Can you communicate and translate your craft to those outside your field? A consultant often has to make presentations or prepare proposals or reports for customers who have no background in his or her science. Consultants who can articulate their work to people of any academic level will be the most successful.
 
Are you prepared to multitask? The self-employed are not only the presidents of their own businesses, they are also in charge of administration, information technology, Web design, advertising, sales, marketing and janitorial duties. A successful consultant can wear many different hats simultaneously and still be productive.

Jennifer D.T. Kruschwitz is an OSA member and senior optical coating design engineer at her own company, J.K. Consulting, Rochester, N.Y., U.S.A.

 

Career, Consulting, Job Search, Nontraditional science careers, Small business and entrepreneurs, Women in Science , , , , , , , , ,

From Science to Policy: New OSA/SPIE Congressional Fellow Shares Early Lessons

12. November 2010

By Marcius Extavour

After a busy day at the office last Monday, I settled in for a long night of poll-watching and punditry. As I scanned the Web for ballot results, comments and analysis about the U.S. mid-term election, I realized that, more than ever, I have a real professional stake in the results. Regardless of the exact political outcome, the nature of my job in energy policy with the United States Senate will certainly be affected.

I am only a few months into my term as an OSA/SPIE Guenther Congressional Science and Technology Fellow on Capitol Hill, but I have already learned a great deal about the nexus of science, technology, policy and politics. I am spending my fellowship year in the majority staff office of the Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources. This committee’s main function is to write, review and research legislation within the broad scope of energy policy, minerals and natural resources, public lands and parks.

My day-to-day work includes writing memos; summarizing technical and policy issues for the Chairman and other committee members; planning and organizing committee hearings related to emergent issues or pending legislation; and meeting with subject matter experts from academia, industry, government, and other stakeholder groups to ask questions and hear public concerns.

I have learned a few valuable lessons the hard way, even on the first few weeks on the job. Mostly, it’s been about shifting from the priorities of a laboratory scientist to the priorities of an active policy staffer. Here are a few lessons I’ve taken away from my experience so far. 

Get to the point. Concision is a virtue; verbosity a vice. Many of my assignments consist of summarizing complex technical material or policy history for a Senator or their staff--in one page or in a few bullet points! There is a tremendous appetite for accuracy and detail, but little tolerance for expansive treatises, no matter how eloquent.

Deadlines matter. In my academic career, a deadline could be sacrificed in the name of accuracy, improved analysis or added nuance; the focus was on producing the best product, even if it was delivered a bit late. Around Capitol Hill, timing is everything, and late material quickly becomes irrelevant. Accuracy and speed are both prized and expected.

Networking is key. A network is a group of trusted colleagues who can be counted on to give good advice in a pinch. As a new Fellow, this has meant introducing myself and my skills broadly to colleagues, and then finding out how we can work together. Career-wise, it has meant approaching people whom I admire and respect, and asking them how they got to where they are. I’ve found that most people who are good at what they do and who enjoy their work love talking about it!

With the national campaigns over and done with, policy discussions will likely intensify as electoral politics and strategy retreat. I hope that developing new skills will serve me well as I work with colleagues to advance the conversation on issues related to science, technology and especially energy policy.

Marcius Extavour, most recently a quantitative risk analyst at Ontario Power Generation, is currently serving on Capitol Hill as the OSA/SPIE Arthur H. Guenther Congressional Science and Engineering Fellow.

 

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