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To advance your career, think of yourself as a business

You may be a scientist. But you’re also a business. And if you want to build a successful career—be it in academia, government, industry, or the nonprofit arena–you’ll need to think of yourself as such.

I understand that this idea may sound foreign to you, especially if you went to school to study science and not business. But whether you like it or not, you are a business in many ways. Businesses offer products and services in exchange for money. Similarly, when you land a job, your employer will (hopefully) give you a monetary reward in exchange for the work that you perform—in other words, the product or service that you provide. As you progress in your career, you’ll also need to innovate, for instance, by developing new skill sets and looking for ways to add value to what you can offer an employer. And if you work to promote yourself as though you were a business, you’ll be more successful at convincing others of your worth.

With that in mind, here are a few ideas to help you incorporate a business approach into your career planning and development, no matter the path you are on.

  • Think big. Be realistic about what you can accomplish in a reasonable period of time, but also be bold when you’re dreaming about what products and services you can offer and whom you can work for. In 10 years, you might be doing something radically different than what you’re doing right now—and it’s important to maintain a positive mindset about the future of your career and the scope of change that’s possible.
  • Focus on one skill that you can “sell.” Identify something that you’re particularly good at. Then, focus on sharpening and expanding that tool in your toolkit. Career doors will open for you if you can make a strong case that you’re better at something than the average job applicant, and that with this tool, you will be able to advance the objectives of the organization that you seek to work for.
  • Diversify. It’s important to have one solid product or service, but you’ll also want to continue learning about new things and looking for opportunities to diversify what you can offer “customers.” The best way to plant seeds for innovation is to expose yourself to a variety of sources of information. For example, reading publications and attending talks about topics outside your discipline may help you see where your own skills dovetail with other disciplines and give you a fresh source of ideas to solve one of your own problems.
  • Take time to understand what potential “customers” consider valuable. If you want to continue to do the work that you do, you must provide value to others. There are several ways to better understand the needs of your “customers.” For example, you can review job advertisements to see what skills are coveted and required for the kinds of jobs that you’re interested in. You can also conduct informational interviews with professionals who are in jobs that sound exciting to you. During the discussions, ask them what skills they consider to be the most valuable for doing their job and how they developed those abilities.
  • Build your brand. A brand is not a logo, cartoon character, or tagline; it’s a promise of value. So, your brand should be a promise to deliver excellence, dependability, and expertise in whatever you do. Once you have identified the key abilities that are part of your brand, you need to promote them. I realize that this notion may be uncomfortable to some, especially given cultural norms that dictate that it’s best to stay humble and quiet and to let others sing your praises. But marketing is important; otherwise, potential employers won’t fully appreciate what you have to offer, and it’ll be harder to make a name for yourself. The most critical way to promote yourself is through your resume or CV, where you shouldn’t shy away from clearly articulating the value that you bring to the table. You should also take a look at your online presence to see how you could sell yourself better—for instance, by posting information that’s relevant to your potential “customer base” on social media platforms or revamping your professional website. If you haven’t done so already, you should also print business cards that you can hand out when you meet new professional contacts.
  • Find trustworthy partners and advisers. A vital aspect of being successful and building your unicorn career is surrounding yourself with people you can trust and who want to see you triumph. Supportive colleagues can open doors for you by introducing you to their networks, promoting you, and helping you understand new career paths and professional arenas. The flip side of this advice is that you should do your best to avoid toxic people or those who are incompatible with how you operate; otherwise, they might ruin your reputation or make you miserable.
  • Improve your efficiency. Don’t let extraneous tasks and bad time management impede your progress. Conduct a self-assessment to determine how you can optimize your efficiency on a day-to-day basis. For example, you could track your time over a 1-week period and examine what you do every 30 minutes. You might be surprised to learn how much time you have spent on Facebook or Instagram. You’ll also be able to see when you are the most productive. Collecting these kinds of data–and thinking critically about how to manage your time—will help you bring your “products” to “market” much sooner.
  • Be patient during periods of change. New products take time to develop and bring to market. Similarly, if you’re learning a new skill or trying to break into a different profession, it’ll take time. Don’t go in with the expectation that you’ll be immediately productive and successful. Give yourself room to adjust and grow in the direction that you aspire to.

You can build a satisfying, successful unicorn career, but to do so requires guts, patience, and sound business practices. The sooner you start treating yourself as a business with a stellar product to sell, the better. So, let’s get you open for business! 

Concepts in this column come from and build on the author’s previous published works, including articles, speeches, and her book titled Networking for Nerds.

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