Changing course, Part 2: Preparing to consider possibilities

Last time on Ever On & On, biochembelle sensed a disturbance in the force, the hints of a squirrelly feeling about the plan to pursue a faculty gig. Now the continuation…

It took some time for me to realize that something wasn’t quite clicking. There was a sense of unease that I gradually began to acknowledge. As I took care of other things in my life, space began to clear in my head. I started to grasp that, for quite a while, I’d been pushing down this path without stopping to reassess whether it’s what I still wanted. At last, I accepted the possibility that I might want something else – or not, but I knew that I needed to take a look.

But how?

At first, I just expressed the “doubt” to a couple of people I trusted deeply. People I was almost certain would listen. Who might reflect what they were hearing back to me. Who might ask questions, but thoughtfully. Whose responses would be measured – never aggressive nor judgmental.

There was the occasional cryptic post or tweet I suppose, a number of musings about change, which were really quite applicable to a number of things in (my) live. But I was quite selective about sharing specific things. My partner, a friend (outside academia), my therapist.

Even then, it was still nerve wracking. What if they told me I was being ridiculous? Would they look at me differently? Would they see me giving up? What if it went the other way? What if they thought I wasn’t cut out for the academic life?

I needed space to make this decision on my own, but I needed to give form to the ideas by putting them into words. So I had to entrust my thoughts with those who would be responsive without trying to really influence my choice.

As these murmurings carried forward, an obvious question rattled about. If not the faculty track, then what? I hadn’t abandoned the academic route at this point, but I needed something less abstract than “everything else” for comparison. I needed to think in terms of places I might like to move towards.

I was considerably more savvy about available options than I was when I started grad school. There were things that held some vague potential. But what did I have to offer? What would be needed or useful? What might align with my interests? What were my interests?

There were a lot of questions. I needed something to bring some semblance of order to the jumbled mess in my head.

Quite some time before all this questioning, I had heard of myIDP as a tool for helping trainees finds some career direction. But then I knew where I was going. I was busy. And I was skeptical.

The IDP is an “individual development plan”. The National Postdoc Association has been encouraging its use for several years, and a number of institutions started requiring postdocs fill them out and discuss them with their postdoc advisers annually. At its heart, the intent of the IDP is to have postdocs taking inventory of skills and accomplishments, considering career targets, setting goals to get there.

In principle, this is how it’s designed to go:


However, I think many of us feel the process is more like this:


Of course, this is intentionally hyperbolic. I don’t think this reflects actual practice. Rather it’s intended as a hyperbolic synthesis of reality and emotion during a “temporary” phase of life.

And a reflection of why I wasn’t sure myIDP was particularly useful and hadn’t bothered to put the time into it.

But now I was looking for some focus. Then I saw a post from DNLee on myIDP. It sounded like maybe it was worth a shot.

So one afternoon, as some incubation carried on in the lab, I sat at my desk, committed to try it out.

Once I got through all the user info and intro stuff, it was on to the self-assessment. myIDP took me through a “guided” self-assessment. I wasn’t sitting there trying to divine strengths and weaknesses and interests out of nothingness. myIDP asked me to rate myself in several categories on a 5-point scale.

myIDP skills self-assesment

myIDP skills self-assesment

The skills assessment starts off with science or research-specific things, but it goes on to things like communication and management too – in other words, those “soft skills” that we might not usually think about. Next there’s an interest assessment that somewhat mirrors the skills one. Then on to “values” – what things do you want to get out of your work and what couldn’t you care less about, from benefits and job security to work environment to impact on society.

I tried to think about the questions and rate them realistically. Although I finished the assessments in an afternoon, it was not a 15-minute exercise. It took time. Because I was doing this for myself, I wasn’t rushing through to the finish. I used it to get to know myself, in a way.

Once I got through all the questions, myIDP offered some considerations for career fit based on the skills and interest ratings. This wasn’t a Magic Eight Ball, telling me which career I should pursue. Nor was I looking for it.

