Pursuing Science in South Africa

19. June 2014

Yaseera Ismail

I have worked and studied at South African universities since beginning my undergraduate degree. I started my research career at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which is one of 10 national research facilities, and I am currently based in the Quantum Research Group at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). Here, I will reflect on some of my experiences studying in South Africa.

Freedom of choice

One benefit of attending university in South Africa is the unique structure of the degree system. The arrangement is unusual in that there are four exit points during the completion of three degrees. We start off with a three-year Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) degree, followed by a year of honors studies. The masters and doctoral degrees begin after the honors year. If you are not pursuing a career in research, you have the option of completing your education after earning a B.Sc. This allows students to tailor our honors year material to the research area we wish to pursue during our M.Sc. and Ph.D., and so we are more prepared and focused when beginning those higher-level degrees.

Availability of resources and funding

South Africa has a growing scientific community, but the opportunities for collaboration and networking are still limited. This can impact the level of research and the growth of facilities taking place in the country. If you are trying to build a research group, it may take more effort and time than other places. However, the lack of certain resources encourages us to look elsewhere for necessary expertise. This helps us build relationships with researchers across the globe. There is also funding available to promote and host national and international conferences, and there are extensive online resources to help fill any gaps.

A prerequisite for registering for a M.Sc. or Ph.D. degree at any South African university is a source of funding for the duration of your studies. Most candidates are awarded a scholarship either by the Department of Science and Technology, the National Research Foundation or national facilities such as the CSIR. The South African government recently set a target of spending 1.5 percent of its budget on research and development by 2018. Funding is also provided by universities such as UKZN, which has its own scholarship program.

Networking opportunities

I have been fortunate enough to attend 22 academic conferences since completing my M.Sc. Conferences are excellent platforms to grow within your field and expand your network of colleagues and friends. There is one major national physics conference in South Africa, known as the South African Institute of Physics Conference. It is hosted annually by various institutes and is currently in its 59th year. My research group also hosts the Quantum Information Processing Communication and Control (QIPCC) Conference each year. This meeting is focused on quantum optics and information science, and is an initiative of the South African Research Chair for Quantum Information Processing and Communication.

Joining professional associations is also a great way to network, and there are several options in South Africa. The South African Institute of Physics is a prominent association for researchers. It has student memberships and provides discounts for student conferences. There are also three OSA Student Chapters: Durban, Pretoria and Stellenbosch. I am part of the newly formed Student Chapter at the UKZN, Durban. Since we joined OSA, we have had numerous avenues opened to us. I recently attended an IONS conference in Montreal, Canada, which was a wonderful experience for me and gave me lots of ideas for growing our Chapter at UKZN.

As a South African student, networking opportunities and the increasing availability of resources have played a major role in expanding my opportunities as a young researcher. I am happy to be contributing to the developing community of scientists in my country.

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, Conferences, Graduate School, International Careers, OSA Student Chapters, Ph.D. Perspectives , , , , , , ,

How to benefit from internships, exchanges and scholarships

16. December 2013

Christian Reimer

Deciding where you want to conduct your graduate studies and on what kind of research are very difficult and important choices. Getting into the right program—ideally on a full scholarship—is even more challenging. Grades are certainly important, but there are other activities that can play a key role in starting your graduate studies on the right foot. Below are a few tips on how to make the most of these “extracurricular activities” to advance in your career.

Seek out new experiences

There are many ways for undergraduate students to get different kinds of experience and build a professional network, which will be helpful when applying to graduate school and other opportunities. Involvement with OSA Student Chapters, for example, offers valuable contact with other students and professionals with similar interests. Attending conferences and summer schools can broaden your scientific horizon and will help you to become more involved in your field. International exchanges are also valuable resources: a semester or year abroad will open your mind and provide new perspectives.

In my opinion, the most important activity is the acquisition of direct, firsthand research experience. Many research groups and companies offer internships for undergraduate students, which are a valuable addition to your CV and give you a glance into the academic or industrial world before you begin your graduate studies.

