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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Postdoc Perspectives: Looking Back on My Year in France

3. February 2012

by Elena Silaeva

I got the idea the first time I traveled abroad to attend an international scientific conference. Wouldn’t it be exciting to do a posdoc abroad?

It was an ongoing dream during my doctoral research, and I actively networked throughout my studies. However, when my thesis defense came around, no one was clamoring to welcome me into his or her lab. Like many of you, I faced the inevitability of having to write 100 emails to lab managers in the hopes of getting at least one positive answer. (I knew the sad statistics from the experience of my peers.)

Then I got lucky: One of my colleagues forwarded me an email announcing a postdoc position in Saint Etienne, France. I sent my CV immediately. Quite soon, I received a couple of emails back with relevant questions about my thesis and abilities. My future employer also asked my colleague about my work during a conference. In the end I received an offer, which I was very happy to accept. The following are my reflections on the experience as well as my advice to others who are looking to pursue a postdoc abroad.

Prepare for paperwork. For the two months before starting my contract in France, I had to get all the paperwork in order. The bureaucracy is very strong there. I was not shocked because it can be worse in Russia. However, for someone who is accustomed to a neat and quick process, such as in the United States or Germany, it can be daunting. If you are considering a foreign postdoc, make sure you understand which documents you will need and build in enough time to deliver the required information.

I was asked to provide some documents that don’t even exist in my country. For example, I had to get a medical certificate in Moscow … from a French doctor! I also had to track down my birth certificate, which I had not used since I was 16 years old. Fortunately, I found it at my parents’ home.

Learn the language. Another important thing to consider in any foreign position is the language barrier. My future supervisor advised me to learn some French before arriving in the country. I took a short intensive course that proved to be very helpful. In France, most people don’t speak English. I had to speak French to the administration of the University, in the bank, and in order to rent an apartment. In the lab, it was easier: Everybody knew English, although they preferred to speak French.

In general, it was easy to get to know people and become part of the lab. Everyone was very friendly. Every morning there was an all-lab coffee break, and my lab mates and I went to lunch together as well. Our most important decisions were made over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.

Test your limits. My postdoc brought with it a new level of responsibility. Since my research is related to numerical simulations, the way that I worked—in an office, on a computer—was not very different in the two countries. However, the subject of my research changed a lot. My thesis was devoted to nonlinear optics and laser pulse propagation, whereas my postdoc project was about material science and laser-matter interaction. The particular problem I was studying was new to the lab, with only one postdoc (me) responsible for its solution. Since my supervisor was busy coordinating many other projects and applying for new ones, I was largely on my own. I even had to install the necessary software on my computer. This was very different than my doctoral research, which was a continuation of earlier work and for which I received a large degree of guidance from my advisor.

Starting from almost zero was scary. I was expected to get results and have papers published by the end of the year. I worked hard and accomplished more than I thought I was capable of. I acquired new skills and knowledge. At the end of the project, I was offered the opportunity to continue working on the same subject in another French lab.

This year was very exciting and unforgettable. In addition to my professional achievements and growth, I took advantage of the wonderful French culture, great cuisine and beautiful mountains. And now I speak French.

Elena Silaeva (elena.silaeva@gmail.com) is a postdoctoral researcher in the University of Rouen, Materials Physics Group, France.

 

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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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ONE Event, Three Perspectives on Optics Startups

24. October 2011

By Christina Folz

At last week’s Frontiers in Optics meeting, I attended the first meeting of OSA’s Network of Entrepreneurs (ONE), a new group intended to connect optics students and young professionals with mentors who are scientist-entrepreneurs.

This post shares advice that was given at the event on how to jump into the startup world. The speakers included Greg Quarles, president and chief operating officer of B.E. Meyers; Michelle Holoubek, director in the electronics group at the intellectual property law firm Sterne, Kessler, Goldstein & Fox; and Tom Baer, executive director of the Stanford Photonics Research Center at Stanford University, cofounder of Arcturus Bioscience Inc. and 2009 OSA President.

Like a startup, ONE is still in development. Its organizers, including Bright Futures bloggers Brooke Hester and Danny Rogers along with Armand Niederberger of Stanford, are seeking volunteers to grow the program. Please contact Brooke, Danny or Armand if you are interested in joining this new community.

Greg Quarles: How to Act Like an Entrepreneur

Have clarity. Know why you do what you do. Successful entrepreneurs have a purpose, cause or belief that exists above and beyond the products or services they sell.

Have discipline. You must understand not only what product or service you plan to offer but how you intend to do it. Business owners cannot simply demand that their team “make it so,” in the fashion of Captain Jean Luc Picard on Star Trek. They must hold themselves and their teams accountable to a defined set of guiding principles or values.

