Bright Futures Q&A: Debbie Berebichez

28. September 2016

OPN recently had the opportunity to talk with Debbie Berebichez about an increasingly hot topic for physics graduates: careers in data science.

Berebichez received her Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Stanford University, Calif., USA, but opted to not pursue an academic career. Instead, she sought out roles unexplored by most scientists. Berebichez first combined her love for communicating science in her online video series, “Science Babe: The Science of Everyday Life.” In these videos, she explained basic science, like the inner workings of a microwave oven. The videos attracted the attention of Oprah Winfrey, and in 2007, Berebichez was invited to be the keynote speaker at a conference on women’s leadership organized by Winfrey and her team. From there, Berebichez went on to host scientific television shows—even while working a day job on Wall Street.

Berebichez is now the chief data scientist at Metis, a data science-training company. Here, she tells us of her unique path to this burgeoning field and how other physicists can make the same transition.

OPN: Many would assume physics and data science are quite different. Tell us about your journey from one field to the other.

I decided to leave academia in 2009, and that’s when I became aware of “quants”—physicists and mathematicians on Wall Street.

I met physicists who were happy applying their quantitative skills on Wall Street, so I decided to try it. I first worked for a year for a quantitative hedge fund. I enjoyed it. What I was doing there—even though it didn’t have the name of data science—was essentially data science … I found the math fascinating and challenging.

OPN: You then spent six years on Wall Street. Can you elaborate on how you were eventually introduced to data science as a field?

I heard of data science late in the game; I guess I had never heard the term. My friend Hilary Mason, a renowned data scientist, invited me to speak at a conference called DataGotham. I talked about my work in finance. People approached me at the end claiming that what I was talking about was data science. That was funny, because for me it’s always been quantitative science—I didn’t really know what data science was. I started to find out more and more.

I left Wall Street, and it was quite easy, actually, to find a job in data science. They really crave people with physics backgrounds. Plus, if you’ve had some experience with Wall Street, they really like that combination.

OPN: Metis, your current company data offers science boot camps—intensive courses lasting a short time. These seem to be quite popular. Can you tell us more about them?

Our boot camp is a 12-week immersive program held in either New York, N.Y., USA or San Francisco, Calif., USA. Our instructors are experienced senior data scientists. They teach students about Python (a programming language), statistics and algorithms. Students also learn about machine-learning, deep-learning and big-data tools such as Hadoop and Spark.

The boot camp is structured around project-based learning. Students complete five projects throughout the 12 weeks. At the end of the program, students present their final project in front of an audience of companies that will hopefully hire them.

OPN: How does one become a student at a (Metis) boot camp?

We have an admissions process that’s just like a university’s. Applicants get two interviews with instructors where they (the applicants) answer technical questions. We admit about 35 to 40 percent of our applicants.

If we feel that an applicant is going to struggle in a boot camp, we’ll reject them. We let them know where their weaknesses are so that they can apply in the future. We’ve had many people who’ve come back to us that way. We also give about 60 hours of pre-work, to get participants up to speed with what they’ll be learning, and to homogenize backgrounds.

OPN: Boot camp sounds intense. How do students adjust?

We deal with the “imposter complex” quite a bit the first few weeks. We tell students that we want the water level to be at their neck, so they’re not completely drowning, but it’s not the shallow end where people can comfortably walk. This way everybody feels challenged.

Boot camp feels like an incomplete process, because it doesn’t feel like you master everything. But that’s part of what data science is, since it’s such a complex field. You’re never going to know everything; you’re never going to master all the algorithms. As long as students are comfortable looking things up and thinking on their own, then we’ve done our job. But it is a challenge.

OPN: If somebody’s coming into data science from a physics background, what are the holes that somebody in that position might need to fill?

You will realize—if you try to move into data science—that physics is an immense gift. Physics is the basis for so many things; it helps people acquire the essential skills of data science—how to solve problems and how to communicate the solution of those problems to stakeholders—no matter what field you’re in. I haven’t seen any other type of preparation that is better at taking the plunge and solving problems than a physics background.

OPN: What is the best way to prepare for a career in data science?

Boot camp is certainly a great option; we’ve had many physics students and other quantitative backgrounds come through the boot camp run. The biggest challenge is the softer skills like communication … it’s almost like they get rusty with that after spending many years in the lab or in academia.

