Educated Woman, the Grad School Adventures of Micella Phoenix DeWhyse Chapter 39: Who am I?



Hello folks, back for another installment of this little trip called graduate school.

Just when you feel like you may have gotten the hang of things, the program changes. I'd just gotten used to the ups and downs of research, when I pulled my head out of the sand a few months ago and noticed that the finish line is just a year away, instead of decades away, as it always used to seem.

At that moment, the game changed. Now I have an additional research project of the utmost importance, beyond the project I'm already spending all my waking hours on (and then some): What am I going to do when I graduate? Because I don't know the answer, that question suggests another, more immediate one: How am I going to decide?

I had an interesting conversation a few months ago with a professor, about what he does and how much he enjoys his work. I asked him what his wife does, and if she felt the same way about her job. His answer startled me. His wife and her colleagues, he said, find the notion that someone could possibly love their job completely foreign. I should add the caveat that part of her responsibilities included telling managers that they had to "restructure" (read downsize) their divisions, so maybe she's not the most objective source of information on this subject, but the point stands.

After investing all this time and effort into getting an advanced degree, shouldn't I love -- or at least like -- my job, whatever it turns out to be? Is that too much to expect?

Right now, I don't have much data to draw on in answering that question: On the one hand there's a professor who loves his work; on the other there's his wife and her colleagues who, to hear him tell it, hate their jobs and spend most of their time laying people off. Which scenario is the most common? Is post-gradschool professional life heaven or hell? The preliminary data don't provide answer; the sample size is too small.

When the data are inadequate, there's no choice: You have to read the literature and do some hypothesizing. Poking around on Next Wave yields a few million articles with the same simple message (after this it will be a few million and one) -- if you want to be happy in your career, you need to choose it well. In order to choose well, you have to do research. And that is why I'm now embarked on my 2nd major research project even before I've completed the first.

This new journey begins with self-assessment, and the systematic enhancement of self-awareness.

In my opinion, these are two of the most important -- and most underrated elements on which a career search should be based. We all have certain technical talents; many people will just ride those talents to wherever they will take them, without thinking about whether that's some place they want to be. But those innate skills aren't the only ones we possess -- what other skills have we picked up in the course of the last (insert your age here) years? And just because you're good at something doesn't mean that it will make you happy in the long run. Don't we all know people who are miserable with their impressive, lucrative jobs?

From observing my colleagues, I've got the impression that there are two polar mindsets in graduate school (and many shades of grey in between). Either:

a) Our job after graduate school/postdoc will be a utopia where we will find (without really looking) the perfect situation. All of our needs (aside from money, like say, insurance/healthcare, work-life balance, latitude to think and be creative, flexibility, and freedom to grow) are met, and it will all work out in the end.

b) Our job after graduate school/postdoc will be doomed to drudgery, and we really don't have any control anyway so why fight the system?

I've also found that more common by far than either of these is the "Job? What job?" mindset, consisting mainly of people who are in denial of the fact that they even have a future after graduate school.

I'm sure that I don't want to be "doomed" to anything, and I feel fairly sure that most of us are not doomed to anything unless we doom ourselves. I'm also sure that the fastest way to doom myself to drudgery is to start looking for a job without having answers to some very basic questions, like:

  • What do I need/want in a job? (My interests)

  • What kind of person am I? How do I work the best? (My personality)

  • What am I capable of delivering? (My skills)

  • What am I willing to compromise (or not) in terms of the things that are important to my happiness and success? (My values)

  • What do I want in an employer, and how do I find one that best fits with my interests, personality, skills, and values?

  • So before I start looking, I need to know the answers -- approximate answers, anyway -- to these questions, so that we can weed out the spectacular opportunities from the sub-par situations. Hopefully we can come up with (at least approximate) answers without too much difficulty, since all of us have had at least twenty-something years to collect preliminary data.

    Not to fear, Science's Next Wave is here! I've done a little digging through the Next Wave archives, and discovered that I'm not the only Next Waver that's done some self assessment and reflection. Having read lots of self-reflection stories, I feel comfortable stating that unfortunately, folks, there are NO quick fixes. Tests can be helpful, but no test will tell you where to go, what to do, and who to do it for. Only you can figure that out, and only with a great deal of research and reflection.

    There may not be any quick fixes, but there are some effective techniques. The most obvious: use your brain. If you value time with your family, a career as an 80 hour a week traveling consultant probably is not for you. If you hate cold weather, don't pursue a career in polar research. If you know that ultimately you want to be the CEO of a major company, surely you wouldn't think of starting with an academic postdoc.

    It's time to be an adult, and to act like one. You have reached the point in your life -- hopefully -- when no one is making you do anything. You always have a choice. "But," I hear you saying, "My parents want me to be an (insert job title here)." But surely your parents don't want you to be miserable, do they? Work that out in therapy, decide what makes you happy, and do it. "But," I hear you continuing, "My advisor will be mad at me if I don't go into academia." But will your advisor be willing to stand in for you on those days when you don't feel like teaching? I didn't think so.

    One of the first things you'll hear about self-assessment is all the tests -- Myers Briggs Temperament Indicator, Keirsey Temperament Sorter, and so on. Peter Fiske's article "Self-Assessment Exercises: A GRE for Your Ego and Superego" is an excellent introduction to the myriad self-assessment tools available, along with a discussion of each one and the caveat that these tests are tools, not hard-and-fast guides to career choices.

    In addition to my frequent diatribes, two other Next Wave students approaching graduation talk about self-assessment and job searching. Both Larry LabRat "Getting to Know Me" and The Spy "Field Report 2: The Spy Looks Inward: Adventures in Self Assessment" conclude that the self-assessment tests they've taken haven't told them much, but that thoughtfully answering versions of the questions I've stated above (Skills, Interests, Values, Personality) was essential for their job searches. As Dwight Eisenhower once said (as quoted in yet another Next Wave article), "In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable." The same may be said for careers.

    My personal favorites on this topic come from a series called "Career Choices" written in 2003 by Kathie Sindt, a career counselor at a major university. In "Who Am I?" Sindt talks about the value of self assessment, areas to focus on, and the costs associated with the self-assessment tests discussed by Fiske's article. In "Road Trip Rejuvenation", Sindt starts us out on the road to personality and value assessment with examples of her own, and provides lists of possible value statements and personality characteristics. Along the way she reminds us that each of us is an individual and that no test can find out everything about you. My favorite morsel from this piece: Using self-knowledge, you have the power to change certain characteristics of yourself, if changing them will help us attain success in your dream profession.

    In "Analyzing Data", Sindt discusses how to assess your interests and skills, personally and professionally, for your past and present. What could you do in the future that could bring all these things together? How will you put them all together to make a career for yourself? Finally, Sindt discusses the importance of timing your job search properly in "Career Choices: The Lazy Hazy Days of Summer".

    I do hope all of these resources will be as helpful for you as they have been for me. Onward! Inward! We have self-assessment to do!

    Comments? Questions? E-mail Micella-

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