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Harnessing the Power of Systematic Career Exploration
June 7, 2019
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Such exploration should happen early and often, writes Rebekah Layton, director of professional development programs in the Office of Graduate Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who gives tips on how to get started

I am a career professional in higher education. I absolutely love, well, pretty much everything about my job.

Yet I would not have given it a second glance had I come across the job ad a year before experiencing a personal career crisis as a postdoc, simply because it didn’t come with a faculty label in its title.

In retrospect, this experience profoundly moved me and shaped my own perspective and professional choices. In fact, I am especially passionate about helping ensure that others never have to go through a similar experience to reach a career pathway they love; hence, my passion for providing opportunities to help trainees explore career pathways early and often, rather than waiting till late in their graduate or postdoctoral training. Harnessing the power of career exploration to seek a tailored-to-fit career match can be a transformative experience.

I was a postdoctoral trainee who had been pounding full force down the tenure-track career pathway for years when I realized I was going to be off cycle in the academic calendar year and was therefore unable to apply for academic jobs. I panicked. I had no idea where to start without the faculty career path as my centrepiece. In addition to navigating a changing professional identity and mourning for my lost identity as a future faculty member (which has been likened to a grieving process), I also had to balance a number of imminent competing priorities. Those included concern for meeting immediate financial and family needs, as well as managing the anxiety about the pending transition into the unknown, among others. It was obviously not the optimal time to approach career exploration with the clear mind, calm energy and careful logic needed to systematically apply myself, yet the situation demanded that I do so. The important lesson I learned was that systematic, logical exploration of career options early on can prevent the kind of panic that trainees feel when professional transitions arise unplanned or professional challenges cause a reconsideration of career goals.

As a career coach and workshop leader, I now provide guidance for trainees navigating through this process — hopefully before they get to the point where the process feels like an acute identity crisis. I encourage all trainees to go through the process of examining what they love about the careers they choose to pursue, including those on the academic track. For those planning on following academic career pathways, this process may simply reconfirm that a faculty career is absolutely right for them, and they may go on to do just that. Nonetheless, if later on, life events impact career choices, priorities change or job preferences shift, early career exploration ensures that they’ll be already prepared to handle questioning their professional identity with resilience.

But, you may wonder, how do I start a systematic personalized career exploration plan? Here are some starter pro tips, developed in collaboration with my colleague Patrick Brandt over the course of many years of collaboratively running career-planning workshops.

It’s not about the title. Erase any expectation of job title — and instead look up keywords of interest to see what job titles pop up. Do some research to identify any new job titles that may be of interest. Learn about how various organizational cultures in industry, government or academe might be similar or different. Do parallel roles with different titles exist in different settings? Don’t limit yourself.

Start with what you like to do. Not sure what keywords to start with? Consider: What parts of your training and research do you like to spend your time on? What skills in your training do you most enjoy using? Use these as a guide. Capitalize on transferrable skills you’ve developed during doctoral training (relevant for a multitude of careers), not just scientific, technical skills or discipline-based skills — although, of course, those can be important, too. (You can also visit MyIDP or ImaginePhD — online tools that provide career interests, skills, assessments and potential career matches and titles if you prefer a more structured approach than self-reflection alone).

Use career exploration to make an informed career choice or choices. Learn what possible titles might be a good fit for you. In our career planning workshops, we like to refer to such career options as Plan A and Plan A-Prime, indicating that there is value in being aware of multiple career pathways that you could be excited about, in contrast to a backup Plan B. You can ultimately decide to pursue one or many of them, but by preparing to be a good candidate for a few career possibilities, you ensure that you will have options and choices. No panic button needed here! Feeling stuck about what options are out there to find your Plan A or A-Prime? Read on.

Engage in career exploration through combinations of passive and active actions, as you feel ready. Look at career outcomes nationally to get started, if you’re not sure what career sectors, types and functions are out there for Ph.D.s. Check out career outcomes published by your institution to see what others in your department go on to do. Or explore alumni career profiles on LinkedIn — you might even connect with a few for informational interviews. Listen to podcasts (like HelloPhD) where you can hear from scientists in a variety of careers and positions about what they do in their role, field, company and the like. Another method is to look for career panels, professional development events, career symposia or other professional networking events in your area. Get excited about all the career possibilities out there!

Systematically review skills, experiences and job requirements for careers/positions of interest. First collect a set of representative job ads (usually three to five per job field is a good start) for one or more career fields, and group similar jobs. Pick one career field at a time to gather together each job ad pile and take a look at what you notice about the set. We advocate for something we like to call a Skill Profile Analysis — our fancy way of asking trainees to look for patterns in the data, putting already well-developed research skills to use to collect and analyze them. You can repeat this with as many careers as you like, but to avoid running out of steam or feeling overwhelmed, start with your top one to three careers of interest. (You can always go back later to add a new career field.)

Compare current skills with those needed. Pick one career pathway of interest and move on to identifying which of those patterns you fit well with. We refer to this as conducting a Skill Gap Analysis. Then it’s time to go point by point: identify skills, keywords, experience requirements and so forth that you found in common across job ads in that career field, and then take stock of how you measure up. In what areas, can you metaphorically knock the ball out of the park? In what areas can you possibly score a run but could use more practice and development? And in what areas are you still in the dugout? Now you’ve created a snapshot at the intersection of you at the current time point with one possible career pathway and have developed an important tool to use in your next steps.

Find your fit, make the match. Use the skills and experiences you’ve identified as standout strengths to build a résumé that is tailored to showcase your current skills and experience as it best matches with your chosen field(s). And, yes, that means building multiple versions for each career option you are considering. Take some time to reflect on areas where you’d like to grow more and make a plan of action to build skills in the ones you’ve identified. As you work your way through a few career options, you may also realize that you aren’t as interested in a particular pathway that isn’t a great fit, or that you are a better fit than you first thought for another position that is unexpectedly a great fit.

Going through the steps of career exploration can help you identify and prepare for the personalized career of the future you. An exciting career awaits you! But first you have to go out there and find it. Don’t wait to get started. Today is the day.

 

Bio Rebekah Layton is the director of professional development programs in the Office of Graduate Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a member, and currently serves as the director for the southeast region, of the Graduate Career Consortium — an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.


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