Navigating your professional career with purpose rather than a plan

What do you want to be when you grow up? I’m sure we’ve all been asked that at some point in our lives. The reality is, do we really need to know? Certainly not at age 5. What about age 25? 55? I’ll admit, I’m an overplanner. I pick out my clothes for work the night before, I cook meals for nearly the entire week on Sundays, and my lucky husband never has to plan a single birthday or vacation for us. But one thing I learned long ago to never plan too meticulously: my career.

If you ask any lab director, distinguished professor, or CEO what path they took to get to where they are today, most will tell you they had no specific plan. There are very few people who know what they want to be when they grow up and actually become that. For the rest of us, navigating our careers can seem like an open book, a labyrinth of deception and wrong turns, or maybe a happily-ever-after fairytale. We all know how it feels when something doesn’t quite go as planned, especially something we’ve worked really hard on. So why do we keep steering down a broken path?

When I was in the 8th grade, we had a career day where we would get to choose 3 professions to follow for half a day. I was so excited because I already knew I wanted to be a chemist and I couldn’t wait to see what one did in the real world. My hopes and dreams came to a staggering halt as my homeroom teacher handed out the list of careers to choose from. Scientist was on there – along with doctor, lawyer, and police officer – but there was one glaring problem. Those careers were listed under a big, bold heading: “BOYS.” Boys? What about girls? The girls careers included hair dresser, teacher, secretary, nurse, and caterer. My 13-year-old mind was blown that even in 1997 I was never expected to be a scientist. I could have let that day be a sign, let it derail me, but instead, that was the day I turned my plan into a purpose. So, how do you find that purpose – that thing that defines you, drives you, empowers you?

Be Curious

There’s something sobering about realizing that not everyone sees the world the way you do. Sometimes, it takes an outsider looking in to give you an accurate depiction of what’s really going on. We all need to be aware of our strengths and weaknesses (we’ll get to that a little later) but we also need to acknowledge and recognize the value that others, even those far removed from our current situation, can bring to the table. And what’s the best way to do that? As chemists, we’re naturally curious about the physical world: not just what’s happening around us but how and why it’s happening. And while we may feel most comfortable analyzing and rationalizing on our own, we also need to be curious about the people around us. Talk to strangers, find out what their hobbies are, ask questions, develop new habits, try new things. Albert Einstein said, “I have no special talent, I am only passionately curious.” Only by being passionately curious can we continue to learn, continue to grow both personally and professionally, and start seeing ourselves and our careers with fresh eyes.

Be Influential

It doesn’t take a tremendous amount of time or effort to influence others. Think about all the things we see in a given day that influence our actions – what we wear, what we eat, what we say. No matter what stage you are in your career, recognize that you can be a leader, that you are an influential force. Your actions, experiences, and perspectives can impact people in very powerful ways, often times without even realizing it. My local section YCC performs hands-on chemistry demonstrations at the Salvation Army every year. This year, a 9-year-old boy told me that he’s wanted to be a chemist ever since he participated in our first event almost 4 years ago. I didn’t even recognize him. I had no idea that such a small gesture, an hour of my Friday afternoon, could have such a lasting impression on a 5-year-old. We are much more influential than we realize, so own it and you will continue to inspire and be inspired.

Be Adaptable

People change. Plans change. The world is constantly changing. The important things are how we react and respond to such changes, how we learn from them, and how we continue to move forward. All a career path leads you to is an endpoint. Instead, think about how you can be prepared, be proactive, and act with purpose to lead you to opportunities. When you follow your purpose, the path isn’t as critical. It may twist and turn, go uphill both ways, or even come to a dead end, but as long as your purpose is your guiding beacon, you can adapt and overcome any bump along the way.

An easy way to demonstrate your adaptability in the workplace is to let others (especially those in positions of authority) see you in different roles outside of your technical field or comfort zone. Show your co-workers and superiors that not only can you do your job and do it well but you can also learn new things and take on new responsibilities. Try volunteering for that task nobody wants to take on; assume a leadership role on a company-wide committee to gain visibility across groups/disciplines; become active in professional societies (like ACS!); seek out volunteer opportunities in your community; start a task force to tackle an issue you feel personally invested in. Be heard and seen by people of all ages, backgrounds, and salary grades. When you start taking risks, saying yes to new opportunities, and stretching beyond your boundaries, others will start taking risks on you.

Be You

The further along in my career I’ve gotten, the more I’ve learned to accept that I will never be a Nobel-prize winning chemist. I will never be a senior technical fellow at a National Lab. I will never patent some life-altering discovery and start my own company. And I’m ok with that! When I came to Savannah River National Lab as a postdoc in 2010, I had no idea what I would be working on or what I was getting myself into. Seven years later, I find myself a technical expert in a field I had no previous knowledge, training, or interest in prior to arriving. But by following the principles I’ve outlined above (asking questions, stretching myself, being available and adaptable), I’ve been very successful not only in my technical work but also in finding out where my true interests lie and how I can best utilize my talents. By seeing me thrive in such diverse roles and leadership positions throughout my early career, my senior management has also recognized that my potential and future in science are not bound by the broken road that led me here.

Being intentional about your career interests and goals is important. Making connections and letting others see your potential is key. But don’t forget to be yourself. Stepping out of your comfort zone, taking risks, welcoming change – none of these things should come at the expense of losing your identity. Stay true to who you are, what you believe, what drives you, because it’s hard to regret a decision made with purpose. When you navigate your career with purpose rather than a plan, the only thing that can stand in your way is you.

Katie J. Heroux, Ph.D.

Article by Katie J. Heroux, Ph.D.

Katie J. Heroux is a Principal Scientist at Savannah River National Laboratory in Aiken, South Carolina. She completed her Ph.D. in Inorganic Chemistry at the University of California San Diego and her undergraduate studies at the University of New Hampshire. Katie is an Associate Member of the YCC in the Membership Engagement (ME) subcommittee and also serves as Alternate Councilor and Past Chair of the Savannah River local section.