, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, USA
How do you spend a typical day?
I'm not sure that there is such a thing as a ''typical'' day. The general range of things that I do is reasonably constant, but the mixture varies from day to day. On any given day, I do some or most of the following: teaching and preparing for classes, meeting with students, writing grant proposals, reports, and journal papers, traveling to conferences or to visit funding agencies, reviewing papers and other performing other services for the scientific community, among other things. Occasionally, I get to do some research, though most of the time I have to live vicariously through my graduate students! I also spend a substantial amount of time dealing with email. Email is a wonderful tool - I shudder to think how I would maintain the international level of communication I enjoy now without it, but there are definitely times when I wish the constant influx would slow down a bit!
I once had to explain to a former co-worker from industry what it was like being a professor. ("You only teach a few hours a week - what are you doing with all that free time?"). Beyond the fact that every hour spent in the classroom requires many more hours preparing lectures and tests, grading problem sets, and meeting with students, many people do not realize that teaching is only one responsibility that professors have. The best analogy that I could come up with for my friend was that, in addition to teaching, being a professor was a lot like running a small company. You're constantly marketing your ideas and raising funds, hiring and training "employees" (students), managing deadlines, and so on. Even worse, your ''employees'' leave you once they are properly trained!
What do you love about your job?
I really enjoy the freedom of researching the topics that I find interesting and useful, and the fact that the effort I put in is the factor that most directly determines the success or failure of what I do. Both of these things are a bit different from industry, where most of the time decisions of what to work on come from above, and the responsibility for a project is usually shared across a group of people. Having the primary responsibility for success or failure can be a little unnerving, but it can also be extremely rewarding-at the end of the day, it is very satisfying to be able to point to a successful project and know "that happened because of me."
I also enjoy interacting with students, both graduate and undergraduate. As corny as it sounds, there is something innately satisfying about teaching someone something new. Another great thing about this job is that I''m always meeting new people with different ideas and backgrounds, be it through my research team, the classes that I teach, or through travel to conferences. This helps keep things fresh and new.
What have you learned through experience that you wish you had known before starting your career in optics?
I wish that I had learned more business-related skills and ''soft'' skills in interacting with people before I graduated. Things like creating a budget and managing a project or project team are not skills that are typically taught in grad school, but I have found them to be absolutely essential during the time I spend in industrial research as well as in the academic world. Likewise, the ability to interact with people is absolutely critical. No matter what you end up choosing for a career, you will be working with people with a wide range of personalities, abilities, and educational backgrounds. How you interact with all of these people will ultimately determine your success, often in the most unexpected ways.
I always knew that written and oral communication skills were important, but I've continued to learn just how important as my career has progressed. It is not enough to do good research-to be successful as a scientist you must be able to communicate your ideas to others. If you cannot give good lectures and conference presentation, and write good grant proposals and journal articles, then you are unlikely to obtain funding to support your research or earn the respect of your students and peers.More Workplace Advice