I’m currently sitting in a coffee shop, spending the day working on my laptop. I’m here waiting for several boy scouts who are attending a Merit Badge University, and learning about Leatherwork, Public Speaking, and Reptile and Amphibian Study, among other things. As I watched them head off to their respective classes, it occurred to me how eager they were to learn new things, and explore the world around them. In their case, if they are successful, they will come back with a completed merit badge to prove they now understand and can execute a whole new set of skills. More than just a piece of cloth on their uniform, they have confidence in their ability to do and share their new knowledge.
For those of us who a are just a little bit older, it’s not quite so easy. There are lot of things we want to learn about, but the effort and time commitment to sign up for a formal class is often more than we are willing to expend.
Fortunately, we often acquire new skills and knowledge without formal training, and sometimes without fully realizing what we have learned. I recently taught a workshop to a group of graduate students, and in talking about resumes was asking them about their professional experience and significant accomplishments. Several of them told me they didn’t have any work experience – a statement I hope their graduate advisor would take exception to!
When I started probing, they were almost all able to tell me about something they had done of which they were very proud. Maybe it was a compound they had synthesized, a particularly difficult analysis they had completed, or in some cases a class they had taught where they felt they really made a difference in the life of a particular student. In every case, once they started talking about the event, they became animated and their excitement and pride was palpable. As I asked questions about what they did and what they had learned, they started to realize just how much this particular event had meant to them, and how much they had learned in the process.
Sometimes, we need to step back and think about what we’re done lately, and reflect on what we have accomplished, and/or learned. New analytical instruments or tools are usually easy to recognize, but new non-technical skills are sometimes harder to spot.
Take a few minutes over your coffee today to think about what you’ve done lately, and what you’ve learned from it. Have you given a talk, or written a report? What did you learn, not only about the subject matter, but about the process and perhaps a better way to prepare for the next time? Did you recently get through a difficult situation with a co-worker, and what did you learn about how you might handle a similar situation the next time?
Think also about what you haven’t learned, that might make your career better. Is there some new technique or method that you’ve been meaning to learn, but just haven’t gotten to? Maybe your last performance review pointed out oral presentation skills as an area in which you could improve. Set aside a few minutes to read a few journal articles, or find and attend a Toastmaster’s meeting.
Too often we wait for a crisis to force us to take action, when we know we should have done it long ago. Identifying gaps in your knowledge and addressing them is one of the best things you can do for your professional future. Exploring new areas on your own prepares you for the future, and lets you move your career in the direction of your choosing, not into areas that others select for you. You may not earn a merit badge (like both of my scouts did), but you will gain the satisfaction of knowing that your career is moving forward, and you are the one directing it.
This article was written by freelance scientific communication consultant Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press (2007). She blogs on Career Development for Scientists.