Challenging Myths and Traditions in Scientific Communication

5. April 2012

By Jean-luc Doumont

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jean-luc Doumont ( 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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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 ( 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

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National Labs 101: What They Are, What They Offer

23. March 2012

Tyler S. Ralston 

So you are finishing your degree, and you need to decide what to do with your life. Some science grads simplify this into a decision between academia or industry. However, there is a third option—a national laboratory.

 In the United States, many national labs are federally funded research and development centers (FFRDC) that are operated and staffed by private corporations or academic universities under contract to the government. In several ways, these labs straddle the gap between academia and industry.

Broadening your professional pursuits
When Ph.D.s finish their degrees, they often feel they are so specialized that they have few options. Fortunately, in a national lab, there is room to expand and diversify. National labs generally have several thousand people with several groups working on projects. They have seminars that allow you to see what other projects are being developed around the lab. This is a great way to survey many projects and find new opportunities to apply your specialty.

Publish or patent?
While a national lab doesn't necessarily subscribe to the “publish or perish” adage from academia, there is value ascribed to publishing research articles (albeit sometimes classified ones). Similarly, patent writing skills are a valuable skill to have in a national lab. The onus is on you to complete the paper or patent while pushing forward your project's objectives.

Research and development
National labs differ from industry in that there are generally few projects with manufactured deliverable systems. The deliverables tend to be technical analysis, system research and development, and proof-of-concept prototypes.

The types of funding agencies can vary, but it's safe to say that a majority of the financial support comes from defense- and energy-related grants. In academia, on the other hand, funding derives from a variety of sources, both government and private. Having grant ideas to push forward the lab’s mission areas are important. For ideas that need preliminary investigation, there are generally opportunities within the labs to apply for internal funding.

For each funding cycle, the labs have a budget for laboratory-directed R&D, which is used to promote highly innovative and exploratory research that supports the lab’s mission. Generally, an advanced concepts committee reviews proposals and funds research that supports the strategic initiatives of the lab. Beyond this, other opportunities for funding include funds set aside for collaboration with associated campus laboratories.

Many FFRDCs operate by way of a technical meritocracy. That is, employees advance on the basis of their talent and achievements. For that reason, the first several months can be very critical in your career development; it's the time when you'll set the course for your career at the institution.

The more you can hit the ground running, the more opportunities you’ll have to demonstrate your skills and build achievements. It's important to find a mentor and a project so that you can see your contributions flower.

I was once given excellent advice that I will now pass on to you: Select the people and projects that best suit your vision of your career direction. National labs give you a unique opportunity to get a lay of the land entering a job. Don't be afraid to survey your appointment after a trial period and apply yourself within the groups that best suit your abilities.

Career roles
There are four main career roles at a national lab:

Technical Guru: a field expert who may be well renowned for publications, leadership, and participation in professional societies. He or she may bridge gaps between universities and the lab for collaborative research.

Capability Leader: This person is involved in lab review committees and programmatic strategic planning opportunities, which build the lab capabilities.

Program Developer: Someone who often responds to proposal calls. He or she has broad knowledge of the lab’s programs and the sponsors’ needs.

Project Manager: A specialist at organizing tasks and projects. This role involves managing finances, scheduling, and subject matter experts.

Any member of the lab staff may take on multiple roles throughout their career. A technical staff position is often thought of as secure and stable employment. In my opinion, a national lab is the best place to grow and learn skills rapidly.

Tyler Ralston ( has worked at Battelle Memorial institute, the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, MIT/LL and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He is currently partnered with an advanced technology startup.

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Using LinkedIn to Land a Job

15. March 2012

By Lauren Celano

This post is based on content that has already appeared on the Propel Careers website and It is reproduced here with the author’s kind permission.

In today's competitive marketplace, being able to differentiate yourself is critical. LinkedIn is a useful tool for branding yourself, showcasing your background, building connections and job searching. It's hard to imagine how people functioned without it. Many people have asked for my advice on how to best use LinkedIn to search for jobs. Here are some tips for maximizing the value of this tool.

