Career Reflections: Advice from Halvar Trodahl

5. November 2013

OPN spoke with Halvar Trodahl, a senior associate at McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm, to get his perspective on working as a consultant with a Ph.D. in physics.

What is your current role, and what are your day-to-day responsibilities?

As an associate at McKinsey & Company, I do project-based work with a small team of consultants to help our clients solve their toughest challenges. These challenges can range from determining strategic direction and market response to optimizing operations and developing business technology implementation. On a day-to-day basis, this means working closely with our McKinsey team as well as the client team to help build a deep understanding of the problem, the potential solutions, and the ability of our clients to succeed in tackling this and future challenges.

We work with leading organizations across the private, public and social sectors to increase their capabilities and leadership skills at every level and every opportunity. We do this to help build internal support, get to real issues, and reach practical recommendations.

What path did you take to get to your current position?

As I worked toward my Ph.D., I explored roles outside of my academic discipline in order to understand in which direction I wanted my career to move after graduate school. These explorations included teaching in areas outside of the physical sciences and taking on leadership positions in student organizations.

How do you feel that your science background has been helpful in your career?

I like to distinguish between the content knowledge and process knowledge that I developed during graduate school. Of these, my process knowledge is something I constantly draw on in my current work. The primary example of this is problem solving. As a Ph.D. student I honed my ability to take a complex problem, break it into its constituent parts, solve these piece by piece through hypothesis formulation and data analysis, and pull these together to form a coherent and holistic story. This process is something I use on a daily basis in my work as a consultant. On the other hand, I typically don't use, or expect to use, the content knowledge that I developed in my studies (e.g., quantum mechanics, nano-fabrication).

Is there anything that you wish you had done differently in your own education or career?

I would have spent more time exploring opportunities outside of physics during graduate school. In particular, I would have worked with student and university organizations early on so as to explicitly develop my leadership capabilities. I found these types of experiences very influential and wish I had pushed myself to have them from day one.

What one piece of advice would you give to someone who wants to follow a similar career path?

Explore career and extracurricular activities broadly and as early as possible. Having a range of experiences will help develop a baseline by which you can better understand which career options you are most interested in pursuing. Additionally, these experiences will arm you with a set of valuable tools that can be applied regardless of which path you choose to follow.

Halvar Trodahl is a senior associate at McKinsey & Company. Halvar joined McKinsey in 2012 after completing a Ph.D. in physics at Harvard University. Originally from New Zealand, he completed undergraduate degrees in science and business at Victoria University of Wellington. Halvar taught in a variety of disciplines throughout his academic career, ranging from global health to management theory.


Career Path, Communication Skills, Graduate School, Job Search, Nontraditional Science Careers , , , , , , ,

How to Plan a Vacation—and Your Career

23. October 2013

Lisa Balbes

This post was adapted from content on the Career blog of the American Chemical Society (ACS) with the kind permission of ACS and the author.

I recently took a big family vacation, which required a lot of planning, organization and communication. As I thought about how we prepared for and experienced the trip, it occurred to me that this process parallels the career transition process.

Have discussions with interested parties.
When we decided to take a trip, we started by gathering everyone involved and talking about where we wanted to go. Before long, we had agreed to a basic itinerary. In the same way, when you’re thinking about the next phase of your career, you want to start by discussing various options with other interested parties. You may have a general idea of where you want to go next, but it will be modified by input from others: a spouse who can’t relocate, a desire for more or less travel, etc. Eventually, you will come to an agreement about what is required in your next professional destination.

Do the research.
Once we had our list of destinations, we obtained as much information as possible about each one. As a result, we added some things to our itinerary and deleted others. Learning about our destinations, their history and current offerings let us know what to expect and allowed us to enjoy the actual visit more. Similarly, researching prospective career options will reveal hidden aspects that will make them more or less attractive to you. The more you learn about a new field or position, the better you will be able to determine if that path is right for you.

We talked to people who had recently visited these locations, as well as those who currently lived there. When researching new career options, talk to people who have been in the field for a long time, as well as individuals who have just moved into the area. Both novices and experts have useful information that cannot be found in a printed publication.

