Reflecting on Career/Life Balance

11. June 2012

Jannick Rolland

For many of us, work provides a way to contribute to society, and it is often a significant component of our lives. Unfortunately, it has become increasingly difficult to keep up with the demands of a career in today’s highly competitive landscape. Working in academia, for example, requires one to have the skills of running a small business. Besides teaching and serving our universities and professional societies, we must seek funding and support our graduate students.

At the same time, many of us are also charged with the demands of raising a family or caring for elderly loved ones. As our lifestyles become more complex, all of us—whether men or women—must develop strategies to balance our career with our personal lives. As a single parent of two for part of my journey, I have had to forge my own path.

For me, the most challenging aspect of being a working parent is the travel required to be successful on the job. These days, the option to seek help from a family member is not always there. I chose early on to explore a different model for pursuing my career in science and raising happy and successful children. I wanted my children to develop as happy, creative, independent and successful human beings regardless of their less-than-optimal circumstances at that point in time. 

Sacrificing my professional work to cook dinner and tuck them into bed every night was not realistic, and it was not the best way for me to meet my goals for them or me. I gave up on being “the perfect parent” and instead developed alternative ways of supporting my children—by raising them in an environment in which they could engage with a large pool of adults whom I trusted.

I believe that a family is happiest when each member of it is engaged in the activities that fulfill them the most. Both parents and children are most likely to thrive in an environment that is not only nurturing but stimulating.    

Giving children the chance to interact with people from diverse cultures is of tremendous value. As a scientist, I work with young professionals who are often single or who have limited social lives, particularly if they are working in a country far from their original home. These young professionals are typically more than happy to engage outside the work environment.

My children built relationships with many of my colleagues and students, who became part of our family. I think that is why my older son chose to visit a mosque with a Muslim graduate student at age 14 and why he decided to spend the summer in Seoul, South Korea, at 19 after having developed a strong friendship with one of my Korean students.

Another way I balanced my life and career was by making sure that I deeply connected with family in spite of our time-challenged lives away from my native home of France. In our case, this meant spending some summers abroad, with the goal of helping the children become bilingual. I thought that, by learning French, they could develop their family ties, better understand diversity, and learn to adapt to change. In addition to summers abroad, I took a full-year sabbatical in France when they turned 9 and 11. I conducted science while also connecting with family. 

While it was surely challenging for the children to spend a year away from home, it turned out to be a wonderful experience for them, and they are both thanking me for it today. They developed enduring friendships, and they are both fluent in French. 

Balance isn’t about counting the hours spent at home vs. work; it is about the value we create when we are faced with challenges. What will leave a positive long-term imprint on our children’s minds and their attitudes towards life? 

These days, balance comes a bit easier. In 2009, I remarried my dream partner, and I try to live every day to the fullest. Engineering and science are my passions, but I also like sharing dinners and conversing with friends from all walks of life. And I dearly love laughing with my children. This is my new balance.  

Jannick Rolland (rolland.jannick@gmail.com) is the Brian J. Thompson professor of optical engineering at the Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester, N.Y., U.S.A.

 

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Uncovering Hidden Biases in Optics

17. May 2012

Elsa Garmire

In my experience, hidden biases—the stereotypes that we are not even aware that we harbor—can be more damaging to women and minority scientists than overt prejudice. How do you fight what you cannot see, even within yourself? Here are some tips for uncovering and addressing hidden biases within yourself and others. My advice is mostly targeted at individuals who are underrepresented in the sciences, but hopefully everyone can learn something from it.

Become aware of hidden biases. Everyone harbors them; there’s no reason to beat yourself up over it. Whenever we encounter a situation that doesn’t conform to our expectations, it is natural to be surprised and perhaps even suspicious, until we can integrate it into our frame of reference. 

I’ve noticed hidden bias within myself when I write letters of recommendation. Unless I fight it, I unwittingly describe my female students differently than males.  I tend to write more about how “nice” the female student is and less about how “competent” she is.  To counter this, I carefully review all letters I write, making sure to provide a fair and comprehensive picture.

To start identifying your own hidden biases, ask yourself: In what ways do I react to those who look different?  Are my responses helpful or hindering?  When I am asked to nominate someone for an award or volunteer position, do I ever look beyond the obvious choices?

