Know Thyself

For our lab meeting this week, Shannon pointed us to the Individual Development Plan that’s available through AAAS and ScienceCareers. The purpose here is to self-identify and rank yourself in various categories and then find out the best career path for you. It’s basically a Civil Service test for scientists. Admittedly, I thought this sounded a little too much like touchy-feely introspection that wouldn’t lead to anything useful. But now I’m convinced that this is something that every graduate student should do when (maybe before?) they enter grad school and then continue to do again every year. Even as a faculty member, I found it useful to identify which things I think I’m pretty good at, and the areas in which I think I can improve.

The survey asks you to assess your own Skills (what you do and don’t do well), Interests (which activities you like doing and which you find exhausting), and Values (what aspects of a job do you value above others…Money? Work-life balance?). For me, this in itself was a valuable exercise. How well do you really know yourself? For the test to work well, you need to maximize the variance in your answers. The scale runs from 1-5, so don’t be afraid to rank yourself as both a 1 and a 5 in different areas. However, I suspect that these scores probably move up on average with career level. Had I filled out this survey as a young graduate student (oh, those were the days…), I probably would have ranked myself mostly between 1 and 3. Now most of my ranks are between 3 and 5, simply because I’ve had more experience with some things. Either that, or I’ve just become way more cocky over time (if you think that’s true, be aware that it’s just an attempt to overcome Imposter Syndrome).

The reason I thought this was so valuable is because rarely have I sat down and really thought, Ok, what do I need to do specifically to be better at what I do. Oh sure, there’s some vague things: I should teach better, I should be more productive, I should write that Science paper. But this assessment was useful for thinking about the specific areas where I could try to improve myself. Side note: it was also an ego boost to realize that there are a lot of areas where I do feel really confident and have demonstrated success. For me, it was also then useful to triage those areas in which I could improve. Can I work on my creativity? Sure, but there’s no obvious way to fix that on the short term (although see next week’s blog post for ways in which one might try to do that!). Can I work on getting a better grasp on the scientific literature? Well sure. I’ll start by just reading one more paper every week. That’s not a complete fix, but it’s certainly an improvement. And I think that’s the major goal of this assessment–figuring out ways for one to improve oneself.

The other reason this might be useful is for younger students who aren’t sure what they want to do with their career yet. It was nice to see that the best career match for me is a Combined Research and Teaching Career. Score: I made a good life choice. However, it was also nice to see the number of other career choices that could have worked out for me based on my skills, interests, and values. This would have been especially comforting¬†during graduate school when I, like many others, often wondered “Is this career really for me??!!”. It’s nice to think about your other options. As academics, we’re not very good at advising students how to pursue non-academic careers because most of us don’t have any experience with them! If you’re interested in other careers, the website provides a lot more information on each of these.

The last thing that I’ll add is that if you really want to assess your skills, it might also be helpful to have a friend or colleague fill out this assessment for you. Maybe YOU think you’re much better at a particular skill than you really are. “No dude, I’m sorry, your lecturing skills are actually terrible.” On the other hand, you might find that you’re much better at a particular skill than you think you are. That’s good information to have. That’s probably an uncomfortable exercise for most of us, but if you have a friend who you trust to be honest with you, it could be worth it.

Anyway, I’d encourage you to give this thing a try, even if it’s just for fun. It only takes about 5-10 minutes to do the whole assessment. I think this is going to become an annual event in our lab. If you’re really interested in finding out more, there is a huge amount of information on the website that I haven’t yet explored. You can read more about individual careers and what they entail and how to pursue them. You can set Skill and Project goals for yourself and use the website to remain accountable. But the most important thing is getting to know yourself (just pretend there’s a big huggable teddy bear picture here).


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