Build out your profile. When creating your profile, think about who will be reading this information. Your profile should explicitly state who you are, what experience you have, and what skills you master. Potential employers will almost certainly review your LinkedIn profile. The more professional you can make it, the more attractive you become as a candidate. This shows that you are serious about your career and your personal brand.

Your profile should include additional information, such as lab techniques you know, presentations you have given at large conferences, publications you’ve contributed to, etc. Many companies and recruiters use LinkedIn to search for individuals with specific skills. If you have these in your profile, you increase the chance of being "found" by an HR person when they search. If you do not have details listed, then your chance of being identified is almost zero.

If you are a student or postdoc, state when you think you will be done. Without this information, companies may be reluctant to contact you about jobs. Recruiting is extremely time-consuming, so the easier you can make it for companies to know what you want and when you will be available, the better.

To learn specifics about building and taking advantage of your LinkedIn account, use the LinkedIn learning center. Don't forget, your online presence is often the first thing that potential employers see, so don't lose the chance to make a positive first impression.

Have a professional photo. In general people are extremely visual, and they remember faces more than names. For example, if you meet someone at a networking event and send him or her a LinkedIn invitation afterwards, your profile picture will immediately help them to connect your name with your face.

Your image is part of your brand. Ideally you should have a professional take your photo. However, since most digital cameras work well enough for this purpose, that is also an acceptable way to go. Have a friend take your photo, stand against a blank wall, avoid objects of distraction, have a professional outfit on, and smile. This extra effort will go a long way.

Make sure that your name on LinkedIn is the same as the one on your resume. Potential employers will almost always look at an individual’s LinkedIn page as they are reviewing resumes. If they cannot find you, it creates a red flag. If the name on your resume is different than that on your LinkedIn account, make them the same so that you can be easily found.

Link to people you know. As you grow your network, only connect with trusted contacts. In this way, your network becomes personal and actually useful for you as you grow in your career. Aim for quality, not quantity. Adding a lot of people just to increase your numbers actually dilutes the value of your network.

Do not send a LinkedIn invitation to a hiring manager. Most people are very selective about their LinkedIn connections. If you ask to link to a hiring manager who does not know you, he or she may feel uncomfortable, and this could hurt your application chances.

Join groups. If you are looking to learn more about a certain area, join a LinkedIn group related to it. There are thousands of groups available. When you are new to the job search, using this feature is extremely valuable for getting a lay of the land. To find groups, search for them by keyword under group categories. Use the following link to learn more about groups in your LinkedIn profile. You may be surprised by how many groups are relevant to you. Also, you can become an active member or a group and share your expertise. This can build thought leadership.

When requesting a connection, mention where you met that person. People are busy and have a lot of things on their mind. The easier you can make it for people, the better. If you met someone at a international networking event and are following up with a LinkedIn request, you may want to write in the subject line: "International networking event follow up." In the body of the LinkedIn request, you might say something like: “Dear X, It was a pleasure meeting you at the international networking event on DATE. To follow up, I would like to link into you so that we can keep in touch.”

It is amazing how many times people don't do this. I wonder how many LinkedIn requests do not get answered because people cannot remember the context in which they met someone.

The connections you develop over time are a valuable part of your professional career, so respect your network, be responsive, and finally, keep it human.

Lauren Celano ( is the co-founder and CEO of Propel Careers, a life science search and career development firm focused on connecting talented individuals with entrepreneurial life sciences companies. 

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Understanding and Overcoming Scientist Stereotypes in the Workplace

8. March 2012

By Marcius Extavour

Culture shock can be at once the thrill and the bane of international travel. We must adapt to local culture, learn the language, and deal with stereotypes and others’ perceptions—or misperceptions—of who we are. These same lessons apply to professional “travel” and “relocation,” by which I mean working outside of one’s “home” profession—perhaps as an advisor to policymakers, for example, or in a managerial capacity at a company.