Talk to others in your situation. Once you have decided to enter a profession in which you will be in the minority, you’ll find that you’re now part of a new culture altogether—one that combines your profession and your minority status.  This is where professional societies that target minorities come into play—for example, the National Society of Black Physicists, the Society of Women Engineers and Minorities and Women in OSA (MWOSA). Becoming involved with other minorities through groups like MWOSA is important, particularly as you encounter these biases and struggle to understand them.

Make yourself stand out. Often we minorities find ourselves feeling neglected at conferences and events. When I was at the University of Southern California, I was invited to a black-tie dinner organized by our president.  Only members of the National Academy and their spouses were invited.  The president approached us, shook my husband’s hand and asked him what department he was in.  Being the gentleman he is, Bob gestured to me and said, “This is your member of the National Academy.”  Rather than turning to me, the president kept talking to my husband, saying, “Well, what do you do?”  He never did talk to me! 

As frustrating as that situation was, it’s important to remember that I was not powerless. I could have introduced myself to the President rather than waiting for him to act.  Over the years I’ve learned to identify myself as worthy of respect within a group by bringing up a subtle technical point and asking what others think of it.  I’m always careful in a talk to provide a bit of in-depth analysis to prove that I know what I’m talking about. 

Network, network, network.  Get involved in OSA professional activities.  Volunteer for committee work.  Your input is valuable because you offer a new point of view.  Your reticence is a loss to the profession.  Attend social functions and make it a point to meet new people.  I sought out authors of papers I respected, thereby building up a cadre of friends who knew me and my capabilities. 

While women and minorities have made vast inroads in many professions, there are still areas, such as in optics, where they are not catching up as quickly. I ask that all of us remain vigilant about overcoming our hidden stereotypes and biases. 

Elsa Garmire (elsa.garmire@dartmouth.edu) is the Sydney E. Junkins 1887 Professor of Engineering at Dartmouth College in Dartmouth, N.H., U.S.A. She was OSA’s president in 1993.

For more information about Elsa, visit her website.

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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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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.
 

 

Academic careers, Career, Graduate school, Job Search, Ph.D. Perspectives, Profiles, Women in Science , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

For Women Scientists, Career Advice from a Certified Genius

28. October 2010

By Patricia Daukantas

Women have made huge gains in their pursuit of higher education: More than 50 percent of today’s U.S. bachelor’s degree recipients are female. However, women are still not getting as many of the topmost positions in science as their male counterparts. Why?

According to OSA Fellow Michal Lipson, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Cornell University (U.S.A.), women must work to combat subtle forms of discrimination that may cause them to be overlooked or their work to be ignored. Lipson is a rising star in science, and she recently shared her experiences and advice with the Minorities and Women in OSA gathering at OSA’s annual meeting in Rochester, N.Y.

Last month, Lipson became one of two OSA members to win a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant for her work on silicon photonic circuits. She’s also a married mother of two and a tenured professor. Here's how she advises women who want to advance their scientific careers.

Be confident. Lipson said she cannot count the number of times that she and a male colleague got introduced to someone, and the person to whom they spoke addressed only the male colleague. The best way to combat this is with confidence. She advises: “When you are in a lecture, always sit in the front of the hall and ask a question.” Don’t be afraid to stand tall and give your opinion. “Remember that your career is just as important as anyone else’s,” she says.

Prioritize your career. One subtle form of discrimination is the notion that a woman’s career is always secondary to child-rearing. This message is pervasive. Even Lipson’s parents, who were the biggest supporters of her and her twin sister when they were growing up, told their daughters that they had to make an impact in their careers before they had children, “If I were male, they would never have said that,” she says. (Her twin sister is now an astrophysicist.)

But family and career need not be mutually exclusive. Make your career a priority by planning ahead and working with your partner to decide which roles each of you will take on, Lipson said. Often, men simply aren’t aware of work-and-family issues because they weren’t raised to think about them. However, by working together as a team, both partners can have fulfilling careers and family lives.

Lipson has strong family bonds with her husband, Hod Lipson, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Cornell, and their two sons, ages 6 and 13. The kids do well in school and they are extremely proud of their parents. They like to brag about Lipson’s MacArthur award to their classmates.

Keep your personal life personal. When Lipson—born in Israel, raised in Brazil and trained in Israel—first came to the United States as a postdoc, all the men in her department talked about their kids, while Lipson avoided mentioning hers. Her cover was blown one day when her 1-year-old got sick; her boss called her at home and heard crying in the background. The next day, he asked her, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Yes, it’s a double standard, but keeping your personal life personal may help women to avoid subtle forms of discrimination against working mothers.