Think about what you’ll need.
Before we could leave on the trip, we had to think about what we would need for the journey. Some things we already had, but others we had to go out and find. Similarly, a new job or career path may require new skills, which you will have to acquire through education or experience.

Stay flexible.
Once on the trip, we mostly followed our itinerary. However, we had purposely left some time unscheduled. An advertisement we saw while traveling made us aware of a new attraction, and we used one of the gaps in our schedule to visit it. That detour turned out to be one of the high points of the vacation for everyone! Just like in your career path, taking advantage of an unexpected opportunity can lead you in a direction that you never knew you would love. You should always be on the lookout for new professional experiences, and don’t be afraid to take a chance and try something different.

Learn from your experience.
Now that we‘re back home, the only thing left to do is sort through the photographs and put them neatly into a scrapbook for whenever we want to revisit our adventure. The sorting and reflecting is important, as it allows us to look back at the experience and learn from it for the next time. When you move on to a new stage in your career, take time to review the highlights and lowlights of the previous stage, or even your entire career—maybe while you’re updating your resume. Reflecting on your professional journey to date can provide valuable insights and prepare you to make more informed decisions about your next destination—be it vocational or vacational.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists: New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press.

Career Path, Communication Skills, Job Search , , , , ,

Want to be A Professional Scientist? Join the Facebook Group

9. October 2013

Marc Kuchner

This post is adapted from content that first appeared on the Nature blog with the kind permission of the author.

 Planetary scientist Heidi Hammel was at the telescope when Facebook alerted her to an important new target: a comet had just crashed into Jupiter. She said, “I learned about one of the impacts on Jupiter via Facebook, and we were able to do immediate follow-up.” It is no secret that, scientists are increasingly using social media not just for outreach or for fun, but to do real, ground breaking, earth-shattering science.
There are many websites devoted to science news and amateur science—but where do scientists go online to interact with their colleagues professionally? I asked my colleagues on the Marketing for Scientists Facebook group (mostly astronomers) to share their social networking advice. I think their answers point to a fascinating shift in the social fabric of the scientific community.
Use Facebook as a forum for scientific debate.
If you have a lot of Facebook friends, you can have professional scientific discussions right on your wall. Angela Speck told me, “Since a significant fraction of my friends are scientists they do respond to science questions. And then the ensuing wall discussion is like a chat over lunch.” Keep in mind that it takes time and effort to build that long list of followers or friends, and then more effort to keep up with them and sort through their status updates, so that tactic won’t necessarily be effective for everyone.
Join Professional Facebook or LinkedIn Groups.
Instead of building large contact lists themselves, more and more scientists are working with colleagues through Facebook groups. For example, Adam Burgasser told me, “Our ‘Low Mass Stars and Brown Dwarfs’ group has been a great place to post papers, promote astro apps, announce conferences, ask about pesky references etc.” Joining such a group is like instantly acquiring hundreds or thousands of high-powered new friends and followers.
LinkedIn groups are also a fertile home for scientific research. As Mark Eisner said, “In my field of hydrogeology, or more generally environmental consulting, I belong to 50. So much I cannot keep up.” These groups are a great forum for scientific discussion and career networking in particular.

Facebook and LinkedIn groups have become new incubators for scientific progress, providing important virtual places for scientists to work and to mingle. The trouble is that there’s no good directory of these groups of professional scientists on social networks. The most reliable way to find the professional Facebook groups for scientists seems to be to “friend” lots of colleagues whose interests overlap with yours, and look at their Facebook pages to see what groups they belong to. Then you have to ask permission to join. Otherwise, you need to start your own group and hope one doesn’t exist already for the topic you chose.

Perhaps one day, an organization like OSA or the American Association for the Advancement of Science will maintain a directory of Facebook and LinkedIn groups where active professional scientific collaborations are taking place. Such a tool would help young scientists meet established scientists, and help established scientists move into new fields where they don’t already have contacts.
In the meantime, the rise of this informal network of professional scientist groups makes it clearer than ever: in science, it matters who your friends are.