Be consistent. Everything you do and say must prove what you believe. In this sense, YOU are the product—a critical part of your own brand. The product should reflect your core values, and you should adopt a winning attitude in all areas of developing your business. If you don’t believe in what you’re doing, how can others?

Michelle Holoubeck: Why Intellectual Property Matters
Intellectual property (IP) includes trade secrets, patents, copyrights and trademarks. Every fledgling entrepreneur should learn the fundamentals of IP to protect their growing business because it enables you to:

Guard your ideas and establish a competitive edge. IP is the only way that small companies can contend with larger ones on an otherwise skewed playing field. For example, when Microsoft was shown to have used XML technology that was patented by the small company i4i in one of its product releases, the software giant was ordered to pay i4i to the tune of several hundred million dollars.

Promote investments. Because funders want to protect their investments, they are unlikely to finance startups that have not developed IP safeguards.

Encourage disclosure of new ideas. Sharing exactly how a company’s products or processes work in a patent helps to drive further innovation in the marketplace, and it enables businesses and consumers to easily distinguish among different products and services.

Also keep in mind:
• Publically disclosing your invention—by describing it at a conference, for example—before filing a patent application may limit your ability to protect your invention.

• If you disclose some of your invention, you must disclose it all. You can’t keep the best components a secret.

• You don’t have to actually make an invention to patent it; you just have to describe how you would make it.

• Not everyone who works on a product is an inventor. Incorrectly attributing inventorship to someone who did not play a real role can damage your patent.

Tom Baer: Know your Market First
Contrary to popular belief, a product idea is not required to start a successful company. Here’s the process that worked for Tom:

Identify a market. A couple years ago, Tom worked with a team to develop the Stanford spinoff Auxogyn—without a specific product idea in mind. Instead, the team started by targeting the area of assisted reproduction, a market that is growing by about 20 percent per year, with about 1 in 6 couples facing infertility.

Look for people who can build your company. For Auxogyn, this included a diverse group of medical doctors, developmental biologists, engineers, imaging experts and others. Look for those with the skills you lack.

Study the market. Talk with customers and assess other businesses in your niche. How do they work? What will give your company a differentiable edge?

Find and develop your idea. As you do your homework, your idea will emerge. Once it does, create product models to show your customers and incorporate their feedback into the next version. For its product, Auxogyn ultimately decided on imaging platforms that monitor the developmental process of embryos in an incubator—allowing for the selection of the healthiest ones for in vitro fertilization.

Delay financing as long as possible. Once you have the right ideas and the right market, you can find investors. If you fail, it’s better to fail early—before you’ve invested significant time and funding into product development and pilot production.

Christina Folz (cfolz@osa.org) is OPN’s editor and content director.

 

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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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IONS Helped Build my Career—and Many Friendships

16. June 2011

Zuleykhan Tomova
 
Organizing the IONS conference in Moscow had a tremendous impact on my global outlook—and my career. It contributed to my professional development by fostering skills in networking, project management, community building, fundraising and leadership. 
 
The International OSA Network of Students (IONS) is a close-knit community of students who are united in our passion for traveling, visiting different research centers, meeting new friends and experiencing new cultures. Started six years ago, the IONS project has grown into a global network that connects young optics researchers around the world.
 
By the time I attended my first IONS conference—IONS-5 in Barcelona, Spain, in 2009—I had heard a lot about this project. I expected to meet new people, listen to interesting talks, have fun, and return to Moscow (where I was studying at that time) full of new ideas.
 
But I didn’t fully realize that I would take part in such a dynamic exchange of information and be surrounded by very enthusiastic people from many different cultural backgrounds. Such deep impressions defined my long-term involvement with IONS and led me to organize a conference in Moscow.

Skills obtained, lessons learned
I chaired the organization of IONS-8, which took place in late June 2010 at Lomonosov Moscow State University and Bauman Moscow State Technical University, Moscow, Russia. Working with students from four Moscow and three international OSA/SPIE student chapters had an enormous effect on my professional development.
 
Looking back now, I cannot imagine any other activity that would have given me the same depth of experience or the same opportunity to sharpen professional skills such as networking, management and leadership.
 
The student chapter itself is a miniature model of a research group or company. The crucial skills that are essential for success include bringing an idea to life, marketing, recruiting people, managing teams, advertising and raising funds. Through IONS, students have a unique opportunity to develop these and other valuable proficiencies. While any student chapter activity contributes to students’ professional development, organizing an international conference is the most challenging: It has a high level of complexity and requires intensive planning. 
 