Besides the boot camp, there are plenty of resources out there. There are many Coursera courses online—even universities are getting on the wagon and offering data science courses (though my own view is that those tend to be very slow compared to the boot camps).

OPN: Is there a place in data science for those who are further along in their careers? Say a mid-career professional in optics wanted to make a career change—would data science be accommodating to someone in that situation?

I would venture to say that Metis’ oldest student was close to 60. The incredible thing is that the salaries that you start with in data science are a lot higher than the ones that people have in academia or research.

It’s very interesting to see people who are mid-management or at the executive level in their careers come and be humbled by this boot camp—it’s challenging ... They definitely go through this sort of shaky month or two. They question if they’ll ever come out successful on the other side.

OPN: But you’ve had mid-level or executive level professionals find success in boot camp, yes?

Yes. Many of the students, once they get the hang of it and learn it’s okay to get your hands dirty, and not be the best for three months—and really try to learn as much as you can—are the students that are older and get amazing positions. They renew themselves and have this new lease on their professional life, because they never thought at 45, 50 or 55 they would be able to get jobs.

OPN: What are the big growth areas in data science going to be?

There are many cutting-edge techniques. For example, natural-language processing is applied to many different fields­­—from marketing to artificial intelligence (AI) and spatial analysis. Medical device companies use data science. Anything that has to do with what’s called the “Internet of Things,” like putting sensors everywhere to optimize climate control in a factory, or to optimize the driving of a driverless car, also use data science.

All the independent AI stuff requires an immense amount of data science power … it’s a huge, booming industry hiring data scientists. Therefore, anything that’s related to products that collect data—and needs to be analyzed for insight—requires data science.

OPN: Data science has also made its way into traditionally less technical fields. Tell us about some of the advances there.

There’s quantitative marketing. Many online ad agencies struggle to know the impact of their ad campaign; they want to have smart advertising. They’re not happy with simply putting an ad on TV and not knowing. Obviously, that industry has evolved a tremendous amount.

Even trading companies like DataMiner (who trade based on social network data) do a sensitivity analysis to see, for example, what items are becoming popular on Twitter before Black Friday. They apply data analysis techniques to know how to influence the market and sell different products.

OPN: What sort of companies are hiring data scientists?

All the big online companies, like Facebook and Google, are constantly looking for data scientists because they want to be able to recommend products to people, and they want the recommendations to be refined and targeted. They use machine-learning methods, like collaborative filtering and classification algorithms to find people like you. They’re recommending what they have bought or find your historical pattern and recommend products based on that.

OPN: What sort of innovative work is coming out of data science?

I find deep learning to be fascinating. It’s part of this cutting-edge area that combines machine learning with neural networks. Neural networks were something that physicists tried to use many years ago, but didn’t have the computing power. Now it’s a way of finding the answer to deep questions, including science questions. I believe IBM’s Watson may be using this with their successful bio part. That’s an area that’s more cutting-edge, and companies that are doing virtual reality and AI are getting into it.

OPN: You’re speaking at the Strata conference on how data can be misleading through the poor use of statistics. Can you tell us more about this?

I think that’s a question that is deep in my heart. Coming from physics, I want to teach data science not as a memorization book, but as a critical thinking exercise. But that experience of people working very closely with data—and being incredibly savvy at manipulating data—and yet not knowing what they’re doing, that is everywhere in data science. It’s really alerted me to the necessity of having people think through their datasets and what they’re doing, before they become savvy at data mining.

Dr. Debbie Berebichez is the chief data scientist at Metis. She is also a physicist, TV host and STEM advocate. She graduated from Stanford University, Calif., USA, with a Ph.D. in Physics, and received undergraduate degrees from Brandeis University, Mass., USA. Berebichez is a co-host on Discovery Channel’s Outrageous Acts of Science TV show.

Photo by Bruce F. Press Photography

Career Path, Nontraditional Science Careers, Profiles

How to Tell Your Advisor That You're Leaving Academia

28. August 2014

Jena Pitman-Leung, Ph.D. 

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

Many people enter into a Ph.D. program or postdoctoral fellowship thinking that they’ll be in academia forever. But for about 70 percent of trainees, this plan changes along the way. Sometimes it happens over a long period of time, and sometimes it happens quickly. Either way, their advisor is usually the last person to find out. Despite the changing culture, many advisors simply do not want their trainees to leave academia.

