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Developing Skills for Laser Research and Development, and How to Make Continuing Education Work for Consistent Success

Posted on 2024-05-28 as part of the Photonics Spotlight (available as e-mail newsletter!)

Permanent link: https://www.rp-photonics.com/spotlight_2024_05_28.html

Author: Dr. Rüdiger Paschotta, RP Photonics AG, RP Photonics AG

Abstract: Successful work in photonics requires a set of skills. Here, the required skills are discussed, also ways of actively improving them.

Dr. Rüdiger Paschotta

Successful work in research and development, especially in laser technology, obviously depends on a number of different skills. It is useful to think about these in some detail – for example, in the context of planning one's own career development, when hiring people to build a laser development team, or when trying to improve the effectiveness of such a team. This article is therefore highly relevant for scientists and engineers who want to improve their skills, as well as for managers in companies and universities who need a competent and effective team to achieve challenging goals. In times with a pronounced shortage of skilled personell, and especially in rapidly evolving high-tech environments, it gets even more important to deal with those things diligently.

Required Skills

A first step is identifying what skills are important.

To some extent, what you need depends on what you want to do. For example, a laser service engineer may not need a deep knowledge of laser physics, while a laser designer may not need to be involved in the details of quality control. However, you definitely want the expertise of different people on a team to overlap significantly, because that is the only way they can communicate and work together effectively. Such overlap also provides more stability through redundancy, for example if someone leaves the team. In addition, everyone should be interested not only in doing their current job well, but also in understanding opportunities for growth, including activities that require additional skills.

Here are some thoughts on the skills required for some typical laser engineering jobs. Of course, I am not saying that you cannot start such work without already having all these skills; there is often no other way than to learn these things on the job. However, one should strive to acquire any missing skills as soon as possible, and I will give some hints on how to accelerate this learning.

Skills for Laser Research

To work in laser research, one certainly needs a profound knowledge in a substantial part of the large field of photonics – especially in the following theoretical areas:

How do you learn all that?

  • A popular approach is to read the relevant articles in my encyclopedia. In addition, there are university lectures, textbooks, tutorials, etc. On our website you can find, besides the encyclopedia articles, various tutorials and case studies, especially in the context of fiber optics, and various other articles.
  • Note, however, that all of this is relatively passive learning: you are just digesting knowledge presented by someone else, and if that is the only way of learning, the result is often not as deeply understood and memorized as one would like. Therefore, you should strive for more:
  • Deep understanding and lasting memory are usually only achieved with more active methods of learning: something that really makes you think. Some examples of active learning methods:

    • For example, after listening to some lectures on laser physics, you sit down with nothing more than a blank piece of paper and a pencil, and try to remember some key equations – say, some differential equations describing laser dynamics. It is no problem if you later discover some mistakes when you check the results against a textbook: realizing what was wrong allows you to memorize the essentials much better.
    • You can freely develop some interesting questions and try to answer them (alone or in a small team). For example, to what extent might a certain type of laser be suitable for achieving certain goals, applying a certain method, etc.? Try to be creative.
    • When you feel you have a good idea, summarize your thoughts clearly on paper or on your computer. Often enough, important details are overlooked until you write things down.
    • Try to simulate certain aspects of light propagation, laser operation, nonlinear frequency conversion, or whatever on your computer. There are many ways to do this in laser technology. If you have the skills to do a small simulation with some self-written code (e.g. based on Python), that's great. If not, you can still get very active with laser simulations by using existing simulation software, which is much easier. Building a simulation forces you to think about all relevant input parameters and allows you to compare your expectations with simulated results. Often enough, you will find a complete mismatch, which in turn is a great opportunity to correct false expectations or to learn by tracing an error in your simulation. Once you have a working simulation, don't stop there: use it to play with different parameters, see how the system reacts to them, and learn from them. So far, I have focused on more theoretical aspects, albeit with great importance for getting things done on the ground. In addition, various more practical skills need to be developed for realizing things in the lab. Some examples:
  • You need to know not only what a laser mirror should do in theory (in a very simple picture), but in what shapes and sizes they are available, what role the mirror substrate plays, where you can buy them, how high reflectivities are realistic, how to check the risk of laser-induced damage, etc.