The biggest challenge in the IONS-8 organization process was building a strong team at the very beginning and distributing duties among people. Every student in our team concentrated on a specific area, such as sponsorship, preparing documents for the hosting universities, advertising, food arrangements, etc.
 
Together we discussed the general issues of the conference program or housing arrangements for students and keynote speakers. My work as a coordinator was best described by one of my friends: “The conference coordinator does nothing and everything.” Although there is a student responsible for every organizational area, the coordinator is involved in every part, helping to solve problems and tracking overall progress against the schedule.
 
It was essential for me to have the assistance of someone reliable in planning the conference. In my case it was Vladimir Lazarev, OSA/SPIE BMSTU chapter president. However, perhaps the most important lesson that I learned is that effective responses from a group of students require personal engagement; that is, if you want a quick response it is important to ask individuals by name.
 
The process
The first thing we did was settle on approximate days for the conference. IONS Moscow was longer than a typical IONS conference, lasting five days. We created the program and looked for resources to invite speakers for professional development and career networking sessions.
 
We collaborated with several Moscow and international chapters who generously offered their traveling lecturer grants. By working with the project team to find this additional funding, I helped to build fundraising skills that will be helpful in my scientific career.
 
Another useful experience was my work with industry partners on sponsoring the event. In the spirit of international collaboration, my co-organizers, Mena Issler from ETH Zurich, Switzerland, and Desire Whitmore from the University of California, Irvine, in the United States, contacted companies with a proposal to sponsor our conference. It was my first experience getting in touch with industry. Working with Desire and Mena on these proposals broadened my networking and grant-writing skills and showed me fundraising approaches used in different countries based on cultural backgrounds.
 
After setting the conference calendar, we concentrated on program highlights. In a typical IONS conference, the first couple days are comprised of presentations from students about their research and student chapter activities, lab tours, talks from keynote speakers and professors at the hosting institute, while the last day consists of social events and sightseeing. What really differentiates IONS from other conferences is its amazingly friendly atmosphere. We focused on creating this environment by scheduling many social events, such as a welcoming reception, coffee breaks, evening meetings and sightseeing each day.
 
Positive IONS
IONS organizers have the good fortune of interacting with past organizers who share their experience with the next generation through personal contact and via the IONS Guidebook—a brochure that contains advice and notes from all previous organizers. It is an amazing opportunity to learn from the collective experience of many students.
 
I consider networking with experienced IONS leaders and students outside of our organization committee members to be one of the most valuable experiences in broadening my horizons, and it had an immense influence on my personal growth. For me, IONS is much more than another research conference; it is the forum through which I have met many good friends.
 
Zuleykhan Tomova (
ztomova@umd.edu) is a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland, College Park, Md., U.S.A and International Coordinator of IONS Project.

 

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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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Postdoc Perspectives: My Experience Working Abroad

25. March 2011

By Elena Silaeva

One of the great advantages of having a Ph.D. is that it gives you the opportunity to work abroad. Compared to people in other professions, scientists seem able to work in another country fairly easily. When I was pursuing my thesis in my homeland of Russia, I often dreamed about taking a position in another country after I graduated.

This year, my dream came true. I have been in France for two months for a postdoc position in the laser-matter interaction group at the University of Saint-Etienne. I have already adapted to the local culture, regulations and climate. I have become accustomed to my everyday life and absorbed in my work.

Expectations vs. reality
Before I left Russia for France, I felt completely differently. My excitement about getting a job quickly gave way to anxiety—about everything from shifting to a new research topic, meeting and getting along with people, and communicating when I did not know the language. (Although there are people from all over the world in the lab where I work, most of them are fluent in French.)

Happily, my transition went much more smoothly than I had imagined. After I arrived in France, my panic quickly turned into euphoria: My exciting new life had begun. In the laboratory, my advisor and colleagues were all very friendly and welcoming. They showed me where everything was in the lab and clearly explained the objectives that I was expected to meet. I quickly made friends who have helped me to address all the challenges I have encountered as a foreigner. Although I have not been in my new position very long, I have already had an invaluable experience.

Science and scientists in France and Russia
Overall, I think that people from the scientific community are quite similar to one another, despite their differences in citizenship and nationalities. Thus, it has not been all that difficult for me to integrate into a new research group in another country.

At the same time, science in France is different from that in Russia. At Moscow State University, where I did my Ph.D., most of the work that was being done was fundamental in nature, and it moved at a rather slow pace. In France, however, I notice that researchers direct maximum effort into real applications—and that requires fast, dynamic work. I have also observed a big difference from the financial side. Academia gets more funding in France than in Russia. To be honest, this was also an important factor that I considered when I was choosing a position.

In France, my laboratory equipment is generally in better condition that it was in other universties where I have worked. That has opened up many more possibilities for realizing scientific ideas and achieving my goals.

