Throughout my undergrad years studying mathematics, I fancied a magical job as a “theoretical mathematician.” In my mind, I would stand around blackboards all day, exploring the topological formulae that describe doughnuts and coffee cups—because that’s what we did in topology class. I envisioned lots of deep thought, ivy, wood-paneled offices, and nerds. Lots of nerds. As a nerd myself, it sounded like heaven.
But I was curious whether this was my only career option. I figured I had a variety of decent opportunities ahead of me. After all, I had majored in the language of the universe.
When I brought up the topic with my academic adviser—having never had a career conversation with him before—I was looking forward to him telling me about the many enchanted careers and jobs where I would be valued.
Instead, with a blatant tone of disappointment, he used the word “nothing” to describe what I could do, other than become a professor, a teacher, or go into actuarial studies. He informed me that I was one of only two of his protégés to not go to graduate school. In his mind, it was clear: I was a failure.
In the 22 years since then, I have thought back on this moment 1001 times—and I have heard similar stories from 1001 science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professionals. I’m not angry at Dr. Math for counseling me as he did. Dr. Math, like many professors, contently resided in the two-dimensional plane of the tenure track. He never had the need, desire, or even awareness to poke his head into a third, fourth, or fifth dimension, where a math major could find gainful, respectable, and joyful employment in sectors as diverse as entertainment, consumer products, energy, international aid, forensics, and—ultimately, in my case—communications, public speaking, career consulting, and corporate comedy.
In retrospect, that’s OK. The advising session served as the springboard for the mantra of my life, and with the launch of this column, I intend to help you see it too:
You are valuable in many, many, many ecosystems, careers, organizations, and professions.
You get to pick what jobs and careers you want to pursue.
You get to decide how your career will unfold.
You, and only you, get to define success for you.
These critically important concepts will serve as the guiding principles of this column, Your Unicorn Career—the metaphor I use to convey the individuality and joy that you can aim for in crafting your one-of-a-kind career. I intend to give you facts and help you figure out your unlimited career possibilities. I intend to show you why you rock and tell you where you can roll for professional bliss. I want to be your coach, cheerleader, and collaborator as you explore your passions and catalyze your potential toward a triumphant career of your own choosing.
Maybe this sounds like an informercial. I get it.
But you need to see the power you have in deciding your own fate. You deserve to know it, especially because you may not hear it often.
So, I will shout it from the mountaintops and I will scream it from the hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor: You are a-maz-ing and can do an-y-thing. Whether you are a student, working on postdoc number one, two, or three, or an established leader thinking about a professional pivot; whether you are in academia, industry, government, or nonprofit; whether you are interested in research, entrepreneurship, social development, or everything in between, I got you. And let’s get you moving forward.
Above all else, you must be a servant to your own authenticity. That is often easier said than done. It takes time and data collection to understand who we really are and what brings us joy (more about this in my next column). But I can tell you this: By adhering to your authenticity, you will ensure you are chasing the right choices for you.
Being the authentic Alaina was the essential concrete in forming and building my own career. When I started my undergraduate studies, my focused goal was to become an astrophysicist. I narrowly calculated that I would have to sideline all my other passions—performing arts, business, communications—as I leaped into a career examining the cosmos.
But something funny happened on the way to the quasar. I realized that as much as I love astronomy and physics and indeed many other areas of STEM—I soon switched my majors to math and anthropology—I didn’t want to conduct research in any of these areas. Solving mathematical problems was great fun, but it was not what I wanted to do 100% of the time. I wanted something more from my STEM career.
I thought about the other interests woven throughout my life that always brought me joy—exploits that I couldn’t stop myself from pursuing. I’ve been on the stage since I was 5 years old, when I played Annie in a neighborhood theatre group. I’ve always been a comedian, and I thrive on telling jokes and humorous stories to anyone who will listen. Likewise, commerce constantly called me: I carried a briefcase to the first day of kindergarten and was one of the top magazine subscription salespersons in my high school choir. And I always loved to write. Thinking back on those experiences, I came to understand and appreciate that what I really wanted to do was communicate to the public why STEM is so wonderful and help those who enter STEM understand their value in the employment marketplace.
As I explored jobs in science communication, outreach, marketing, and career planning, I realized that, to do all the things I wanted to do, I would have to be creative and entrepreneurial. I would have to make it myself, in my own way, to stay authentic and achieve my own definition of success. It also meant I would have to argue with the ill-informed and haters who couldn’t, wouldn’t, or didn’t want to help me in my vision.
But over time, I forged my dream job. You can, too.
And with this column, I aim to help you do just that. We are gonna talk strategies, tactics, tools, and techniques for finding, accessing, assessing, landing, and keeping your dream job. We are gonna get serious about how to define and measure success for yourself. (Spoiler alert: This is a dynamic system that will change over time.) We are gonna explore methods for identifying and articulating the full extent of your value so that you can build your own one-of-a-kind unicorn career. We will also engage in thoughtful self-inspection as we attempt to discern what we truly want to do.
I welcome your ideas, questions, and feedback. Got a question you want to have answered? Got a career topic you think I should cover? Let me know through email and Twitter. This is going to be a fabulous adventure. Here’s to your—and our—exploration, bliss, and triumph!
*Concepts from this column come from and build on the author’s previous published works, including articles, speeches, and her book titled Networking for Nerds.