Over the holiday break, I sat down for a virtual meeting with Alaina G. Levine – entrepreneur, professional speaker and communications consultant – to learn more about her career and creative process. Not only is she the president of Quantum Success Solutions, a career consultant agency for scientists and engineers, she is also a professional speaker, science journalist, and corporate comedian. When looking at the qualifications under her belt, I quickly wondered how she balanced all of these projects. She is the jack of all trades, master of many, and I wanted to know more.
Alaina’s Origin Story
Alaina’s origin story, at least in terms of her career, ties back to four very distinct interests. “First is stem. I’ve always been drawn to STEM and my degree is in Mathematics,” she quickly explains, “I have always enjoyed communications, writing, and speaking. I’ve always been interested in performing arts… I naturally was drawn to comedy. And I’ve also always been called by commerce, so I love business, I love solving business problems, I love thinking about marketing and sales… I’m a nerd in many different colors, many different things.”
Originally, Alaina set her eyes on becoming a theoretical astrophysicist, which led her to the University of Arizona. As she dove into the realm of quasars, she realized all the projects that she considered hobbies – writing, speaking, business, and even the performing arts – were things she wanted to integrate into her career. “As much as I love science and mathematics, I really do not enjoy doing research in these subjects,” she admitted, “I would rather tell others why they should invest resources or invest money to support research… or help the public understand why it’s so exciting and important in our lives.”
Following this epiphany, she applied for the position of Director of Communications at the University of Arizona where she could earn a paycheck for the work she was passionate about and ultimately connect all four of her passions. She was heading in the right direction.
For her other role at the university, she helped STEM students find jobs in the industry. She quickly noticed that an important piece was missing in the graduate program: career education. Her extensive knowledge about career planning and the job search process made her an excellent candidate to fill this looming gap. Over time, she started giving small speeches to her students, and ultimately gave larger talks to other parts of the university and the community. Within a few years, she started her company Quantum Success Solutions, and by 2009, she was focusing on her business full time.
Caption: Alaina signing a copy of her book Networking for Nerds. Photo courtesy of Alaina G. Levine.
Building a ‘Unicorn Career’
Alaina has spent many years as a freelance writer for AAAS Science Careers. She now actively contributes to the Your Unicorn Career column with articles dedicated to helping others design their dream career and achieve their own success.
A “unicorn career” was something I had never heard of until this interview. As Alaina explained what it was and what it meant to build one, I quickly realized how much I wanted one of my own. “We always want to look for pain points in systems that we can potentially help alleviate or gaps that we can potentially help fill” she reveals, “when you identify that for yourself you can create what I call a unicorn career.”
In order to build a unicorn career, she explains how I could customize it based on my needs and wants. This career would be one that I design myself to solve problems that align with my interests and distinct skill set, as well as my overall goals and values.
As she started growing her business, incorporating all the things she loved doing, her vision came together. “I am so appreciative that I was able to find the spot in the universe where I can be my authentic self and deliver value to the people around me. The important part is [you] have to be able to be your authentic self.”
By finding a space where she feels her most authentic self, she knows that inspiring people through simple words of encouragement – “I believe in you!”, for example – does not align with what her audience truly needs to learn. Her advice on how to network and how to negotiate salary is far more valuable.
“If you can identify yourself as a problem solver, and look for the problems that you can solve, you can create a unicorn career and you can create jobs and gigs and opportunities out of nothing.”
Navigating the Year 2020
During the interview, discussion naturally flowed to how the current state of the world – the year of fire, unrest, and an unforgiving pandemic – had deeply impacted not only her job, but her well-being. At the beginning of 2020, professional speaking was the majority of her income. Many events were in person at universities and conferences, but by February leading into March, they were gone. Here, she encountered a problem.
“I had a huge problem I was facing… so I thought about this, and I started to think, how can I turn this into an opportunity?”
There were two valuable pieces that she could offer: webinar training and long distance career building (networking, salary negotiations, virtual interviews). Her expertise in these topics made her a valuable resource. “It’s a great example of how when you look for the need and try to help people with the need, you build that win-win.”
However, the transition was far from easy. “It was also a very difficult thing for me to do mentally because I had to stop crying and start thinking, right? There’s a way through this, where I can win, but more importantly, my clients can win, and therefore we can win together.”
By the end of 2020, despite it being her busiest year to date, she was mentally exhausted. In order to combat it, she needed to incorporate some much needed self-care. One thing Alaina misses about conferences is free “schwag”. All the notebooks, pens, stickers – the things that make conferences slightly more rewarding. Part of her routine this past year has been rummaging through her drawers of goodies and putting them to use. For example, she used one of the nicest notebooks she owns and made a chart. Items on this chart ranged from small chores to big projects. Even things such as making her bed or taking time to read emails were ways she could track her progress. Not only did this help keep her on track, but she could look back each month and see all the goals (no matter how small) that she accomplished.
Service to Science Communicators
Alaina offers a variety of services to the scientifically minded and nerdy, all meticulously outlined on her website. For science communicators, she can be a career consultant and career coach, helping those in scicomm build a career uniquely crafted to their interests and talents regardless of their particular communication style.
Additionally, she also is a public speaking coach. “This is to help science communicators with their craft of speaking,” she explains, “so how they can be better, stronger, more agile speakers, particularly in virtual environments, but honestly in any kind.” Ultimately she can teach science communicators how to add speaking to their stream of income and do so with confidence.
In addition to Networking for Nerds, Alaina has another book in the works. Although she can’t share many details at the moment, both old and new followers will have a lot to look forward to in the coming future!
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