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

Career Path, Communication Skills , , , , , , , ,

Transitioning Between Undergraduate and Postgraduate Studies

2. October 2013

Yaseera Ismail

Life is full of transitions, and starting a career in science is no exception. One of the major shifts that I faced was moving from my undergraduate to postgraduate studies, and this period was not without its difficulties. Below, I’ll share some advice that will hopefully make the change smoother for others on the same path.

Be adaptable. I was first exposed to a research environment when I worked at the CSIR-National Laser Centre during my honors year. This was quite an eye-opening experience for me, as it was the first time I was at an institution whose primary objective was research output. As a result, I had to change my way of thinking. During my undergraduate studies, I was provided with a detailed, step- by-step syllabus. There is no such spoon-feeding as a postgrad student. This may seem daunting at first, but, as with any job, you adapt to the demands of your new situation.

Spending time in a laboratory also taught me that methodology is rarely set in stone. You try, you fail, and you come up with a new idea. Many postgrad students waste precious time fixating on a method that is not working. This is because, as undergraduates, we are conditioned to assume that our initial plan will not fail as long as it is approved by our supervisors. In graduate school, our supervisors are conducting the research alongside us, and therefore they do not already have the answers.

Manage your time. Cramming at the eleventh hour may work for undergraduates, but it won’t in graduate school. Postgraduate studies demand discipline. Procrastination is a crime that we are all guilty of, but it is critical to work diligently to finish your thesis on time. You should set short-term goals for each day so that you are never stagnant. It is difficult to keep your enthusiasm up at all times, and without a stringent supervisor to encourage you to meet deadlines, you may find yourself taking many a three-week break. Bear in mind that a Ph.D. thesis cannot be completed the week before the due date. Slow and steady wins the race!

Network. In the world of research, networking is a useful way to advance your career. Whenever attending a conference or public lecture, mingle with researchers and fellow students. Try to discover everyone's areas of interest and get their opinions on your work. A simple conversation over coffee can lead to helpful collaboration. I find it intimidating to speak to someone who is much more senior in my field, so I break the ice with a topic that is not related to my research and gradually direct the conversation towards the topic I want to discuss.

Be curious and open. Postgrad studies require initiative, determination and the desire to learn. You can choose what you want to learn and use that information to make something new. Don’t work in isolation. Instead, try to learn from everyone around you. There is a vast range of resources available, so make use of every opportunity on your way to success.

Yaseera Ismail completed her Masters at the CSIR-National Laser Centre in Pretoria, South Africa, where her research focused on novel laser beam shaping for optical trapping and tweezing. She is currently completing her Ph.D. in Quantum Communication within the Quantum Research Group based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa.

Academic Careers, Career Path, Communication Skills, Graduate School , , , , , , , ,

How to Be an Effective Student Leader

24. September 2013

Benjamin Franta

Over the past few months, I have been thinking a lot about leadership. What makes for a good leader? What makes someone effective at creating change?