Scientists face a series of stubborn and pervasive personal stereotypes in outside work and study environments. This post outlines some of the most common caricatures and some suggestions for educating people about who scientists really are.

The solo operator

An individual working alone at a desk or lab bench, late into the night. Do you recognize this image of the scientist from media and pop culture? I don’t mean to suggest that science is not done in this way, as much of it is. However, this is clearly not the only work style. Single author papers are rare. Research collaborations abound, and they are encouraged by funders. Research groups rely on teamwork and many moving parts.

Yet those working outside of mainstream science often believe that we have no experience with teamwork and management hierarchies. We may therefore be either passed over for work or confined to individual tasks.

To push back, we must emphasize the collaborative side of science and our ability to thrive in managed teams. Though research hierarchies may not be as developed as they are in government or large corporations, most science groups rely on seniority (summer students, research associates, postdocs, staff scientists, PIs), a range of experience (undergraduates, technicians, senior faculty), and institutional hierarchies (grant writers, administrators) to manage talent and work flow.

Narrow expertise

There is no question that science requires deep focus and attention to detail. Subject matter expertise is the foundation on  broader knowledge and skill in science are built. Yet our deep and narrow focus as scientists can work against us in the eyes of generalists. When working in a new area, for instance, the scientist is often asked how their work is relevant to the new field. This is a fair question, since clearly not all scientific knowledge is universally applicable. From my own work, for example, the Kramers-Kronig relations generally have nothing to do with solar PV markets.

But if we take a step back from the cutting edge of our individual fields, we may find that connections between our specialized research and outside topics may emerge. To continue the example, light absorption in solids is certainly connected to solar electricity economics through PV device performance.

The connections may be indirect, but the overlap need only be large enough to build upon. It is important that scientists look for these connections, emphasize them to colleagues, and use them to maximize contributions to new areas.

Rigid, deaf to nuance, uncreative

Pop culture and media reinforce the broad misconception that scientists lack creativity, and that they are too rigid to adapt to surroundings and circumstances. This would be a terrible personal reputation in any field of work! Scientists must remember, and gently remind our non-scientist colleagues, that science demands fluidity and adaptability. Old ideas are pushed aside by new ones in the face of evidence and experiment. Scientific knowledge and truth evolve, and we must all evolve with it.

Often the leaders of change are the most creative among us. They make the unimaginable seem obvious once the evidence is presented and the experiments completed. Of course there is dogmatism and rigidity in science (as in any field), but these are far from the prevailing themes. This applies equally well to individual scientists.

How to combat these stereotypes in the workplace?

Battling stereotypes is not quick or easy. Often, we are not even given the chance to fight back directly, since few people even recognize or feel comfortable talking about their personal biases. Still, being aware of the misconceptions puts us in a better position to recognize the stereotypes that may undermine our goals and address them in honest conversation.

Marcius Extavour ( holds a Ph.D. in atomic physics and quantum optics from the University of Toronto. He served as the 2010-2011 OSA/SPIE Guenther Congressional Science Policy Fellow, and he is an active consultant and organizer in clean energy and science policy in Toronto, Canada.

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Math, Shop Class, and Home Brewing: How Credentialism Is Killing Science

2. March 2012

by Danny Rogers

A few weeks ago, Mike Lazaridis, the founder of the Blackberry-maker Research in Motion and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, delivered a plenary speech at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science entitled “The Power of Ideas.” In it, he described his experiences as a 10th grader taking honors classes in math and science along with shop class—a curriculum you would rarely see nowadays.

He recalled reading a manual for a dual-channel oscilloscope in his school's electronics shop and connecting “...the abstract math and science concepts I was learning upstairs with the devices I could touch and do cool things with downstairs.” He pointed out that this was before any distinction was made between science courses and shop classes—a separation that he describes as an “...upstairs-downstairs mentality.” Mike's words are prescient, and they say a lot about the current state of science and education.

What’s a degree worth?
At its core, a modern university is a place where young people go to obtain a a certificate stating that they have obtained a certain proficiency in a given topic. Twenty years ago, when most young people didn't go to college, meeting the standards of an accredited university carried significant weight with employers.

