'Doing It My Way'

Arica Lubin interviews Jean-luc Doumont about his unconventional career for an applied physics Ph.D.


November 10, 2014

Are you interested in forging a career path that may be off the so-called beaten path? Do you wonder what success looks like on this path and what principles have guided these career trailblazers? Read on.

I am fascinated by career paths less traveled and those who travel them. That’s why when I first heard Jean-luc Doumont speak, while nearing the end of my Ph.D. studies, it was not only the content of his lecture that was mesmerizing but the thought of, “How did this applied physics Ph.D. get to be a communication consultant?” If you have ever watched Jean-luc discuss — and demonstrate — how to give more effective talks, you know that he is skilled at making a two-hour lecture so mesmerizing you do not blink once. Every year, here at the University of California at Santa Barbara and throughout many institutions around the world, Jean-luc helps train scientists, researchers and professionals across the disciplines to be more effective communicators. But if you think this quadrilingual consultant must have been trained in English literature or in the performing arts, think again: Jean-luc is an engineer by training, with a Ph.D. in applied physics from Stanford University. Why would someone with this kind of profile spend his life helping researchers worldwide improve their papers, presentations, and graphs? And how has he created a fulfilling career doing so? I asked and here is what he had to say about it.

Q: How did you go from doing research in optics to teaching communication?

A: The move was largely a case of trying to help myself and ending up helping others. As an engineering undergrad in Belgium, I had to deliver presentations and write reports. I enjoyed these activities and was told I was good at them, but I had no idea what, specifically, was good about what I did. As a result, I was frustrated and insecure: I could not improve. As a grad student at Stanford, I saw that the School of Engineering was offering a course titled Public Speaking, and I thought: “This is for me!” I took it, loved it, and ended up teaching it. Back in Belgium after my Ph.D., I worked for a year on teaching issues as assistant to the dean of engineering before completing a then-compulsory military service. Because I was not going to get paid during the service, I decided I needed a side income, and I started training and consulting activities during nights, weekends, and free days. By the end of my military service, I had several career paths in front of me, but I thought: “I love helping people improve their communication, there is a huge need for it, and some people are willing to pay for it.” These arguments were enough for me to try to make a career out of it.

Q: It sounds as if you did not really plan for this vocation. Do you regret your choice of studies?

A: Admittedly, I chose my educational path on debatable grounds — such as embarking on a Ph.D. at a top-notch university mostly for the challenge — but I certainly have no regrets. Not only did I enjoy studying engineering and physics, these studies also shaped my approach to communication, a feature my audiences of researchers recognize immediately: they say we are “on the same wavelength.” I could certainly not help them as well if I did not have a strong research background myself.

Q: You said you had several possible career paths. What guided your choice?

A: Mostly, I wanted to be the master of my own fate. I deliver the best results — and I enjoy my work the most — when given the freedom to do things my way. I felt I would be unhappy in the corporate world: too many rules, too many bosses, too much of a focus on making money rather than on doing things right. I did consider an academic career, thinking it would afford me freedom, too, but whatever little I had seen of academia suggested much administration and much politics. I have always been a fiercely independent individual — someone who hates owing anything to anyone; I should have known I would end up creating my own career path.

Q: How did you gain the confidence to turn a passion into a career for which you had no formal training?

A: Confidence was an issue more than formal training: a friend of mine once described me as an under-confident overachiever. Still, lack of confidence is what keeps me driven, so I have learned to treasure it. During my first year at Stanford, though, I had a pretty bad case of “imposter syndrome,” as I found out that everyone in my year was better than me at one thing or another. It took me a while to realize that none of them outperformed me at everything: I too had my strengths, which I could further sharpen, and my weaknesses, which I could choose to improve upon. Also, professional success seldom comes from being the best at just one skill: what gives you an edge is the unique combination of your various talents, including the less obvious ones. Back then, I never thought of my enthusiasm, approachability, or sense of humor as marketable skills, yet these traits are often praised by training participants on evaluation forms: they help set me apart.

Q: Earning respect by doing things one’s way is a classic quest among academics and emerging professionals. What obstacles did you meet along the way?

