I began my graduate school career much like many other physics majors I knew, thinking that I would follow the traditional career path through earning a PhD, a post-doc or two to build my research and publication portfolio, and ultimately securing the coveted position of a tenured professor. It wasn’t until the final year of my graduate career, after spending many years immersed in the academic world, that I realized this was not the career that I really wanted. All of a sudden my career path seemed very unclear. I had no industry connections through my advisor, and no contacts in grad school with industry experience from whom I could learn. I also had little idea what kinds of jobs would be available, and even less of an idea where I could add value. It seemed reasonable that most of the opportunities for technical people in industry would be associated with product design, but I hadn’t been trained to design anything. All I knew is that I wanted to work in a field where the results of my efforts would be more tangible and realized in a much shorter time period than I had experienced in basic research.
Fast-forward 17 years. I’m now a product manager at Zolo Technologies, working with customers in glass, steel, and industrial gas markets to determine how our laser-based combustion sensors can improve their furnace performance. I’ve managed an engineering team developing high-speed datacom transceivers, worked as a system engineer on a team developing laser communication technologies for satellite applications, and led the development of the first telecommunications grade high power fiber laser. I am now aware of many important roles that a scientist can play in a product development environment. I am now much better at selling my scientist skills and talents to a hiring manager. I have met many fellow scientists in industry who have overcome the same challenges to build very rewarding careers. And not once in 17 years have I regretted the career path that I chose.
What I do wish is that I had graduated with a better idea what awaited me in my career in the private sector, and where my skills and talents as a PhD physicist would be useful. At the time it seemed as though I was choosing a non-traditional career path, and so I would just have to make the best of it. I had no idea that I would find roles where my skills and talents were not only acceptable, but unique and very valuable.
This experience inspired me to write “Turning Science into Things People Need”, a book featuring interviews of other scientists who have built successful careers in industry, either as employees or as entrepreneurs. It’s my way of helping science students today see that industry is not at all a last resort for a scientist, but full of opportunities to build a very rewarding career.