However, in today’s environment of legacy admissions and for-profit colleges, the value of the degree has weakened. To paraphrase Glenn Reynolds from the Washington Examiner, overpriced degrees and cheap student loans have inflated the value of higher education in much the same way that cut-rate mortgages blew up the U.S. housing market, leading to a bubble.

As Joseph Cronin and Howard Horton argue in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a 440 percent increase in the average tuition over the past 25 years supports this idea. Peter Thiel, renowned Silicon Valley entrepreneur and PayPal founder, argues in a recent interview that the bubble is about to burst. He posits that credentialism—the pursuit of degrees in lieu of a determined, practical, hands-on career path—creates a false sense of accomplishment and ultimately stifles innovation. In fact, he blames the higher education bubble in part for what he observes to be a stall in technology development over the past 50 years:

“...There is something like $1 trillion in student debt. A cynical view is that that represents $1 trillion worth of lies told about the value of higher education... Bubbles end when people stop believing the false narrative and start thinking for themselves. So many students are not getting the jobs they need to repay their debts, are moving back in with their parents, and the contract both parties signed up for is being revealed as false.”

Of bubbles and brews
How did this bubble come about in the first place? Oddly enough, I think beer can shed some perspective (as it does on so many issues!). In a recent article for Slate Magazine, Dave Conz, a professor at Arizona State University, discussed his love for home brewing—a passion I happen to share. It is a hobby that has permeated science and engineering communities everywhere. (If you are an OSA member, chances are that you know someone who home brews.) He points out that home brewing not only illustrates the creativity and industriousness it takes to be truly innovative, but also demonstrates the shortcomings of credentialism.

He cites Matthew Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soulcraft, who “...argues that the elimination of industrial arts and home economics classes from public school curricula has left us dependent on machines that we don’t understand and frustrated by the outsourcing and off-shoring of production.”

While many of today's science and engineering students can comprehend how machines work, most of that understanding is likely theoretical—simply because that is how it is taught. And why is it taught that way? Because it is generally cheaper and easier to present facts and work out problems on paper than it is to actually play around with things in the lab.

A matter of taste
However, there are holdouts. Dan Meyer, a visionary math teacher from California, teaches his students to compute volumes using drawings and formulae, but then he gives them a bucket, a tape measure and hose and tells them to check their work. He admits that this type of hands-on teaching is more difficult (and probably more expensive), but his students come away with a true appreciation for the math they learned in class and might even go on to become the next Mike Lazaridis.

Conz points out that DIY brewers make beer using anything from their kitchen stove to an “...arduino-controlled, fully automatic, trailer-mounted 'brew sculpture.'” However, to most homebrewers, one’s “rig,” as it is often called, does not matter. The key concern is how the beer tastes.

A post-credentialist future
This is the ultimate counterargument to credentialism. Budweiser—America's largest brewery—has state-of-the-art facilities across the country. They culture their own yeast, and their teams of enthusiastic scientists perform exhaustive quality control. And yet, despite these indisputable credentials, their beer just doesn’t taste very good. I'll take the smaller, lesser-known microbrews from Baltimore or the beautifully complex sour from a Belgian abbey any day.

The same should go for science. The solution to the education bubble is valuation based on technical merit, work product and quality, not credentials. I have often advocated for a double-blind review process for journal articles. Reviewing would be more difficult since referees would be forced to judge work only on its own merit, but a double-blind process would eliminate the inflated value of credentials over work quality.

In a post-credentialist world, hiring would be based on ability rather than transcripts, and students would be encouraged to take shop class and honors math. Good mechanics or plumbers would be widely venerated as the talented craftsmen they are.

Ultimately, the value and quality of what we create should be our key determinant of worth in the workplace. In the end, it really is the taste that matters.

Danny Rogers ( is a member of the professional staff at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Md., U.S.A.

Note: The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of OPN or OSA.


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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 ( 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 ( 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 ( 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 ( is OPN’s editor and content director.


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