Career stories – what’s yours?

A ladder, a journey, a winding path, stepping stones, a meandering river, a roller coaster ride …. These are all typical metaphors that people often use to describe their careers. The analogies and imagery they use can be quite revealing, indicating positive or negative experiences, ups and downs, progression and stasis. As biologists, you may even use scientific associations such as metamorphosis, branching, differentiation or ‘survival of the fittest’.

Career stories or narratives of PhD graduates and former postdocs who have forged successful careers can sometimes help those looking for inspiration with their own career planning. Many universities and research institutions invite alumni or other external visitors to give talks on their careers, highlighting the ups and downs, key moments, tips and advice for entering their profession. These in-person appearances are really valuable if you are looking for ideas and information, and can also be an invaluable networking opportunity. The only ‘health warning’ I would attach to these individual accounts is that they are just that: personal and unique to that individual. For many people, networking and unique chance meetings play a major role in their career story, so it’s best to take a broader perspective of their career experiences and think of them in a wider context. For example, if they say they got into their profession through a particular contact, obviously you’re not going to be able to make use of the same contact but, in the wider context, it shows that you will need to network, make connections and be proactive to generate similar opportunities.

Autobiographical reflections are powerful when thinking about your own career. They offer clues to your personal interests, passions, motivations and values, factors which are fundamental when making career choices (even if you’re not consciously aware of them). Imagine that you have been invited to tell your story to those aspiring to your career. What will you say? What will you highlight? What tips and advice will you give? Even though most PhD students and researchers would argue that their experiences are very similar, your personal narratives will be distinct and unique. Your personality, background, personal situation, values, interests and a variety of other aspects set you apart from each other. For a workshop I ran last year, I asked the participants to bring in an image or object which represented their career: everyone brought something very personal to them; some were literal, encapsulating their everyday experiences, whilst others were more obtuse and conceptual. Each required an accompanying narrative so that their peers could understand its meaning. The image I have used to accompany this blog of one of my bookcases represents my career – always travelling around delivering workshops in different countries (and I’m a bit messy too).

Consider your career: [Preferably in a quiet space away from your working area]. Which metaphor would you use to describe your career? What object or image best describes it? Once you have done this, think about why you have selected these analogies and what they tell you about yourself and your experiences. Are you happy with your current situation? What’s good in your life right now? What’s not so good? What do you want to do more of? How can you improve your situation? How would you like to move forward? Where do you want to go next? The answers to these questions, and others which may be evoked through this self-reflective exercise, may help to inform your decisions about your next career move.

Here is a link to on-line PhD career stories

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