A: In retrospect, I think much of my life, both personal and professional, has been about breaking through stereotypes. I was told so many “truths” I felt were wrong, but for too long, I thought something was wrong with me instead. I was told that innovation is all about teamwork, but I find I am most creative alone or with just one other person. I was told never to do business with friends, but many of my friends became clients … and many of my clients became friends. I was told that perfectionism is a counterproductive trait, but it turned out to be the cornerstone of my professional success. The list of received ideas I left behind goes on and on.

Q: You make it seem easy to just be yourself, but I bet it wasn’t. How can young Ph.D.s break free from the stereotypes imprisoning them?

A: Going against what others want you to be can be tough indeed — my own mother could not refrain from expressing her disapproval of my career choice. At the same time, it is a liberating experience: we go through life carrying so many needless balls and chains. I’d say the key is to be O.K. with who you choose to be and what you choose to do. If you find it entirely acceptable to be a perfectionist and you behave accordingly, others are likely to respect it. In contrast, if you’re sheepish or perhaps overly assertive about being a perfectionist, expect others to challenge you. Success helps, of course: I am hardly someone who conforms, but I am often regarded as successful the way I am, so it is harder for others to reproach me my lack of conformity. Establishing success, however, takes time.

Q: Let’s talk about attaining success, then: any advice for those who, like you, want to forge their own career path?

A: I’d make three recommendations to those who want to be the master of their own fate. First, hold on tight to your dreams: never lose track of them, but learn to be patient. At first, I went to see clients on a moped because I could not afford a car. If I had taken a job in the corporate world instead, I would have had a plump salary, perhaps even a company car, from day one. By now, I’d be rich — and probably miserable. Second, do what it takes to get there. Unless you were born with wealth or status, the path to freedom is demanding. When you start a business, you may have to accept any assignment at any price, just to build reputation, before you can call the shots. Fortunately, when you get to do what you love, even hard work is not that hard. Finally, keep your feet on the ground. If you are risk-averse, limit the risks. Have a plan B. When I started my business, I knew it could fail, but I also knew the consequences would be limited. I had no kids, no mortgage loan, no luxury taste — and I was highly employable: I was confident I would survive, no matter what. These three recommendations may be intimidating, but most Ph.D.-holders have already proven that they have it in them to succeed on their own.

Q: Many reading this are no doubt wanting a career that is both challenging and flexible. So, what about work–life balance?

A: I dislike the expression work–life balance, because it suggests that work is not part of life — or life not part of work. The strict separation of work life and family life is another stereotype I happily challenged. Eight years ago, my wife Geneviève decided to quit her otherwise successful career in finance, so we could create a company and work together from our home office. It did not alleviate the workload for either of us, but it brought flexibility in our lives. In the evening, we can now stop work, have dinner with our two children, put them to bed, then start work again. At the dinner table, the conversation may jump from the school day of Colin or Layla to an e-mail we just received from a client; all four of us are O.K. with that. The kids have accompanied me on speaking tours, too, and they find it perfectly normal, for example, to have dinner with Ph.D. students in Beijing. This lack of separation may not work for everyone, but it was again liberating to me — perhaps because I enjoy my family life as much as my work life. I need not protect one from the other.

Q: You sound like a happy man. Any remaining challenges in your life?

A: Balancing everything I find worth doing in my life will remain a challenge forever, I guess, but the more immediate issue is the fact that we receive much more demand than we can accept. Everyone tells us the only way forward is to grow the company, but we think that’s just another stereotype. Many of the U.S. universities that invite me back have settled on a date, reserved a lecture hall, and agreed on our fee long before they discuss topics with us. They don’t go: “We need someone to lecture on structuring research papers. Who could we ask?” Instead, they seem to think: “It would be nice to have Jean-luc speak on campus again. What topic could he discuss this time?” In other words, we have the business model of artists: clients come for us as people, as much as for our expertise as such. It is our greatest asset and our greatest limitation. All in all, though, I would not want it any other way.


Arica Lubin is professional development programs manager at the Center for Science and Engineering Partnerships of the California Nanosystems Institute at the University of California at Santa Barbara.


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