Apply, apply and apply

The lack of funds for research in academia is a fundamental and growing issue. It is therefore important to actively look and apply for as many scholarships and funding opportunities as possible. For example, there are many scholarships available to cover travel and other expenses for conferences, internships and exchanges. Even if these scholarships are small, there are very few reasons not to apply, and their impact can be significant for your CV. At first you may have to submit several applications to receive just one award, but after you have won a couple of scholarships and gathered some experience, you will find that success attracts more success.

Dare to ask

In my experience, there is a fundamental rule for a successful academic career: If you want something, ask for it. Being proactive and intelligently asking for what you want will help you throughout your professional life. For example, if you are interested in an internship, invest time and effort in writing a good and specific application letter, ask for help from someone who has already written successful applications, and apply even if no positions are advertised. The worst that can happen is that you do not get it.

The same applies if you want to collaborate with a research group, visit a conference or attend a summer school. If you do your homework and present legitimate reasons why you want to do it and how it will benefit your career or research, then do not be afraid to ask. You should be mentally prepared to have your request denied, but even then, the feedback and practice you receive will be valuable for the future.

While grades are certainly important, combining them with other types of experience will strengthen your CV and will help you get the right graduate position and succeed in academia. You can also take advantage of these opportunities without outstanding grades if you start small and apply often. The more you apply, the easier it will become.

Christian Reimer completed his German Diplom in Physics (equivalent to a M.Sc.) at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany. During his studies, he participated in exchanges, research projects and internships at Draeger Inc., Germany; Heriot-Watt University, Scotland; the University of St Andrews, Scotland; Surrey University, England; the University of Glasgow, Scotland; and the University of Sydney, Australia. He is currently writing his Ph.D. at the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique (INRS, http://www.uop.ca/), Canada, supported by a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship (www.vanier.gc.ca).

 

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The Marie Curie Actions: Tips to Apply for a Postdoctoral Fellowship

6. June 2013

Rocío Borrego-Varillas 

Are you about to finish your Ph.D. and thinking of doing a postdoc? If so, the Marie Curie Actions Research Fellowship Program (MC) could be a great opportunity for you. A European Union (EU) initiative to promote research and innovation, the MC is one of the most renowned postdoctoral fellowship programs. As Yanina Shevchenko pointed out in a recent Bright Futures post, “having your own funding not only looks good on your resume; it also provides you with some flexibility in choosing a research group.” These fellowships are a good way to achieve this goal.

Individual MC grants are available to experienced researchers, regardless of their nationality, through three programs: Intra-European Fellowships for Europeans who wish to carry out projects in the EU, International Outgoing Fellowships for Europeans willing to pursue their projects outside the EU and International Incoming Fellowships for non-Europeans who wish to receive research training in the EU.

Apart from the generous funding (they are probably the best paid postdoctoral fellowships in Europe), these fellowships provide young scientists the opportunity to join an excellent research group and gain experience abroad. This allows you not only to expand your technical knowledge, but also to learn practical skills that will be useful for your career. Additionally, fellows are provided with a monthly stipend to cover expenses derived from research training.

However, the MC is very competitive—the acceptance rate is around 16 percent. To give you an idea, the last Intra-European Fellowship call received more than 3,700 proposals, of which almost 3,000 had a score above 70/100. Only those with scores above 89/100 received funding. Writing a good proposal is crucial and can be the deciding factor in getting your application funded. Below are some tips to help you apply successfully:

• Attend a workshop. Many universities organize colloquia and workshops about the program, so stay tuned for these events at your institution.

• Prepare in advance. Take into account that writing the proposal requires a lot of time (it took me three weeks!), so plan well in advance.

• Be sure your application is complete. The referees check carefully to see if all the parts of the application have been covered, so be sure you have addressed every point. It may be useful to structure your proposal with subheadings and sections, closely following the “Guide for applicants”.

Be aware of the aims of the framework programme. “In each framework programme (currently FP 7), there are particular points that are supported with increased emphasis,” says Dr. Zsuzsanna Major, a former MC fellow at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics. “It is very useful for the proposal to be aware of these particular aims while writing it."

