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To advance in your career, try on many hats

April 17, 2023

By Laura J. Szymanski

Laura Syzmanski, Senior Project Manager, in a virtual meeting with colleagues from Elsevier Life Sciences Solutions team.

I never envisioned being a senior project manager. But by keeping my eyes and mind open, I found many opportunities that led me there.

When I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a Communications degree in Marketing and Research, never did I say, “I want to be a Project Manager!” I wanted to work in Marketing Research — working with major consumer product companies and supporting them in identifying new products to launch. Think shampoos, granola bars, soap and gum.

At the time, I didn’t envision working as a senior project manager at a company called Elsevier supporting life sciences projects. But by keeping my eyes and mind open, I found many opportunities —and wore many “hats” — that led me there.

I have been a general management consultant supporting process improvement and culture change at major pharmaceutical companies.

I worked at Princeton University in Interlibrary Loan, where I helped students and professors at other academic institutions around the world share in Princeton’s amazing collections.

I worked at a nonprofit organization supporting academic libraries with implementing software solutions and providing training and consulting services.

I worked in corporate libraries at two pharmaceutical companies. At one, I was a searcher specializing in women’s health and urology, and at the other, a business analyst evaluating electronic resources and databases.

I completed two degrees — an MBA and a MLIS (Master of Library and Information Science).

Sometimes, I sought out working for a company and a career, and other times, I was sought out. In one case, a friend was presenting at a conference — part of which included a project I had worked on. The President of QUOSA, a literature management solution, was in the audience and asked my friend to introduce me to him. Through that connection, I joined QUOSA as a Customer Relationship Manager.

And that brought me to Elsevier — joining as part of the acquisition of QUOSA.

As part of the Elsevier Life Sciences Solutions (ELSS) team, I continued trying on different “hats” — expanding my knowledge and skills and being able to contribute more to the success of my customers and Elsevier. I was a Customer Support Specialist — supporting customers with technical and user questions. I was a part-time corporate librarian at a pharmaceutical company (a type of consultant). The other half of my time was as an ELSS project manager. Eventually, I became a full-time project manager. As ELSS Project Managers, my team and I support the implementation of ELSS software solutions, the writing of custom reports, the provision of DaaS (Data as a Service) solutions, and other custom ELSS projects. We span the globe — from the US to Amsterdam to Japan — helping customers throughout the world.

At Elsevier and our parent company, RELX(opens in new tab/window), I see a world of opportunities. I love learning about other departments and what they do. I look at job opportunities to see what their needs are and if I could possibly have a role in supporting their needs. (I do love working in ELSS, but there are so many opportunities out there, how could I not explore?!)

The project manager: Bringing harmony to a project

Being a project manager is like being a conductor of an orchestra.

In an orchestra, there are different sections: strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion. For each section, there are different instruments which in turn, have multiple musicians for each instrument.

Orchestra > Strings > Cellos > Individual Cellist

As a conductor, you need to look at the big picture — the musical score by the full orchestra. At the same time, you need to think about each section — for example, strings. Within strings, there are the cellists. Then, the individual cellist.

In comparison, the Project Manager needs to be able to mentally jump from the goal of the project (the musical score by the whole orchestra) to the activities of a certain group (the cellists) to the level of a single activity by an individual team member (a cellist) and then also across multiple groups (brass, woodwinds and percussion). Like a conductor on the podium, being able to see the many levels of a project can help the Project Manager harmonize the project — carefully coordinating the activities so things run smoothly.

Often, I apply my project management mindset to my own personal life. I take what I learn from project management and apply it to my personal projects (e.g., planning a party), and then I can take what I learn from my personal projects and apply it to my work. See how this works in my article Project Management in Everyday Life(opens in new tab/window).

In many cases, people already have many of the skills they need to manage projects (e.g., active listening, problem solving and time management). Many skills needed for project management are transferable to roles outside of project management. See Project Management: An Abundance of Needed Skills(opens in new tab/window).

Once you recognize that you already have many of the skills needed for being a project manager, you may be able to start taking on small projects and build up to more complex projects. Don’t be afraid of project management — you can do this! I share my experience in Me, manage a project? Yikes! Stay calm and project on(opens in new tab/window).

But be careful. It is critical that you evaluate the opportunity to take on the role of Project Manager against whether you should. While managing a project can be a wonderful opportunity, make sure that it is the right choice and you can dedicate the time and energy needed. See Why do I need a project manager? Project management is easy!(opens in new tab/window)


Headshot of Laura J. Szymanski


Laura J. Szymanski

Senior Project Manager

Life Sciences Solutions Professional Services Group, Elsevier

Read more about Laura J. Szymanski