  • Similarly, it is important to know what criteria to use when choosing a type of laser crystal, how to decide on the doping concentration, how to mount and cool them, what anti-reflection coatings to apply, etc. Similar considerations apply to active fibers.
  • Why do we use optical tables and optical breadboards, why and how do we keep the workspace reasonably clean, how do we anticipate various problems before we start assembling the components for a laser setup?
  • You may even need to set up a laboratory, which will require consideration of aspects such as space requirements for everything (including optical tables, clean air system, diagnostic instruments, optical component storage, etc.), additional infrastructure, and more.
  • Laser safety is another aspect that everyone working in a lab should know at least the basics about. Of course, the most important outcome is not to comply with formal regulations, but to avoid accidents. Finding and establishing good safety practices is a non-trivial task, and experience helps a lot.
  • Some related technologies can be important: especially electronics and general electrical engineering, and of course information technology. For example, you need to understand what laser diodes need and tolerate in terms of voltage and current, and how electrostatic discharges kill them. [Pockels cells for fast switching need a driver that delivers high currents through a suitable cable, and electronic feedback systems are used in various ways to control laser power, frequency, and more. Computer-like devices are also increasingly used, e.g.

In addition, some more general skills are essential:

  • Analytical thinking is key to uncovering the causes of hidden problems and finding optimal solutions. It helps to focus attention on promising directions while avoiding work that is certain to fail. This is a typical example of a skill that is most often acquired through practical work rather than lectures.
  • Project planning and organization is something that basically everyone needs sooner or later, though often not necessarily based on formal training. Careful observation of what works and what doesn't can also lead to profound insights over time.
  • Documentation is particularly important in many areas, but is often treated as an unpleasant extra task and neglected as much as possible. However, it is often the key to efficiency and reliability. For example, laser development should be accompanied by careful documentation from start to finish; it helps avoid many pitfalls while consuming only a tiny fraction of the resources used.

Overall, you really need a lot of expertise, and hardly anyone can cover all of these areas with equal expertise. To some extent, people in a lab can specialize in certain areas; it may be okay to have one or two people who are particularly good at laser theory and simulations, and, for example, an expert in optical component procurement, electronics, or laser safety. But being completely clueless in some of these areas is certainly not desirable. An easy way to expand your knowledge is to ask others. Knowledge transfer within a team can be organized more systematically with group meetings, where each time someone tries to teach the others something.

Skills for Industrial Laser Development

Since the laws of physics apply equally to industrial buildings, the basic scientific and technological knowledge required is the same as in university research. However, some aspects are slightly different:

  • There is (or should be) a stronger focus on reliability. For example, lasers are manufactured according to well thought-out laser designs and procedures. Systematic testing, again based on well-defined protocols, is another issue. You don't want to ship a laser and have the first user discover a silly bug that causes the laser to not work properly, have to be sent back and repaired, keep the user waiting, and so on. The space industry is particularly demanding in terms of quality and reliability; comprehensive documentation and systematic approaches are accordingly vital.
  • There is more or less a division between development teams and production teams. The latter need to be very diligent and careful, but may not require deep knowledge of the science, while development teams may need less experience with things like quality control. Such teams can and should learn a lot from each other; for example, experienced production people can provide feedback on designs for manufacturability.
  • There is often no top scientific guru immediately available when problems arise, and confidentiality issues can also limit the chances of getting helpful advice from outside. Particularly in a small team, there may be a lack of top internal expertise, which can also limit the speed and quality of everyone's learning unless this challenge is somehow resolved (see below).
  • Certain goals must be achieved within certain timeframes, and the financial consequences of failure can be quite severe. One way to deal with this is to simply avoid projects with too much risk due to unknowns. Another approach is to put more emphasis on continued training.

Combinations of Important Skills

A deep expertise in one certain direction is fine, but developing a combination of skills allows you to achieve more. That's what companies often search for. For example, a company like RP Photonics engages in developing advanced simulation software, and what is required for that? It is a combination of several key skills:

  • a thorough understanding of optics and laser physics
  • a good expertise on mathematics and numerical algorithms to solve equations
  • experience in computer programming

Although there are quite a few people around who are strong in one or two of those disciplines, the combination of all three is rarely found. But hiring a physicist without programming capability plus a programmer is less attractive than getting one person covering it all. So such a person is substantially more valuable for such a company than any specialist in one particular direction.

It gets even more demanding to be managing director of such a small company. You cannot simply lean back and order others to do all work; rather, you need to cover many areas yourself:

  • You need to have full oversight on what is technically feasible and finds enough interest on the market.
  • You need to find the right coworkers and create an environment for them in which they can get productive, further develop their skills and consistently stay happy on their jobs.
  • You need to represent the company and market its offers in appropriate ways; much of that is hard to delegate to others.
  • You need to keep working on long-term business development, i.e., develop a vision for the future development of the company and find creative ways of realizing it.

It obviously takes a lot of learning and dedication to get there.

Continued Learning

It should be obvious that in a high-tech field such as laser technology, continuing education is essential throughout one's career (not just prior to employment), although in some places this doesn't seem to be recognized. In fact, there are many companies where continuing education is not supported or encouraged in any way; often there is not even a budget for it. Their management seems to implicitly assume that what these people learned, say, at university 20 years ago, and maybe what they happened to read here and there, must be sufficient for the rest of their time.