One of the questions that I've been frequently asked since joining Propel Careers is, “How do I tell my advisor I'm leaving academia?” For many people, the anticipation of this conversation is worse than any other conversation with their advisor.

I wish I could remember how I told my postdoc advisor, but I was too flustered to remember the details. I do, however, remember the outcome–thankfully, I received understanding and support. I've had a number of years to look back on this experience and talk to others who've gone through it, and I’ve identified a few tactics that made this conversation easier.

Give enough notice
When you decide to leave academia, try to give your advisor enough notice to make him or her feel comfortable. Most Ph.D. students begin looking for a postdoc position about a year before graduating, so this would be a good time to tell them you plan to look for a different job.

Have a research plan in place
Present your advisor with an exit plan to ease any worries about you leaving the lab with unfinished experiments. Create a list of work left to do, along with a timeline and who you will hand tasks off to, if necessary. Include as much detail as possible!

Have a future plan in place
You may not know exactly what you want to do after leaving the lab, but hopefully you have an idea. Once you choose a career path, allow yourself enough time to assess your skillset and build any skills needed to transition into your new role. If this requires some time out of the lab, tell your advisor what your plans are, why they are important to your career development and how you will build the skills you need without interfering with finishing your research.

Don't present your choice as a bad thing
You may feel guilty or like you are disappointing your advisor. Even if you get a less-than-supportive response, it is important to stay positive. Present the news as an exciting career transition, NOT as a backup plan. The more self-reflection you do ahead of time and the more confident you are in your decision, the easier this will be. It's okay if it takes a little time to get to this point–just remember, this is your career, and you are in charge.

Make sure they know you value your training
Ph.D. and postdoc training is incredibly valuable. Even if it's not the experience you hoped it would be, you can’t get through without learning something. You want your advisor to feel that the training you received will not be wasted. Your technical abilities, communication skills, ability to collaborate and work with others, train junior colleagues, grasp complicated questions, think critically and see solutions are skills that will be useful in careers outside of academia.

Although research trainee success is still defined by many granting institutions as “success within academia,” this is changing. As you progress in your career, check in periodically with your advisor to update him or her on your successes. This way, you can be included in faculty boasting as the former trainee who “helped discover the cure for cancer while working on a team at X pharma,” or the former trainee who “developed a medical device used to diagnose X disease.” As a bonus for doing this, you may make it easier for your peers to have their own discussions with your mentor!

Jena Pitman-Leung, Ph.D., is a Career Development Consultant at Propel Careers and has been with Propel Careers since August, 2013. During her graduate studies at Northwestern University and postdoctoral studies at the University of Massachusetts Medical School she was the primary mentor of over a dozen undergraduate and graduate students; providing career advice, and training them to be independent scientists. Prior to joining Propel, Jena worked as a consultant at a Boston-area firm specializing in fatigue risk management in 24/7 industries.

 

Academic Careers, Career Path, Communication Skills, Nontraditional Science Careers, Ph.D. Perspectives, Postdocs , , , , , ,

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.

 

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Read to Succeed

20. May 2013

Milton Chang

I began reading several business publications when I was in graduate school in the 1960s. I had a hard time understanding them at first, but it became progressively easier, and over time, they gave me valuable insight into that world.

Whether you plan to start a company or not, I believe that every engineer can benefit from knowing something about business and management. You’ll have a better sense of how technology fits into real-world enterprises; become more effective on the job; learn how to interact with management; and lead people and projects, even when you make engineering decisions.

Moreover, as a practical matter, it is almost impossible to maintain an edge in a 40-year career as a pure technologist. Learning about business and management enables engineers to move into managerial positions and to remain vital and productive. It gives a technical person the opportunity to oversee projects that follow a product’s development from the idea stage to market application. Moreover, anyone who does want to start a business will embark on the process with less fear of the unknown and avoid fatal mistakes from the start.

Reading business magazines and newspapers is a good way to begin learning about the business world. There are four publications on my can’t-miss reading list: Bloomberg Businessweek, Forbes, Fortune and The Wall Street Journal. While some of these periodicals overlap in content, each one offers a different emphasis and perspective.