• Avoid vague statements and provide specific examples. Don’t use generic phrases that could be applied to any field in any context. For example, instead of writing “this project will help to develop professional skills,” state that “the fellow will supervise two Masters students and help the group leader to write grant proposals. This will allow him/her to cultivate professional skills such as leadership and fundraising.” You can also include any relevant training courses that you plan to take at the host institution or professional societies you belong to (see the OSA Young Professionals Program).

• Be realistic. The project must be ambitious but feasible to complete in 1-2 years. Give a detailed plan of tasks and objectives including a Gantt chart. Provide a backup plan in case some parts of the project fail.

• Ask for advice. Your own university or the host institution should be able to help you with legal issues or other questions about the application.

• Get feedback from your peers. In addition to reviewing your proposal several times with your future supervisor, I also recommend getting feedback from colleagues whom you trust. I sent my proposal and the evaluation criteria to two of my peers and asked them to act as referees. Their revisions were tremendously helpful.

If you would like to apply for a MC fellowship, the call for 2013 is now open with a deadline of 14 August. Good luck!

Rocío Borrego-Varillas (rborrego@uji.es) received her Ph.D. from the University of Salamanca, Spain. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Universitat Jaume I, Spain and has been recently awarded a Marie Curie Fellowship to conduct her research at the Politecnico di Milano, Italy.

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Making the Most of Your Ph.D. Experience in a Developing Country

9. April 2013

Angela Dudley

I like being different. In fact, one of the reasons I decided to pursue a career in physics is that there are very few scientists in South Africa, and even fewer female scientists. My thinking was that fewer people in the game meant less competition and more opportunities. Each year, there are only about 23 Ph.D. graduates produced per million South African citizens (and this encompasses all academic disciplines, not just the sciences.) Here, I provide a few tips for getting your Ph.D. in a country where high-level degrees are not the norm.  

Find a dynamic mentor.
At the end of my undergraduate studies, I chose the topic of my research project based not only on my interests, but also on the potential supervisors with whom it would put me in contact. Having a helpful ally is important for any graduate student, but even more so for those in a country that has fewer resources available for Ph.D. students. I had a checklist for the mentor I wanted. He or she needed to be:

• Available and approachable
• Able to provide me with the opportunity to attend and present at conferences (even if they were only local ones)
• Good at sourcing funding, and
• Well-connected in the South African science community.

While on vacation from university, I got a short-term position at the CSIR’s National Laser Centre that enabled me to test the waters for future opportunities. This was the ideal interview process: I got to see if I enjoyed the environment and the research, and my future Ph.D. supervisor was able to assess if I was a good fit for the group.

During this time, I saw that my mentor was ambitious and dynamic. He had an impeccable track record at securing funding and many local and international contacts. I could tell that, if I wanted to distinguish myself in my field, he could teach me how to do exactly that.

Be proactive. 
Where networks don’t exist, you must create them. Our student body formed local OSA and SPIE student chapters, which opened up many opportunities for me and other students, including travel grants, funds to bring in world-renowned lecturers, the possibility of hosting our own student conference (IONS) and discounts on publications. The OSA Recent Graduates program will also provide you with volunteer opportunities, so that you can gain experience and showcase your potential to science and business leaders from around the world.

Return the favor.
Admittedly, I pursued this field in part because I knew I would be a minority. But I hope this will not always be the case. I would like to encourage young people in South Africa and other developing nations to take advantage of the opportunities in the sciences and use their influence to help others along the same path. I intend to give back to the community by becoming as effective a teacher as my mentors have been for me.

Angela Dudley (ADudley@csir.co.za) conducted her Ph.D. research at the CSIR National Laser Centre based in Pretoria, South Africa. She received her Ph.D. in June 2012 from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and subsequently commenced her current position of Postdoctoral Fellow within the Mathematical Optics group at the CSIR National Laser Centre.

