Integrating Values Into Your Career

Much of the conversation about career exploration focuses on the importance of identifying our skills, but we often don’t take the time to think about our core values and how they connect to our skills, argues Laura N. Schram.

August 22, 2016

While in graduate school, I participated in a learning community of graduate student teaching consultants at my campus’s teaching center. We consulted with graduate student peers across the campus on their teaching and engaged in dialogue about our consulting practices. Our group’s facilitator and mentor -- Mary Wright, now director of the Sheridan Center of Teaching and Learning at Brown University -- designed a range of professional development activities for us to grow as reflective teachers.

One of her activities, designed as a process to help us uncover our teaching philosophies, was transformational for my career development. We brought our draft teaching philosophy statements to one of our learning community meetings, but rather than exchanging them to share feedback, we began with a generative interviewing exercise Wright created. It involved partnering with a colleague and taking turns playing the role of interviewer.

My interviewer asked me several questions that solicited storytelling about my teaching -- for example, she asked me to share a memory of my favorite student -- and she then actively listened to my responses and took careful notes. After the interview concluded, she spent several minutes processing and responding to a series of prompts that required her to integrate my answers and analyze what she as an interviewer heard about me as a teacher. One of those prompts asked my interviewer to tell me what I enjoy most about teaching, and she informed me that I was most energized by the one-on-one interactions with my students. She asserted that I most appreciate coaching, advocating, mentoring and watching an individual student’s long-term growth.

I was shocked to hear that -- I had not at all articulated it in my teaching philosophy. But her insight resonated very deeply with me. As I imagined the contexts in which I most frequently was supporting and advocating for others, I realized that I engaged in coaching in my teaching center work, significantly more than my disciplinary teaching. That sparked the beginning of my serious pursuit of educational development as a career path.

Why was that such a pivotal moment for me? Because my interviewer had uncovered a core professional value of which I was not conscious.

In my work at the University of Michigan, I now coordinate our Rackham Program in Public Scholarship and help students explore diverse career options. As I was, the students with whom I work are strongly motivated by their core values. And I expect that if you are someone pursuing a doctoral degree, you selected your field of graduate study because your scholarship aligned not just with your academic interests but also with some fundamental personal values or intellectual commitments that you hold.

What Do I Mean by Values?

I studied political psychology as a graduate student, so when I refer to values, I do not mean the Merriam-Webster definition of “relative worth, utility or importance,” but rather the way that social psychologist Daphna Oyserman defines them in her chapter “Values, psychological perspectives” in the International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, as “internalized cognitive structures that guide choices by evoking a sense of basic principles of right and wrong (e.g., moral values), a sense of priorities (e.g., personal achievement vs. group good) and that create a willingness to make meaning and see patterns (e.g., trust vs. distrust).”

Values are your priorities that guide your choices and help you to make meaning of your experiences; your core value is the thing or things you see as your mission in life. Sylvia Gale, director of University of Richmond’s Bonner Center for Civic Engagement and founding director of Imagining America’s Publicly Active Graduate Education Initiative, advises you to identify your core value by asking yourself what your “central commitment” is or “the thing that you are for.” As I will describe below, she has developed a deep reflection activity that starts with your identifying what you stand for and then mapping how that is central to your professional roles.

Much of the conversation -- and even my own advice -- about career exploration focuses on skills and the importance of identifying your own skills. However, as professionals, we often don’t take the time to step back and think about our values and how they connect to our skills and play a role in our professional lives. Integrating your values into the center of your career exploration process can help you to crystallize the roles that most align with not just your skills but also with what motivates you at a deeper level.

For example, in my most recent career shift, I was invited to take on a new role that involves advocating for doctoral students interested in a range of career options. I had not even been looking for a new opportunity, as I was deeply satisfied in my work as an educational developer supporting faculty members and graduate students. At that time, I articulated my core value as coaching others in their teaching. Yet I was drawn to this role supporting doctoral students exploring multiple careers particularly because, as a doctoral student myself, I had not found adequate resources to explore careers beyond the traditional faculty path. I began interrogating my core values and how they connected to my skills. Did I like consulting and coaching about teaching? Or would I enjoy consulting and coaching about career development just as much? Did I have other commitments to which this role was drawing me?