Bloomberg Businessweek (formerly Business Week)
If you only subscribe to one business magazine, this should be it. I like the section on “Global Economics,” which offers useful background information that helps drive decision-making in industry. I also like the “Technology” department, which keeps me abreast of what’s new with a wide range of products and businesses beyond optics and photonics.

Forbes
This magazine zooms in on the business strategies of specific companies. The “Technology” section highlights interesting new products and innovative ideas. “Entrepreneurs” covers the process that entrepreneurs go through to start companies and explores how they deal with the challenges they encounter along the way. “Investing” provides valuable information that guides how to make wise investment choices.

Fortune
Fortune gets into more specifics about successful, high-profile individuals. What do these people do and how do they live? I always find an interesting scoop in the “Scandals” section. It describes ill-gotten wealth and serves as a good reminder that we cannot always believe what we encounter.

The Wall Street Journal
Published six days a week, this is a great day-to-day resource that provides up-to-date information about what’s going on in business. It is a must-read for anyone who wants to optimize their investment in anything—whether it is in the stock market or real estate.

Other gems
Through reading, you can open yourself up to a vast array of career options—and simply broaden your perspective on life. With that in mind, I also recommend reading a local newspaper every day and following the Economist to learn more about the rest of the world.

And, of course, I wish more people would read my book, Toward Entrepreneurship, Establishing a Successful Technology Business. It is an easy read, and it covers much of what you’ll learn in an MBA program, but it is customized for the individuals in our industry.

Yes, you are successful because you were focused enough to become an expert in your field. Broadening a bit to strike a balance can help you to accomplish even more. Reading these publications is a painless way to start!

Milton Chang (miltonchang@incubic.com) is the managing director of Incubic Management and an OSA Fellow. He was president of Newport and New Focus, and he took both companies public. He is the director of mBio Diagnostics and Aurrion. He is a trustee of Caltech and a member of the SEC Advisory Committee on Small and Emerging Companies.

Academic Careers, Career Path, Communication Skills, Nontraditional Science Careers, Small Business and Entrepreneurs , , , , , , ,

Working at a U.S. Military Lab: What You Can Expect

7. May 2013

Michael Duncan

Sometimes people ask me what it’s like to work at a military laboratory. Having worked at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) for my entire career, I can’t really compare it to other work environments—but my experience has been good overall. My job has allowed me to pursue a diverse array of projects and to expand my horizons, both in fundamental and applied optics.  It also gave me the opportunity to work for a few years at the Office of Naval Research, the Navy’s science and technology funding organization. Here’s what to expect if you go to work for a national lab like NRL.

You can expect to write proposals, since NRL is mostly funded by customers outside of the lab. (This is now probably a constant for any working scientist in industry, government, or academia!) Thus, you certainly need to write coherently and well.

You can also expect to work in a small group of 2 to 5 colleagues, so the ability to work and communicate well with other people is critical. At the Ph.D. level, you will be looked at as an expert in a certain area (a subject matter expert, or SME, in government-speak), but you will need to quickly use your training to expand your knowledge into related areas.

Publishing and presenting your work at conferences is important, but you might not be using the same venues that you did as a student. Classified research is a likely component of what you do, but probably not everything. You won’t be teaching, although government scientists often have adjunct professorships at local schools. To work in a U.S. military lab, you must be a citizen of the United States.

In a government or military lab, you are hired because of your research specialty and your ability to solve problems. You will be more constrained on your research topics than you would be in academia, but you can also contribute to solving a much broader range of problems, from basic science to applied technology. This is the aspect of my career that has been the most satisfying.

All of the armed services have a kind of “dual-track” for advancement as a scientific professional. There is the traditional approach of moving from research into management, and there is also a “science and technology” track that allows you to advance in stature and pay without having to become a manager.

Sometimes having a position in a military lab can isolate you from the broader technical field you work in, so it is extremely important to stay active in a professional organization such as OSA. The Optical Society has allowed me to remain connected to the larger field of optics and the people doing the most innovative research. This has not only benefitted me; it has also made me a more valuable employee to NRL.

