Framing career exploration as a research project (opinion)
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Framing career exploration as a research project (opinion)

For many graduate students, career exploration can feel like an indefinite challenge. How do you explore the unknown? Where do you begin to identify and keep track of the available options? Career exploration tools and resources exist in abundance, but how can you understand what to use and when? And when do you know that the search is over and you can now make a decision?

When advising students new to considering their career options, I sought a methodology that would resonate with them. For long-term implementation and success, is there a career exploration framework that is logical, accessible and empowering?

The career exploration road map allows for visual mapping of the stages of career exploration, from assessing one’s interests through securing a job offer. Career exploration can also be compared to scientific experimentation, where one gathers information, does the experiment and assesses.

Those two examples inspired me to create a new framework that combines the strengths of both: a visual, iterative approach that connects career exploration to a graduate student’s strength in research. By framing career exploration as another research project to undertake while pursuing your Ph.D., you can immediately understand the nature of career exploration. It requires information gathering and assessment, can have unexpected discoveries, and is a long-term process.

This framework, like a research project, is broken down into five recognizable steps, and while they have a sequence, the process is often iterative. Many research projects deliver unexpected findings that require you to return to the drawing board and explore a new angle within the project, and career exploration is no different. The language in this framework is designed to resonate with all students, regardless of discipline, hence the use of language such as “data collection” instead of “experimentation.” Finally, the framework is career-neutral and can apply equally to careers in academe, industry, government or the nonprofit sector -- or all at once.

Here I will walk through the steps of career exploration, illustrating how your skills can transfer to this framework and the resources you can use to complete each one.

Step No. 1: Conduct initial review of research topic. To identify a research question, a graduate student will first survey their research topic using a literature review. That process allows you to elucidate what you know, what you do not know and what you can predict about the unknown -- which together inform your research question. In career exploration, the research topic has two elements: yourself and the career options available. The initial review phase involves assessing your professional and personal identity as well as familiarizing yourself with the myriad careers that graduate students may pursue. But rather than reading hundreds of articles about different careers and reflecting on which may be most interesting to study further, you need only to find a career self-assessment that most aligns with your field of study.

Most career self-assessments explore three key questions: what are you good at (i.e., skills), what do you enjoy doing (i.e., interests) and what is important to you in your work life (i.e., values). These three elements of your identity can help you identify an ideal job. For humanists and social scientists, there is ImaginePhD, an online career exploration and planning tool where students can assess their career-related skills, interests and values and compare those answers to 15 different job families to identify areas of alignment and misalignment. Scientists often use myIDP, where taking self-assessments of your skills, interests and values produces a ranked list of 20 career paths. A similar assessment, focusing on skills and values, exists for chemical scientists through ChemIDP. The benefit of such an approach is that you can reflect on your identity in a guided way and find language to describe what matters most in your career. This process of self-reflection is vital before exploring careers in depth.

Step No. 2: Form your research question. Graduate students use the process of literature reviews to identify their research question and make informed predictions about the answer they will test during the data collection and analysis phase. In framing your career exploration question, you will identify your most significant skills, interests and values from the initial review phase and use those as the benchmark by which you conduct your career research.

In this research process, the question is “How does a career in (fill in the blank here: nonprofit management, teaching-intensive faculty, consulting) fit my skills, interests and values?” The career self-assessments are helpful in streamlining career options from many to a few based on an initial review of your identity. However, to make an informed career decision, a deeper analysis using a variety of sources is required -- hence the career research project. At this stage, you can decide to focus on one career exploration question at a time or to investigate several in parallel.

Step No. 3: Collect data. Gathering data for a research project incorporates a variety of qualitative and quantitative methodologies, such as close reading, ethnographic research or wet laboratory or computational techniques. Similarly, data collection for career exploration can involve a variety of methodologies.

The four main methodologies include reading online or book sources, attending career-related events, conducting informational interviews, and completing experiential learning opportunities. These four methods exist along a spectrum of both the time required and the utility of the information in making career decisions. Online articles or resources can be easy to access but offer a limited amount of information. Informational interviewing and experiential learning are more time-intensive yet enable you to tailor the information you collect to your own interests, skills and values and thereby make a more informed decision. Career exploration is most effective when several of these methodologies are applied.

I recommend you begin your data collection with web and book resources, such as VersatilePhD (which features real-life narratives and application materials of graduate students who began careers outside academe), Aurora (which has a video library of around 200 career interviews with Ph.D.s), and books like Career Opportunities in Biotechnology and Drug Development. Career-related events like panels of people with advanced degrees discussing various jobs, employer information seminars or networking mixers enable you to begin asking your own questions about your career interests to professionals and career advisers.

Informational interviewing is one of the most powerful methodologies you can apply, as you can identify interviewees with relevant backgrounds and skill sets to meet with and ask questions specific to your top skills, interests and values. But it’s important to note that, just like in any research study, one qualitative data point is not sufficient. You should therefore interview multiple professionals before drawing any conclusions about a career.

Last, experiential learning can be a highly valuable way to confirm or challenge your interest in a career. While internships can be extremely valuable, not all students have the time or ability to work full- or part-time for an organization while completing their dissertation. In that case, short-term and project-based experiential learning, such as InterSECT Job Simulations, can enable you to get hands-on experience in a job without the time commitment of an internship.

With career exploration as a research project of its own sort, I highly recommend graduate students establish their own research notebook or folder. Whether you use a spiral-bound notebook, a Word document, an Excel sheet or a folder on your computer or in the cloud, save helpful resources, document any findings and record self-reflections. With an up-to-date notebook, you can always return to your career research without losing progress -- even if you have to pause for a few weeks or months -- or pick it back up later in life as you prepare for another career transition.

Step No. 4: Analyze data. Just as significant in any research project as data collection is data analysis: to find answers to your research question, you apply an analytical framework to conclude meaning and significance from the data. In career exploration, this process requires extensive self-reflection. At this stage, the value of the self-assessment performed at the beginning becomes clear.

In the analysis phase of career exploration, you apply your understanding of your top skills, interests and values to the variety of data points you have collected to interrogate whether they align. That involves asking questions such as: “Does this career allow me to frequently perform responsibilities or tasks that I find interesting?” “Do I have the skills, or the opportunity to develop the skills, needed for success in this career?” “Would I enjoy working with the people I have met in this career?” “Do jobs and organizations in this field support the professional values most important to me?” You may approach this phase of self-reflection in different ways, including journaling, writing pro and con lists, or discussing ideas with a trusted contact or a career adviser.

Step No. 5: Summarize findings (and refine your research question). At the end of a research project, graduate students summarize their analysis and discuss their conclusions to provide an answer to the research question and identify their future directions to answer remaining questions. Career exploration is also iterative in the same way.

You may conclude that the first career you have investigated is a seamless fit with your skills, interests and values and the logical next step is to prepare to apply for roles in that field. More often, however, the process of career exploration reveals information about a career that negates it as an option. You may also uncover additional aspects of your identity and preferences that you realize are critical to consider when weighing career options.

Like a research project, career exploration may deviate from the expected course and reveal that your predictions were wrong or you should ask other, more interesting questions instead. Furthermore, the answer to your career research as a graduate student may not be the same answer in two, five or 10 years, once you have gained further professional experience. In those cases, your skill as a researcher who is adaptable and determined will help you appreciate those new discoveries and refine your research question to resume again.

Career exploration may be the ultimate research project you embark on, as it can continue throughout your life as your identity evolves and you consider new career opportunities. As a graduate student, your hard-won skills in conducting research will equip you well for this endeavor over the course of your career.



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