Career advice from one well qualified to give it
October 26, 2018
When optics alumnus Stephen Fantone ’79 (PhD) looked over his mid-morning audience at a recent Industrial Associates symposium, he was pleased to see so many students in attendance, in addition to company representatives and Institute of Optics faculty and staff. However, “the one thing I will recommend to you right off the bat: Do not sit together,” he told the students. “Try to mix it up with people you’ve never met before. Something serendipitous might happen. You never know whom you’re going to meet and what opportunity that might lead to. And believe me, that could affect your entire career trajectory.”
Stephen Fantone recalls a lesson learned by one of his University of Rochester classmates and fellow PhD student at the Institute of Optics.
“He did a terrific thesis on quantum optics,” Fantone says. But after working in industry for two years, his friend had one regret: Unlike Fantone, he never took (Professor Rudolf) Kingslake’s lens design course.
“I went to work for this company,” his friend related, “and they said, ‘Oh, you're from the Institute of Optics; you must know how to design lenses.’”
“That’s the expectation that comes with the badge and honor of having an Institute of Optics degree,” says Fantone. “There’s an expectation that you’re going to understand all things optical.”
That’s why he encourages Institute students to take full advantage of studying at the nation’s oldest and arguably premier school of optics—to “have that hunger to push yourself to accumulate as much knowledge as possible.”
If they do, they won’t be put on the spot like Fantone’s classmate.
Besides, “once you graduate, you’re going to have entanglements, relationships, children. You’re going to have a job to take care of,” Fantone says. “If you want to learn something, it’ll never be easier than it is now.”
Fantone speaks from a broad base of experience and knowledge. A 1979 PhD graduate of the Institute, he is founder, president, and CEO of Optikos, a respected provider of metrology instruments, testing services, and engineering design based near Boston. He is an expert in optical engineering and optical product development who has been awarded more than 65 patents. He is a fellow of The Optical Society and on deck to serve as its president in 2020.
Fantone has maintained close ties to the University of Rochester. His company is a member of the Industrial Associates (IA) program at the Institute. He chairs the Dean’s Advisory Committee of the Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. He has been a donor and fundraiser. He is a recipient of the Hajim School’s Distinguished Alumnus Award and the University’s Distinguished Scholar Award.
More to the point, he likes to hire graduates from his alma mater. Nearly a third of Optikos’ 60+ employees are Institute alumni. So, when he offers career advice to Institute students, as he did at a recent IA symposium, he is worth paying attention to.
Build a broad base of knowledge
For example: “Good grades don’t always correlate with success. It’s highly correlative, but not determinative,” Fantone says. So, given a choice between taking a soft course to protect your GPA, or taking a challenging course to broaden your base of knowledge, do the latter. “That’s not going to be held against you” when an employer looks at your transcript, Fantone says.
What courses should optics students take? Beyond such basics as physics, calculus, Matlab, and electronics, and beyond the requirements for a degree, Fantone recommends a broad array of optics courses to help students live up to those expectations that come with an Institute degree. For example: “You need to know how lenses are designed. You need to understand radiometry. How optical coatings work. How lenses and systems are fabricated,” Fantone says. “You need to know how bar code scanners work, and endoscopes, and optical networks.” Think about your competition, he adds. “Students are not learning this at MIT, at Stanford, at CalTech. But you can learn it here.”
When Fantone was a PhD student at the Institute, the colorimetry class was limited to master’s students. Undeterred, Fantone asked the professor if he could meet with him twice a week to go through the course content. The professor agreed. “It was one of the the most valuable ‘courses’ I ever took,” Fantone says. He immediately applied his newly gained knowledge about colorimetry in his first job as an engineer at Polaroid.
Push yourself. “Some people make a tradeoff between having classes on Friday or having a long weekend. That’s a bad bargain to make,” Fantone says. “Bring an intensity to your studies. It will serve you well in life.”
Similarly, take internships – not jobs at the beach -- during the summer. “In most companies, interns are not viewed as threats to anyone, so everybody is willing to share their knowledge and experiences with you, and give you advice,” Fantone says. “An internship can be a transformational experience. You get to see what you’re getting into. It will motivate you in your subsequent classes. So, the earlier you can do this, the better.”
‘Soft’ skills are as important as technical expertise
What are those soft skills? Here’s Fantone’s checklist:
- Self-awareness. “Do you have a sense of your impact on people and how you are viewed?”
- Getting along in an organization. “It’s great to be brilliant, but if no one likes you, you’re not going to get much done. Ask yourself: Are you getting along with the other students on your dorm floor, in your lab group? Because you’re getting paid to get along when you’re employed. So, get along.”
- Effective communication. “How many times do you have to say, ‘well, what I really meant was . . .’ Can you get it across the first time you try?” Fantone says. Do you listen carefully to what others are saying? “Generally, your listening skills are more important than your speaking skills.” Is your accent an impediment? International students who want to work in English-speaking countries should consider extra communications courses and accent reduction training, if necessary, Fantone suggests. Not because there should be any stigma about having an accent, but to make sure others understand your message.
- Are you someone who can be counted on to get the job done? The go-to person others turn to when they need help?
- Can you meet customer expectations? “I like to hire people who have had experience in a job in which there was close customer contact,” Fantone says. “I worked as a bus boy the summer before I went to college. Ever since, I treat people who work in restaurants much better than I might have otherwise. I understand what their career experience was like. And I understand the psychology of getting customers to the point they are happy.”
- Develop a sense of business and personal ethics. “A bad series of ethical choices” by engineers and others in corporate leadership resulted in VW being fined more than $14 billion for misleading the world about emissions from their diesel engines. “It’s a slippery slope that is very easy to get drawn into,” Fantone says. He suggests that students take Professor Randall Curren’s class on engineering ethics. “It will encourage you to think deeply about what it means to be an engineer. “
- Be efficient and productive. “You’re being paid for delivering value. If do, you will get increases and promotions.”
Some life lessons
Fantone has never forgotten the phone call he got one day when he was up for promotion at Polaroid. The vice president’s secretary was on the line, letting him know the review board was meeting that afternoon, but the paperwork for his promotion hadn’t shown up yet. Fantone alerted his boss, and the paperwork was forwarded in time.
“If I was on bad terms with that secretary, she would have never called. Nobody would have known what happened, and my promotion would have been delayed three months, six months, maybe a year.”
Moral of the story: “Be nice to people. You never know where the help is going to come from.”
And always be ready to help others, Fantone says. “The best way to get help, is to have given help.”
Fantone says he’s been “very, very lucky” as a student and throughout his career to meet and work with successful people, to take note of the characteristics that made them successful, and to try to emulate them. “Your mother was right,” he jokingly says. “She didn’t want you hanging out with ‘lowlifes.’ None of us is perfect. But if you surround yourself with interesting, positive people in your professional life, that’s going to rub off.”
He encourages students interested in a career in optics to “be in it for the long run. This is a small field. You can really get to know a large percentage of the players. If you don’t burn bridges, you can establish a relational equity with a lot of people.”
Above all, he hopes Institute of Optics students appreciate the unique position they’re in. “For me, it’s been remarkable to be able to keep coming back to Rochester for talent,” Fantone says. “We’ve hired from Arizona, MIT, Boston University, Caltech. The kind of person we get from the Institute of Optics is remarkable.
“So, I encourage you to seek out the opportunities here that will maximize your potential. You will be launched on a very successful career.”