In my view, the less favorable aspects of working for the military are the heavy amount of government paperwork, the training and security requirements, and some of the research limitations. Overall, though, I’ve found that a career in a military lab provides great opportunities to work with government and military organizations to advance science and technology. You will interact with many smart and motivated people, in and out of uniform, and you may work with world-class equipment and test platforms such as F/A-18 jets, aircraft carriers, and nuclear submarines. Your position can lead you to other careers in government as well. In short, investing in your country can be a great way to invest in yourself.

Michael D. Duncan (michael.duncan@nrl.navy.mil) is a research physicist at the Naval Research Laboratory.

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Breaking into Academia: OPN Talks with Audrey Ellerbee

7. March 2013

OSA member and Stanford assistant professor Audrey Ellerbee talks with Optics & Photonics News about her path into academia. Thanks to OSA member Brooke Hester for working with Audrey to gather her insights.

What is your background prior to becoming a professor?

My background is pretty typical for someone in my field, but two things stand out. First, my appointments spanned several disciplines. I received my B.S. in electrical engineering, went on to graduate school for my Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in chemistry and chemical biology. Second, I took time off to do other things between career transitions. Before I started my Ph.D., I spent a year teaching math and computer science in the department of infocommunications technology at Ngee Ann Polytechnic in Singapore through the Princeton-in-Asia program. Immediately after completing my degree, I did a year-long fellowship working in public policy as the 2007-8 OSA/SPIE Arthur H. Guenther Congressional Fellow. Although non-traditional, these career choices were very helpful in broadening my skill set and experience.

How did you enter academia?

The beginning of my career was a little unusual in that I was offered a position directly out of graduate school but did not actually begin my work until three years later. It was during that time that I did the policy fellowship and postdoctoral work.

What are your current responsibilities?

I can categorize them into five areas: research, teaching, mentoring, service and administration. Of these, research is the broadest and most difficult to define because my progress is intimately tied with that of my graduate students. Research tasks include writing proposals and papers, conducting experiments, analyzing data and giving talks. Teaching encompasses everything from generating new content for a course to preparing lectures and homework assignments to managing teaching assistants. My mentoring work involves tracking the progress of my graduate students and any other students or mentees to whom I play an advisory role. Service includes any work for university committees, my department or my professional communities. Finally, my administrative responsibilities are day-to-day things such as managing budgets, hiring people, planning travel, ordering equipment, etc.

How does your role differ from the one you had as a grad student or postdoc?

The major differences are the volume of responsibilities and the authority to manage people. As a graduate student, I did some work in all of the areas I just described, but most of it was optional and limited in scope. For example, my decision to serve as student body president meant that I worked on many university committees, but that was a voluntary extracurricular activity. The teaching I did (apart from my work in Singapore) was as a teaching assistant, and I only gave one lecture as a graduate student; I never had to design a new course. Now, I have a much greater number and broader range of tasks that I am expected to do.

Managing people is also very new to me. It takes time to learn to hire the right people, to help students stay on track, and to build a work culture that is consistent with your vision. This last goal is the biggest challenge that I face. I believe that my lab will run much more smoothly if the culture is right. Although it is not always that simple, I make an effort to be systematic in my approach to the work environment so that it is easier for people to connect with and work well in my lab.

What advice would you give to others looking to break into academia?

Develop a clear vision for what you would like to do and begin planning before you start your postdoctoral work. If at all possible, choose a postdoc that will complement your current background, broaden your experience, and allow you to move into a new area.

Audrey Ellerbee (audrey@ee.stanford.edu) is an assistant professor of electrical engineering in the department of applied physics at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., U.S.A.

Academic Careers, Career Path, Graduate School, Job Search, Nontraditional Science Careers , , , , ,

From Optical Engineer to Lawyer: The Unusual Career Path of Bill Greener

1. February 2013

William Greener has had a diverse career that has taken him from optics to farming to law school. He is currently a high-tech patent attorney with the law firm of Bond, Schoeneck & King, PLLC. This post has been adapted from an interview with him that appeared in the OSA Rochester section January newsletter.

OPN: Tell us about your career path.

Bill: I have wanted to be a physicist since I was about nine. I got hooked on optics after constructing a hologram as a sophomore physics major at Canisius College. I earned my M.S. in optical engineering from the Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester, where I learned from top optics experts including Brian Thompson, Rudolph Kingslake and M. Parker Givens. I also took a course with OSA Fellow Duncan Moore.

