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SPIE Professional January 2011

A Satisfying Career: Academia or Industry?

New book shows how researchers can turn science into “things people need”

By David Giltner

When scientists decide to pursue a career in industry, they can do so with little understanding of what it takes to be successful. This is why I embarked on my “Turning Science into Things People Need” project. My goal was to show how the unique skills and attributes of research scientists can translate into satisfying careers in industry.

Turning Science into things people needMost early career scientists face real challenges when they consider pursuing a career in industry. Graduate students in the sciences normally get little exposure to the private sector because their professors typically have spent their entire career in academia. When faced with this dilemma, certain questions emerge:

  • What skills do I have that are useful in industry?
  • How is work in industry different than academia?
  • What kind of jobs do scientists hold in the private sector?
  • What do I need to learn in order to be successful in this new environment?
  • Will I enjoy working at a company instead of a research lab?

These are the kinds of questions I asked industry scientists in my book, Turning Science into Things People Need.

Return on academic investment

photo of David GiltnerFor most of my graduate school career, I planned to follow the traditional path into academia. It was only while completing my dissertation research that I realized a career in industry might be a better fit for my skills and interests. Rather than spend years working to become a tenured professor, I chose the fast-paced world of product development, where projects are constantly changing, and results are required within a matter of weeks or months.

I have always loved the excitement of discovery that is central to science research. I enjoy the challenge of solving complicated problems and the satisfaction that comes from learning something new every day.

However, I felt frustrated that it might be 20 years before my research finally found some practical application, and then only a few hundred people around the world might understand my work and its importance.

I wanted a much faster return on my investment. I wanted to see tangible results that would help people today, not in 20 years. I wanted to turn science into things people need.

Evaluation of skill sets

I had no idea where my broad technical skill set might fit into a product design environment, plus I had no industry connections to help answer these questions for me. It was clear that if I wanted to pursue the industrial career path, I was on my own.

I embraced the challenge, found the information I needed, made the necessary connections, and built a rewarding career for myself in the private sector.

Today, after spending a decade and a half working in industry, my perspective is very different. I now know that a broad technical skill set is an ideal background for working as a system engineer or leading a product development team.

I am much better at selling myself as a skilled problem solver who is not afraid of technologies I’ve never worked with before. I know I can quickly learn whatever I need to, to be successful. I am also more confident than ever that I chose the right career path.

Helping others find the path

Motivated by my own experience, I decided to interview a number of scientists who work in the field of engineering to find out what skills and attributes they have found to be most useful in industry. I also asked them what skills they may have lacked and how they changed their approach in order to be successful.

I asked them what books and references have been helpful in their pursuit of a rewarding career and how their perspective changed since they graduated.

I asked them to name their most outstanding accomplishments and talk about what has contributed most to their success.

What I discovered is that scientists have a number of drag-and-drop skills that can be very useful in industry. These include:

  • Love of discovery, with little fear of the unknown
  • Dislike of pre-fabricated answers
  • Need to challenge assumptions
  • Need to solve new problems every day
  • Critical thinking
  • Systematic approach to data analysis
  • Broad technical knowledge and vision
  • Good ability to see the big picture

Product development is a very different activity than basic science research. Both are invaluable and both offer rewarding careers for those who enjoy the process of scientific discovery and the challenges of problem solving.

Answers to some of the questions I posed to industry scientists are excerpted below.

For more interviews with industry scientists, see Turning Science into Things People Need or go to scientists.50interviews.com.


Excerpts from industry scientists
Key skills and career achievement

One important skill is something you learn very early in experimental physics: to challenge your assumptions.

You tend to make certain assumptions about your products and about the customer’s application for your product. To solve field-return problems I had to challenge those assumptions. I traveled to the customer’s site to determine for myself how their system actually worked.

An understanding of data analysis is also important. As scientists, we are trained in the skills of careful data analysis and the importance of data-driven conclusions that are independent of our own pre-formulated ideas.

