What More Can I do to Prepare for a Career in Industry

By Dan Christensen, OSA Ambassador, TOPTICA, USA

Committing to major career decisions can be tough in any stage of life, but especially for students. What field of optics do I want to study? Am I more interested in theory or experiments? What school should I attend? Which lab should I join? Should I switch labs? Should I pursue more education or a post-doc? Do I want to work in academia or industry?

This last question can be particularly difficult. There are virtues, vices, preconceptions, and stigmas associated with both.

Life can be thought of as a variety of games. The key to personal success is figuring out the game you can both win and enjoy. For example, some people enjoy the race of being the first to a new scientific discovery. They may also enjoy the competition of vying for awards and grant money. Furthermore, they might enjoy the collaborative game of helping others learn. Clearly this is the academic game.

It was evident to me early in my studies that I was more interested in a different game. I wanted to make things that people would buy. I wanted to compete for customers. I wanted to develop enabling technologies. I wanted to develop teams and drive organizations to success. I was primed for industry.

The path to success in an academic career is clearly marked. Students live in this environment and consistently see examples of successful academics.

Conversely, I have met with many students worried that they don’t know how to prepare themselves for industry. This post is dedicated to these students.

What can students do to prepare for a career in industry?

To answer this question, I asked some leaders in our field “What is one thing you feel that students ought to be doing (other than studying), while they are still students, that you think would better set themselves up for the future?” Their answers are below.

Sam Sadoulet (President, Edmund Optics)

“I am a big fan of internships but it is most interesting when the internships are varied and not classic.  Big company, small company, technical, non-technical, local, abroad, hands-on, not hand-on,…etc.  Internships are ways to figure out what you do not want to do.  So the larger the experience range, the more insightful it can be for the individual.”

Scott Cahall (President/Founder, Moondog Optics)

“I’d say the thing that was quite valuable to me in school was taking a couple of elective business classes.  I’d do more, if I could go back in time.  I think many young engineers/scientists come out of school somewhat biased against business as not as important as the technical side.  Sitting in on a business/marketing class or two can be quite enlightening on multiple levels— and help us see things from other perspectives.  The reality is that (at least long term) everything we do as engineers needs to make some business sense, so understanding business can be quite helpful.” 

Wade Cook (VP Business Development, JML Optics)

“My advice to students comes directly from my years in the Rochester local section of OSA (ROSA) -- get involved in professional societies and/or student chapters of the same. This involvement offers an extended and deep networking opportunity with professionals from companies who hire new graduates! I've met a lot of students at local networking meetings over the years, and have interviewed a number of them. I could not tell you much about most of them. But I can tell you quite a bit about the students who were on the ROSA board with me.

Participation also sounds great during an interview when the student can describe his or her duties. All students work in the lab and perform some type of group projects. But not all students have demonstrated skills in logistic or operational matters. That adds a well-rounded dimension to a resume.

Most of the above would apply if a student helped plan and carry out some type of major conference, rather than being simply active in a society chapter.”

Alexis Vogt (Endowed Chair & Associate Professor of Optics, MCC)

“One area that I feel strongly about is internships.  I benefited tremendously from summer internships and I encourage all of my students to participate in them as well.  I can lecture all day and all night at a whiteboard, but until a student sets foot into a company, they have no idea what they are studying for and preparing to do with their futures.  For this reason, I take each of my classes on tours of optics companies.”

Steve Fantone (President/Founder, Optikos)

“When you see a successful person (however you want to define it), try to figure out what makes that person successful and see if you can incorporate those learnings into your life.  Often it has to do with the manner in which the person views problems and relationships.  A corollary:  When you see a less successful person, try to figure out what limits that person’s success and ask yourself if that limitation or one like it is manifest in yourself.”

So what is the take away?

The CEO of TOPTICA Photonics, Inc in North America, Mark Tolbert, has a good expression that summarizes the advice I would give: “Throw everything at the wall and see what sticks.” In other words, try everything and see what works well for you! Take some varied elective classes, consider internships, actively participate and get involved in professional societies, and take some risks by stepping outside of your comfort zone. Find career mentors, watch their example, and seek their advice. You might be surprised what these varied experiences lead to in your career!


Posted: 31 July 2018 by Dan Christensen, OSA Ambassador, TOPTICA, USA | with 0 comments

The views expressed by guest contributors to the Discover OSA Blog are not those endorsed by The Optical Society.


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