Stretch Assignments: Getting Outside Your Comfort Zone

By Laura Coyle, OSA Ambassador, Ball Aerospace, USA

The reason many of us became scientists and engineers is because we enjoy solving hard problems.  Whether it is experimental design, hardware implementation or data analysis, we relish heading home at the end of the day (or night!) feeling like we thought a lot and made progress toward our goals.  As early career professionals, tackling difficult problems at the edge or just outside our current capability provides excellent opportunities for growth – though they can seem daunting at the outset.  Many of us can relate to the experience of walking out of a meeting with the boss and thinking, “What did I just sign up for?”  If your stretch assignment is starting to feel less like yoga and more like jumping off a cliff, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  1. Maintain Perspective – You’ve likely been given this assignment because you are viewed as a capable scientist/engineer.  However, by definition, stretch assignments are meant to push us out of our comfort zone.  My advisor in graduate school told me that his job in guiding my research was not to prevent me from making mistakes, but to make me say “Well, I’ll never make that mistake again.” Set the expectation that you are going to struggle a bit and know it is okay.  I always keep in mind another of his tongue-in-cheek mantras: “The best learning comes through suffering.” Take a few deep breaths, grab a fresh mug of coffee and get to work!
  2. Get Organized – If the task in front of you is overwhelming, clearly defining the work ahead can make it feel more manageable.  The SMART goal setting framework can be a valuable resource to help you think about the following:  What is the specific, achievable goal you are working toward?  How will you define success?  What methods will you use?  What intermediate steps/milestones will advance you toward that goal?  What is timeline for the work?  What are the resources required?  Once you’ve answered these questions, write down your work plan and review it with your supervisor.  This doesn’t need to be a formal document but the act of recording and reviewing your ideas up front ensures you have correctly understood the task you were given and that you have identified major roadblocks and developed contingency plans (e.g., “The expected output of this work is an internal white paper and not a peer reviewed article,” or “We are going to need time on a supercomputer and should start planning now”).  This will also provide you with the opportunity to raise concerns and ensure the opportunity is in line with your interests and skills.  Not every stretch assignment may be worth taking on and being honest with your boss will help position you for success.
  3. Do Your Research – Remember that there is a vast scientific community that has been publishing for many years.  While your specific application may not have been studied (and hopefully it hasn’t or it wouldn’t be as much of a stretch assignment!), there is a wealth of information that can help point you in the correct direction.  Professional societies like OSA maintain easily searchable, online archives of their publications.  Search for a few keywords and see what you can find -  performing a literature search is a necessary skill in research and you never know what other useful knowledge you will acquire along the way.  Once you find a relevant paper, use its list of citations to find additional resources.  Also, don’t be afraid to dig out old textbooks.  Sometimes a return to fundamentals will allow you to see a path forward more clearly.    
  4. Use Your Network – Once you have defined your task and performed background research, the next step is to leverage your network.  While you should expect to struggle a bit during your stretch assignment, if you reach the point where progress has stalled, it may be time to ask for help.  Don’t be afraid to ask for help - just because you are given a stretch assignment does not mean you are expected to figure everything out yourself.  As an early career professional, establishing formal or informal mentorships with more experienced colleagues is vital for success in your chosen field.  While having general discussion about research or career paths is valuable, an effective way to deepen the relationship is to involve them in your assignment.  Whether it is dropping by their office to sketch an idea on the whiteboard or holding regularly scheduled meetings, moving discussions from the theoretical to the practical will not only facilitate knowledge transfer, but also allow you to demonstrate your ability to handle stretch assignments.  This may turn a mentor, who provides guidance, into an advocate, who actively promotes your development.   Stretch assignments are also a means to grow your network – engage subject matter experts outside your normal sphere to learn about new disciplines. 
  5. Solicit Feedback – Tracking your progress against your work plan is as important as creating it, though it is natural that the plan will evolve as you proceed through your assignment.  Keep your high-level goals in mind, make adjustments as necessary and use meetings with your supervisor and mentors to gauge the effectiveness of those adjustments.  If you receive feedback that conflicts with your plan, ask plenty of follow up questions to help you decide whether that is the best path forward (“Can you explain why you think X will be a better approach than Y?”).  Remember you are the owner of your stretch assignment, and you will maximize your learning by making deliberate decisions that consider constructive feedback, rather than automatically following the suggestions of others. 
  6. Enjoy the Process – Taking on challenges is probably why you decided to become a scientist/engineer!  Get comfortable with being uncomfortable, and actively seek out stretch assignments – it will provide some of the best opportunities for a rewarding career. 
What if you find yourself in the opposite situation of not being given challenges at work?

Raise your hand – At the end of the day, you must advocate for your own career.  Your boss may not know you are interested in additional challenges if you have not expressed that desire.  If you would like to take on a stretch assignment, arrange a meeting with your supervisor to discuss potential opportunities.  This meeting will be most successful if you can articulate which areas you would like to grow in, which assignments might provide that growth and how your work will ultimately add value to your organization.  You do not need to have all the details worked out and you may even find you significantly revise your plan after speaking with your supervisor, but showing you can think through the process will help you make your case. 

Laura Coyle is a Senior Optical Engineer at Ball Aerospace.  She works in the Civil Space business unit, supporting alignment and performance characterization of optical systems, including the Operational Land Imager 2 instrument for the NASA and USGS Landsat program and NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.  She is constantly seeking stretch assignments to grow her skillset, which increases her enthusiasm for optics and related fields.  She is proud to be serving as a 2018 OSA Ambassador and to provide career advice and mentorship to students and young professionals in the field of optics and photonics. 


Posted: 23 June 2018 by Laura Coyle, OSA Ambassador, Ball Aerospace, USA | with 0 comments

The views expressed by guest contributors to the Discover OSA Blog are not those endorsed by The Optical Society.


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