In 1976, I accepted a job offer from Pratt and Whitney Aircraft in West Palm Beach, Fla. I was part of a team that built and tested the closed cavity of MIRACL (Mid-Infra-Red Advanced Chemical Laser)—a hydrogen-fluoride gas dynamic laser whose 13-in. cavity mirrors were cooled by jet fuel.

After five years in Florida, my life took a different direction. My wife and I moved to New York to pursue another dream—to operate a farm. We enrolled in the agriculture college at SUNY Alfred and farmed dairy calves for the next eight years.

During that time, I also attended law school at SUNY Buffalo, which led to a federal court clerkship, a three-year stint with a small patent boutique law firm, and then a job at Corning, Inc. I was a senior patent attorney in charge of Corning’s worldwide erbium-doped fiber amplifier portfolio. Five years later, I joined Kodak and then Bausch & Lomb, where I managed the ophthalmic laser surgery portfolio.

I joined Bond, Schoeneck & King in 2005. We have a significant intellectual property group that includes 10 U.S.-registered patent attorneys. My primary clients include the University of Rochester, Cornell and the University of Central Florida/CREOL. Some of the technologies I work on include multiphoton and computational imaging, nanophotonics and opto-fluidics.

OPN: How did your scientific background prepare you for law school?

Bill: Law school emphasizes some of the same skills I learned as an engineer: logic, discipline and analytical thinking. What was new to me is the notion that 2+2 can equal whatever you can convince certain others that you want it to be equal to. Facts are always facts, but the laws are different in just about every jurisdiction, and the application of the law to the facts can lead to unexpected outcomes.

I took a systemic approach to problem solving in law school that drew on my experience in the lab and on the farm. In both scenarios, I had to not only address the problems at hand but anticipate all the things that could go wrong—whether they included a dysfunctional laser or a billy goat with its collar stuck in an electric fence.

OPN: What do you do as a patent attorney?

Bill: A typical case starts when I receive an invention disclosure from a client. I meet with the inventor to flesh out the details of the invention and determine the most commercially valuable form for which we will apply for patent protection. This often involves commissioning a patentability search through a professional search firm. At this stage I draft the broadest claims covering aspects of the invention that I believe would be patentable.

Once I and the inventor (and often a licensee) are comfortable with the content and scope of the patent claims, I prepare the specifications and drawings. We electronically file the application in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and then wait for at least 12 months to get our first substantive response—which is almost always a rejection of the claim. The examiner provides reasons that she believes render the submitted claims “obvious” or not new. My job is to convince her otherwise. If we are successful, the examiner will eventually send out a “Notice of Allowance.” We pay a fee and the applicant is granted a patent.

I also provide opinions about a client’s right to use their invention. I prepare confidentiality agreements, review contracts, formulate license agreements, and advise clients.

OPN: You’ve described a career that many optics students might not think of.

Bill: Practicing patent law enabled me to integrate my love of science and engineering with tools that make great technology accessible and sustainable. I encourage anyone with a passion for technology and its presence in the real world to explore patent law as a career. I’d be happy to speak with anyone who wants to know more. You can reach me via email at wgreener@bsk.com.

 

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

A Roadmap to Consulting

24. October 2012

Jennifer Kruschwitz

At last week’s Frontiers in Optics meeting, OSA member and thin-film consultant Jennifer Kruschwitz shared her advice about how to prepare for a career in consulting during a Minorities and Women in OSA event. Jennifer was recognized as Digital Rochester’s 2012 Technology Woman of the Year.

There are a lot of reasons why one might want to pursue a career in consulting. For me, self-employment was something I’d always wanted to do. It was in my nature: Both my parents and siblings owned their own businesses, and I viewed the prospect as familiar and doable.

Others might find that they’ve hit a wall in their current job; even though they always get excellent reviews at work, they consistently get passed over for promotions. For still others, consulting could be the option that allows them the flexibility they need to balance work and family or to circumvent the frustrating “two body” problem, in which professional couples must figure out how to live in the same geographic location when relevant jobs there are limited for one of them.

No matter what your reason, you’ll need to prepare well before embarking on your journey toward consulting by taking the following steps.

Gain expertise in your field. In whatever job you have, you can set the stage for a consulting career by becoming the go-to person for challenging tasks. Find ways to add value to any project you are involved with and learn how to be productive between projects, so your expertise is always growing. Also, the more you can publish and present your scientific work, the better. Getting your name out to the community is critical.