Lay down your career path early. Despite all the advances in society, women are often the ones who follow their male partners when it comes to job relocation. Academic couples face a particularly daunting challenge known as the “two-body problem,” which refers to the difficulty of finding two viable tenure-track positions—often in different specialties—within the same geographical area. The longer a woman takes to “find herself,” the greater the chances that she may wind up following a spouse or partner who has already determined a career path. “It is critical for you to lay down your career path early, even if you change it later,” Lipson says.

Synchronize your job hunt with your partner’s. Lipson’s husband delayed his post-graduate-school job hunt for six months so that they could search together. If your partner is not in academia, you should still try to synchronize, Lipson says; schools are well aware of the need for spousal employment. 

Patricia Daukantas is a freelance writer specializing in optics and photonics. She holds a master’s degree in astronomy from the University of Maryland.

 

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A Conversation with Yanina Shevchenko

30. August 2010

By Kylee Coffman

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Yanina Shevchenko, Ph.D. student at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada and President of OSA’s Ottawa-Carleton Student Chapter. We discussed her research and her new career-focused column in Optics and Photonics News (OPN). Always active in the OSA community and busy balancing a million different projects, this female scientist is one to watch!

You are in your third year of a Ph.D. program at Carleton University, where you are working under supervisors Dr. Jacques Albert and Dr. Maria C. DeRosa. What is the focus of your research and what has been your biggest challenge?

My Ph.D. research has been very interdisciplinary from the moment it was started. I am working on developing surface plasmon resonance biosensors in the Advanced Photonics Components Lab at Carleton. In two projects that I am doing for my Ph.D., I have to apply a sensor platform for measuring different chemical and biological processes. For these particular projects, we have been collaborating with colleagues in the department of chemistry, and from the onset it has been challenging to form bridges into the worlds of chemistry and biochemistry because my background is primarily in photonics. Although this experience has been quite difficult, it has also been incredibly stimulating and interesting. I always wanted my research to be applied in the biomedical field, so I am very thankful that I had this project for my graduate research.

You received your bachelor’s degree in engineering and technology at Saint-Petersburg State University in Russia, the country where you grew up. Has it been difficult studying at universities in two different countries (Russia & Canada) with different science cultures?

Without a doubt, it was a very useful experience to study in two countries with very different educational systems. It was not particularly easy for me to adjust immediately from one system to the other, but it was an experience that has allowed me to develop a well-rounded education, and I would not exchange it for anything. There are obviously advantages and disadvantages in both systems, but the exposure to both can provide you with a very fresh perspective. Sometimes students hesitate to move to a different country in order to continue their education, especially if doing so requires them to learn a new language. I would suggest taking the risk because the advantages of traveling to a new country while starting work in a new field is definitely worth all the trouble.

What do you hope to accomplish after obtaining your Ph.D.? Do you think the current economic climate will have an impact on your degree and/or career opportunities?

If we look at the statistics, we can find that only 20-30% of Ph.D.s stay in academia as researchers, and less than 50% remain in the R&D sector. These are very strong numbers indicating that the majority of students will have to apply themselves somewhere else. During any scientific Ph.D. program, students have the opportunity to develop very strong analytical and problem-solving skills that are required by the nature of research itself; these abilities are key for finding employment in other fields. There are numerous examples of people going into industry (R&D and sales), starting their own businesses, and positioning themselves in consulting and science communication roles. I have not completely decided what I am going to do. I know that I enjoy the intellectual challenge of doing research, and I hope that, after my Ph.D. studies are completed, I will continue to be driven by the challenge.

You have been such a voice and friend to so many students in the OSA community. Over the past few years, you’ve served as President to the Ottawa-Carleton Student Chapter of the OSA. How did you first hear about OSA student chapters? What is your secret to sustaining it for so many years?

I first heard about OSA chapters during my undergraduate studies in Saint-Petersburg, and I thought it would be great to get involved, given the opportunities that OSA provides to members of the student chapters. When I started graduate studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, I saw that the Ottawa-Carleton Chapter was looking for new executive board members, and I decided to take that chance.

I think that student involvement with OSA chapters is beneficial in many ways, but mainly it provides the opportunity to meet with peers and discuss research in an informal atmosphere. To sustain an active chapter, it is important to have members who have a sincere interest in being involved, while also ensuring that the group environment is welcoming to all, and that the topics discussed are relevant to the student’s research.