Leadership is similar to other skills in that we learn it through a combination of imitation, trial and error and practice. Yet it is not as easy to assess as other abilities, because leadership can be found in many forms. There is no single standard by which to judge ourselves or others.
However, the best leaders whom I’ve known do have a few things in common; three in particular stand out:
1) Conceptual creativity that is also specific and linked to reality. This is often called “vision.”
2) The ability to identify, obtain and create resources, whether they are human, financial, technical or of some other nature.
3) The interpersonal and strategic skills necessary to execute the vision by making use of those resources.
How can we develop vision, resources and execution skills? There are many ways, including training, seeking new experiences, observing others and so on. Personally, one of the most useful methods I’ve found to build leadership is to cultivate certain habits that lead to positive outcomes. The most important of these are to:
Be honest in every interaction. Some people are effusive; others are terse. Regardless of style, honesty is the bedrock of a good leader. While it may sound easy, being honest means letting go of your fear of being judged. That can be difficult, and it takes practice.
Keep it simple. Great accomplishments happen one step at a time. As a leader, one of your jobs is to simplify complicated processes so that the people around you are more effective. Don’t expect to be thanked for this work; if you do it right, others won’t even be aware that you’ve done it. Nevertheless, it’s crucial for any team.
Don’t take (or give) anything personally. Sometimes others will not be able to help you, or your interests will clash with theirs. This is normal, and there’s no need for frustration or resentment. An effective leader doesn’t begrudge others following their own interests, even when it presents obstacles. Rather, you should strive to understand the goals and desires of others without judgment, and determine what constructive outcomes can be achieved for all involved.
These actions cultivate trust, promote the completion of goals, and preserve and develop positive and creative relationships. It’s important to remember that these are not inborn traits; they can be developed through conscious effort. Improvement requires practice, critical self-examination, and the will to keep trying and learning from mistakes.
What characteristics have you found to be important for effective leadership? Share them in the comments below!
Benjamin Franta is a Ph.D. candidate in applied physics at Harvard University. He is the president of Harvard Photonics (Harvard’s OSA student chapter), an organizer for NanoStart (a new nanotechnology think tank at Harvard), and an executive board member of Divest Harvard (a climate activist campaign). He is also a Fellow of the Harvard Graduate School Leadership Institute.


Career Path, Communication Skills , , , , ,

Career Culture Shock

11. September 2013

 Lisa Balbes

The other day, I was talking to a college student who recently started his summer job. He had a position that was very similar to what he had done the previous summer, but in a different place. This meant he was mostly doing the same type of work, but with a new group of people. Each organization had similar numbers of staff and customers, similar tasks that needed to be done, and similar metrics for success. Yet they were very different in one key respect: their culture.

While both sites completed their tasks on time (especially the customer-facing ones), one group actively sought out ways to help each other, leading to an enhanced sense of teamwork and camaraderie. They often socialized during off hours.

The second group was not as close-knit. They were friendly while at work, but happy to go home to their “real lives” and real friends. After having worked in the former environment, the student was surprised by this more distant attitude.

But the single difference that was most striking to him was in how each group handled it when they were asked to do something they’d never done before. At the first site, if a staff member did not know how to do something, he or she would learn from someone who did and then practice until they could do it well. By contrast, when those in the second location were asked to do something they’d never done before, most would find someone else who knew how to do it and then ask them to take care of it for them.

While the latter course is certainly the most efficient in the short-term, it might not be in the long run. What happens if that person is not available at a crucial time or leaves the company altogether? Both strategies have their place, and it is the job of the manager or supervisor to guide the staff into learning which is most appropriate for a particular company.

Most people are naturally inclined to work one way or the other. Some prefer to do the same thing over and over at work, and they derive great satisfaction from being the very best at that particular task. Others are not happy unless they have variety in their jobs and are constantly challenged to learn new things.

Most scientists are naturally curious people; they want to know how and why things work and are excited by the opportunity to do something new. My friend certainly fell into this camp – his exact words about his new co-workers were: “I could have forgiven them for not knowing if they had shown any interest in wanting to learn. Instead, they just got someone else to do it for them.” In his mind, asking the expert to do the task was slacking off, not being efficient.

But another person might well have said: “It’s all about being efficient. There’s no sense wasting time figuring out how to do something if someone already knows.”

When we talk about the culture of a company, we are really talking about a collection of small differences like this. They combine to create the atmosphere in which we work. When the way you like to work matches the way your organization operates, you feel comfortable and confident in what you are doing. When they don’t match, you may be unhappy without realizing why.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists: New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press.


Career Path, Communication Skills, Job Search , , , ,

What's Your Science Maturity Level?

5. September 2013

Marc Kuchner

 This post is adapted from content that first appeared on the blog Marketing for Scientists with the kind permission of the author.

I went to a scientific talk the other day that seemed to leave half the audience inspired and the other half frustrated. My frustrated colleagues insisted that the speaker did not present any true “results.” However, he did make some fascinating predictions about what would be discovered 10 or 20 years from now—forecasts that may be crucial for marketing exercises and expensive experiments.

Was this a good talk or a bad talk? Science or marketing?

