Find a mentor to boost STEM career, say photonics executives

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Matthew Dale reports from a panel discussion at Photonics West, where experts gave advice to young people starting their career

Those looking to pursue a career in photonics heard from experienced leaders in academia and industry at the recent Photonics West in San Francisco. 

The resounding message from a panel of company directors, founders and academics aimed at boosting the prospects of graduates and early-career attendees, was that seizing networking opportunities at such events could not be more important to a new career.

Speaking with exhibitors and other attendees can not only help young people discover the types of job available in the photonics industry – potentially leading to a job opportunity – it can also help them establish a network of contacts and mentors that can then be leveraged throughout their career. 

Academia or industry?

Dan Christensen, global sales manager of life science research at Lumencor, explained that in order make the most of such shows, it can help to make the decision as early as possible as to whether a career in academia or industry is sought after: ‘I had an advantage by making that decision early on, as I could then tailor my experiences as I was finishing grad school – especially at conferences like this – to be more towards getting into industry, and learning what opportunities were out there.’

Christensen began his photonics career at a relatively small company, which allowed him to develop a wide range of skills. ‘At these smaller photonics companies, everyone is required to do a little bit of everything,’ he said. ‘I ended up being part of management, part of sales, forming business relationships, even being the guy in the warehouse!’ When moving to his next position, he then had plenty of experience to draw from, which broadened his range of options.

Apurva Jain, senior director of engineering at Lumotive, explained that he got his first job by simply walking the floors of tradeshows and speaking with exhibitors to find out what was out there, in terms of photonics careers. He remarked that it’s a good idea to keep an eye out for companies that are doing particularly well at such shows, as this usually means that business is good – and therefore likely they might take on new staff. 

Finding a mentor

The importance of having mentors, for both their advice and their networks, throughout all stages of a photonics career, was also covered by the panel.

Jain was an advocate for connecting with as many people as possible when looking for mentors: ‘Everyone can be a mentor. I therefore believe in speaking to as many people as you can, keeping those connections, sharing your experiences with them, and then if a particular person aligns with you that you can learn from, they could eventually just become your mentor naturally.’

On the other hand, Christensen said that the best mentors are those that you seek out because they represent who you wish to see yourself as in the future: ‘Find someone in the community that you wish to be like, anywhere between 10 to 25 years from now, and see if they’re willing to share some of their time with you. Not only could they help you navigate your career, but you could also end up working for them, or in my case, working with them in a partnership. The photonics community is very giving and, overall, not very large, so I agree you should get to know everybody – but try to hone in on those who you wish to be like in the future.’

Sarah Lukes, CEO and founder of Agile Focus Designs, suggested people should always map out areas they could develop in, then seek out people in those areas.

‘This way, you’re not always approaching the same people for advice,’ she noted. ‘When I see a weakness in myself, I intentionally try to grow a network of connections in that area. Whenever I then visit a region that one of my mentors is in, I’ll make the effort to schedule some time with them to catch up, and bounce ideas off them.’