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Changing spaces

Photonics Spectra
Jul 2009
Caren B. Les,

PhD-level women with established private sector careers in the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) who want to explore the possibility of a career in the academic world are invited to workshops designed to help them make the transition.

Funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, the On-Ramps into Academia series of workshops is being offered at the University of Washington, beginning in October 2009 with the first of three annual programs. They are targeted to women scientists and engineers with doctorates who have been working in the private sector for at least three years. The two-day workshops will feature a panel of women who have made the transition, as well as offer opportunities to network and form a supportive community.

FTWomen.jpgThe On-Ramps series will look outside the academic world to identify a new pool of women faculty in the STEM disciplines because women are largely underrepresented in these academic areas. The goal to achieve some measure of gender parity in the academic halls of science and engineering is important for many reasons, said principal investigator Eve Riskin, who is a professor of electrical engineering, the associate dean for academic affairs in the college of engineering and director of the ADVANCE Center for Institutional Change at the University of Washington. More women faculty in the STEM disciplines will eventually lead to a friendlier environment for women students, and overall, this eventual sea change will likely lead to a greater number of women in the engineering field – which will be good for everyone, she said. Greater diversity will lead to a greater pool of effective design ideas and solutions for all of us, she added.

Research freedom

Freedom to be your own boss, to do what you love and to do your own research are among the reasons why a woman might want to consider a job in the academic world, Riskin said, adding that job security and tenure were also compelling incentives.

She said that there tends to be a perception that the academic world is not family-friendly but that in reality it is very flexible: Professors can generally make their own hours and set their own schedules, possibly enabling a better balance of work and family life.

The main challenges that women face when transitioning from a career in industry to an academic professorship include the lack of recent publications and the proprietary nature of their work, Riskin said. Applicants from industry look quite different to the academic world, and academic employers have to be convinced that industrial research skills can be transferred in a positive way toward the education of college students. She said that academic personnel should be interested in hearing about a job candidate’s activities in patents, intellectual property, project leadership and in professional societies.

Practical tools

The On-Ramps into Academia workshops will provide practical tools to help private sector career women make the switch to teaching and academic research. Among the topics to be covered will be networking, the job application process, interviewing and start-up negotiations. Women will get help in learning how to teach effectively and in working with graduate and undergraduate students. They will also be educated in how to leverage their industrial position to bring funding into their academic program. They will get information on why the academic world would want them, how to obtain grant funding, how to transfer nonacademic experience into classroom practices, how to create a balance between work and personal life, and on what level to enter academic life – whether as an assistant, associate or full professor, for example.

Transitioning in photonics

Lih Y. Lin, a professor in the electrical engineering department at the University of Washington, is an example of a woman in the photonics community who successfully made the transition from industry to academia. Lin and her group investigated turning quantum dots into waveguides that channel laser light through photonic circuitry.

Lin received her PhD in electrical engineering from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1996 and was employed at AT&T Labs-Research as senior technical staff member and at Tellium Inc. as director of optical technologies. She said she was attracted to academic life for the research freedom that it offers, as well for the interaction with students and the flexibility in scheduling. She mentioned that, within the academic environment, a woman with children should be sure to have a strong and supportive social network and resources for help, and that she should manage her time well.

Women who are interested in attending the free workshops are invited to visit for additional information and an online application form. Applications received by June 30 for this year’s workshop will be given priority, but applications may be considered after that day if spaces are still available.

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