Maybe it’s just a matter of taste. Some of us will never be satisfied by a talk unless we see a hypothesis confidently confirmed or discarded. Others may find the realm of topics subject to such clear decisions too limiting and yearn for a glimpse into the more distant future.

Still, we often argue over the quality of our colleagues’ presentations. When it is hiring time, for example, and faculty candidates are parading through your department, no doubt a common topic of conversation is who gave the best talk. And the maturity level of the research is often a contentious point.

With these conversations in mind, I’d like to suggest a numerical scale we can use to describe scientific talks. This scale is not meant to weigh the overall quality of a talk, but rather to resolve some of the tension between those who prefer solid conclusions and those who enjoy more nebulous forecasting. The first steps are about development of an idea by an individual scientist or research group; the last about the acceptance of the idea by the community.

Science Maturity Level (SML)

1. This talk presents a path that might one day lead to a testable new hypothesis or new data. An SML1 talk does not even strive to present scientific conclusions. Nonetheless, it can surprise and delight by illuminating a new research avenue that has become within arm’s reach, and it can shape the future of the field by its creativity and prescience.

2. The speaker presents a testable hypothesis with no constraining data or data whose interpretation is beyond the reach of state-of-the-art theoretical calculations. Such a talk can be boring, or it can be trendsetting, pointing the community to a fruitful direction for new work.

3. An SML 3 talk applies the full scientific method to the problem at hand, in whatever form the method is customarily used in the field. It compares a hypothesis to a data set and derives an unambiguous interpretation. However, so far the conclusion has garnered only limited attention from the scientific community, perhaps because it mainly confirms or reproduces previous work—or perhaps because it is new and thrilling.

4. This talk compares a hypothesis to a data set and appears to derive an unambiguous interpretation. Crucially, other researchers have confirmed or disputed this result in their talks and publications.

5. The speaker describes data and calculations that the community recognizes as part of its culture and history. Perhaps it describes the roots of a research paradigm that continues to spawn textbooks and doctoral theses. Perhaps it is about an old paradigm that has since been superseded. Attending such a talk can provide new insights, or it could be more about the pleasure of simply meeting a scientific celebrity.

It’s tempting to say that talks in the 1-2 range are more about marketing than science, but I’m not sure that’s the case. It seems to me that science is the process of moving from 1 to 5—and that this progress emerges from the community as a whole, not from any one scientist. So you can’t really describe a single talk as more “scientific” than another.

Also, I believe that talks at all points on the scale can be engaging and full of useful information, or dull and tiresome. The “marketing” is ultimately about whether the talk meets the needs of the audience—whether the needs are for information about the natural world or inspiration about future projects. So a talk on any research at any stage can be good or bad marketing.

Curiously, I’ve found that different scientific institutions seem to prefer different kinds of talks. Perhaps academic departments gravitate towards talks with higher SMLs, while government labs tend to prefer lower ones. Maybe that’s because government labs often focus on big projects that require lots of planning. That seems to be something to keep in mind when you are applying for jobs.

Ultimately, I think there is a place for all kinds of talks in our scientific universe. Perhaps the 4s and 5s belong at the beginning of a conference session, while the 1s, and 2s belong at the end. Talks about String Theory are often 1s, while review talks are 4s or 5s.

What do you think? Should your department focus on 1s and 2s, or 4s and 5s? Or should it aim to hire scientists who operate at both ends of the spectrum. What is the SML of your scientific talks?

Marc J. Kuchner ( 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

Academic Careers, Career Path, Communication Skills, Conferences , , , ,

Viewpoint: Addressing Minorities in a Majority Culture

26. August 2013

Elsa Garmire

Did you ever travel to a different country? Did you try to speak their language? Or did you expect those around you to struggle with yours? Did you try to modify your behavior to fit in? Or did you stick to your role as tourist?

If you are male, have you ever gone to a place that was predominantly female—perhaps a ladies’ shop to purchase a gift for a loved one? Or taken your young children to a park filled with female nannies? Did you feel weird? Were you glad to get out of there?