But how do you put training and skill development into practice? Here are some typical ways:

  • Usually, there is already some special expertise on various topics in the team – but only in certain team members. It is then a very natural approach to let them teach the others. You can have regular presentations in team meetings where someone teaches the others on a particular topic.
  • The typical limitations are (a) the available knowledge of at least some team members, (b) their didactic skills, and (c) the available time to carefully prepare such presentations. And sometimes such opportunities are simply overlooked.
  • One potentially very effective way to overcome all of the above limitations is to invite an external instructor who is an expert in a particular area, has well-developed didactic skills, and ideally does not need to develop such a presentation from scratch because similar material has already been presented elsewhere.
  • There are also various courses offered elsewhere, such as half-day and full-day “short courses” at some conferences. (I have often given such courses, especially at Photonics West.) Because they are intended for a wider audience, they are relatively inexpensive to attend, at least for a few individual team members. However, the range of course topics is limited, and the courses obviously cannot be tailored to the individual needs of a particular company. Having an instructor on site can also lead to a more intense exchange of ideas.
  • Attending conferences also offers a number of other learning opportunities: listening to scientific talks, in addition to talking to people you meet there by chance. Note, however, that the talks are typically not optimized for learning; they are often more speaker-centric, designed to promote the latest results of a particular team rather than to carefully educate a wider audience.
  • Another approach may be for team members to engage with textbooks and similar documents, and with deeper active investigations and exploration. Some may be interested in improving their knowledge in this way, while others wouldn't take the initiative. Therefore, do not expect too much to happen in this way – especially if the team is already quite busy with its projects.
  • For specific topics related to certain machines and instruments, vendors offer special training courses that can be quite helpful. I remember attending a full-day course on electronic spectrum analysis from HP many years ago, and studying in detail their comprehensive application note on spectrum analysis. It was an excellent opportunity to learn a lot about this difficult but important subject. For me, it was very effective because it was directly applicable to my work, and it prompted me to get very actively involved in these things – with my own calculations, simulations, experiments, etc. Later, I also gave my own presentations on such topics in group meetings.

How to Improve Learning

Create awareness of the benefits of learning

Continuous learning is in the interest of all team members and, of course, in the interest of the company in several ways: not only does an effective team obviously work more competently, but productivity can also increase by motivating team members. For them, it can be great to finally overcome certain difficulties accompanied by the uncomfortable feeling of not quite knowing how best to approach a task. And consider that the brightest minds sooner or later leave a place where they cannot continue learning – but exactly those you want to keep on board!

While these insights may seem obvious, it often takes some initiative to raise awareness at all levels, from team members to management. So why not have a dedicated discussion about how to improve learning in your team?

Find a good mix of activities

To actively develop the expertise and creativity of a laser development team, for example, a healthy mix of the learning activities described above is best. What works best will generally depend somewhat on the circumstances; this requires some thought. In many cases, a tailored training course given by a top expert will be a great start.

Actively encourage learning

It is a good idea for management to actively encourage and support learning, rather than just leaving it to team members to take the initiative. This includes making it clear to everyone that their efforts to improve their skills are appreciated and supported. The time spent on such activities needs to be considered as important as making progress on the team's concrete goals; it is just something that pays off over a longer period of time.

Take own initiatives

As a team member, you can also try to identify learning opportunities and make suggestions. You may find that management hasn't been actively looking for such things, but they're smart enough to see that it's in their best interest to support them. If not, it may be time to consider whether another job would be better for your professional development.

Set goals and develop learning strategies

Anyone in a high-tech industry should not just learn by accident, but consciously set goals for future professional development, for which learning is obviously central. You should occasionally think about what skills will be important in your current job and in possible future jobs. Then think about how best to achieve those goals.

For a team leader, the development of the whole team should receive regular and substantial attention. Think about which competencies of the team as a whole should be improved, and for more specialized topics, who could best develop in those directions. Also consider which existing competencies could be better distributed within the team, and encourage internal knowledge transfer with concrete actions, such as organizing internal group lectures.

Enjoy Learning!

The journey of continued learning in the laser industry, for example, is not just a professional necessity but a personal commitment to excellence and innovation which is deeply enjoyable. Spending much of our lifetime on working, we want to make this is as interesting as possible, and a focus on continued learning is the natural approach for that. I consider the joy of learning and innovating as a key factor for success; without that, nobody would have the discipline to consistently work hard towards certain professional goals. When acquiring skills comes together with a deep satisfaction and joy of learning, this is an excellent basis for success.

This article is a posting of the Photonics Spotlight, authored by Dr. Rüdiger Paschotta. You may link to this page and cite it, because its location is permanent. See also the RP Photonics Encyclopedia.

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