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.

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 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 ( 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 , , , , , , ,

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 ( 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.

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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 ( 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.

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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. 

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?

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?

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 ( of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a technical writer/editor and author of Nontraditional Careers for Chemists, published by Oxford University Press.

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Marketing Your Science Using Mobile Barcodes

22. June 2012

Marc Kuchner

Mobile barcodes are the latest marketing fad. See an ad for your favorite rock band with a square barcode in the corner? Scan it in with your cell phone, and up pops the band’s website; the video rolls and the music starts playing. A mobile barcode transforms any visible surface into an internet gateway, helping potential customers find information, purchase products—even get free mp3s.

The popular QR (quick response) code was invented by a Toyota subsidiary called Denso-Wave; that one looks like pattern of black-and-white squares. Microsoft has its own proprietary mobile barcode system, simply called “tag.” The Microsoft codes contain colored triangles. Each type of barcode can be used to call up several different kinds of content: a URL, some text, a phone number or an SMS message. You can make the barcodes yourself for free on several websites, including and

How can we scientists take advantage of this new marketing tool?

Connect with your colleagues by giving out your phone number via barcode. You can display the code wherever people might go to look for your contact information. Barbara Rojas-Ayala, a graduate student at Cornell, told me, “I put one in my website because people are obsessed with their smartphones. If someone wants my info in his/her phone, they can have it easily with the QR code.” I might try putting one on my business card—or maybe even my CV if I’m feeling brave.

Use the barcodes on scientific posters. I like the idea of using barcodes on posters partly because it reminds us what a poster ought to be: an invitation to investigate further. Rojas-Ayala says that her partner, who is also an astronomer, saw a QR code on a beer bottle and thought it was a good idea for posters. Instead of printing 20-30 copies of the poster on letter-size paper with small figures, small characters, etc., they opted to add the QR code with all their professional info and a link to a PDF of the poster.

Katy Meyers, a graduate student in the department of anthropology at Michigan State University, tried a similar experiment at a meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. She found that her website received about 30 more hits on the days when her poster was hanging.

Using barcodes for marketing materials. A mobile barcode might also have a place on a different kind of conference poster. When I organized a scientific conference this past fall, I figured I would try adding a QR tag to the poster we are using to advertise. People saw the poster when they were roaming the hallways—in other words, when they had their cell phones handy but not a computer. 

Be sensitive to non-mobile users. Of course, not everyone is excited about mobile barcodes yet. University of Maryland grad student Jessica Donaldson told me, “It is kind of annoying if you don’t have a smartphone.” With this in mind, I shrank the image of the QR code and pasted it into the lower right corner of the poster, where it wouldn’t offend scientists who don’t have the technology.

Scientists can sometimes be resistant to new marketing concepts. It is our calling, after all, to get to the bottom of things, so we sometimes fear new communication tools until we’re sure we understand them enough to trust them. And it’s not yet clear how important this tool will ultimately become for us.

But so far I’ve found QR tags make memorable little conversation pieces. Even if they aren’t being used, they help me engage with my colleagues when I show them the poster. Often, that’s half the battle. As it says in the classic marketing book, Cluetrain Manifesto, markets are conversations—and anything that helps you start one can help you market your science.

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

 Marc J. Kuchner ( is an astrophysicist at NASA, a country songwriter, and the author of the book Marketing for Scientists: How To Shine In Tough Times. His website can be found at

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Leaving Academic Science: What to Expect

11. November 2011

by Aida Baida Gil

Are you considering leaving academic science to pursue a different career path? Making a change that is more in line with your true calling can be incredibly rewarding, but you’ll also probably experience stress, uncertainty, self-doubt and even a sense of loss. Leaving academia is a major change in your life, especially if you’ve worked for a long time as a scientist. When I made a transition from academia to my job as a career coach, I had a hard time dealing with it—even though my new position was exciting, improved my quality of life, and allowed me to make a difference in people's lives. I know now that my feelings were completely normal. This post contains some tips for navigating this important transition.