Build your network. As you build your reputation, grow your network as well. You’ll want to get to know not only other scientists, but other professionals in the small business community. Volunteering with professional societies is a great way to start.

Put yourself on solid financial footing. Try to start your business from a strong financial position. You can do this by reducing your personal debt and saving as much money as possible. Before you get started, you’ll need to research your rates so that you can justify them to your clients and yourself. If you set your rates too high, you may not get any business; it you set them too low, others may perceive your work to be of low quality. Finally, think about how willing you are to be flexible with clients based on their particular situations.

After you’ve taken the plunge, the next step is to build your business. You might pursue one of more of the following options.

Partner with a larger firm that doesn’t have your specialty. Keep on top of the businesses in your field and related areas so you can identify those that provide a good, strategic fit. Then set up a time to talk with a contact there about how you can work together to your mutual benefit.

Work for a previous employer on a contractual basis. This possibility is one reason you shouldn’t burn bridges when you leave any job. You can never count out any company as a potential client or partner down the line.

Complement your business with another form of income. Whether it is a teaching position or research gig, having another role can help sustain you financially while also contributing to your portfolio of skills.

By being prepared, you can position yourself strongly as a fledgling business. Don’t let a lack of confidence get in your way. If you are nervous about being a consultant … pretend you’re somebody else! You (or your alter ego) can do it!

Jennifer D.T. Kruschwitz (jkconsult@kruschwitz.com) is a Senior OSA member and principal optical coating design engineer at her own company, J.K. Consulting, Rochester, N.Y., U.S.A. She is also an adjunct professor at the University of Rochester and an adjunct associate professor at the University of Arizona.

Career Path, Communication Skills, Consulting, Job Search, Nontraditional Science Careers, Small Business and Entrepreneurs , , , ,

Career Advice from Top Entrepreneur Milton Chang

16. October 2012

Milton Chang

At this week’s Frontiers in Optics meeting, Milton Chang shared his advice about how to forge a path toward entrepreneurship at the OSA Student Leadership Conference. Here are highlights from his talk.

Many of you are already off to a good start toward constructing a fulfilling technical career: You have shown active involvement in your community and picked a technical field for your future. You will find your niche and do well.

I was once where you are: wondering what to do with my career. I immigrated from Hong Kong for college; worked my way through my undergraduate years; and was employed by an aerospace company for a few years. Then I joined a start-up as the 7th employee. Eventually I became president of that company—The Newport Corporation—and took it public.

You too can build a successful future. With your technical know-how, you can do anything you want, as long as you continue to broaden yourself, learn and study. Here’s how to ensure that your career will move in the right direction over the long term:

Gain as much expertise as possible to compete for opportunities. Hiring managers are looking for someone with expertise who can get the job done. Having a graduate degree is a great starting point—

but don’t stop there. Learn as many skills as possible to gain access to jobs that others will not have. Often having the combination of a few skills will lead you to many more opportunities than you would have with just one area of expertise: 1+1=10.

Having a breadth of knowledge enables you to make sound decisions. When choosing your career path, you don’t want to have blinders on—so make sure you learn about subjects beyond your technical area. In particular, having business acumen and an understanding of management can make you more effective on the job as an engineer and also provide you with more career options.

Your reputation and your network are your resources. There are two types of networking you can engage in as a professional: The “shoulder slapping” variety, in which you forge friendly connections with a wide range of others, and the stronger relationships you have with a few confidantes. Both types are important to your career.

For those interested in pursuing the entrepreneurial path, here’s how to get started:

Be really good at what you do and know your industry. This is the #1 requirement for being an entrepreneur. You need both technical expertise and knowledge of business and management. Avoid pursuing an idea that is outside of the industry you know intimately; instead go for a niche that capitalizes on your expertise and grow the business over time as you gain experience.

Start by joining a well managed company. Perish the thought of starting a company right out of school—you simply don’t know enough yet. Strive to succeed by first learning what it takes to succeed and by building your professional reputation and network.

Take on project management. You don’t want to just grind away at a narrow task or technology that could at some point become obsolete. Engaging in big-picture project management will help you gain well-rounded skills, build your network and learn how the world works. This is what will make you become more valuable over time. Volunteering for a professional society is a great way to start.

