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What Do You Care About?

This is the fourth article in a series designed to help you create an Individual Development Plan (IDP) using myIDP, a new Web-based career-planning tool created to help graduate students and postdocs in the sciences define and pursue their career goals. To learn more about myIDP and begin the career-planning process, please visit:

Mira and her husband John were feeling squeezed. Both were postdocs at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), they wanted to start a family soon, and they were worried that they would not have enough money to live comfortably with children in San Francisco.

Sometimes what we really want isn’t what we think we want, or what we think we ought to want.

So Mira was intrigued when a sales rep visiting her lab told her about an open field applications and sales scientist position at his company (a major microscope vendor), and mentioned that in a position like that, she could double her current salary. Mira applied for the job, interviewed, and got the offer. Her husband was enthusiastic about the opportunity. She was about to sign on the dotted line—and then she began to have second thoughts. She began to ask herself questions such as:

  • Sure, the money would be nice, but how will I balance childcare with the extensive travel that the job requires?
  • I chose biomedical research out of a desire to have an impact on my field, work on cutting-edge medical questions, and make a real difference in peoples’ lives. Will I be able to realize those goals in the new position?
  • Money is important, but I don’t think I want to work that many hours, away from my family, in order to make more sales so that I can earn more.

Worrying that she wouldn't find this position satisfying, Mira asked the company for extra time to consider her decision.

CREDIT: Hal Mayforth

Work-related values and job satisfaction

It is self-evident that job satisfaction is affected by how well the job matches up with the worker's values. Like many workers, Mira’s work-related values include the potential to earn a larger salary and the opportunity to work regular hours that allow her to be with her family. Some aspects of work that Mira values are less tangible, including the feeling that she is helping others and the sense of daily excitement that comes from working on the frontiers of knowledge. (Here and elsewhere in the article, italics designate particular work-related values listed on myIDP.)

Mira’s story illustrates how a scientist might experience such a connection between values and work-related satisfaction (or dissatisfaction): She identified money—what myIDP labels earning potential—as a work-related value, and her low earnings in her current job contributed to her dissatisfaction. This value was important enough to her—and her current salary far enough below what she desired—that she was motivated to alter (or at least consider altering) the course of her career.

Mira's story illustrates two aspects of work-related values:

They need to be prioritized. There are trade-offs among values when considering a career path, and you must often weigh some values against others. For a while, earning potential dominated Mira's thinking—probably because it was her current job's most obvious shortcoming. But just as she considered making a big change, she became aware that remuneration was not the attribute she valued most highly. She began to question whether she was willing to sacrifice time with family to achieve a higher salary.

Work-related values change with stages of life. When they moved to UCSF after finishing graduate school, Mira and John were younger and more carefree. Money didn’t matter as much. But as they began to think about raising children in an expensive city, money became a higher priority—though not, perhaps, the highest.

Mira’s career-related values will continue to change as time passes and her circumstances change. Ten years from now, when her children are in school, the travel that her prospective new job requires may seem like less of a disadvantage.

What did Mira decide? That her need to have time for her future family, and to continue to contribute to her scientific field, outweighed the earnings potential of the field applications position. She turned down the job—and kept looking for others that would pay more than she was getting as a postdoc but that would also be consistent with the rest of her work-related values.*

How can I evaluate my own career-related values?

Mira's story illustrates how important it is to clarify and prioritize work-related values—but she could have saved herself some trouble if she had gone about it in a more organized way!

That's what myIDP is for. It includes a values assessment tool to help you to identify, clarify, and prioritize your career-related values. You'll be presented with a list of common work-related values and asked to rate the importance of each one, from 1 (unimportant) to 5 (essential). As we wrote before on the topics of skills and interests, this works best when you spread your scores: Don't cluster all of your answers around 3. And try to be discriminating so that you don’t have more than about five 5s. (It’s difficult to make career decisions if everything is important to you!)

If you haven't already done it, now is a good time to complete the myIDP values assessment tool. If you've done it already, visit myIDP and take a few minutes to review your responses. Then come back and read the following section.

Understanding your values assessment

Completing the values assessment tool should have helped you answer some questions about possible career options. But as people work through their values, new questions often arise, such as:

Q: How do I determine if a particular career is a good match for my values?

A: Keep reading this series of articles, and search Science Careers for articles about that career.

Additionally, your list of career-related values can be used as you conduct further research into the career options that you are considering. For example, Mira could have used her prioritized list of values—help others; earning potential; work on frontiers of knowledge—to write questions about the field applications career path. Before interviewing for the job, she could have posed those questions to several people already working as field applications scientists. Using e-mail, phone, or in-person interviews to obtain this kind of insider knowledge (a process known as informational interviewing; we'll have more on this topic in the coming weeks) might have even helped her identify aspects of the job that were a poor fit for her values—before she started the interview process.

Within myIDP, we’ve provided a customized list of possible questions that you should ask yourself based on your unique set of prioritized values. If you find that you don't know the answers, this is a great starting point for designing questions for those informational interviews. To view the list, click on the “Consider Your Values!” link on the page titled “Consider Career Fit/My Career Path Matches.”

Q: How can I be sure I'm being honest with myself?

A: Excellent question: Sometimes what we really want isn’t what we think we want, or what we think we ought to want. Go back and look at your list of prioritized values one more time. Ask yourself: Did you place a high priority on any of those values because you thought they should be important to you—but really they're not? Are some values assigned a low priority because you don't think they should be important to you—but in fact they are?

Some scientists may feel inclined to list “helping society” as a top value when what they find most rewarding is the process of finding the answers to thorny questions, no matter how esoteric. (If that describes your values, intellectual challenge, work on the frontiers of knowledge, and perhaps creativity should rank high on your myIDP values list.)

Because academic science reinforces a culture of self-sacrifice, it is not uncommon for scientists to be reluctant to admit that they value recognition, status and prestige, or earning potential. But if you make career choices based on what you should value instead of what you actually value, you're likely to end up miserable.

As you consider how well a job matches up with your values, consider this: No job will match up with your values perfectly, and that's OK. Some of your values, such as help society, can be met via activities you engage in outside of work.

Q: Prioritizing is hard! All of my highly scored values feel very important. How can I be sure that I ranked my top five priorities correctly?

A: Look at your list of top priorities and ask yourself:

  • What are your absolute must-have values, without which you would absolutely turn down a job offer?
  • If you were forced to give up one or more of your most highly ranked values, which would be the first to go? Which would be the second?

No career will make you 100% happy 100% of the time. However, by utilizing tools like myIDP, you should be able to increase the confidence with which you make career-related choices and improve your chances of ending up in a deeply satisfying career.

*Mira, who is based on a real scientist, decided not to become a field applications scientist, and for her it was the right decision. But for many others, this interesting, useful, and potentially lucrative career path would be an ideal match.

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