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.

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.

Encouraging things I tell myself

Long time, no blog…

Life is currently kicked into overdrive, and I’m switching between coasting and gunning. I know that many of you are also working particularly hard, between the end of the school year, upcoming conferences, taxes, … I’ve thought about using this blog to vent or to catalog my stress (this works better as a to-do list than engaging narrative), to pay tribute to my mom (who passed away May 5, 2012, after spending April living it up on a cruise with her sister), or to wax poetic about my current research project (I will share about the research soon, because I’m really excited about the work I will soon be able to do. But I’m not ready yet.). Instead, I’ve decided to share the encouraging things I tell myself…

Microfocus. This is the true key to a busy lifestyle. Focus on as few things as possible and work to make them happen. Then keep it moving. Thinking big=stress. Thinking small=achievable goals.

Let go of what you can. Put the things that can wait aside. Doing everything all the time is foolish and unnecessary.

Look beyond yourself. Putting all of the burdens on your own shoulders helps no one. It’s not about you. Think to the bigger goal and share your burden.

Know stillness. All of this activity requires some inactivity. Somethings are better for this than others. Throwing caution to the wind and going to sleep when you’re tired is far more effective than reaching for a drink. For me, sleep, nature, exercise and art are the biggest sources of peace. I’ve even started going to church!

Stop fighting. This one really hit me over the head this week. Momentum can lead you to crazy places, where you’re working too hard on too many fronts. But if you take a minute to look around, you may see that all of that frenzy is unnecessary. You’ve been working hard. You’ve put your projects in motion. They have momentum, and they don’t need so much pushing. Getting a degree takes years. You’ve already put in a few. The wheels are already in motion. Don’t push, just follow.

Learning is not supposed to be a done deal. I am about to finish my graduate program next month, and I feel anxious about it. I’m aware of so much that I still don’t know. I catch myself reading Blommaert and worrying that as much as I dig it, I wouldn’t read it on my own. But learning is and has always been a process and a passion. Curiosity drives you to learn. Let that curiosity and passion continue to drive you to grow. The world is bigger than you. You will learn what you need to when you need to, and you will ask for help from the right places when you need to do that.

Be a little emotional. It’s ok to feel happy when things are finished, proud of the hard work you’ve put in, and sad that your mom’s not here to see things come together. And it’s not helpful to worry about feeling anxious!

In a little over a month, many of the pieces I am juggling will come together, and I will have less hanging over me than I’ve had in years. But that point is quite a few deadlines away. For now, I am at bat, focusing on the ball, connecting, and! Next. For those of you who are stressed, I wish you pockets of peace. For those of you who are graduating, “job well done! way to go!” (<– and put a congratulations in your pocket, for when you’re ready to hear it). For those of you who are grieving, I wish you all the ups and downs that go along with it. And for those of you dealing with all of the administrative headaches that accompany loss, I wish you a pat on the back, a quiet beach, a gentle breeze, a margarita, a memory that makes you smile, and some space to cry and scream a little! As they say “this too shall pass.”

Time moves through the jungle, and we swing between vines, focusing on the flowers. I wish you all flowers.

Flower market in Amsterdam

Flower market in Amsterdam