Prepare to shift into a new role. You’ve probably been a scientist for a long time, and you may have wanted to be one for well before that. Thus, academia is likely to have become an important part of your identity. Changing that may feel like a loss.

Leaving my scientific career after 11 years to become a career and life coach was a huge leap. It was difficult to change my mindset from that of a scientist to a business owner, and a large portion of my identity vanished. I needed to invent a new one. It’s important to understand that being a scientist does not define you. Rather, it is one role you’ve played in your life—an important one, but nevertheless a role.

Don’t idealize the past. After you've taken the leap, you might start idealizing your previous situation, and that may make you wonder if it was the right decision after all. In my case I idealized how much I loved working on the bench. When I thought about it honestly, though, I did not love working on weekends and certain other aspects of my scientific career. However, because coaching was completely new for me, it was easy to feel that I didn’t fit and that I was better off as a scientist. You might feel like that too, but don’t worry; it will get better with time.

Get the support you need. Because this is an important challenge for you, you will want and expect everybody's support. But your friends and family may be resistant; they also need time to let go of that old identity of yours. And of course they don’t want you to fail. Because we want their approval, we may try to convince them that we made the right choice instead of simply informing them of our decision. You can wind up second guessing yourself and getting discouraged—and that doesn’t feel good. That’s why you need support from anyone and everyone who can respect your decision and help you along the way. This will make a difference in the way you handle the change, so start creating a support circle now.

Believe in yourself. Let’s be honest: Science is a tough world full of bright, competent people. Some will think that, if you leave, it’s because you are not a good scientist. Unfortunately that’s a very common belief, and it may have a huge impact on your self-confidence. What’s important here is that you don’t agree with them! Leaving academia is a decision. It has nothing to do with being good enough! As one of my coaches once told me when I was experiencing this stage: You are smart enough to be a good scientist AND a good coach (or substitute your new position)—and, I´ll add, you are also brave enough to take action!

Remember, it’s normal to feel scared and unsure, but it will pass. I don’t have any doubts anymore, and I have never regretted my decision. I know that I'll be a scientist at heart my whole life. Don’t be afraid to find out what else your career may have in store for you!

Aida Baida Gil ( is a certified career coach. She holds a Ph.D. in genetics.


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ONE Event, Three Perspectives on Optics Startups

24. October 2011

By Christina Folz

At last week’s Frontiers in Optics meeting, I attended the first meeting of OSA’s Network of Entrepreneurs (ONE), a new group intended to connect optics students and young professionals with mentors who are scientist-entrepreneurs.

This post shares advice that was given at the event on how to jump into the startup world. The speakers included Greg Quarles, president and chief operating officer of B.E. Meyers; Michelle Holoubek, director in the electronics group at the intellectual property law firm Sterne, Kessler, Goldstein & Fox; and Tom Baer, executive director of the Stanford Photonics Research Center at Stanford University, cofounder of Arcturus Bioscience Inc. and 2009 OSA President.

Like a startup, ONE is still in development. Its organizers, including Bright Futures bloggers Brooke Hester and Danny Rogers along with Armand Niederberger of Stanford, are seeking volunteers to grow the program. Please contact Brooke, Danny or Armand if you are interested in joining this new community.

Greg Quarles: How to Act Like an Entrepreneur

Have clarity. Know why you do what you do. Successful entrepreneurs have a purpose, cause or belief that exists above and beyond the products or services they sell.

Have discipline. You must understand not only what product or service you plan to offer but how you intend to do it. Business owners cannot simply demand that their team “make it so,” in the fashion of Captain Jean Luc Picard on Star Trek. They must hold themselves and their teams accountable to a defined set of guiding principles or values.

Be consistent. Everything you do and say must prove what you believe. In this sense, YOU are the product—a critical part of your own brand. The product should reflect your core values, and you should adopt a winning attitude in all areas of developing your business. If you don’t believe in what you’re doing, how can others?