Academic Careers, Career Path, Graduate School, International Careers, OSA Student Chapters, Ph.D. Perspectives, Women in Science , , , , , ,

Science Internships Waiting for your Application

6. February 2013

Catherine de Lange

This post is adapted from one that initially appeared on the Naturejobs blog with the kind permission of the author. The list of internships will be updated regularly, so keep checking for additional opportunities here.

To make it easier for you to find a great work placement, we’ve dedicated this blog post to upcoming opportunities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

US

Science Magazine, Washington, DC
• Science News Writing Internship:  Science Magazine, the largest circulating weekly of basic research — founded in 1880 by Thomas Alva Edison and published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) — is offering an internship program for news writers. Science accepts applications for two 6-month periods: a winter-spring internship from January through June (deadline, September 15; selection, by mid-October) and a summer-fall internship from July through December (deadline, March 1; selection, by mid-April). Apply here.

National Institutes of Health (NIH)
• Summer internship program in Biomedical Research:  Summer programs at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) provide an opportunity to spend a summer working at the NIH side-by-side with some of the leading scientists in the world, in an environment devoted exclusively to biomedical research. The NIH consists of the 240-bed Mark O. Hatfield Clinical Research Center and more than 1200 laboratories/research projects located on the main campus in Bethesda, MD and the surrounding area as well as in Baltimore and Frederick, MD; Research Triangle Park, NC; Phoenix, AZ; Hamilton, MT; Framingham, MA; and Detroit, MI.  Internships cover a minimum of eight weeks, with students generally arriving at the NIH in May or June. The NIH Institutes and the Office of Intramural Training & Education sponsor a wide range of summer activities including lectures featuring distinguished NIH investigators, career/professional development workshops, and Summer Poster Day. Deadline is 1st March 2013. More information and application guidelines here.

Fermilab
• Summer Internships: Fermilab’s SIST program offers twelve-week summer internships in science and technology to undergraduate college students currently enrolled in four-year U.S. colleges and universities. Internships available in physics, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and computer science offer a chance for students to work with Fermilab scientists or engineers on a project within the context of laboratory research. Deadline is Feb. 15 2013. Apply here.

Audubon Center of the North Woods
• Advanced Naturalist Internship, Sandstone, MN, United States: The Audubon Center of the North Woods (ACNW) is located in Sandstone, MN. We serve as a private, non-profit residential environmental learning center (RELC), wildlife rehabilitation facility, and conference & retreat center. We offer environmental learning experiences for people of all ages, with programming in natural history and science, team-building, adventure programming, and outdoor/environmental education. Our participants have the opportunity to experience a wide range of learning environments including our wildlife barn, yurt, log cabin, formal science classroom, and of course, the great outdoors! Apply here.

U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Long Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex
• Invasive Plant Intern, Shirley, NY, United States : Interns will work with Refuge staff on the early detection-rapid response invasive species project at Oyster Bay, Target Rock, Seatuck and Wertheim National Wildlife Refuges. This internship will provide individuals with the opportunity to develop invasive species management skills, including identification, mapping and control. Training: On-the-job-training provided by biologists in plant identification and invasive species control techniques. Salary and Housing: Stipend $273/week plus free housing. More details and how to apply here.
•  Conservation Biology Intern,  Sag Harbor, NY, United States: The position will support conservation activities at four units of the Long Island NWR Complex and provide the intern with an opportunity to study wildlife management techniques through actual field work. This internship will focus on several tasks such as monitoring populations of beach nesting birds (e.g. federally threatened piping plover, least and common tern, and American oystercatcher), predator management and invasive species management. Duties include setting up/taking down symbolic fencing/exclosures, weekly population surveys, nest searches, behavioral observations, nest and brood monitoring, predator surveillance and trapping, invasive species mapping and control and public outreach. Position Dates: Start – mid-April or early-May; Ending – Late August to late-September (Approximately 14-18 weeks). Start and end dates are flexible. Salary and Housing: Stipend $273/week plus free housing. More information and how to apply here.

