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.

Advertisements

The holiday season and the post-degree process

I haven’t blogged much this month.

Yesterday I didn’t blog because I was wandering around my neighborhood with my kids and my winter boots, looking for the ultimate sledding hill that wasn’t just mud.

 

2013-12-10 13.03.42

I did get this cool shot of the snow melting:

2013-12-10 14.11.15

This past weekend I didn’t blog because I was trying to get some holiday shopping done. Holiday shopping is a mess of contradictions. The music and festive spirit are relaxing and wonderful, but the task at hand is to reckon with our wants. My goal lately has been exactly the opposite of this- to appreciate what abundance already constitutes my life and not to focus on needing or wanting more. This is an important part of my post degree process.

At the time of my graduation I joked with a close friend about expecting life to be like a musical, with the people around me singing and dancing my accomplishments and those of my classmates. For those of you still in school I hate to break your bubble, but there will likely not be a musical in your honor, as deserving as you may be.

Graduation is not the end of your work as a student. Your work will extend beyond graduation and in to what I’ve come to think of as an extra semester of undetermined length. This is the time when we try to make all of our hard work pay off. We learn that the world will not recognize our accomplishments unless we learn how to be our own best advocates, and we learn how difficult it is to advocate for ourselves across lines of field and areas of practice.

This process involves a reckoning between the idealized notions of our future that motivated us through late-nighters and all-nighters and the realities of our post degree lives. It also involves a surprisingly long transition from the frenetic pace of student life to the appreciative pace of real life. We learn how to channel the energy that is no longer focused on school work but free to roam across a wide range of interests and responsibilities. We forge a new set of priorities. We realize that we will not find jobs that are as well rounded as we are. We see that we are not frozen in place after our degrees but will continue the lifelong process of learning. We begin to find peace in the knowledge that what we have is enough. We may not have the yacht and the private plane, but we have food on our plates and in our bellies. And what we have is enough.

Graduates (especially in today’s employment market) have to wrestle with the responsibilities of post-degree life, the lack of recognition of their academic accomplishments, and the transition [back?] into the swing of daily work life. We have to transition from the big dreams of school life to the small rewards of real life. For me this process involves a compacting. It involves tightening the family budget and saving for bigger goals. It involves family challenges to see how long we can go between trips to the grocery store and the fun set of culinary challenges that rise from the emptier cupboards (Have you seen those cooking shows where the contestants are challenged to invent a meal based on a small number of random ingredients?). It involves decluttering my house to get rid of extra stuff, appreciate what we have and lessen our responsibilities (less stuff to clean!), and it involves spoiling my family with the time and attention I couldn’t give them before.

This all seems to directly contradict the goals of holiday shopping. I wandered through aisle after aisle of stuff that I couldn’t imagine needing or wanting, thinking of needs and wants as a kind of black hole where needing and wanting can simply lead to more needing and wanting. I’m not sure how my holiday shopping process will shake out this year, but I do know that my happiness and the happiness of those I love can’t be found on any store shelves.

For you students, recent graduates and professional researchers and other readers, I wish you all the peace and gratitude of the season. May the new year bless you with continued curiosity. May we never stop learning and growing. May the process and daily rituals of our lives be reward enough. We can’t anticipate the challenges 2014 will bring, but let us be grateful that we have the tools that we will need to greet them with.

And most of all, I want to thank those of you who read my blog posts. Thank you for your time and attention and for encouraging me to continue to explore. I hope to reward you soon with a rundown of some particularly great events I’ve attended lately!

What next, after graduation?

A question that recent graduates are often asked is “what next, now that you’ve graduated?” This is a different question for graduates in different stages of their lives. When I finished my bachelor’s I could answer with the types of jobs I was applying to and my plans of where to live next. In fact, I wasn’t one to leave these big questions unanswered: I moved and began a full-time research position within a few weeks of my last set of finals. I was eager to begin my life without school. Nine months later I began another research position, chosen because of the shear intensity and rigor of the interview (I had two interviewers firing questions at me, and I loved it. Crazy, right?). At this point, I’ve been at the second job for about 14 years.

What keeps you at a job for 14 years? This is an important question, because keeping with a job when everything is not fresh and new is a special sort of challenge. There have been a few keys:

1. Stay in the moment. There are quite a few different projects that I juggle at once, and I work on each project across multiple stages. For each of these stages in the research process, I have elements that I particularly enjoy. I try to focus on these key elements while I work on each project.

2. Know yourself. As a worker, I know that I have little patience for repetitive tasks. I tend to be very hardworking and productive, but when tasks become repetitive I quickly get distracted. If I can, I always delegate these tasks away. If I can’t, I juggle them with other projects that complement them, such as tasks that I need to spend more time thinking strategically about or tasks that either have a deadline or can be given a set of short term goals. This way, I feel productive and maintain my morale.

3. Feed yourself. I’ve also learned that I hunger to learn new things. I take advantage of every opportunity to learn new things, to share the new knowledge with my coworkers, and to integrate the things I learn into my work. This keeps my projects fresh. In addition to the standard, core reports that I produce, for example, I add new kinds of analyses or data. This makes the reports more interesting to produce, and it probably keeps them fresh for the reader as well.

4. Maintain relationships. I’ve been lucky enough to work with people I genuinely enjoy and to see them through marriages, graduations, births, deaths, as well as the silly packages they recieve at work. This helps to make work an enjoyable place.

5. Keep moving. Go to the gym, if you can. Go on a walk, if you can. Get up and stretch. Drink a lot of fluids.

Now, back to the question. “What next, after graduation?” For me, this is not a question with a clear, obvious answer. School disturbs the equillibrium of every day life. Juggling work, school and family left me on a constant cycle of challenges and [mostly] successes. How do you come down from that? What happens to that level of productivity? As a mom, there is a looming stack of laundry, dishes and other household tasks always waiting at the ready. In the past week alone, I’ve spent over 6 hours doing make-up gymnastic lessons (with another 2.5 hours coming tomorrow!). Life expands to fit any empty spaces. But given a trade-off between reading Blommaert and folding laundry…

I read a commencement speech by Daniel Foster Wallace that addressed the monotony of life and the power of being alive through the seemingly routine moments. I plan to do just that, but I was shocked to see it laid out in a commencement address. To be a student is to be saddled with the potential of what life could be, and that stands in such contrast to the smaller, daily joys of life without school. I often wondered how well prepared the students around me who hadn’t yet left academia were for life “on the other side.” Now I can see why some people choose to stay in school! If it weren’t for the many sacrifices my family made in order for me to go to school, I probably would have already enrolled in a PhD program.

The transition is surprisingly difficult, and I haven’t yet figured it out.