Strategic Planning for Emerging Scientists

10. February 2011

By Alaina G. Levine

Launching a successful career requires the savvy ability to be able to visualize and achieve milestones that lead to a final objective. It is not clairvoyance—it is a skill that is sharpened over time, and one that starts with building a strategic career plan.

Although most of us start in our profession without one, a strategic plan is a critical element to crafting a successful career. You can’t get from Point A to Point B without a map. The strategic plan acts as your life map, and much more. It announces milestones, calculates timelines, helps you to identify opportunities, and allows for contingencies. It is dynamic and completely individualized. No matter where you are in your career, whether you are just starting out or 10 years in or more, you can get started on a plan. Of course, the earlier in your career that you begin contemplating your plan, the faster and more efficiently you will achieve your goals. So as you get started, consider the following:

Ask yourself: What do I really want to do? For most scientists and engineers, your master goal is to achieve success in a job that brings you joy and intellectual stimulation. This could be in academia, industry or even a bakery. Many of us think we know what we want out of life because our mentors have pointed us in certain directions. But don’t just take their word for it. Be mindful of what YOU want, not what your advisor or others want for you. If you really want to bake cupcakes, go for it.

Start with a goal and do the research. Do you want to be a professor? An entrepreneur? Perhaps you want to do both. Whatever your ultimate desire is, begin by researching all of the steps and timeframes required to attain that treasure. Write it down. Create a tree-like diagram that notes each phase in the process of achieving your career milestones and goal, and your projected timeline for each.

Know your skills, likes and dislikes. Sketch out a table, whereby every row denotes a particular experience that you have had—be it a job, research or outreach project or leadership position. In the table’s columns, jot down the skills (both technical and business-related) that you gained from each experience, as well as what you loved and loathed about it. This will help you determine the best course of action for every milestone and your overarching goal.

Allow for contingencies. There will always be unforeseen bends and bumps on your road and you have to be ready for them. Sometimes, circumstances may dictate that you leave the path completely, either by choice or not. If you are aiming for a tenure-track position in academia and you don’t get a postdoc in a research-centered institution, what will you do? If you don’t secure a position in the same university as your partner, how will you handle it? If your advisor steals your idea or otherwise could tarnish your reputation, what steps will you take? Your strategic plan cannot account for every possible scenario, but it can provide access to other options and opportunities.

Be nimble. Just as your plan must be flexible enough to handle challenges, you should be sufficiently nimble in responding to new opportunities that you may never have guessed would arise. An invitation to author a major paper comes about, and that leads to an offer to join a research group in Spain. This wasn’t in your original plan, but that opportunity could open magical doors to achieving not only your current career goal, but perhaps others as well. It has been conjectured that people change careers (not jobs) on average seven times in their lives. Recognize unique opportunities as they come and reevaluate your goals and your plan to accomplish your professional desires.

Alaina G. Levine is an internationally known career development consultant for scientists and engineers and a science writer. She can be reached through her website at

Copyright, 2011, Alaina G. Levine.



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Professional Etiquette for Scientists

2. February 2011

By Alaina G. Levine

Sometimes we are inclined to argue that our skills, talents and reputation alone will secure us advancement opportunities in the fields of science and engineering. But here’s a truth that your scientific advisor may not have mentioned: Manners matter too.

Being professional means demonstrating that you are serious about your craft. Having good manners and proper business etiquette for all occasions promotes and amplifies your level of professionalism—in optics or any other field. Here are a few tips to ensure that you are always perceived as a professional, intelligent, hard-working, respected, talented scientist or engineer:

Make a good first impression. When you first meet someone, introduce yourself, shake the person’s hand, look them in the eyes, smile, and say their name back to them (so they know you are listening and that you pronounced their moniker correctly). The hand shake should employ two pumps, up and down, and then conclude.

Demonstrate keen communications acuity. Whether you are networking, participating in a job interview, or giving a seminar, it’s important to express great respect for the people with whom you are conversing. If you are having a one-on-one conversation at a mixer, don’t interrupt or over-talk the person. In fact, you should strive to listen approximately 80 percent of the time and speak only 20 percent. Maintain eye contact. Have business cards ready and don’t be afraid to ask for those of others. And when your meeting concludes, excuse yourself appropriately and bid them farewell—don’t just walk away.

