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Lessons on professional growth: Develop smarter, not faster

by Matthew Grandbois, Chair, Younger Chemists Committee
May 11, 2019 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 97, ISSUE 19

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Credit: Jessica Hughes Photography

I was meeting with a mentor and preparing to make the case that I was ready for the next step in my career. I had formulated a professional development plan using the glowing feedback on my projects and my strong performance reviews. I knew what job I wanted next and what was expected in that role. I also knew that to meet my career ambitions, I needed to start climbing the ladder to even be considered for the types of jobs I wanted. This meeting with my mentor was going to help me down that path.

As we started discussing my plan, my mentor stopped me and said, “Matt, this is all good, and your assessment of the next step is correct, but I have to ask you one question: What decisions have you made in your current role, and how did you learn from them?”

That question caught me off guard. I had to think for several moments before I could even attempt to answer the question; it was clear that this was a part of my professional development that I had not considered. I hadn’t built in time to learn from my decisions and apply that learning to what I wanted to do in my career or what position I wanted next.

As scientists, we are trained in how to design an experiment so that we learn from the outcome. Many of the world’s greatest discoveries came from experiments that were designed to demonstrate one concept but resulted in observations that the designer’s expectations couldn’t explain. If this method is sufficient to unlock the mysteries of the universe, why didn’t I use the same process to address what I would consider one of the greatest projects of my life: my professional development?

We all need to approach our professional development with the same mentality that we use to conduct our research.

In designing my laboratory experiments, I would consider the hypothesis to be tested, the method in which it would be tested, and what the potential outcomes would mean. Then I would understand what I was doing and how long it was going to take to get meaningful results that I could then interpret and use to design my next experiment. I was making decisions on how to design and execute these experiments before I used the lessons to go on to the next step in developing a technology or product.

In my professional development experiment, I was doing only part of this process. I was making decisions. I was choosing what job to take. I was deciding whom to have meetings with. I was deciding how to engage with people. I was making decisions about how to manage projects. And so forth. But I was not taking the crucial step of objectively looking at the impact of those decisions on my professional development. Nor was I waiting the appropriate amount of time to understand the impact of my decisions.

This is exactly the point that my mentor was trying to make. We all need to approach our professional development with the same mentality that we use to conduct our research. Both require planning, decision-making, time to observe the implications of our actions, and reflection on what we learned and how we will apply that in future roles. In today’s impatient world, we often rush to keep up, skipping over some of these key steps in our professional development process.

We need to develop smarter, not faster. This involves taking the time to reflect on what we’ve learned from the decisions we make that are affecting our careers and professional development. Use this lesson to help you formulate and time your next steps. Don’t be afraid to admit that you haven’t learned enough in your current role or position, because if you don’t learn the impact of your bad decisions now, you will be destined to make bad decisions in the future. You and your professional development are too important for that. So take your time and use the resources that are at your disposal.

The American Chemical Society Younger Chemists Committee (YCC) is one of those resources that can help you continue to reach your goals and maximize your career potential. Whether it be generationally focused professional development workshops at ACS national meetings or grant opportunities for local section activities, the YCC-led programs and initiatives are focused on creating a world where younger leaders are transforming the world by advocating for, developing, and supporting rising chemists from all walks of life to benefit their careers, ACS, and the future of chemistry. Please visit our website (www.acsycc.org) to learn more about how the YCC can help you develop smarter.

Looking back on that fateful meeting, I am grateful for the positive, yet firm, guidance that I was given that has led me to learn from the choices I’ve made. It has resulted in a path that may not be ideal for everyone, but it most certainly has been rewarding for me. I hope that you find your development just as rewarding. Happy experimenting!

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.

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