Sandia National Laboratories
• Student Intern – CSRI Grad Summer : Albuquerque, NM, United States: Performs work as an entry- to mid-level member of the workforce within a science and engineering environment involving graduate-level assignments, which may include research, application of project design and diagnostics, testing and documentation, development and analysis of technology options, and assembly and troubleshooting. More details and how to apply here.

Worldwide

MERCK Group
• Internship in Analytical Software Development for at least 6 months in Germany: In a small team you will develop database applications for the .NET-platform. This includes Client/Server applications based on WinForms and ASP.NET with an Oracle database back-end. Based on existing user requirements’ specifications, you will work on the architecture of software systems and the implementation of classes and assemblies. During the development you will write automated unit tests to ensure a high quality of the finished product. Apply here.

IAESTE
• The International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience (IAESTE) is an independent, non-profit and non-political student exchange organisation. It provides students in technical degrees (primarily Science, Engineering and the applied arts) with paid, course-related, training abroad and employers with highly skilled, highly motivated trainees, for long or short term projects. With over 80 countries involved and exchanging over 4000 traineeships each year worldwide, it is the largest organization of its kind in the world. More information and deadlines here.

Contact Singapore
• Research internships:  Undergraduate and graduate students in science, technology, research and engineering can experience the exciting city of Singapore by applying for theExperience Singapore: Summer Research Internships. From Nov. 15, 2012 to Feb 28, 2013, the program is accepting applications for internships. More information here.

UK

The British Science Association
• Media fellowships for researchers: A Media Fellow experiences first-hand how science is reported by spending 3-6 weeks on a summer placement with a press, broadcast or online journalist such as the Guardian, The Irish Times or BBC. They work with professional journalists to produce well informed, newsworthy pieces about developments in science. The Fellows come away better equipped to communicate their research to the media, public and their colleagues.  They develop writing skills that could help  produce concise and engaging articles and funding applications. For details about the scheme, including eligibility and online application form, visit the webpage. Application deadline: 11 March 2013.

The Royal Society
• Summer Science Exhibition intern: The Royal Society has an opportunity for an enthusiastic, self-motivated individual to help deliver the Summer Science Exhibition as a paid intern.  The Summer Science Exhibition is the Royal Society’s premier public event lasting a week with audiences as varied as school groups, the general public and VIPs in the world of science, engineering and mathematics.  The exhibition is a complex event involving over 20 cutting edge exhibits from UK universities as well as a surrounding programme of café scientifique, lectures and debates and family shows. Apply here.

The Wellcome Trust Sanger Centre
• Summer placements are typically available to students studying for their first degree (including medical and veterinary students) who are seeking research/work experience, usually during the summer break. We also welcome applications from master students. Placements are typically for three months between June and September although it may be possible to accommodate alternative periods on request, ranging from one to four months. Placements are potentially available across the full spectrum of the Institute’s activities. Applications are invited from 3rd December 2012 until 28th February 2013 and should be made using our on-line recruitment facility. To apply, visit Current jobs and look for Summer Placement.

The Royal Society of Chemistry
• The Royal Society of Chemistry runs a paid internship every year, which is supported by the Marriott Bequest. For eight weeks the intern will work in RSC’s magazine’s section on Chemistry World and Education in Chemistry. We’re looking for someone coming to the end of their undergraduate or graduate course, preferably in the chemical sciences. A bursary of £1750 is provided for the eight weeks and applications for the position close in late May, although the exact date hasn’t been finalized for the 2013 internship. The link from the 2012 intake is still active:
http://www.rsc.org/Education/EiC/issues/2012May/science-writer-intern-summer-2012.asp

Disclaimer: Naturejobs takes no responsibility for these placements. Please contact individual companies/institutions directly for more information or to apply.