Now imagine being a woman or minority in a field mostly populated by Caucasian men, such as optics. You can’t help but feel different. This feeling permeates your life, whether you realize it or not.

The National Academy of Sciences analyzed the status of women faculty in the sciences and published a report, titled “Beyond Bias and Barriers,” showing that most bias against minorities in the academic sciences is unconscious but nonetheless impedes their progress. I recommend it as a good place to understand what I’m talking about.

The ultimate barrier, in industry as well as academia, is referred to as the glass ceiling. Many studies have shown that minorities will be less likely to be promoted than their majority counterparts, even when they have equally excellent qualifications. This glass ceiling describes the idea that, while minorities can compete for top jobs, they are at a disadvantage in obtaining them. The very idea of the glass ceiling can cause behavior changes. One person might compensate by becoming excessively assertive or competitive (thereby called aggressive); another might give up the dream, thereby becoming underpaid (women are consistently paid less than men).

The field of optics includes many individuals who are physically different from the “rest of us,” presenting a challenge to the community. Yes, you can argue that optics should not depend on culture as defined by gender, race, disability, etc. But we each bring our own preconceptions to our work, and ignoring our differences doesn’t make them go away.

We all accept that optics already has a wide variety of cultures as defined by work roles. Scientists and engineers approach optics differently. Small businesses differ from large ones. Forms of decision-making help define the culture of an institution: Is it top-down or bottom-up? Regarding both work cultures and those shaped by gender and ethnicity, my motto is: Vive la difference! Our differences can bring a richness to the field of optics if we allow them.

How can we break down barriers while still respecting our differences? Here’s a place to start:

Accept cultural differences and acknowledge that they can cause unintended biases and barriers. If you don’t believe this, read up in the field and you’ll be convinced.

Make lists of minorities that you know (include yourself if appropriate) and present them to those in power, so they’ll remember them when openings occur, whether in careers, or in volunteer positions.

If you have a job opening, contact women and minorities in your network and ask them to apply. My role model for this is former OSA Executive Director Jarus Quinn, who consciously made opportunities for every qualified woman within OSA to participate. We need to make sure his pre-action (action before it's requested) continues within OSA.

Understanding the differences between minority and majority cultures will benefit everyone. I look forward to the day when all OSA members are pre-active in acknowledging bias and reducing barriers. What a rich and comfortable society we will become!

Elsa Garmire ( is the Sydney E. Junkins Professor, Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H., U.S.A., and a former OSA president.

Academic Careers, Career Path, Communication Skills, Job Search, Women in Science , , , , , , , , ,

Networking through Student Conferences

20. August 2013

Shota Ushiba

We are often told about the importance of networking for furthering our careers. However, it’s not always easy for students to build these relationships, particularly as they are first starting out in their fields. In order to facilitate the creation of useful connections, the Osaka University OSA/SPIE Student Chapter, where I serve as the president, hosted an international student conference. The Asia Student Photonics Conference 2013 took place from 24-26 July at the Photonics Centre in Osaka University, Japan.
Organizing Logistics
The conference was financially supported by OSA, SPIE and other organizations. We aimed to build networks among Asian students and young researchers in the fields of optics and photonics, and to learn why networking is important, how we can create networks and what we can do with the networks. We were thrilled that more than 70 students from China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, India and Japan attended this year. It was the largest student conference we have ever hosted.
Making Connections
We conducted a variety of activities, with invited lecture sessions as a focal point. There were five guest speakers: Satoshi Kawata, Osaka University; Michael Alley, Pennsylvania State University; Prabhat Verma, Osaka University; Rinto Nakahara, President of Nanophoton Corp.and Junichiro Kono, Rice University. The speakers covered relevant career topics, including how to expand your network as a young scientist, how to communicate effectively through writing and presentations, and developing management skills. The speakers gave us clear, pragmatic answers to the issues we faced.
We also had student oral and poster presentations, group work, a social excursion and numerous coffee breaks and banquets. There was plenty of time for attendees to talk freely, which enabled us to get to know each other well. We made connections and bridged the cultural gaps between countries. I believe that these new relationships will pave the way for future research collaborations.
Becoming a Leader
My personal experience as the conference organizer was particularly enlightening and fulfilling. I arranged everything along with my colleagues, including funds, invited lecturers and student attendees. Students rarely get the opportunity to take on this kind of responsibility; it was great experience and practice for later on in my career. Throughout the three days of activities, we were thanked hundreds of times by the attendees; it was one of the most gratifying experiences that I have ever had. Our conference even inspired some of the student attendees to organize the next student conference, which will make our network wider and stronger. This sense of gratitude and shared responsibility is a great way to build up your community.
My work as the organizer of a student conference helped me to develop many abilities that I don’t often get the chance to hone. Although I sometimes struggled from taking on too many duties and had small conflicts with my colleagues over details, it was an overwhelmingly positive experience. I strongly recommend that you take the initiative to organize a similar event if you have the opportunity. It will broaden your perspective along with your network.
Shota Ushiba ( is a Ph.D. student in the Kawata Lab at Osaka University, Japan, and president of the Osaka Univ. OSA/SPIE Student Chapter. Check out his website or find him on Facebook.

