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Note: This article was published in the APS News January 2019 issue.
By Abigail Dove
The APS Forum for Early Career Scientists (FECS) provides support and mentorship to post-docs as they navigate through the early stages of their career, whether in academia or industry, in the US or abroad, or even a scientific field other than physics. This support spans from the professional—including networking opportunities with senior scientists in various physics careers, resources to help with successful grant writing, and funding for conference travel—to the practical—including support and advice around changes in geographical location, particularly for moving abroad.
Established in 2016, FECS is a relative newcomer to APS, but the forum’s fast-growing membership of nearly four thousand underscores the appetite for this kind of mentorship and support among early career scientists embarking on the next phase of their professional lives.
FECS was founded by Maria Longobardi (who has served as chair since 2016) with the help of Jason Gardner (chair-elect whose term will begin in 2019). Longobardi and Gardner met while serving in the APS Forum for International Physics (FIP), and the idea for FECS was born from the perceived shortcomings Longobardi observed in the mentorship and support she and her colleagues received while navigating twists and turns in their career trajectories and locations as young scientists. Longobardi is a gravitational wave theorist turned condensed matter experimentalist, now working at the intersection of material science and microbiology, and Gardner is an instrumental scientist whose career has taken him from his native England to the US and now to Australia.
The Forum on Graduate Student Affairs (FGSA) has existed since 2001 to provide support for physics graduate students, and Longobardi and Gardner emphasize that a counterpart to meet the unique needs of post-docs and early career scientists was long overdue. “Post-docs have different needs than the graduate student community,” underscored Longobardi. Principally, many FECS members have families, which adds another dimension of complexity to the already challenging tasks of relocating and, if necessary, applying for visas. Added Gardner, many aspects of the professional landscape are unfamiliar to early-career scientists as they finish their post-doctoral fellowships. “Many early career scientists don't realize the different opportunities in front of them, what the competition in the job market looks like, what is involved in leaving the USA for work, or even what to ask when interviewing for a job,” he said.
Importantly, the forum’s support extends not only to early career scientists pursuing traditional paths in academia, but also the increasing number interested in joining industry and the private sector. This takes place in large part through events and receptions co-hosted with the Forum for Industrial & Applied Physics (FIAP) to promote dialogue and exchange between early career scientists and more senior members of industry. Beyond networking, this support also takes the form of actively educating early career scientists about the opportunities that exist beyond the sphere of academia, a domain that is likely quite unfamiliar, particularly for the majority of early career scientists whose mentors have been exclusively professors and academic researchers. For example, one of FECS’ most well-attended APS Meeting sessions to-date was a symposium on data science featuring panelists from academia as well as companies like Netflix and Uber to discuss various applications of data mining and work with large data sets.
In this way, FECS could play an important role in keeping industrial and applied physicists involved in the APS community. Citing a drop-off in APS membership among physicists who transition out of academia, Gardner noted that FECS aspires to be a kind of bridge between the worlds of academia and industry: “People in industry may not think that APS has anything to offer them, but that’s certainly not the case.”
Beyond the emphasis on career development and network building, FECS is sharply focused on helping members hone their science communication skills. “Science is for all, and we have to learn how to communicate to a broad audience,” noted Longobardi, herself a skilled science writer and a former editor at Nature, “I’m convinced this is one of the duties of a scientist.” Currently this spirit of science communication is most evident in the forum’s twice-yearly newsletter – a forum where, in Longobardi’s words, “people from gravitational physics can explain their research to condensed matter physicists” and vice versa. To make science communication more accessible for FECS members who may not yet feel confident contributing to the newsletter, the forum is also in the process of organizing workshops and webinars to help early career scientists develop and practice this crucial skill.
Although FECS is geared toward meeting the needs of early career scientists, activities aren’t restricted to this population. “We always get asked ‘Am I too old to join FECS?’” noted Gardner, “and we want elders in the community to join and help guide these busy young minds.” Longobardi echoed that her vision for the future of FECS involves a greater emphasis on guidance and mentorship from more senior scientists. As one example of how this intergenerational mentorship might come to fruition, FECS hopes to establish workshops at future APS meetings where early career scientists can get feedback on their CVs or resumes from experienced senior researchers and members of industry—especially those who have been involved in the hiring process.
Overall, FECS stands out as a forum with an incredibly bright future, and one that occupies an important niche for post-docs and early-career members in all their diversity. More information on this forum can be found on the FECS website.
The author is a freelance writer in Helsinki, Finland.