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SPIE Professional October 2007

More than Just a Job

There are many options available during the early years of your career -- learn about some of the possibilities and how to take advantage of them.

By Merry Schnell

It's never too early to begin considering where your post-graduate life might take you. Fellowships and volunteer opportunities are a great way to network, conduct research, and develop a career path. The connections you make and the people you meet through these positions can help launch the career you have always dreamed of.

Fellowships 411

Fellowships are competitive research funding programs that add both experience and prestige to your resume. You'll find these short-term opportunities offered through professional societies, foundations, and governmental agencies. Applying for a fellowship can be a lengthy and sometimes arduous task, but being selected can make an enormous difference in your career development.

When a fellowship is awarded, there is usually a stipend and possibly other benefits such as health care coverage, student loan repayment programs, housing stipends, and paid travel or relocation expenses offered as incentive.

The selection process can be extensive, almost always requiring a resume, transcripts, references, possibly an institutional endorsement or nomination, a writing sample, and a series of interviews. Selection panels usually look for candidates who are self-directed, have a sense of personal integrity, possess interpersonal and writing skills, and demonstrate leadership.

Start researching your opportunities at least nine months in advance of the fellowship deadline. Getting that early start will help you prepare the best application, which may make the difference between you and another candidate.

Sampling of Possibilities

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) awards two to four three-year positions through the Lawrence Fellowship. Fellows have access to the LLNL computing facilities, specialized laboratory facilities, and field equipment, and conduct research in a collaborative, multidisciplinary manner with others. A senior staff scientist serves as a mentor, assisting with the fellow's professional development and growth. Opportunities exist in a number of technology and research areas.

The European Commission administers Marie Curie Fellowships that bring researchers together with organizations. Established through the Human Potential Programme, these fellowships support the training and mobility of researchers throughout Europe. Industry host organizations apply to the program with predetermined research areas and, once approved, the positions are posted on the Community Research and Development Service website (cordis.europa.eu), where potential candidates can search for various opportunities of interest.

One of the criteria of the program is that the candidate completes the fellowship in a country different from his or her origin. The purpose is to broaden and strengthen the science, engineering, and technology communities throughout the European Union.

The U.S. National Academies award several Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Fellowships every quarter. Each fellow is mentored by a staff person who makes sure the fellow's time is well spent. This includes gaining knowledge about the fundamentals of science and technology policy analysis and hearing from Washington organizations that influence, make, or report on science and technology policy. The fellows also help develop seminars concerning hot science and technology policy topics. This is an exercise for the fellows to learn about organizing activities similar to congressional hearings or panel discussions. Independent study and activities are also encouraged through the course of the fellowship.

The Arthur H. Guenther Congressional Fellowship is jointly awarded by SPIE and the OSA every year. With more than two dozen other fellows, the Congressional Fellow participates in orientation programs organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. After conducting interviews with legislators and committees, the fellow chooses where his or her year-long term of service will be.

This is a unique opportunity to learn how public policy is made about science, engineering, and technology, and influence its direction. Past Congressional Fellows have worked on issues ranging from the National Innovation Act to public health to global warming.

Jamie Link, who served as the 2005-2006 Congressional Fellow, says, "The Congressional Fellowship allowed me a unique opportunity to interact in the policy arena and to explore activities at the nexus of science, politics, and society."

"Many of our past fellows have continued to work for organizations in DC after their fellowships, while others have gone back to work at their companies and universities with better understanding of U.S. policy and government," explains Krisinda Plenkovich, SPIE director, education and community services. "Learning to communicate your message to a non-technical audience is a valuable skill that fellows develop during their year as a congressional staffer."

Volunteering for Experience

Volunteering for organizations such as Engineers Without Borders-USA (EWB-USA) provides students and professionals alike opportunities to put their skills to use and make a difference in the world.