Catherine de Lange (naturejobseditor@nature.com) is a science journalist and the web editor of Naturejobs. She tweets at @catdl

The Naturejobs blog is regularly updated with expert science career advice as well as news updates and events that can help you succeed in your next career move. It also runs themed series of blog posts, guest posts and podcasts. If there's something you'd like to see covered, or you’d like to pitch an idea for a blog post please email the Naturejobs web editor, Catherine de Lange, at naturejobseditor@nature.com and follow us on Twitter: @naturejobs

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Laser-focus Your Job Search with Work in Optics

4. December 2012

Jean-Michel Pelarpat

For optics and photonics industry professionals, navigating the vast universe of job listings on mainstream job sites can be daunting. The specific careers and organizations you seek may be buried among thousands of other outdated or unrelated positions, even after you’ve attempted to narrow down results as much as possible. Fortunately, professional societies such as OSA are available to provide career assistance for their members and the community. Indeed, part of OSA’s mission is to expand and develop the field of optics globally, and a critical step toward that goal is effectively connecting professionals around the world to industry leaders, emerging fields and opportunities for conducting breakthrough research.

OSA’s online job board, WORKinOPTICS.com, provides a global career resource for the optics and photonics community. Accessible by employers and job seekers worldwide, this niche job board gives optics and photonics professionals the unique opportunity to connect directly with organizations at the forefront of their field.

Since its inception, the Work in Optics site has been consistently updated to be as user-friendly and practical as possible. Users can sort job postings by state, country, education level and specific subfields, including academia, aerospace/defense, biotechnology/medical, telecom, government and more. There is no cost for job seekers to browse positions or post their resume, and there are more than 70 open positions currently posted, ranging from leading optics universities, government laboratories and prestigious companies.

The benefits even expand beyond the job seeker -- OSA corporate member companies receive 20 free job postings per membership term, and non-OSA corporate members are welcome to post jobs for a nominal fee. There are nearly 1,800 resumes in the resume database for companies seeking qualified candidates.

 A great new feature on the Work in Optics site is the internship listings page. As someone who serves on the OSA Corporate Associates Committee, I collaborated with OSA leadership and staff to establish this new component to the online job board. We’ve had great success with our internship program here at Vytran, and it was important to me that there be a means to connect students with internship opportunities on the Work in Optics site. The internship page allows OSA corporate members to post unlimited intern positions at no cost (there is a small fee for non-OSA corporate members), and students can browse those listings, apply, and post their resume for free.

I encourage all job seekers or professionals who may be open to a career transition to post their resume to the Work in Optics site. This job site was developed especially for you: It cuts through the clutter of mainstream job websites and gives you direct access to employers or job seekers in your specialized area. Share this resource with a colleague, friend or family member and help us continue to expand our network of bright, innovative optics professionals.

Jean-Michel Pelaprat (jmp@vytran.com) is president and CEO at Vytran Corporation, a supplier of optical fiber splicing and processing solutions based in Morganville, NJ, U.S.A. He is the 2013 chair-elect of the OSA Corporate Associates Committee.

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Perspectives on Studying Abroad

27. July 2012

Zuleykhan Tomova

During my childhood in Russia, my family moved quite often and I was exposed to many lifestyles and opinions. When I got to university, I knew I wanted to continue to broaden my horizons.

Deciding to study abroad
I enjoyed studying at Lomonosov Moscow State University, where I completed my specialist degree (equivalent to the master’s degree in the United States). As the oldest university in Russia, it is an excellent school with a rich history. But for the next phase of my education, I wanted to learn about the lives of students in other countries and experience a different education system. As an undergraduate student working in a research group for the first time, I was also very excited about experimental research. With these ideas in mind, I decided to apply for graduate school overseas.

Finding useful information
Applying for graduate school in another country may sound simple, but the process is actually quite complicated when you lack knowledge and resources. To learn more, I attended summer and winter schools and international conferences. These events allowed me to meet new people and get their advice about making my plans a reality, while at the same time staying abreast of research being done all over the world.

Because of the distance between Moscow and the rest of Europe, it can be difficult for Russian students to attend scientific meetings abroad. Travel is expensive and young scientists’ salaries are not very high. However, I received a number of travel awards to help with the cost. There are many opportunities for awards like these in developing countries, and summer schools and programs offer travel grants. It just takes effort and dedication to find them.