Academic Careers, Career Path, Communication Skills, Conferences, Graduate School, OSA Student Chapters, Ph.D. Perspectives , , , , , , , ,

Are All Citations Created Equal?

14. August 2013

Pablo Artal

OSA Fellow Pablo Artal has kindly allowed OPN’s Bright Futures career blog to adapt and 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 Pablo, I am confused about what works to cite in my scientific papers. Should I cite only the papers that helped me with my research? Or should I expand the list to include those that I found clearly wrong or even misleading? –Bruno, Italy.
I believe the proper approach is to cite everything that you actually used during your research. This includes seminal papers that may have inspired your project, articles on the methods you used, papers presenting similar previous work, and even research that you may consider incorrect or biased—although you should mention why you think it is invalid. This is an important part of the scientific process, and it will help your colleagues in the future.
Your question brings up an issue that I have long found troubling. As you know, the number of citations a scientist receives on his or her papers can be a deciding factor in receiving grants, academic jobs and prestige. The so-called h-index, referring to the number of papers that a scientist has with the same or higher number of citations, is a particularly important metric. For instance, if I have an h-index of 41, that means that 41 of my articles have received 41 or more citations. Some time ago, I covered this issue in more detail in my other blog in Spanish.
Although the number of citations is a better measure of scientific performance than simply counting the number of published papers, it is far from perfect. There are many possible problems with this system. For example, the differences in the number of publications and citations among different scientific fields generally make it difficult to compare between subject areas.
You can get an automatic count of citations on an article in Google Scholar or Web of Science, but this doesn’t take into account the fact that citations are not all equal—maybe you know a scientist whose work has a large number of citations, but some of them are actually negative. To avoid problems like this, I propose that we classify citations into four categories. I’ve listed them below with some examples obtained from actual papers.
Seminal citations:
“We followed the approach proposed and first implemented by (ref) to perform the current experiment…”
Positive citations:
“The results of figure 5 are in good agreement with those presented in (ref)”
“Figure 3 compares our results with those of previous works (ref)”
Neutral citations:
“Although we followed the same procedure, we were not able to reproduce their results. This may be due to some individual variability. However, several other authors’ findings were similar to ours.”

Negative citations:
“The suggestion by (ref) is clearly incorrect…”
“An additional problem in this study is the surprising lack of details provided on some of the most relevant methods and procedures used.”
I understand the technical difficulty of classifying different types of citations, but this system would provide a more accurate depiction of scientific value. Appropriate software could classify every citation within these categories, and each would be rated with points. For instance, seminal citations would be worth two points, positive ones would be worth one, neutral citations would have no points and negative citations would be negative one point.
A few decades ago, many of us were unhappy with the mere counting of papers as a measure of success, and the current system has helped address that. But other issues have cropped up. We could not begin to imagine at that time the large emphasis that would be placed on citation counts today. Perhaps the time has come to reevaluate.
Pablo Artal ( 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.

Academic Careers, Career Path, Publishing , , , , , , , , , ,