Professional Identity: Who am I? And who are you?

Last night I acted as a mentor at the annual Career Exploration Expo sponsored by my graduate program. Many of the students had questions about developing a professional identity. This makes sense, of course, because graduate school is an important time for discovering and developing a professional identity.

People enter our program (and many others) With a wide variety of backgrounds and interests. They choose from a variety of classes that fit their interests and goals. And then they try to map their experience onto job categories. But boxes are difficult to climb into and out of, and students soon discover that none of the boxes is a perfect fit.

I experienced this myself. I entered the program with an extensive and unquestioned background in survey research. Early in my college years (while I was studying and working in neuropsychology) I began to manage a clinical dataset in SPSS. Working with patients and patient files was very interesting, but to my surprise working with data using statistical software felt right to me much in the way that Ethiopian meals include injera and Japanese meals include rice (IC 2006 (1997) Ohnuki Tierney Emiko). I was actually teased by my friends about my love of data! This affinity served me well, and I enjoyed working with a variety of data sets while moving across fields and statistical programming languages.

But my graduate program blew my mind. I felt like I had spent my life underwater and then discovered the sky and continents. I discovered many new kinds of data and analytic strategies, all of which were challenging and rewarding. These discoveries inspired me to start this blog and have inspired me to attend a wide variety of events and read some very interesting work that I never would have discovered on my own. Hopefully followers of this blog have enjoyed this journey as much as I have!

As a recent graduate, I sometimes feel torn between worlds. I still work as a survey researcher, but I’m inspired by research methods that are beyond the scope of my regular work. Another recent graduate of our program who is involved in market research framed her strategy in a way that really resonated with me: “I give my customers what they want and something else, and they grow to appreciate the ‘something else.'” That sums up my current strategy. I do the survey management and analysis that is expected of me in a timely, high quality way. But I am also using my newly acquired knowledge to incorporate text analysis into our data cleaning process in order to streamline it, increasing both the speed and the quality of the process and making it better equipped to handle the data from future surveys. I do the traditional quantitative analyses, but I supplement them  with analyses of the open ended responses that use more flexible text analytic strategies. These analyses spark more quantitative analyses and make for much better (richer, more readable and more inspired) reports.

Our goal as professionals should be to find a professional identity that best capitalizes on  our unique knowledge, skills and abilities. There is only one professional identity that does all of that, and it is the one you have already chosen and continue to choose every day. We are faced with countless choices about what classes to take, what to read, what to attend, what to become involved in, and what to prioritize, and we make countless assessments about each. Was it worthwhile? Did I enjoy it? Would I do it again? Each of these choices constitutes your own unique professional self, a self which you are continually manufacturing. You are composed of your past, your present, and your future, and your future will undoubtedly be a continuation of your past and present. The best career coach you have is inside of you.

Now your professional identity is much more uniquely or narrowly focused that the generic titles and fields that you see in the professional marketplace. Keep in mind that each job listing that you see represents a set of needs that a particular organization has. Is this a set of needs that you are ready to fill? Is this a set of needs that you would like to fill? You are the only one who knows the answers to these questions.

Because it turns out that you are your best career coach, and you have been all along.

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4 thoughts on “Professional Identity: Who am I? And who are you?

  1. I would like to add that your professional identity can/will/should change as your career progresses. I’m on my third career, so to speak, and at each stage I’ve defined myself differently when people ask me “what do you do for work?” Those early career experiences and interests will evolve, as yours did, as you go along. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to try out lots of different things with a common thread of what interests you.

    • That’s a great point, Marni. Some of the students were worried about finding “The Job” right away, but usually finding a good fit takes a few attempts, each of which teaches us more about what works for us.

      I also like to tell people not to expect one job to “scratch every itch.” There will be time to pursue other interests.

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