Dancing with unicorns: Putting ambitions to work

Levine has coined the phrase “unicorn career.” This is a kind of career that you define, craft, and land for yourself, based on your own specifications and interests related to your career goals.
01 January 2021
By Karen Thomas

When Alaina G. Levine was an undergrad studying mathematics at University of Arizona, she imagined a bright future for herself as a theoretical mathematician. This dream included days spent scribbling topological formulae that would describe the properties of doughnuts and coffee cups-since that's precisely what she and fellow students were doing in topology class. The future, says Levine, was a heavenly vision of wood-paneled offices among ivy-clad campuses where she, a self-described nerd, would think big thoughts with fellow nerds.

Of course, this wasn't her only career option. Levine had majored in mathematics—the language of the universe—so surely a wide variety of more-than-decent opportunities lay ahead.

But, as Levine puts it, "something funny happened on the way to the quasar."

When she asked her academic advisor what he thought her career options might be, instead of regaling her with tales of the myriad enchanting jobs she could choose from where she would be valued for her unique perspectives, his reply was—aside from research, teaching, or actuarial studies, pretty much zilch.

Conversations like this, of course, can either crush your soul or send you in a more creative direction. Levine decided to be creative and go hunting for her own personal career unicorn.

Levine, who today earns a more-than-decent living guiding others through their own professional development—and is much more supportive of others than that long-ago academic adviser—has coined the phrase "unicorn career." This, she says, "is a kind of career that you define, craft, and land for yourself, based on your own specifications and interests related to your career goals: what tasks you enjoy and what problems you derive intellectual pleasure from solving, balanced with your values and personal priorities."

This could be a career in a traditional structure such as a corporation, university, or a nonprofit, or it could be something that you create for yourself, built with entrepreneurial spirit and flair. This doesn't necessarily mean that you have to become an entrepreneur and start your own business, but that you should look for opportunities to solve problems that are of interest to you.

"If you look for opportunities to add value or fill gaps in systems or alleviate pain points or knock down walls that are impeding innovation, you will be providing something of use and value to another party or an organization," says Levine. "This allows you to create a career unique to yourself."

In creating her own career, Levine looked at what she had enjoyed doing throughout her life and developed a checklist:

√ She had degrees in math and anthropology — STEM (check!)

√ She loved to write and tell stories — communications (check!)

√ She had been on the stage in local theater since the age of five — performance (check!)

√ She was a top magazine-subscription salesperson in her high-school choir — business (check!)

Drawing from these experiences and interests, Levine realized that what she really wanted to do was to communicate to the public why STEM is so wonderful and to help those who enter STEM careers understand their value in the employment marketplace. Over time, Levine has built a career as a professional speaker, STEM career consultant, corporate comedian, event planner, and science writer. She's also the author of Networking for Nerds (Wiley, 2015), and "Your Unicorn Career," a column in Science magazine.

This type of career creation isn't unique just to Levine. She points to examples such as Merritt Moore, "the quantum ballerina." A physicist and professional dancer, Moore combines her interests to research and explore the connections between choreography, dance, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. Like Levine, Moore rejects the idea that people with passions in a variety of fields have to choose just one.

Another example is the electrical engineer who wound up working with Cirque de Soleil, designing the computer programs that move the busy sets around. He always had a great interest in electrical and computer engineering and technical theater, and was able to combine these interests into his own personal unicorn career.

Alaina Levine

Alaina G. Levine speaking at the NIEHS Biomedical Career Symposium in 2014. Credit: Steve McCaw

"I truly believe that we all have the ability, the possibility, and even the probability of creating our own unicorn career," says Levine. "We just need to know what our value is, the value of what we can provide to an organization, a community, an ecosystem—and how to articulate that value to them."

This approach does require understanding the marketplace so that you can find the right people to engage and develop fruitful collaborations with: someone, that is, interested in investing in the value you can provide. This involves a lot of intrinsic data collection, where you seek to understand your own skills, abilities, priorities, and values, as well as extrinsic data collection through networking and researching the industries, communities, and ecosystems in which you want to operate and where you will thrive."

And ultimately, Levine adds, part of thinking about a unicorn career really entails thinking above the horizon and outside of the box. In other words, the career or job that you want may not absolutely exist yet. You may have to create it yourself.

Alaina G. Levine presented "How To Be Persistent and Handle Rejection" (spie.org/Levine) as part of the  SPIE Online career development series for SPIE Members. She can also be reached on Twitter @AlainaGLevine and LinkedIn.

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