For example, after participating in our teaching center’s organizational change effort to place value on teaching on a research university campus, did I want to now apply my skills to rethinking how we prepare doctoral students for their career possibilities? The questions that ultimately guided my decision about which role I wanted to pursue weren’t simply focused on my skills -- they were focused on how my skills connected to deeper commitments.

Gaining Clarity on Values

In any career exploration or job search, I suggest reflection before, during and after new professional experiences. Reflection on experiences plays an integral role in helping you to gain clarity on your goals, values and next steps. If you are currently engaged in career exploration, spending some time reflecting on your values can transform your process and change what you decide to do.

First, you want to discover your core value(s), about which you may already have a strong sense or -- as in my case as a midcareer graduate student -- you may not have full clarity. While reflection on powerful questions can help with affirming your values, it is difficult to surface unconscious values on your own. Generative interviewing is a good activity for affirming or revealing your values in conversation with a colleague. Melissa Peet describes generative interviewing in her 2010 article “The Integrative Knowledge Portfolio Process: A Program Guide for Educating Reflective Practitioners and Lifelong Learners” as a process of discovery that happens through “a series of guided questions and prompts that support people in telling detailed stories about their experiences.”

Although you may not be trained in the formal method of generative interviewing, you can take insights from the generative interviewing framework and use its technique of asking powerful questions and telling stories to help you identify your core professional values. Take a colleague who is also interested in their own professional development to coffee, and conduct the following interview process with each other. Your colleague should play the role of interviewer and ask these questions:

  1. What was your proudest moment professionally?
  2. What led you to pursue your scholarly interest(s)?
  3. What was a pivotal moment for you as a professional?
  4. Who is a mentor to you, and what is one example of when this person transformed or shaped you professionally?

Your partner should actively listen and take notes. After you’ve shared your stories, give your partner time to process, synthesize and look for themes in your responses to these four powerful questions. Then, your colleague should share a value affirmation with you, mirroring back to you a response to this statement: your professional commitment is _____________. They should use examples from your stories as evidence to illustrate how they integrated your responses to identify your core value(s). Then swap roles and interview your partner so they can also benefit from the process.

Whether you engage in generative interviewing or not, if you have a clear sense of your core value(s), Gale has designed a second transformative reflection exercise that begins with focusing on your “central commitment.” This exercise is designed to map and connect your central commitment with the various roles, activities and projects in which you engage, and her chapter in Collaborative Futures: Critical Reflections on Publicly Active Graduate Education outlines each reflection step of this exercise carefully.

You begin with placing what you stand for/your central commitment at the center of a large, blank piece of paper. Around this central commitment, you place your current professional roles, then the roles you hope to take on and finally those that don’t connect to your central commitment. For each of these, you use some visual way to distinguish them from one another -- whether that is a different color or different types of lines or shapes. Then you engage in identifying priorities and connections, as well as pressures and disconnections.

The University of Michigan has employed Gale’s activity in several professional development programs. Students find it incredibly transformative in helping them to see the associations and gaps between their professional work and their core values. One student even said that, several years after he did the exercise, he keeps the drawing he created pinned on his wall as a reminder of his central commitments and the types of professional roles he would like to pursue. As I noted earlier, values help to guide your choices and make meaning of patterns, and this student found the drawing he created was a constant visual reminder of what he prioritizes and how he makes meaning across his varied projects.

If you are seeking an in-depth, holistic reflection exercise to assess how you integrate your values, skills and professional activities, I encourage you to set aside an hour to invest in Gale’s powerful activity. Her chapter is a wonderful narrative about her professional development as a publicly engaged scholar and the process by which she came to design this activity.

Career Exploration as a Value-Driven Process

Identifying and placing your core value(s) at the center of your career exploration process can help you to make more meaningful connections between your skills and career interests. The two reflection activities described above are designed to help you gain clarity on your distinct professional values. They are transformative because knowing what you stand for as a professional can help you to make meaning of how your many professional pursuits are integrated, to prioritize your work and to make decisions about what professional opportunities you want to pursue.


Laura N. Schram is academic program officer at the Rackham Graduate School at the University of Michigan, where she coordinates the Mellon Public Humanities programs to expand and reimagine doctoral training in the humanities.


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