Michelle Holoubeck: Why Intellectual Property Matters
Intellectual property (IP) includes trade secrets, patents, copyrights and trademarks. Every fledgling entrepreneur should learn the fundamentals of IP to protect their growing business because it enables you to:

Guard your ideas and establish a competitive edge. IP is the only way that small companies can contend with larger ones on an otherwise skewed playing field. For example, when Microsoft was shown to have used XML technology that was patented by the small company i4i in one of its product releases, the software giant was ordered to pay i4i to the tune of several hundred million dollars.

Promote investments. Because funders want to protect their investments, they are unlikely to finance startups that have not developed IP safeguards.

Encourage disclosure of new ideas. Sharing exactly how a company’s products or processes work in a patent helps to drive further innovation in the marketplace, and it enables businesses and consumers to easily distinguish among different products and services.

Also keep in mind:
• Publically disclosing your invention—by describing it at a conference, for example—before filing a patent application may limit your ability to protect your invention.

• If you disclose some of your invention, you must disclose it all. You can’t keep the best components a secret.

• You don’t have to actually make an invention to patent it; you just have to describe how you would make it.

• Not everyone who works on a product is an inventor. Incorrectly attributing inventorship to someone who did not play a real role can damage your patent.

Tom Baer: Know your Market First
Contrary to popular belief, a product idea is not required to start a successful company. Here’s the process that worked for Tom:

Identify a market. A couple years ago, Tom worked with a team to develop the Stanford spinoff Auxogyn—without a specific product idea in mind. Instead, the team started by targeting the area of assisted reproduction, a market that is growing by about 20 percent per year, with about 1 in 6 couples facing infertility.

Look for people who can build your company. For Auxogyn, this included a diverse group of medical doctors, developmental biologists, engineers, imaging experts and others. Look for those with the skills you lack.

Study the market. Talk with customers and assess other businesses in your niche. How do they work? What will give your company a differentiable edge?

Find and develop your idea. As you do your homework, your idea will emerge. Once it does, create product models to show your customers and incorporate their feedback into the next version. For its product, Auxogyn ultimately decided on imaging platforms that monitor the developmental process of embryos in an incubator—allowing for the selection of the healthiest ones for in vitro fertilization.

Delay financing as long as possible. Once you have the right ideas and the right market, you can find investors. If you fail, it’s better to fail early—before you’ve invested significant time and funding into product development and pilot production.

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


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Launching Your Consulting Career

13. January 2011

by Jennifer Kruschwitz

In a previous post, Jennifer Kruschwitz helps optics professionals to determine if consulting is the right career path for them. Here she provides advice for how to start your business once you’ve decided to make the leap into the consulting world.

You’ve made the decision: You want to be a consultant. If the opportunity to do a little “pre-launch” planning is available, the first thing to do is pay off any accumulated debt. It is often said that consultants make large amounts of money. That might sometimes be true, but the money often comes in waves. There may be times you are so busy that the money seems to be rolling in, but these may be followed by periods when it’s a struggle to find work.

Start from a strong financial position. Be sure that you have a financial safety net in place for the lean times. When things are going well, you should always be prepared to contribute a significant percentage of your earnings to your safety net.

Get your paperwork in order. You’ll need brochures to describe your abilities, invoices, business cards and letterhead. Stick to a budget: flashy items are expensive, so keep everything simple.

Learn to be a legal eagle. You will need a good understanding of contracts, nondisclosure agreements, and so forth. If you can acquire legal counsel before launch, get acquainted with key aspects of intellectual property and ownership law. Most contracts are very specific in that the customer retains rights to all of the IP that comes out of the consulting agreement. Make sure that the confidentiality of any information provided to a customer will not stop you from being able to work for other clients.