The benefits of a “real job”
I have often thought of my Ph.D. studies as a stepping stone on the way to earning a degree and choosing a career. By contrast, my postdoc already feels like a “real job.” It is strange and at the same time exciting to realize that, after many years of studying, I am not a student anymore. Having some financial independence is also very satisfying.

Overall impressions
On the whole, I think that science is international. It does not matter much what country you come from or where you choose to do your work. The most important thing is that you choose your position wisely and that you have smart and supportive colleagues. I was very lucky.

Elena Silaeva (elena.silaeva@univ-st-etienne.fr) is a postdoc in the laboratory Hubert Curien at the University of Saint-Etienne, France. She is also a member of the editorial advisory committee for Optics & Photonics News.

 

Academic careers, International careers, Job Search, Ph.D. Perspectives, Postdocs, Women in Science , , , , , , , , , , ,

How to Have a Successful Academic Career in Science

10. March 2011

By Pablo Artal, OSA Fellow

OSA Fellow Pablo Artal has kindly allowed OPN’s Bright Futures career blog to republish content from his popular blog Optics Confidential. In his blog, Artal fields questions from students, colleagues and other researchers on science, society and managing a career in optics.

Dear Prof. Artal: After several years working as a post-doc, I have just obtained a tenure-track academic position. What advice do you have for someone who is looking to embark on a successful independent career as a scientist. --Helena, North Carolina, U.S.A.

You have to behave now as an independent researcher, and I am sure that you and your new institution have the highest expectations for you. First, I am glad that you consider me a successful researcher, or at least someone who can provide valuable information to achieve that goal. To be honest, I am not sure if my comments will be helpful; everyone needs to find his or her own path. But here is some general advice, much of which is common sense.

 Ask the right questions. You need to have your own interesting and new ideas and your own important questions to be explored and eventually answered. This is critical. At this point, you know your field and you have the basic technical abilities needed to ask good questions and hopefully obtain some answers. You can frame your questions at any time—in bed, at meetings, driving... Of course, you will have to organize them later, and that is the difficult part.

Work hard and manage your time wisely. I presume your plan is to dedicate your time to your research projects nearly without limit. Hard work and organizational skills are key factors. Be generous with your time and efforts. If you are also teaching, do the best you can, but try to limit your dedication to teaching to what is reasonable. Academic life also usually demands that you spend time in useless meetings. Be strict about setting limits and attending only what is important for you.

Of course, the most difficult balance to strike is between work and your family or personal life. Everyone must decide for themselves how to do this. But keep in mind that you cannot be in the lab the whole day and every single weekend—nor should you be. Learn to take time off, and don’t work on holidays.

You will need money. Writing good grant applications is difficult, and I will not cover that here, but, first and foremost, it requires having a good idea or solution to a problem.

Select your lab members wisely. The ability (or luck) to have the best lab members is extremely important. It is better to start working alone than to have mediocre and unmotivated students working for you. Hiring a problematic team member would affect your ability to succeed. Of course, it is very difficult to know that in advance—but start by always asking for references when talking to students—preferably from those who you trust in your field. I have been extremely lucky in this area.

You also need to make friends within the scientific community in which you are working. Try to collaborate more than you compete, and keep in mind that you will have contact with some of these people for many years into the future. Building and maintaining good personal relationships with other colleagues is critical.

Focus and finish. In the first years and perhaps always, the risk of spreading yourself too thin is quite high. Try to focus and to finish all of your experiments and projects before taking on others. It is natural to always want to explore new areas, but it is better to wait until your current projects are solid enough for you to report on. Writing and presenting at meetings is a good way to maintain your focus.

Balance exposure and modesty. You should actively participate in scientific events, but you should also try to balance your exposure with reasonable modesty. We always know less than we should, and there will always be somebody else who is better or smarter. Be sure that you never underestimate any of your audiences.

Quality over quantity. In the long term, the quality of your research will outweigh its quantity. Keep your own standards high. This will help you to establish a (good) reputation in the field. That will be your most important asset.

Enjoy yourself. Of course, this will not be possible every minute, but you need to have fun and enjoy what you do. Then you will be able to transfer this enthusiasm to others and engage them in your research.

Most of this advice should apply to all levels of scientists, from those in their early student days to well-recognized senior-level scientists. Although this is an incomplete list, I hope you find it somewhat useful. I wish you the best of luck!

Pablo Artal (Pablo@um.es) is an OSA Fellow and professor of optics at the University of Murcia, Spain. He is an optical and vision scientist with an interest in visual optics, optical instrumentation, adaptive optics, and biomedical optics and photonics.

 

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