Ola, first tell us how you became a photonist. Why did you choose these studies?
At the very beginning, when I was thinking about the field of study, I was looking for something interdisciplinary, something that includes physics and chemistry. I chose materials engineering, where these two fields were combined, and later typical engineering subjects (like metallurgy or ceramics) were added. For the last two years, I decided to stay in the domain of physics and became interested in optics. Maybe because it was the most challenging direction. I was very engrossed in this topic and I decided to stay for my PhD. In the meantime, my first child was born, and I was raising him at the end of my master’s studies and at the beginning of my PhD. Honestly, it was a real swing…
Very often women think that you can have either a career or a family...
It was different in my situation. I was treated very warmly, and my colleagues supported me very much. And I was able to defend my master’s thesis and continue quite advanced research on my PhD thesis. However, I did not defend my PhD, although I did a very nice project. The needs of my family forced me to look for a well paid job, so two years ago I finally switched from science to industry.
What does your new job look like?
I got a job in the automotive industry producing car lamps. I deal with design, but also with advanced simulation methods, renderings, and all kinds of analyzes of large amounts of data. Physics and optics alone provide me with maybe 10% of my work, because to design a lamp you need to be aware of the materials properties and mechanics. I don’t do photonic projects, but typically optical, production projects. But the interdisciplinary nature of my studies makes it very easy to collaborate with other departments.
How did your employer react to the fact that you graduated from photonics?
Honestly, during my first job interview, the team that interviewed me was very concerned that I was over-educated. It seemed to them that I wouldn’t find any interesting topics for myself. What can a man from the lab do, when the task is to produce half a million units per year with zero precision?.. There were concerns on both sides. However, we agreed to try. As for me, I have found my place here. And it seems to me that my employer is also very happy, because they are entrusting me with more and more important projects, and they allow me to participate in more and more processes. I think this cooperation is very fruitful and there is a lot of satisfaction on both sides.
If you hadn't moved into industry, what would your career path in science be?
It would look something like this: master, doctor, professor (smiles)… Generally for a photonist, working in science is a great satisfaction. It is very innovative and takes place in very well-equipped laboratories. I loved my lab almost as much as I love my children. There were so many things that I learned.
Was your work in the laboratory somehow related to production?
If we are talking about mass production, my research was far from that. But, of course, there are areas in photonics that have good chances to enter the market faster. These are all kinds of solar cells or crystals. Optical combs have great potential and can be implemented very soon.
Did many of your fellow students go to work in industry?
No, not much. When I was finishing my studies, I thought that there was no place for us outside of science. And this is a really big mistake. After two years of working in industry, I can see that there are really a lot of projects that can be done outside the university. The problem is that we don’t have this awareness after graduation.
Then where? What industries are open to photonists?
Of course, the entire automotive industry and lighting engineering. However, R&D cannot be expected to continue as it is more development than research. I think the medical industry has a lot of projects at the moment. Lasers are increasingly entering our daily life, both in medicine and in industry.
All technologies based on optical fibers will definitely need photonists. Ordinary fiber optic communication is not so complicated. But devices related to signal amplification and their analysis require advanced knowledge. Recently, there are a lot of projects related to sensoring. This is also an area in which photonists can prove themselves, because this is about high technology.
In my current job, I met a colleague who previously worked for L’oreal as an optician. It turns out that opticians are welcome in the beauty industry. Our external appearance can be digitized, standardized and analyzed quantitatively and qualitatively by optical techniques. All kinds of scanning methods also need optical knowledge.
And what about new energy sources, such as solar panels?
Sure. A friend of mine has been working with Grätzel Cell batteries for a long time, which had to spectrally bring the batteries closer to our solar conditions in order to make them independent of ultraviolet rays. In addition, we already have Polish achievements in the field of thin and light solar panels. The entire technology was developed by Olga Malinkiewicz.
It looks like there are really many directions.
