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 www.alainalevine.com.

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 www.alainalevine.com.

Copyright, 2011, Alaina G. Levine.

 

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At FiO and Other Scientific Meetings, Networking Is a Key Career Move

14. October 2010

By Stephen Roberson

This post was republished with the kind permission of the author, Stephen Roberson, from his Frontiers in Optics blog.

Everywhere I look, people are talking about jobs. There is a good article in the October issue of Optics and Photonics News talking about post-Ph.D careers, in which young scientists discuss many possible career paths after graduate school. Another editorial in the same magazine talks about thinking outside of academia in your job search. 

I’ve noticed at conferences that many people only attend the talks and don’t go to other events like socials and mixers. What many new scientists don’t realize is that these gatherings are where people offer opportunities--and not at your brilliant talk. Yes, everyone’s talk is brilliant on some level, but the socials and mixers are where you have the opportunity to distinguish yourself as more than a good presenter. At OSA's annual Frontiers in Optics meeting, make sure to take advantage of all the opportunities to meet and greet people in the industry and in academia. 

Let people get to know you and get to know them in return. I’ve found that networking is not something that comes to a scientist naturally; usually we’re in labs by ourselves working alone. You have to work at it. Get out and meet people and get to know them in a professional and personal manner. Also, I’ve noticed that when scientists get together, they often engage in an “Are you smarter than I am?” contest. Don’t do that! Many of the people scientists will work for may not be more intelligent than them, but you don’t want to belittle the person that would hire you and authorize your paychecks. 

There are all sorts of strategies and books for getting jobs, and all of those sources have their pluses and minuses. But nothing can really relate to being on the radar of someone who is looking to hire a scientist like you because you met him or her personally. As a researcher at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, I know they get tons of applications from really smart people that are just tossed because nobody knows them. 

So get out there, press some flesh, and introduce yourself to the world.

Stephen Roberson is a research scientist at the Army Research Laboratory in Adelphi, Md., U.S.A.

 

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Welcome to OPN's Bright Futures Blog

15. July 2010

 by Christina Folz, OPN Managing Editor

Are you trying to launch or manage a career in optics? If so, you probably already realize that today's job seekers confront a number of unique challenges--including navigating a tough economy, learning how to stand out in a crowded market, and managing their online reputations. As optics professionals, you face the additional question of finding your place in a field that cuts across virtually all other scientific disciplines. The membership of the Optical Society (OSA) demonstrates the incredible diversity of optics and photonics: It includes researchers, engineers, entrepreneurs, educators, policymakers, communicators, and more.

But the endless possibilities are as exciting as they are daunting, and this blog is here to help. We're launching it in conjunction with a new column that we recently introduced into Optics & Photonics News magazine called Career Focus. I am managing the column in collaboration with Yanina Shevchenko, an active OSA volunteer and Ph.D. candidate in photonic systems at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.

Both the column and this blog are intended to serve as a resource to one of OSA's fastest growing groups of members--its students and recent graduates. In a broader sense, though, we believe these tools will be relevant to all of OSA's members and other science professionals as well--basically anyone who wants to stay abreast of employment trends and best practices for hiring. 

Some topics we'd like to explore, both in the Career Focus column and on this blog, include:

  • Internships and their benefits for undergrads and graduate students
  • The ins and outs of peer review
  • The importance of mentors
  • Your post-Ph.D. career options
  • Student start-ups, and
  • Navigating the student-advisor relationship.

We'd love your help to get started. Please get in touch--either through a comment here or by emailing us at opn@osa.org -- to let us know the career-related issues of interest to you and whether you are available to share your story or advice through our blog or magazine column. 

Launching or managing a career is not always easy. But we're here to provide tools and resources that will ensure that OSA's next generation has a bright future ahead. You might even need your shades. Cool

 

 

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