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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