What do I want to do?
It’s a question that we face time and again. At different times, it’s focused on different aspects of our lives and to different depths – from “What do I want to do for dinner?” to “What do I want to do with my life?”
How do you answer this question when it comes to your career? How do you decide what’s next or even what your long term vision for your career is?
In some ways, it’s simple. You want to apply some skill set toward a particular purpose. Your values – how you prioritize hours, pay, contribution to society, location, etc. – may draw you to or deter you from certain settings and job types. It condenses to a short equation:
skills + interests + purpose + values = dream job
On the surface, it’s deceptively simple. The inputs are four small words. Of course, if you’ve ever given more than a cursory thought to it, you know that defining each of those inputs requires considerable self-reflection. You may have to explore areas of uncertainty. You may have to confront and tear apart what you think you knew. Defining those inputs is not a task you knock out in a coffee break. And frankly I don’t think it’s a task we’re ever fully done with.
But you work on it. You make progress. You’re getting ideas about what things you’d like to do next. How do you translate them to engaging jobs and careers?
In my experience, very early in our careers, we tend to focus on the more practical or tangible elements. As grad students and postdocs, we turn our attention to what we can do, especially as we consider careers that will take us out of the lab. Many professional development workshops, talks, and articles are about how to translate projects into skills for building résumés that feature what we can do, not simply what we’ve accomplished. And this is important for identifying realistic targets and effectively connecting with them.
But there’s another key component that we sometimes neglect or lose sight of in the process.
Mission is bundled in the purpose variable above. Mission is not only about what we want to do. It’s about why we want to do it. Mission isn’t about the tasks we’re good at. It’s about the broader impact we want to have in our communities.
When you make the decision to change the course of your career, it can feel much like you’re looking out into a vast, wild landscape with no clear paths anywhere. You know you have some tools in your pack. And so you think about what you can do with those tools. Maybe you have a machete, so you know you can hack your way through the brush. Maybe you picked up some rope, so you can make your way down some steep descents. You can make forward progress this way. But if you haven’t decided where you’re going, you may end up going where your tools can take you, rather than where you want to go.
Or, think of it another way. In the lab, you design experiments using methods at your disposal but also with particular objectives in mind. It could be validation, optimization, exploration, or hypothesis testing. But the experiment and objectives are part of a larger project that you’re working on. That project is part of a program, and that program is working towards a larger goal. Maybe it’s conserving the environment or developing new therapies for cancer. Whatever it is, though, that’s the mission. You don’t think of your experiments in that context every day. But when you sit down to write a proposal or paper, when you stand up to tell your community about your work, the mission is there. It’s how you get people to care about what you’re doing.
Work outside the lab is much the same. You get to define your mission. You need a mission to define direction, so that you can figure out where you want to go. And you need to be able to communicate that mission, so that others can help you get there. Knowing what skills you have is essential, but people want to know not just what you can do but why you want to do it.
Writing, social media, data analysis, visualization – those are skills, methods. Communication, research, policy, outreach, education – those are vehicles. Both are used in service of diverse purposes. Jobs and careers there are part of programs and organizational missions. Do those purposes and missions fit with yours? To answer that, you have to understand your own.
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