For sure. You just need to open your mind and see what happens. Once it seemed to me that we are only capable of working in a laboratory. But research is currently underway in various industries. For example, lidars are being developed in the automotive industry. These projects require more than just a mechanician or an engineer who knows several optical laws. It should be a flesh and blood optician — a photonist.
What's the best way to find a job for a photonist?
In my case, it was a network. The problem is that employers’ proposals are often not described well enough for us to understand that this is a job for us. Hence, a huge gap is created. The employer has problems finding a person with a suitable profile, while the photonist has problems finding a suitable job offer. This is also due to the fact that the university itself does not inform its students about where they can work. It’s such a narrow niche that maybe they want graduates to stay at the university… And the photonists themselves believe that they need to do science, and are more likely to look for scientific work. You just need to find them at this university and motivate them to change their place.
How can you motivate them? Tell us about the pros and cons of working in science and industry.
As for me, I have an internal struggle all the time. Should I go back to science or stay in industry? The advantages of the university are, first of all, the awareness of work on large, important projects and an excellent opportunity for development. Scientific trips and various conferences are also very attractive. I loved my laboratory and research work. However, I made the decision to leave the laboratory for financial reasons. And it’s not about the amount of money, but about stability. It is known that one can be very satisfied with grants. However, when family and loans come, stability must be ensured. Universities receive grants for 5 years, and this may not happen in the next 5 years. But at the company I have an employment contract, very good insurance, and various benefits. Any possible change is most likely related to a promotion. In terms of intellectual development, in the industry, the employer also provides specialized training, backed up by certificates.
So you found yourself in a big corporation?
Absolutely. People usually run away from here, but I think that this is a well-organized work, in which everything has its own procedures. There is no client-imposed deadline at university, so a person can fall into a trap. It’s different in the industry: if something doesn’t work out, it stops. There is a wide range of professionals who can intervene, interrupt the process, or help move it forward. But if I could combine science and industry, that is, find an employer who would be commercial, but at the same time conduct research, this would make my dream come true.
So every photonist remains a scientist...
I think, yes. My colleagues in my new team feel this because when a new topic comes up, I like to educate them. Of course, they appreciate it, but then they also say: “Oh, I think you miss the university, Ola…”
What advice would you give to young photonists who are just starting to look for a job?
HR experts say that looking for employees from the deeptech industry is a headhunting. So, you need to let them catch you. Therefore, it is better to write your resume not chronologically, but with a focus on assignments, because most often photonists take part in many projects during their PhD studies. This is not about artificially blowing a resume, but about showing the employer that we have the ability to act in accordance with the tasks set and approach the problem in a project-based way.
Very often, photonics projects are collaborative. Therefore, it is worth emphasizing the high quality of this collaboration. The more interdisciplinary this group was, the better. Opticians are often viewed by employers as “holy cows”, unable to collaborate with other departments. We must show them that this is not true.
What to do after someone creates a good resume?
It is worth posting it on various social networks and waiting for HR experts to catch you… You should be prepared to have a few conversations with potential employers. Do not refuse any conversation, even if it seems that this is not our profile. It costs nothing to you. It’s worth going, listening, seeing what’s going on in all these companies.
Do you think that employers' approach to people who come to the industry from the world of science has changed recently?
II think that employers are gradually becoming convinced that a person from the laboratory can be involved in the production process. And it’s worth doing. They gradually realize that these are people who have a really very wide range of skills and learn very quickly. Therefore, if you have already made a decision to leave the university, you must become visible. And it’s great that a tool like WaveJobs is being created to help employers and photonists find each other. There is no need to be afraid of electronics, programming or medicine. In all these industries, we can be those specialists who are in short supply.
Yuliya Hoika, journalist, branding and communication specialist.
Aleksandra Gorczyca, a photonist by education and vocation, talks about her path from science to big industry, about where photonists can find application for their knowledge, and how many opportunities are actually available to these specialists.