When speed is vital, it can be tempting to make a quick decision, believing that we intuitively know what is happening. Our experience as scientists tells us to challenge that tendency and let the data speak for itself.

–Tanja Beshear, reliability engineer and Product Stability Group leader at Covidien in Boulder, CO (USA)

School learning useful in industry

In academia, the product is the science itself and the hardware doesn’t have to be so robust. It is important that it give accurate data, and precision measurements may require stability over a matter of hours or days, but it doesn’t need to operate longer than that without adjustment.

This is very different from developing a product that needs to work for a long time without continuous adjustment. Above all, I learned the value of working quickly.

My advisor used to say “Any job worth doing well is worth doing fast.” This attitude pushes you to explore the parameters of failure, because no matter how smart you are, you are more likely to fail than to succeed.

Work quickly and figure out what doesn’t work, so you can find out what does.

–SPIE member Jason Ensher, engineering programs manager at dBm Optics in Lafayette, CO (USA)

Industry roles are a good fit

A scientist who is right out of school can fit into an individual contributor role in almost any industry, particularly in a company with a strong R&D focus. Options increase as one gains experience.

Physicists make very good technical leads and project managers because of their critical-analysis and problem-solving skills. They’re able to ask the right questions and understand many aspects of a project simply because they have a basic understanding of a lot of different areas.

–SPIE member Roger McGowan, research fellow at Boston Scientific in Maple Grove, MN (USA)


Author at Photonics West

David Giltner of Zolo Technologies will answer the question, “Can a scientist find a rewarding career in industry?” at the professional development speaker series 23 January at SPIE Photonics West in San Francisco.

The speaker series, which will include talks by Andrew Hargadon of University of California, Davis, and Alaina Levine of Quantum Success Solutions, is open to all Photonics West attendees.


Leadership Series

Read more practical career and workplace advice online at spie.org/leaderseries

Articles and other resources in the SPIE Student Services and SPIE Professional Leadership Series help SPIE members through educational and career transitions to find satisfying careers as research scientists, educators, industry consultants, project engineers, entrepreneurs, and more.


Having it all: Shuji Nakamura 

Scientists have varying motives and interests for seeking jobs in academia or industry—or both.

photo of Shuji NakamuraShuji Nakamura, who developed LEDs and the blue laser with gallium nitride material while working as an engineer at Nichia Corp. in Japan, wanted to be an academic scientist from the time he was a child.

“For a while after I joined [Nichia], I aimed at being a scientist, but there was no spare time to read books or papers,” he told author Bob Johnstone in 1999. “And if you don’t make things, then you can’t build a business, so you have to be an engineer.”

Nichia didn’t want its engineers writing academic papers, but that didn’t stop Nakamura.

Nakamura, now a professor at University of California at Santa Barbara and co-director of the Solid State Lighting and Energy Center, says he wrote patent applications for Nichia instead.

“I secretly started writing the patent and the paper at the same time,” he said in an interview with SPIE. That way, “if the company found out about my paper, they wouldn’t become so mad.”

Today, Nakamura is still actively involved in basic and applied research. The winner of the 2006 Millennium Technology Prize smiles when explaining that his contract at UCSB allows him to "do anything" one day a week.

He co-founded Soraa, a clean-tech semiconductor company, and Kaai, a subsidiary which is commercializing green and blue laser diodes.


Have a question or comment about this article? Write to us at spieprofessional@spie.org.


David Giltner
is president of the Colorado Photonics Industry Association and has worked in the photonics industry for 15 years, developing laser-based products for SDL, Inc., JDS Uniphase, Ball Aerospace, and currently Zolo Technologies. He has a PhD in physics from Colorado State University where he performed research in precision laser spectroscopy and atom interferometry. Turning Science into Things People Need serves as a guide for other scientists seeking to pursue a similar career path.

DOI: 10.1117/2.4201101.14

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