David Giltner, Ph.D.

David Giltner, Ph.D.

David M. Giltner, Ph.D. is a physicist by training, and a product manager at Zolo Technologies, a company that develops laser-based combustion monitoring systems for industrial furnaces. He spent most of his graduate career thinking he would follow the traditional scientist career path into academia. It was during his final year in grad school that he decided the lifestyle and career of a professor was just not for him. Two months after defending his dissertation, he moved to California with a three month consulting contract from a silicon valley laser company as his only career prospect. In the 17 years since then, he has held a wide range of positions developing laser-based products for optical communications, materials processing, remote sensing, and lab instrumentation applications. In that time, not once has he regretted his decision to make the leap from the 'traditional' science career path to the world of product development. He remembers the challenge of selling himself as a scientist in an engineer’s world, however, so in 2010 he published “Turning Science into Things People Need.” This book contains interviews with other scientists who successfully made the transition from science research into industry. It is a very useful career reference for any scientist who is considering a similar move and wants to understand what to expect and how to best position themselves to create a rewarding career. 

Conducted and contributed by Brian | October 2013

“Part of what I try to do [with my book and seminars] is counter the [academic] image that industry is the second choice or last resort. [The assumption is] if you are studying science, you really want to be a professor, but if you can’t cut it [in academia] – there is industry. That is the image but not at all the reality.”

Listen to the conversation podcast below (player should appear shortly).


Featured songs: "Music! Dance! Drama!" by Jaga Jazzist and "Echoes" by Washed Out

Conversation Highlights

“Most of my graduate career I just assumed I would be a professor. I got into Physics because I loved the science. Undergrad led to grad school and grad school just seems to point you to being a professor. It was really in my last year, after being in grad school for a number of years and watching how it all worked, that I thought I do not really want to be a professor – it is not for me.”

“[Even with informational interviews], it is still very hard to really get a feel for what industry is like. It is a great way to start and begin to get an idea of what positions might be out there with companies that you might be interested in - but there is still a lot to learn.”

“The worst way to network is to go around asking for jobs. I suggest finding another [creative] way to interact and talk to people.”

“I have noticed that a lot of young career scientists looking in industry tend to think of what they can do in terms of specific skills. An employer or hiring manager hires somebody because they have a problem; they are looking to find someone that can solve that problem. [Therefore], what you always want to do to make yourself more marketable, whether it be for a first job or if you have been laid off, is to think in terms of the value you bring and cite examples. It’s a broader way of thinking about things and what you are capable of.”

“If you think industry is for you – it is a very rewarding place.”

“You may be thinking that academia is not for me, but I really don’t want to take the second option. What I try to do is paint [a realistic] picture [of life outside of academia] by saying here are some people that I talked to that made the change and were right where you are and thought this isn’t for me. Here are some of the reasons they thought it wasn’t for them and [examples of] why they went into industry. Here is where they are now and what they find so rewarding. Nobody that I talked to said they made a mistake. There is plenty of intellectual stimulation. I also try to help them understand how industry is different [by educating them on] how to you sell yourself and continue to be successful [once in industry].”

“You have to have a different perspective [in industry]. It is not like academia. There are different things that are important. You need to develop a different mindset if you are going to be successful.”

[On the important skills needed to succeed in industry] “It is not so much skills; it is more about having the right perspective. One of the important skills is communication. Communication skills are very important. It is not just a matter of can you talk to people; it is more about can you sell them on your ideas.”

“Money is what drives industry. It is about making money and you have to keep that in mind. You need to work on things that have value in terms of dollar signs and are interesting. In [academia] you can work on things that are interesting as long as you have funding. In industry, you have to work on something that has a return. You have to be efficient. You cannot keep analyzing it [data] until you think you have all the information and completely understand it until you are expert in the field. You do not have time for that because if you do that, whatever the opportunity [in front of you] is, may have passed you by. You need to get just enough information to solve the problem, create the product, and make it robust enough that you can get it out there [in the marketplace]. You also have to learn to make decisions without all the information [right in front of you]. These are things you can get better at. It is more about the attitude and focus and not just the skills; always keeping in mind money is behind this.”

[On the value of a PhD] “I believe the value of a PhD can be grouped into four major things. First of all, there are the technical credentials. A PhD has spent a lot of time learning something technical; therefore they have a certain degree of technical expertise. This may or may not map out into what your career turns out to be. The other thing is that this person is ambitious. This may be useful if this person wants to get into a leadership role. You also get someone that has initiative to get out and do these things. You also have people that are self-reliant. A PhD is a demonstration of all of these things.”

[On preparing academic trainees for the real world] “I would try to focus them more on the practical and help them understand that instead of focusing on the theoretical and what could be, they should understand that they will be moving into the world of practical and what will be or won’t be. I would also tell them to start thinking about their research project in terms of a real project the way it would be done in industry. [For example] putting together a plan – what do you think you will be doing? Keep a schedule, develop milestones and try to hit them. Work with your advisor on funding. Ask how much is this going to cost and are we going to meet that or not? [By doing this] you can sometimes create new opportunities. Get involved with your advisor in finding the funding [source] – that is ultimately who you are selling to. Understand there is value in what you want to do. At the very least, keeping a plan, keeping a schedule, and budgeting and sticking to it will help you see that things don’t always go as expected but there is still a deadline to meet. Not understanding how to meet a deadline in industry is not going to work. You need a best guess and if this date is important when something changes, you have to find a solution that fits within that timeframe. That is the practicality of someone paying [you] to meet a deadline.”