Determine your rates. Establishing an hourly fee is not as straightforward as you might think. One way to determine a ballpark rate is to take the amount of money you would like to earn in a year and divide it by the number of hours you plan to work. Or you could take the hourly rate currently being paid by an employer and multiply that number by two or three. Make sure your rate includes business costs as well as salary. These costs can include health care, life insurance, retirement, business overhead, legal and accounting fees and self-employment taxes. Whichever way you calculate your “worth” as a consultant, here are a few things to keep in mind:

• Research consulting rates for your field. Know what rate will allow you to maintain a competitive edge.

• Be ready to justify your rates. If you are an expert, your rates should reflect that expertise. It has been observed that consultants who charge too little for their services are not taken as seriously by clients.

• Be flexible and know your market. There may be times when, to win a job, you need to change your rates to meet the range specified in a given proposal.

Don’t forget the IRS. Keep your financial records well organized. Open a separate checking account for the business—it makes it easier to keep track of your earnings—and pay yourself from that account. Keep all receipts related to business activities (i.e., parking, tolls, travel, supplies) in a central location and, if you can, enter them in a database. If the business is run from the home, save utility bills, phone bills and so forth. There are specific requirements governing the deductibility of expenses incurred by home-based businesses, and the consultant needs to be aware of them.

It’s a good idea to have a tax advisor available to get things up and running. The Web site has helpful tips for the self-employed. There will be self-employment taxes to consider in addition to income taxes. Estimated taxes on your consulting income must be paid quarterly to the federal and your state government. There are heavy penalties associated with not paying quarterly taxes on time and in the proper amount. Organized recordkeeping and timely tax payments will make tax time a relatively painless experience.

Consultants are a fundamental component of today’s business marketplace, but consulting is not for everyone. Once you decide to start a consulting business, there’s no doubt there will be challenges ahead. The ways in which those challenges are met and overcome determine the ultimate success of the consultant.

Jennifer D.T. Kruschwitz is an OSA member and senior optical coating design engineer at her own company, J.K. Consulting, Rochester, N.Y., U.S.A.


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Is Consulting Your Calling?

3. December 2010

By Jennifer D.T. Kruschwitz

The Webster’s Dictionary definition of a consultant is “one who gives expert or professional advice.” An individual looking to make a career out of consulting would probably change the definition to “one who gives expert or professional advice to a customer for a fee.” People choose careers in consulting for many reasons. Some have made becoming a consultant a personal goal. The recently retired may want to continue on in business outside the confines of a 9-to-5 job.
Some people are seeking a way to transition out of a conventional job that no longer satisfies them. Others look to consulting when changes in family life make a more flexible work schedule necessary. Whatever the reason, before starting out it’s important that one know how to make the transition into self-employment and how to qualify oneself as a consultant.
Many books have been written on the topic of consulting as a career. Two that I believe give helpful insights are The Overnight Consultant, by Marsha D. Lewin, and The Scientist As Consultant, by Carl J. Sindermann and Thomas K. Sawyer. Both books qualify the successful consultant as an expert in his or her field.
The necessary expertise can be attained by extensive academic study and work, including graduate degrees, post-doctorate studies and professorships, and/or by time spent working and doing research in a particular field.
But expertise in your field is only part of the recipe for success. Sindermann points out that for the scientific consultant, networking, marketing and running a business are equally important areas, in which scientists may have shortcomings. Here is a quick checklist to consider before diving head first into consulting:
Do you like to work with people? The best way to maintain a healthy business is by networking. Maintaining personal relationships with colleagues, customers and potential clients is an important part of a successful consulting business.
Are you self-motivated? As a consultant, there will be times when you will have to initiate activities that may not strike you as being particularly exciting. For examples, you may be involved in a project that isn’t challenging or making phone calls to potential clients.
Can you communicate and translate your craft to those outside your field? A consultant often has to make presentations or prepare proposals or reports for customers who have no background in his or her science. Consultants who can articulate their work to people of any academic level will be the most successful.
Are you prepared to multitask? The self-employed are not only the presidents of their own businesses, they are also in charge of administration, information technology, Web design, advertising, sales, marketing and janitorial duties. A successful consultant can wear many different hats simultaneously and still be productive.