Honor your audience. When giving a speech—whether to 1 or 100—acknowledge the audience and thank them for their time. Speak slowly and project your voice. When someone publicly asks a question, express gratitude for the inquiry, repeat it (in case it wasn’t heard by others) and do your best to answer. If you don’t know the answer, say so, and offer to pursue it further at a later time. Never insult the question or embarrass the questioner.

Sport the right uniform. You send a critical message with your garments, even in lab-based fields such as science and engineering, and you want it to be one of professionalism. So if you are interviewing or participating in an important meeting that could lead to a job or a fellowship, I recommend dressing a few notches better than you (and your colleagues) normally would in the lab.

For industry meetings, a suit is usually your best bet. For get-togethers in academic or national laboratory settings, you’ll likely do fine with a nice pair of chinos, sport coat and button-down shirt for men, and a conservative skirt or dress pants with a nice shirt and jacket for women.

Understand the culture. Whether you are in the United States, Japan or Qatar, it is crucial to know and master the cultural nuances that dictate how business is conducted. For example, in Asian cultures, when dining with chop sticks, never thrust the sticks vertically into a bowl of rice, because this rather severe visual brings to mind funerary practices—no need to bring death to the table! Similarly, in the Middle East, a formal negotiation doesn’t officially begin until you and the other party have sat and relaxed for a while, often over tea. And never sit with the souls of your feet facing another individual. Of course academia and industry have their own cultural norms as well, so wherever you are, research and implement the proper and professional etiquette that can lead to scientific success.

Portions of this article first appeared in

Alaina G. Levine is an internationally known career development consultant for scientists and engineers and a science writer. She can be reached through her website at

Portions of this article first appeared in Copyright, 2011, Alaina G. Levine.



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Team Dynamics: Understanding Your Role

20. January 2011

Alaina G. Levine

For every experience you have in your career, there will be one constant: You will always serve on teams. It doesn’t matter the task, the problem, the goal or the organization. Sometimes the group may be a trio or a duo, but even if you’re an uno, you will likely still have constituents that make a team.

You can contribute to your overall professional victory by honing vital skills related to team-building and team leading. Here are a few team dynamics fundamentals:

Always remember your goal. No matter who’s on your team, this group has one objective—to solve problems. This is not altogether different from your own goal as a professional. Your purpose in your career will always be to consistently, effectively and efficiently solve problems, and your team has been established for the same reason. Maintain your focus and promote a team climate that takes action according to its mission—to solve the organization’s problems.

Lead, even if you are not the leader. You can be a leader even if you do not officially manage the team. A team leader incorporates and reflects the values of the team, understands the assignment and dynamics of the team, and helps to ensure that the team stays on mission. You do not need to be the anointed director of the team to help your co-workers keep their eye on the ball and endeavor to solve the problem at hand. Aim to set an example of a commitment to excellence and results for those around you.

Seek to resolve conflict efficiently and quickly. Conflict is inevitable within every cluster of Homo sapiens. Whether it’s an attoscale argument over a misplaced mug or a more serious clash relating to a project’s delayed timeline, every person in a conflict has a responsibility to find a solution as quickly as possible. Conflict resolution involves listening and understanding all the parties and seeking to identify the underlying issue. You can help determine what is motivating the conflict by acknowledging the problem, examining all of the information and evidence, and brainstorming a solution.

Encourage an environment that fosters diversity. Diversity is not just about attracting people from different nationalities and cultural backgrounds. It is a critical element in a results-driven team, and it specifically and significantly contributes to an organization’s bottom line. When a team’s constituents are diverse, they inherently stimulate a “diversity of ideas,” which in turn influences and leads directly to innovation and creativity.  Novel problem-solving methods are developed. New perspectives are noted and lead to an understanding of more choices and ideas. This nurtures the team and plays a crucial role in its success. After all, a winning team is one that always endeavors to be dynamic and flexible, and, in doing so, innovative. A losing team is one that lacks diversity and the correlated injection of creative approaches to problem-solving. Serve as an architect and devotee of diversity and everyone will benefit.

Remain professional. The relationships between members of the team must be preserved at all costs. This is the aspect of the team that ensures it is reaching its target. And although you should strive for a peaceful, fun work environment, never forget that these are your colleagues, and not necessarily your friends. So yes, enjoy a good optics joke here and there, but ultimately maintain your professionalism—even if those around you act differently. So for the sake of the team, stay professional. In the end, you will set a good example.

Alaina G. Levine is an internationally known career development consultant for scientists and engineers and a science writer. She can be reached through her website at

Copyright, 2011, Alaina G. Levine.


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