In 2005, 250 of the more than 350 volunteers that participated in EWB-USA projects were university students, and their work improved the quality of life for 45,000 people around the world. "We have close to 10,000 members and 250 chapters. That number is continually growing," says Gina Earles, managing director of EWB-USA. "Some chapters find projects on their own, or they find them though the national chapter." Projects and research areas can be found on the EWB-USA website (ewb-usa.org/projects.php).

Once a project has been identified, the chapter is responsible for researching solutions, gathering resources, fundraising, and, finally, implementation. Throughout these stages, there is more involved than the science or engineering of the project. In addition to the internal business of the chapter itself, volunteers must work with the region's local governments, nongovernmental agencies, and businesses. When the project has been implemented, the local people must be trained to use and maintain equipment.

There are innumerable opportunities for motivated individuals with global consciousness, and Engineers Without Borders has chapters internationally (see sidebar). Anyone in the world can go to their local chapter to volunteer or start a chapter if one doesn't exist.

Science Expedition

Earthwatch Institute, an international nonprofit organization, unites science and environmentalism by offering volunteers the opportunity to join teams around the world in scientific field research.

In 2006, more than 4000 volunteers from all 50 U.S. states and 79 countries came together to collect data in rainforest ecology, wildlife conservation, marine science, archaeology, and more. Earthwatch team members share the costs of research expeditions and cover food and lodging expenses with a prorated contribution.

Expedition costs range from $395 to over $4000 (averaging $2200) for two to 21-day team durations. There are student discounts if you become a member, and there is a webpage where you can set up an expedition fund. There you can direct donations to help fund the expedition of your choice. Set up costs $300 and minimum donations are $50. You have up to three years to finance the trip.

Earthwatch offers academic credit as well and suggests that you plan early if you want to receive credit for the expedition. Visit their website at www.earthwatch.org for more information.

The European counterpart to Earthwatch is Biosphere Expeditions, which is run much the same way. Biosphere (www.biosphereexpeditions.org) focuses on sustainable conservation of the planet's wildlife by involving the public with scientists worldwide in hands-on wildlife research and conservation. These are life-science research opportunities that can help you develop skills for many career choices; the broader your experience the wider the path.

These are just a handful of the fellowship and volunteer opportunities available for motivated students who want to jump-start their careers. Go to your advisor or university career center to learn more. There may be a unique position out there waiting just for you.

Fellowship Application Tips
Narrow your options. Do you want to work for a government agency, a nonprofit organization, or corporation? Do you want to do research, policy making, or get some other experience? Seek outside help. Your advisors and deans can be great resources and are there to help you. Give your references time to prepare.Start early. Most fellowship deadlines are in the fall and the selection process can last up to one year. Maximize your effectiveness. Make sure you meet the minimum requirements of the program so you don't waste valuable time preparing a useless application.Prepare carefully. Find out what the requirements are and exceed them. Some application requirements may have details that are easy to miss--be sure you don't.Conduct mock interviews. It's difficult to prepare for the interview process, but mock interviews can help you have answers in mind.Be aware of your deadlines.

More Opportunities to Explore

For a listing of government agencies that offer fellowships, go to science.gov.

Read more about the Arthur H. Guenther Congressional Fellowship at spie.org/congressionalfellow.

To search Marie Curie Action opportunities, visit cordis.europa.eu/mc-opportunities.

List your name and engineering background in the Humanitarian Engineers Registry, which can be found on the Engineers Without Borders-International Networking Database website at www.ewb-international.org/database.

Find out about L'ORÉAL USA Fellowships for Women in Science Program at www.loreal.com/_en/_ww/index.aspx.

Visit the National Science Foundation to learn more about the Minority Postdoctoral Research Fellowships and Supporting Activities by going to www.nsf.gov/funding/pgm_summ.jsp?pims_id=13454.

Global Village Engineers do the same type of work as Engineers Without Borders. Visit their website at www.gvengineers.org/projects.shtml.

DOI: 10.1117/2.4200710.17