Jennifer D.T. Kruschwitz is an OSA member and senior optical coating design engineer at her own company, J.K. Consulting, Rochester, N.Y., U.S.A.


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Preparing for an Engineering Career

19. November 2010

By Stephen D. Fantone

 In this era of rapid technological, industrial and economic change, it is challenging to build a technical career. Engineers entering today’s workplace can be assured that many of their skills will soon become obsolete. So the challenge for future engineers is not about mastering specific tools, but rather learning how to think and approach complex problems. Here are some recommendations to help students gain a competitive edge.
Develop problem-solving skills. Virtually all companies need engineers with problem-solving skills that transcend disciplines. I'm not talking about typical “homework” problems; I’m referring to problems that defy easy quantification; that involve ambiguous situations; and that require nuanced judgment.
Try to put yourself in situations where you must solve problems on your own. As an employer, I often assess problem-solving skills in young engineers. For example, I might ask how many gas stations there are in the United States. Nobody knows the right answer, but anyone with a mathematical inclination should be able to give you some process by which they can come up with an estimate. An example of a good process might be: "I came from a town with 40,000 people and we had about 20 gas stations. The population of the U.S. is around 250 million, the equivalent of about 6,000 towns like mine. So I guess there must be roughly 120,000 gas stations."
Few problems in the real world are as clean as those presented in textbooks. Some universities offer courses outside the normal curriculum that focus on a case-study approach of how to solve product design problems. Take them if you can.
Study successful people. They probably succeeded for good reasons. In watching successful engineers, I've learned that they tend to have an intense personal interest in—and even a personal relationship with—their technology. They're not in it for the money. They have a passion for their work.
Study hard while you are in school, for learning will never be easier. As your career progresses, there will be less and less time for classes and training. More than anything, in school you are acquiring and refining your ability to learn. Certain areas may seem irrelevant to the career you have planned. However, even those subjects present a challenging opportunity to improve your skills.
Acquire an interdisciplinary education. Companies need optical engineers who understand electronics; electrical engineers who are sensitive to packaging problems; and mechanical engineers who can deal with optics and electronics. For almost any product development, you need some understanding of mechanical, electrical and optical engineering. Narrowly educated people can't understand the context of a problem; someone else has to explain that context and establish a framework for them to work in. That's inefficient.
In addition, many of the most important problems that a technical specialist must address are non-technical in nature. Narrow technical skills may get you in the door, but what moves you up the ladder will be the ability to communicate, to cooperate, and to understand the context, both inside and outside the corporation, for the area in which you apply your technical specialty.
Interpersonal skills are also very important in a technical organization. You can't do it all yourself. You have to be able to work effectively with people from other specialties to negotiate interfaces and deal with all of the system-level problems that crop up.
Develop practical hands-on skills. It's possible to get through engineering school without developing the hands-on skills that are basic to your profession. Don't fall into that trap. All of us see some mechanical engineers who can't read blueprints; electrical engineers who don't know how to solder; and optical engineers who don't know how to grind and polish a lens.
These people become a burden to their first employer. When I was in graduate school, one professor told me I was spending too much time in the optical shop. I answered him by quoting Bob Dylan: "Time will tell who has failed and who has been left behind as you go your way and I go mine." I left the discussion and went straight to the optical shop. I'm not proud of that remark, but I tell the story anyway to emphasize that you might have to insist on preparing yourself adequately for what is essentially a hands-on profession.
Finally, let me add that students with relevant summer work experience have a distinct advantage over others. These experiences tend to motivate the student during their schooling and ensure a minimum level of engineering competence.

Stephen D. Fantone is OSA’s treasurer and the president of Optikos Corporation in Wakefield, Mass., U.S.A.


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