Vulnerability: The Most Precious Career Choice

We should question the beliefs that we hold about career success, writes Stephanie K. Eberle, and explore how they can sometimes stand in our way.

November 30, 2015

Eric looked nervous when he walked into my office. His introduction form told me he was a Ph.D. student in his fourth year of graduate school and, as with many trainees, he wanted to know his “career options.” This presenting question may be exactly what it seems on the surface -- just mere curiosity about what is out there.

Sometimes, however, it is code for:

  • “Should I get my Ph.D. or leave early?”(In other words, is what you give up to obtain a graduate degree worth what you get? Can you get a decent job without a Ph.D.?)
  • “I have decided I want to go into research academe, but I want to be sure I’m not missing something.”
  • Or, the opposite, “I know academe is not for me, but I don’t know what is.”

After listening to Eric’s story, I discovered that “options” for him was code for, “I’m really lost, and I don’t know how to get back to a place where I’m confident in the direction I am going.”

In the beginning, we discussed options he knew of already, and I helped him discover some he had not considered. We covered the basics: academe, biotechnology government research, biotechnology business and finance, consulting, law, policy, and communications and media. As in most cases, however, that simple review of options did little more than relieve fears that his choices spanned more than academe vs. McDonald’s. In fact, discovering all possible choices at once seemed even more daunting.

I paused and asked Eric about his personal and professional story -- how he got here in the first place and where he wanted to go next. Following a few lab rotations, Eric chose an adviser he admired, but who did not give a lot of feedback. He switched labs and, this time, did not receive the positive feedback he hoped for. Eric knew his career of choice was academic science. His lack of publications and his result-less experiments led his adviser to tell him that he was never going to get there. Eric had figured out within a few years that he was not going to be an academician, but it had taken him four years to admit that to himself and now to someone else: me.

I listened attentively and reflected back to him the different emotions that I heard. Disappointment. Fear. Sadness. Yet nothing seemed to fit.

Finally, he said, “No, I feel worthless. I should have known a kid from a small town was never going to make it here.”

I took a risk. “Oh,” I asked, “you feel shame?”

He nodded in agreement, and his eyes welled with tears.

I hesitate to bring up shame in counseling sessions, despite having training in the topic. “Shame” is not a word we utter much in daily life, let alone when speaking of our careers. The essence of “What are my options?” -- the most common question I hear in my practice, by the way -- is a request for direction. It’s a list of choices, the pros and cons of each, perhaps a quick assessment of what the trainee “should” do, given his or her skills, values and interests, followed by the right answer. In fact, that is precisely the process some job seekers take and the approach many career professionals use.

But most of us will spend a significant part of our adult lives developing and managing our careers, so career decisions are more than pro and con lists. Career decisions are personal, wrought with emotion. In many ways, they define us. Rarely does a quick fix exist.

You can know with your whole heart that you want to do something and you can work your whole life toward that goal and still not get it. And when that happens, no list helps unless it’s paired with resilience.

Likewise, you can do something really well and hate every minute of it. When that happens, a list only helps when paired with self-awareness and the courage to make a change. Were resilience, self-awareness and courage easy to develop, shame would perhaps not be as prevalent in the job search. Or, at least, we would be better equipped to talk about it. At the center of this discussion is the willingness to be vulnerable enough to have this conversation in the first place.

Shame exists within the career-development process when we think we “should” be better than we are and when we begin to think our failing means we are failures. “Shoulds” are measurements ingrained in us by external forces -- those that tell us that money, power and prestige are most important.

Throughout our first session, Eric discovered he carried the following beliefs:

  • “I should be one of the best scientists in the world because I’m at one of the world’s top institutions.”
  • “If I am not one of the best scientists in the world, I am not going to be good at anything.”
  • “I should not be here because I am from a small town.”

Most of all, Eric had integrated his adviser’s beliefs into his own -- the notions that academe only means research at an elite institution and that he should not try to go into it because he very likely could fail. In the end, it was not Eric’s lack of knowledge about options that stood in his way. His shame at not having measured up to perceived expectations paralyzed his progress.

Once Eric realized that, he took three steps to move forward in his career. First, he asked his adviser for the positive feedback he wanted, instead of waiting for it to come to him. Second, he defined more clearly what exactly it was about academe that he liked. And third, he took some risks by exploring and applying for jobs that he wasn’t absolutely confident he could get.

Eric is still in academe today. He holds an upper-level administrative position at a top university, an option beyond his previous scope.

What Eric’s story teaches us is that finding one’s direction starts with taking the time to find one’s self first. Until we question the beliefs that we hold about career success, and explore the impact they have on our actions, we remain tied to them. In this, we may find that our options are much broader than any list available, and our most precious career-development tool is vulnerability.


Stephanie K. Eberle is director of the Stanford University School of Medicine Career Center, which serves Ph.D.s, postdocs and M.D.s in the medical and biosciences. She is also an adjunct faculty member at the University of San Francisco.


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