top of page

Navigating a career to find "lightning in a bottle"

While being a principal investigator (PI) can be the epitome of a "be your own boss" scenario, this plays out differently depending on the overall demands of the institution in which you are housed and how you manage your time and energy professionally and personally. Which type of institution type you end up in, along with ways to navigate advancement, are other critical pieces to the science and conservation career puzzle.

I have navigated this with a classical tenure-track job, as a research scientist at a private company, a non-profit research and conservation job, and as a non-profit founder at Remote Ecologist. All came with specific challenges for advancement, some of which were inextricable from the success and trajectory of the program at-large. Leadership changes always had the most profound impact on productivity and direction, and how well the team was able to stay committed to the departmental/organizational continuity. Maintaining institutional knowledge, and a daily commitment to small wins, lessened those leadership upheavals. Getting the "lightning in a bottle" scenario has happened a few times for me, and I can boil it down to a few (non-exhaustive) components that worked in these scenarios:


In all the times where we have experienced this phenomenon, trust has been engineered between the team through informal bonding (true, not the cake-in-the-office scenario). Life is what happens in between the larger structured events - it is a colleague taking a photo when one is selected to carry a gavel for a university event to have that for a tenure portfolio, or meeting up as a team after a division-wide meeting for food at a local restaurant. It bears mentioning that this does not always happen - and while it may seems simplistic, it is these times outside normal scenarios that help to build trust as much as formal mentorship actions. Trust was an important factor in seeking advice for constructing my pre-tenure and tenure portfolios as a tenure-track professor, as I was able to lean on more senior personnel, resulting in a portfolio that recommended tenure from the tenure committee. Being able to have trusted colleagues made the advancement process less opaque, and allowed me to focus on our main mission. In the non-profit world, this functioned much the same way, with the first assumption being that we were all rowing the boat in the same direction. As long as that remained intact, our teams functioned smoothly and with deference to one another's expertise and intention toward the benefit of the organization and those we served.

Autonomy - With Mentorship

I'll define autonomy loosely here, particularly since we all need to work in collaboration with others in order to get anything meaningful accomplished. Autonomy, in this case, is working to directly find your specific niche in the team and organization, and being able to be a part of how that will change as the organization's strategy toward accomplishing its mission inevitably changes. By having an independent, but integrated, framework, you can balance the alignment of activities within the organization with those for external collaboration - both of which are important to achieving the organizational priorities as a whole. This is the Japanese ikigai concept in philosophy, taking into account the social contexts of our being, where one attempts to find that point of overlap between 1) What you love; 2) What you are good at; 3) What the world needs; and 4) What you can get paid for. Autonomy is great - but it needs to be in context with social and organizational needs to make that synergy happen.

Codeveloped Growth Plan and Assessment

Keeping agency in one's growth is a critical piece to acknowledging how individuals' growth influences and is aligned with organizational growth. One of the most useful evaluations I have had as an employee has been a twice yearly meeting with my manager to discuss what I plan to accomplish in the coming year, and what I accomplished in the previous year as aligned to our codeveloped plan for my output. Having attainable goals and objectives in mind is important for the communication of expectations between manager and employee. However, complacency can be avoided with a few stretch goals (e.g., not just applying for 5 grants, but 10) that can improve the overall arc of your or your employee's professional development. Those can be assessed separately, especially if their completion depends heavily on outside factors.

Clear Institutional Direction and Buy-In From Staff

Institutional direction is critical. Having a leader in place with an effective vision, who understands how to engage their team with trust and collaboration, is what sets the tone for the work to be accomplished. This institutional strategy needs input from all senior staff to be effective, taking into account comments from front-of-line employees. In a laboratory setting, this includes laboratory managers, postdocs, graduate students and undergrads, and is generally well-understood given the size of those teams. On an organizational or departmental level, it can be more complicated - but that is where alignment with the broader macroeconomic landscape can be incorporated into decisions. Which thematic researchers do we need, for example (so, which PIs), or how can we best position our offerings to train students for jobs both inside and outside academia? In a non-profit setting, those questions are partially related to revenue growth around the organizational mission - which gets back to the point of feeling out the institution's place in its field, geography, and social context. When those are aligned, staff can see what their daily efforts produce.

Professional Growth and Networking

When organizations I've been a part of have encouraged individual and team skills development and networking, I've experienced some particularly productive professional moments. This is a critical area - collaborations integrate new technology into the projects we are completing as scientists and conservationists, and much of that is developed by need. Those networks are critical to bringing together a team of multiple organizations to finding funding to achieve a goal, as different groups can tap into their expertise and resources to both fund and direct personnel towards a project.

Growing professionally leads to innovation, and connecting disparate areas of knowledge to create something new, and often, highly insightful and valuable to the tactical day-to-day. Networking and learning new skills have personally allowed me to implement new techniques into my work, whether that is cheap submersible cameras on reef and seagrass restoration sites, modeling future species distributions in geographic software, or measuring physiological capacity with aquatic respirometry. I was empowered each time to learn something new, collaborate with the makers and inventors, and give our programs further insight into how we should proceed. Those growing collaborations have meant that the efforts are sustained over time, making the programs more eligible for grants and donations year over year.


While not exhaustive, this piece was meant to be written as a partial road map from both the perspective of the worker and manager. Building synergy and great culture on a team is dependent on both, and having a purposeful plan helps to account for life's inevitable wrenches and side-paths. In the end, working in conservation and science is as much an exercise in working with fun and passionate people as it is the action and scientific work itself. Finding that group, and keeping it together and growing, is a professional achievement that pays dividends for all.

Stay positive!


6 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page