The Early Career Professional’s Toolbox

Many professionals must hone several key skills over time to be successful at their jobs. Some of these skills are learned in academic settings. That is especially true for professions that require a prolonged educational stage (yes, I’m particularly winking at the roads toward MD & Ph.D. degrees!). But just as valuable are the skills that early-career professionals gain outside of the formal educational framework. And of course, both personal traits and the element of luck, play important roles in achieving success from an early career standpoint.

This past year has also brought on additional requirements (hello frequent webcam meetings!) that should be highlighted and appropriately incorporated into the early career “skills toolbox”. One must ensure forward momentum and “future-proofing” one’s advancement in an early career path. “Adapting to the times” is key, and there are evergreen tools that are essential to career advancement. Here I’ll share some of what I think are key tools in this present-day moment for an early career professional (specifically from my personal point of view, as a biomedical researcher – but hopefully I’ll add enough general value framework for the wider community as well).

Tool #1: Work ethic

This is obviously the most useful and versatile tool to have when going through early career progression and advancement. There is nothing that can replace dedication and diligence when it comes to building a career. This translates of course to the practice of “putting in the time”, but that’s not all there is to it. Work ethic to me also means figuring out the many ways in which work gets done! Here I’ll highlight the immense value in developing a work ethic that includes learning how to create and be part of a team. Sometimes projects are better served when multiple professionals with varying expertise and experiences team up (multidisciplinary collaborations). Also, work ethic is learning to optimize being both a mentee (learning from multiple mentors is the fastest way to advancing one’s skillsets) and being a mentor (passing on skills to peers and junior team members has immeasurable benefit to the work and community surrounding it).

Tool #2: Networking

I touched on this a little bit earlier, but this is worth spotlighting on its own. Other than creating teams with the explicit goal of accomplishing specific tasks or projects, an early career professional needs to put in effort towards expanding one’s own professional community of contacts. This is generally called networking, and every scientist and most professionals know the classic phrase “it’s not just about what you do, but also it’s who you know, and who knows you!”. Career advancement is a series of challenges that come sometimes routinely, and many times unexpectedly. Networking, having outside perspectives and individuals with various experiences outside of one’s immediate work bubble, is one of the best ways to gain and apply new skills towards overcoming challenges, and therefore securing career advancement. And yes, knowing and connecting with successful individuals, who demonstrated an ability to navigate through the dense forest of early career progression, is worth the effort it takes to network and connects.

Tool #3: Writing

Speaking to many scientists in my early career category, I frequently hear that writing is not a “favorite” activity for many researchers. It’s treated as a counter to the “real work”, which is the active “researching” tasks that we engage in. Writing is thought of as kind of an archiving practice, more passive than advancing the plotline as the research unfolds. I personally feel like this kind of thinking diminishes the importance of writing, not just as a valuable tool in career building, but also as a practice that contributes to personal growth and even enjoyment! There are many strategies developed towards advancing one’s writing potential. Recently my AHA early career blogger colleague Dr. Jennifer Kong wrote an excellent blog about writing strategies titled “25 Useful Tips for Establishing a Writing Routine”, check it out!

Tool #4: Public Speaking

This is by far one of the hardest tools to get comfortable with, especially in an early career stage! It’s been said that some folks have a greater fear of public speaking than death. It’s an extremely difficult skill to practice, let alone master. But the fact is: Public speaking is more integrated into many career paths than it is apparent at first glance. You don’t have to be standing in front of a podium in a lecture hall or stadium to require the use of public speaking skills. Company conference rooms, group meetings, office planning sessions, work retreats, team project implementations, all of these are examples where public speaking as a tool becomes essential. To focus a little bit back on science and medicine, researchers are very aware of the frequency in which their work requires them to publicly speak in front of peers, internal and external stakeholders, and sometimes the wider interested public. Oftentimes public speaking ends up being the main factor in elevating comparable applicants or competitors for a position or award. More importantly, public speaking is a valuable tool to utilize, amplify, and deliver acquired knowledge to a greater number of individuals that benefit and further advance the work. It is hard, but I would argue it’s one of the most important tools to get comfortable within an early career professional setting!

So after reading this blog post (thanks, by the way!), maybe find some time to think about the four tools spotlighted here, and see how they rank, in terms of ease of use and frequency of utilization, in your own current working environment. Identify which of these tools needs honing and sharpening to be more useful to your current situation. Then plan out a way to work towards getting comfortable at using that skill to improve your career progression.

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