Instead, myIDP crystallized some ideas. Amorphous thoughts began to take form, and some new considerations emerged.

More importantly, it had provided a framework to focus in on what I had to offer and what I was looking for in a career – whether that was an academic track or not.

To be continued…

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12 Responses to Changing course, Part 2: Preparing to consider possibilities

  1. katiesci says:

    Doing an IDP is so useful but I’ve always wondered why scientists don’t use career inventory resources already out there. As I prepared to return to university after a long break I took several career and personality inventories at the university careers office. It was really helpful to point me in the direction I wanted to pursue which, of course, ended up being scientific research. But it also gave insights into other potential careers I might enjoy and, surprisingly, told me I would probably enjoy the military.

    • biochembelle says:

      (Erm, let me try that again… that’ll teach me to try replying from my phone! bb – updated 7:24 am 1/14/15)

      Good question, Katie.

      Simplest answer may be they just don’t think about it. “Personality inventory” brings Meyers-Brigg to mind, and the last time they did one may have been intro psych. And if they do think of it, they might not see the value in it.

      I wonder if part is the approach to grad school and beyond. For students (bacc & grad), classwork & research are emphasized; it’s about getting to the degree, which will “open doors”. For postdocs, it switches to papers & grants. In other words, the focus is on measures of productivity where they are. Which I think in post-bac/post-grad world often translates to incessant busyness – “Anything but [x] is a distraction. I don’t have time for it.”

      Frankly, for quite a while, I think students and (to a lesser degree) postdocs have been encouraged to delay thinking beyond the short- to medium-term. “You’ve got time to decide. You don’t have to do that now.” “Don’t get caught up in the details [of the future]. Enjoy this time.” “Do good work and the rest will take care of itself.”

      Perhaps it’s something to do with why students start grad school. Some have their career plan in mind already and don’t see a reason to spend the time considering whether there are other options they’ve not considered before. Others start because they love science and they hear that’s the “important thing”.

      Finally, I think there’s just fear – of uncertainty, of discovery – that leads to procrastination. As Abby notes, this sort of introspection is work. And sometimes we’re just not ready to face it.

  2. Abby says:

    Doing this sort of exploratory work can be so psychologically challenging. Kudos to you for giving it a shot!

    • biochembelle says:

      Definitely! I didn’t realize it in the midst of everything, but I think a reason I didn’t dig into it earlier was that I didn’t have that sort of cognitive/psychological energy to devote to it.

  3. ihstreet says:

    I should go back to myIDP. it’s been awhile and don’t think I gave it a fair shot, though the rising panic thing is really acute right now in me :-/.

    • biochembelle says:

      Like most things, it may not work for everyone. It doesn’t hold “the” answer, but I think it at least offers a starting point when feeling adrift.

      Or maybe there are some other approaches to career/personality inventories (as mentioned by katie) that might work better for you.

  4. jkgoya says:

    I just did the myIDP. That was interesting, if unsurprising. I felt like I knew where it was going with the responses I was giving, and I was more or less right, but it’s good to know that I didn’t have a big blind spot (not knowing about some kind of career that would be good for me) and that the careers/industries that I’ve been dismissing (like startups, biotech) are probably not good fits for me. I do still wonder though whether I would be long-term unhappy in those jobs, or just initially uncomfortable.

    Looking forward to part 3 and beyond!

    • biochembelle says:

      One thing I noticed about my “matches” was that, for about the top 12, the skills match and the interest match ranged from about 60-75% (there were a couple slightly higher ones in the interest match). And there were a couple in the list that didn’t interest me, like sales or product support.

      When it comes down to it, myIDP is not a sorting hat. But it can help organize thoughts and seed some ideas.

  5. Pingback: Changing course, Part 3: Open exploration | Ever on & on

  6. Pingback: Spotlight on Science/Mademoiselle Scientists: MySciCareer | Mademoiselle Scientist

  7. Pingback: What’s next and how to get there… or at least get started. | Diversity Journal Club

  8. Pingback: Changing course, Part 7: | Ever on & on

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