How Leslie Went From Chemistry to Successful Project Manager

Leslie has a very interesting career path. She’s a great example for how far perseverance and commitment can get you in your career if you really want to become a project leader.

Starting as a chemist

Leslie started her career as a chemist working for a pharmaceutical company in the Charlotte area. For the first years she enjoyed her work. But she also knew that she didn’t want to do laboratory work for the rest of her life.

At some point the job became monotonous, and nobody was really happy about coming to work. Day in day out, people just came to do their work, and once they were done, everyone went home. This was the kind of hamster wheel cycle that Leslie didn’t want to be stuck in.

Image of chemist working in lab

Leslie was willing to go out of her comfort zone and to take on more responsibility. She saw a lot of potential how the company could improve processes and create more structure, and she shared her ideas with management and offered to take the lead on those improvement initiatives.

Unfortunately, it proved to be difficult to get the necessary buy-in being just an ordinary chemist. That’s when Leslie decided to move on and try her luck at another company.

From analyst to project coordinator

Leslie quickly found a new opportunity at a company involved in pharmaceutical packaging. The company had a quality control team where they needed chemists to make sure the products were safe for the public to consume.

Leslie’s work involved tasks like procuring equipment, reviewing quality documents, creating cost estimates and following up with vendors. The funny thing is this was already project management work, but Leslie didn’t know because she hadn’t really come across project management as a field, and she still saw herself more as an analyst. Looking back, Leslie reflects: 

Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was already a Project Manager!“

Taking over more responsibility

As it is typical for smart and ambitious professionals, work becomes too familiar and even boring after a few years. This was also true for Leslie. So she kept looking for other career opportunities where she could grow further and test her limits.

Living in a dynamic region known for its life science industry, Leslie always had plenty of opportunities to choose from. She decided to join a foreign drug manufacturer who was about to set up a new plant in the US – a so-called greenfield site. An exciting time to get on board, as you can imagine.

Leslie thrived in the new environment. Her work became much broader and she ended up managing the entire quality process from end to end. She held all the strings together and started to see the integration between different functions – from procurement and production to quality control to customer relationship management and sales.

Growing her soft skills

Greater responsibility also required additional skills – soft skills in particular. Leslie was already excellent at organizing work and she had an eye for detail. But her role also involved a lot of negotiation with other departments. She had to make sure that every department was sticking to the agreed deadlines so that clients got their test results on time.

Leslie admits that initially she didn’t feel comfortable negotiating with her stakeholders: „ I‘m bubbly and friendly with everybody, so that helps. But when you have to, it’s not just being bubbly. Then you have to sayI need this“. Then your coworkers see another side of you and then they’re like, I don’t like that telling me what to do.

This is an experience every project manager is going through at some point. It’s a learning process. Through trial and error, working with different stakeholders, you gradually improve your communication style and become more skilled in getting other people to trust and support you. Leslie went through the same process and she ultimately became a very confident and effective negotiator.

Using challenges to stay motivated

In my interviews with project managers I always want to know what made people strive towards project management. For some people it’s curiosity. For others, it’s the desire to prove to themselves that they’re capable of more. More than what’s possible in a mundane office job. And the more someone feels restricted in their current position, the greater the desire to move up the ladder. You can see this in Leslie’s story as well.

Leslie was always highly committed to the success of the companies she worked for. But not every organization understood the value of project management. They couldn’t see the benefit of following processes or having clearly defined responsibilities. This limited Leslie’s impact and her career growth – and ultimately led to frustration on her side. Interestingly enough, this frustration was the reason why she ultimately became a project manager:

„It was mostly frustration that drove me to becoming a project manager, because I always saw ways of how we could improve our work. And even though some of my employers didn’t value this, I valued that. And so that ultimately drove me into saying, okay, I'm not happy with just being a coordinator, I want to run the show.“

Leslie’s perseverance and will to make an impact paid off. After working in several project coordinator roles at different companies, she ultimately landed her first official Project Manager job at a company in the e-learning space.

Getting the PMP

What’s the culmination of every project management career? Of course, it is getting the PMP – the most respected project management certification. Leslie had been thinking of joining the PMP circle for a while, but she felt intimidated by effort that was required to pass the exam. Eventually, she decided to register for the exam, and at the time we held the interview, she had just successfully passed the PMP exam!

How did Leslie prepare for the PMP exam?

Leslie had taken a project management course at a local community college. This was helpful because she got to know the important concepts and terms used in project management. She also signed up for a live PMP training bootcamp (you can also take online PMP preparation courses).

Because she wanted to pass the exam on the first take, Leslie took advantage of further training options. She read Rita Mulcahy’s book back to back and did all the sample questions and quizzes. Leslie also signed up for two exam simulators, including Cornelius Fichtner’s famous PMP exam simulator (see PM PrepCast). 

Then, when Christmas time came, Leslie didn’t relax. She got up at 5am and studied before her kids would wake up. That’s what I call commitment!

What you can learn from Leslie’s story

Leslie has a really impressive story and I’m grateful she was willing to share her path on Tactical Project Manager. A couple of things stand out that you should take as inspiration for your own career if you’re thinking of becoming a project manager:

  • First, Leslie had a goal that she pursued relentlessly. She knew she wanted to grow and not stay a Chemist for the rest of her life. It was this goal that gave Leslie the needed focus for her plan and helped her get through challenging times.
  • Second, Leslie earned her success through hard work. She was always committed to doing her job in the best possible way and serving her company. And then the excellent quality of her work opened up new opportunities, including getting more responsibility.
  • Third, Leslie showed patience. She knew that she wouldn’t become a project leader overnight. Sometimes it can take years until you finally end up in a leader role. And if you can’t find joy in learning the ropes, failing and improving, then you will never reach that goal. As you can see in Leslie’s case, patience pays off!

I loved talking to Leslie for this interview. Her passion for work and her commitment to excellence is really inspiring, and I’m curious to follow her further growth and career.


  • Adrian Neumeyer

    Hi! I’m Adrian, founder of Tactical Project Manager and Ex-Project Manager with over ten years of experience in project management. Led large-scale IT implementations and business projects. I started Tactical Project Manager to offer you a straightforward and pragmatic approach to project management, enabling you to lead any project with confidence.

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