Applying for programs
I learned a great deal from the people I met at conferences, as well as from Internet research. To apply for graduate school in the United States, I had to take the TOEFL and the GRE General and Physics exams. I was also required to submit many documents, including my transcripts and diploma, which had to be translated. The second half of 2009 was one of the most stressful times in my life. At the same time that I was finishing my studies in Russia, I had to prepare for and take a whole other set of exams and compile all my official documents. Taking exams in a foreign language was an additional challenge.

Studying in the United States
Fortunately, my efforts paid off, and I am currently pursuing my Ph.D. at the University of Maryland in College Park. I have a job that I like and a decent stipend. Although I was aware that there would be differences between studying in the United States and Russia, I didn’t realize how dramatic they would be. In Russia, students have up to 10 classes during the semester, in contrast to only two to three classes in the United States. This generally means that American students have a greater depth of knowledge in certain areas, whereas Russians gain a more universal perspective on physics. 

U.S. students have the freedom to choose many of their own classes, whereas in Russia, all students of the same year in a given department must follow the same curriculum. Perhaps the most important difference is that American graduate schools combine the master’s and doctoral curricula, and so students spend five to six years in one school, whereas Russian and European programs are separate. This gives students the opportunity to move between research groups as their careers progress.

Coming to the United States for graduate school has been a great opportunity to learn about a country and people very different from my own. I believe that this cultural exploration is the greatest learning experience that I have had in graduate school.  Studying abroad will help you to discover what your values really are. The practical, day-to-day differences between graduate programs will seem minor in comparison to the broad new perspective you will gain.

Zuleykhan Tomova (ztomova@umd.edu) is a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland, College Park, Md., U.S.A and International Coordinator of IONS Project.

Academic Careers, Career Path, Conferences, Graduate School, International Careers, Ph.D. Perspectives , , , , ,

Launching Your Science Career in a Developing Country

11. July 2012

Diana Antonosyan

Albert Einstein once said that, “Science is a wonderful thing if one does not have to earn one’s living at it.” This perfectly describes the predicament of working in science in a developing country. As I began my career in Armenia, I was excited and passionate about physics. But when I started my own research, I was forced to confront the catastrophic lack of money for scientific research typical in emerging nations.

A serious obstacle
Early-career scientists sometimes don’t prioritize their salary and instead do research for the love of it. However, even if one doesn’t expect or need to make much money, there are still obstacles to overcome. These include limited access to scientific journals, a lack of modern technologies in laboratories, and the inability to present one’s results at major conferences because of insufficient funds. All of these barriers exclude young and talented researchers from the international scientific community and impede their progress. As a result, these scientists may become uncompetitive or leave the field.

Finding support and solutions
So what is one to do? There are a number of ways to overcome these problems. My solution was to leave my country and continue my work in one of the leading universities in the world, where there was better funding. But I did many other things before I made this decision. I realized that attendance at conferences was a very important prerequisite to becoming a competitive scientist, so I started to look for conference funding.

I recommend that all aspiring researchers join their local OSA and SPIE student chapters. This is an excellent first step that links you with the international scientific community. There are many benefits from membership, from notifications about conferences, to discounts and even travel grants for attendance. Another possibility is obtaining international funds that support early career students, particularly from developing countries. You can also find support at home. There are non-profit groups with funds available and professional organizations at most universities that support talented young students.

The importance of making contacts
My main advice is to talk to people. At conferences you should make an effort to connect with professors and other scholars. This can sometimes seem difficult. You may feel shy because of language barriers, afraid to ask a silly question, or nervous about being rejected by famous or experienced scientists. However, you need to forget these fears in order to be successful. Be prepared, goal-oriented, active and confident. As a result, you may get good advice or even an invitation from a leading group in your field to continue your research, as happened to me.

All of this demands effort: outstanding results in research, the ability to write well to present projects, and excellent communication skills to interact with potential sponsors. If you are seeking a career in science, you have to work hard to develop these personal traits.