My involvement with OSA over the last three years has exceeded all of my expectations. I have participated in and helped organize several conferences-which in turn helped me to grow as a researcher. By taking part in the activities organized by OSA, I have had the chance to get involved in the Young Professionals program and have since started working on the ‘Career Focus” column in OPN. Last but not least, I have met numerous students from different countries, many of whom have become very good friends. Overall, I would definitely recommend the student chapter experience to anyone who has an opportunity to be involved in one.

That’s very exciting news about your column in Optics and Photonics News (OPN)! Can you please tell us more about the focus of this new career-focused column?

This is a very exciting project that was started earlier this year. After speaking with several students at the OSA Leadership meeting last October about possible career prospects for recent Ph.D.s, I learned that Optics and Photonics News magazine was starting a new initiative aimed at exploring various career-related issues. The main idea was to create a column in OPN that would be of interest to Ph.D.s, postdoctoral fellows and everyone else who is interested in further career development.

The column will focus on different career options for professionals with science and engineering backgrounds, internships, interview tips and the use of social media tools for job searches. I plan to finish my Ph.D. next year, and my work on the column in this context has been undoubtedly useful in terms of identifying new career prospects and speaking with people who chose different career paths. The first column appears in the July/August issue of OPN, so be sure to check it out. I encourage anyone who has an interest to become involved by contributing an article, raising points for discussion, or starting their own blog on OPN’s website. I find the OPN editorial advisory committee and staff to be exceptionally welcoming of new ideas, and this is a great way to become engaged with the OSA community.

You are also the founder and vice president of the Women in Leadership Foundation Club at Carleton University, which you started in 2008. What is the main mission of this group? Being in a younger generation of scientists, do you see a change in the traditionally male-dominated field of science? Do you have suggestions for how female scientists can support each other’s career and development?

My experience with the Women in Leadership club was very good; it helped me meet with students from other departments, and that in turn allowed me to understand the gender issues occurring in other areas of study. Disregarding the field of study, it became immediately apparent that all fields need more role models, mentors and support networks. I think it is important to have someone who not only inspires you, but who also helps to shape your future career path. Currently there are considerable changes occurring in the field of science, and women in graduate and postdoctoral studies are part of this recent push for change. Although there has been quite a lot of progress on this issue, there are still so many outstanding issues that need to be addressed, such as the salary gap between male and female colleagues (which is characteristic to many fields), and, more important, understanding that women usually take on the biggest part of the household load at home.

Amazingly enough, during your many years of studying, research, and volunteering, you’ve also managed to develop so many hobbies like yoga and your art school studies. You must be a master at time management. What is your advice for balancing one’s professional and personal life? Do you have any new interests you’d like to share?

I wish I could say I am very good at time management, but I think this is where I definitely could learn more from someone else. Through my graduate study experience, I came to the realization that time management is one of the most useful skills that graduate students can learn and utilize while at school. I think the key is to prioritize and always try to improve upon your existing skills. I also noticed that, if you work on something that you find very interesting, you will exceed your own expectations and will always find extra hours to complete the project.

You’re an active presence on social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, GroupSite, and LinkedIn. Have you found technology to be a useful tool for connecting to other scientists? Who are your favorites to follow on Twitter?

Very often people ask, “So, what is in it for me? What can I get from spending time on these social networks?” It definitely takes time to sustain your presence on all social media websites and the benefits of being there can seem somewhat subtle. One of the main reasons why I use them is that they enable me to connect with like-minded people around the world. In general, one’s circle is limited to people from the same school, to colleagues, to people living in the same city and maybe to people attending the same conferences. With the help of social media, you can go beyond your already established network and meet people who you would not normally meet or approach.

I really enjoy using all kinds of social media tools, but probably my favorites are LinkedIn and Twitter. On Twitter, I mostly follow OSA tweeple, some of the personal branding experts and various science news outlets. I would definitely recommend that people at least try social networks; it can be a lot of fun and lead to unthinkable opportunities.

A few of Yanina’s Favorite Follows on Twitter: @Brandyourself, @Scientist Coach, @PolymerPhD, @OSASC, @kikilitalien, @MsEditor, @KyleeCoffman, @keithferrazzi, @MacleansMag, @PostDocsForum 

Kylee Coffman (kcoffm@osa.org) is OSA's Education and Membership Specialist.

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