In summary, I recommend that you think broadly about your career first, and then decide later if entrepreneurship is right for you. For more specifics on starting a business, read my book Toward Entrepreneurship: Establishing a Successful Technology Business.

Milton Chang (miltonchang@incubic.com) is the director of Precision Photonics, mBio and Aurrion, a trustee of Caltech, and a member of the SEC Advisory Committee on Small and Emerging Companies.

Career Path, Job Search, Nontraditional Science Careers, Small Business and Entrepreneurs , , , , ,

Are You an Entrepreneur?

25. September 2012

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.

Recently, I encountered several graduate students who were considering starting their own businesses. While many people dream about being an entrepreneur, a significantly smaller number are willing to put in the time and effort it takes to make their dream a reality. A colleague who has been running his own company for over 20 years said that, when people ask for his advice on starting a business, he tries to talk them out of it to gauge how dedicated they are to the idea. When he started his own business, he noted that “the only thing that would have stopped me from doing it was if my wife had told me no!”

If you have that kind of dedication, you just might be an entrepreneur.

Starting point
A great place to begin is by writing a business plan—a document in which you completely describe the business. Forcing yourself to write it down will make you step back and really plan out the venture. The living document then serves as a roadmap as you move forward and start to involve other people. 

Summary
One of the first sections of the business plan will be the executive summary. You should be able to describe your business in several different levels of detail. Are you going to sell a product or a service? What is your targeted industry? What will make your offerings compelling to potential customers?

Legal structure
Will you start a sole proprietorship, partnership, limited liability company, C or S corporation? The form you select will have implications for taxes, liability, staffing and complexity. Make sure you understand all the options and implications, and choose what’s right for you. 

Products and services
While you may have an idea of what you’re going to sell, in a written business plan you’ll have to detail your offerings. How many different products/versions will you have to offer in the beginning? How is your offering going to be different/better from other things already on the market? Will you offer customization? How will you protect your intellectual property? Will you patent your ideas, or keep them trade secrets?

Market analysis
Describe the industry in which you will be working, including historical, current, and projected future size. What subsection constitutes your target market? What is the critical problem your offering is going to solve? What alternatives are they currently using?  What are their geographic and demographic characteristics? Who is your ideal customer? Are there any seasonal or cyclical purchasing patterns you’ll have to work around? What market share do you expect, and why?

Marketing plan
Once you have your product and target market, you have to get the two together. What is your marketing plan? How are those ideal customers going to find out about your offering? Will you exhibit at trade shows or conferences? Offer free trials?

Competitive intelligence
Who exactly is your competition? It could be other companies—or possibly even your own potential customers if they have the capability to devise internal solutions to the problem you aim to address? What are the strengths, weaknesses and market share of each? How important is this market to your competitors? What are barriers to entry to this market? What other offerings will present to differentiate you from the pack? What is on the horizon from other companies?

Organization and management
Who is going to run the company? What is their expertise and experience? If you are plan to hire employees, you become responsible for bringing in enough business to cover their salary, and taxes, while reporting requirements get more complicated. Depending on the number of employees you have and the state in which you are operating, various other regulations start to apply as headcount numbers increase. How will you address the various regulatory requirements?

Pricing
How much is it really going to cost to make your product or service, and how will you price it? Are you going to compete on low cost and high volume? Or high cost and high quality? Is your offering a need or a want for your customers, and will that affect what they are willing to pay?

Revenue
Will you reply on repeat customers, subscriptions, or contracts? Will you sell over the Internet or are face-to-face sales required? Will you hire your own sales force, or use distributers? Where will start-up money come from? How will you ensure enough money to cover operating expenses until substantial profits arrive? Will you seek investors? If so, how will you attract them and what will you offer them?

There are many more questions your business plan will have to answer, but if you’ve already thought about all these issues, congratulations! You are well on the way to becoming an entrepreneur. If not, you now know how to get started. For more resources, see the US Small Business Administration or SCORE for more ideas, and the new ACS Entrepreneurship Initiative (EI).

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes (lisa@balbes.com) of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a technical writer/editor and author of Nontraditional Careers for Chemists, published by Oxford University Press.

Career Path, Job Search, Nontraditional Science Careers, Small Business and Entrepreneurs , , , ,