The hard truth is that success won’t wait for you and won’t be given to you.  You will only find it by having big dreams and working hard and persistently to make them come true, regardless of where you start your career.

Diana Antonosyan (dantonosyan@gmail.com) received her Master’s degree from Yerevan state University in 2008. She was awarded “The Best Female Student Prix of 2010” from the Republic of Armenia President in the IT sphere. She is currently doing her Ph.D. research in nonlinear optics and quantum information technologies at NLPC, RSPE, the Australian National University.

Academic Careers, Career Path, Communication Skills, Conferences, Graduate School, International Careers, OSA Student Chapters , , ,

The Benefits of an Industry Internship: OPN Talks with Jung Park

24. May 2012

This week, OPN talks with Jung Park, an OSA recent graduate member. Jung found an industry internship with Intel Corporation while completing his Ph.D. in 2010 at the University of California, San Diego, U.S.A.  He discusses how he got the internship and why he believes Ph.D. students can benefit from stepping outside of academia, whether or not they decide to stay there.

 OPN: What made you decide to pursue an internship in industry?

Jung: During my graduate studies, I was mostly encouraged to pursue a career in academia. While I had some interest in doing so, I wasn’t certain that I was ready to commit to the long and arduous path to a tenured position at a university. When the time came to decide what to do next, I kept myself open to a variety of options, including jobs in industry as well as positions in government research labs and academia. I started researching to find out what types of positions I could pursue after I graduated.

OPN: How did you get your internship?

Jung: While attending the Frontiers in Optics conference, I met someone who worked for Intel Corporation in photonics research and development and discovered that the company was offering an internship. I interviewed for the position and was fortunate enough to receive an offer.  Although I came upon the internship somewhat by chance, I recognized it as a unique opportunity and jumped at it without hesitation.

OPN: How did you benefit from your internship?

Jung: I benefitted in a number of ways. Technically, the work was quite interesting and challenging, but it was very different than what I had done in an academic setting. While in graduate school, I had the freedom to satisfy my intellectual curiosity by conducting my own experiments. As an intern, however, I was working with a larger team of people that had a broad range of technical backgrounds and areas of expertise. We had to deliver on much more clearly defined goals. In a fairly short time, I became exposed to a variety of research areas.

Ultimately, being part of such a team gave me a new perspective and helped me to identify my place in the field. Although I found my graduate project interesting, I did not feel like I was working on something real until I applied what I had learned to my work in industry. Over the course of my graduate research, I became less interested in “pushing” ideas produced from research in the hope that they would be adopted for commercial or practical applications. Instead, I became more intrigued by the idea of “pulling” innovative solutions from demonstrated principles to solve real world problems.
While in academia, I worked to discover new principles and sought to produce high-impact publications. After working in industry, I realize that what I find most rewarding is not publications, citations and recognition, but rather developing the potential of a burgeoning technology.

OPN: What advice would you give to graduate students considering an industry internship?

Jung: I would highly encourage any graduate student to consider an internship in industry. It is important to learn about a variety of areas and to see things from different viewpoints. Even those whose ultimate goal is to pursue an academic career can benefit from this experience. In practical terms, industry experience provides a competitive advantage and makes one’s resume stand out, since many Ph.D. students have only done academic research. It also provides invaluable networking opportunities, which I encourage all students to take advantage of as much as possible. You never know when an opportunity might come up. I have no doubt that my industry internship led to my current position, in addition to the many invaluable lessons that I learned.

Jung Park (jung.s.park@intel.com) received his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of California, San Diego in 2010. He is currently a member of the Photonics Technology Lab at Intel Corporation, where he works to integrate silicon photonics devices for optical interconnects in computing applications.

 

Academic Careers, Career Path, Engineering, Graduate School, International Careers, Internships, Nontraditional Science Careers, Profiles , , , , , , , , , , ,

Postdoc Perspectives: My Experience Working Abroad

25. March 2011

By Elena Silaeva

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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