Yes, You Are a Superhero

Jessica A. Hutchins and Thi Nguyen show how you can develop career success through imagining the stories you want to tell -- about yourself, your experience or the difference you hope to make in your community.

July 7, 2019
 
 
Istock/Olga Kashurina

“This isn’t a question of what I’m not. This is a question of who I could be.” -- Carol Danvers in Captain Marvel

To plan for the future, it helps to imagine where you’re going and think about where you’ve been. As career development professionals, we work with Ph.D. students and postdocs who often struggle to identify the value they bring to nonacademic positions, which limits their ability to see their path toward those careers. While you may not need superhuman strength to make a career transition, writing the narrative of your own Ph.D. experiences through the lens of superhero stories can be a great way to understand your distinct strengths and origin story and reframe your Ph.D. as a bridge to a new career. By imagining the stories you want to tell -- about yourself, your experience or the difference you hope to make in your community -- you can plan actions and feel empowered to achieve your goals.

Storytelling can help you identify your professional identity -- a.k.a. your super-self -- and is a great remedy for some of the pessimism that exists in academic settings. Far from being a fictional construct, writing your own superhero story is way to assert a professional identity that is grounded in reality and your authentic experience.

So how do you tell your superhero story? Through sharing some of our own narratives, each of us will discuss how to put yourself into an imagined story, visualize possible outcomes and present fresh views on your situation.

Jessica A. Hutchins’s Story

Strength: interdisciplinary thinking; weakness: all the maths

Find your authentic, unique self. Career empowerment comes from knowing who you are and sharing that with others. When I was a graduate student in comparative literature, my peers and I struggled to see how Ph.D. training could translate to nonacademic career paths. I was able to bring the lens of the working world to my graduate training because I had worked in business before going to graduate school. Despite having that perspective, I was not immune to the overwhelming pressures to pursue a faculty career and began applying to tenure-track positions. But compiling academic job applications felt like an out-of-body experience. I felt alienated and was not being true to myself by going through those motions.

I became passionate about helping Ph.D.s find career fulfillment and began working on Ph.D. career development programs for scientists (since humanists weren’t yet hiring career development professionals). But I had a nagging feeling that my humanities Ph.D. was a weakness, that I would be outed for my lack of experience with data and controlled experiments. Once again, I felt like I didn’t quite belong and needed to hide part of myself to succeed.

I quickly realized, however, that I had skills and knowledge in communication and teaching that the scientific community greatly valued. My ability to write, teach and translate those skills for scientific culture was rare. I saw that such aptitudes as my superpowers, because while my Ph.D. training made them feel easy to me, other people regarded them as something extraordinary. I felt a bit like Supergirl or Superman, who blends in on Krypton but stands out on Earth because of their super strength.

Looking beyond my humanities discipline brought my professional strengths into focus and gave me the confidence to become a humanist to the scientists, my new professional identity. It was a thrill to discover that what I thought was a weakness turned out to be my greatest strength, and that career success followed from being true to my training and myself. This became my origin story.

Focus on your strengths. Learning about careers and reflecting on your experiences are both important ways to figure out why your skills can be powerful. To get started, view some of the following resources to help you understand your interests, learn about different careers and capitalize on your strengths.

The StrengthsQuest assessment tool can help identify areas where you excel and ways to use your unique talents. Or you might want to use the embedded assessments in the online individual development plans ImaginePhD (for humanists and social scientists) or myIDP (for biomedical scientists). If you want to go beyond self-assessment and use your super skills in a real-life professional scenario, the InterSECT Job Simulation library is a great way to explore a nonacademic career without making a full-time commitment.

And remember that you and your career are both works in progress. As you continue to explore and develop skills, revisit these tools over time to see how your strengths grow and change. Joseph Barber can help you learn how to present your positive qualities when networking and interviewing for jobs, because being able to talk about your super skills is just as important as the strengths themselves.

Thi Nguyen’s Story

Strength: creativity; weakness: impatience

Reframe setbacks and failure. Someone once told me, “Thi, I love a good nemesis. They bring out the best in a hero.” I draw on this statement when I need to reframe a difficult conversation or when I face a rejection. (Sometimes I replace “nemesis” with “challenge.”) I also share this advice with students and postdocs who face nemeses in the form of rejected articles and grant submissions, rejected job applications and day-to-day setbacks -- like failed experiments or an adviser being unhappy with first drafts.

When a hero faces a nemesis, or a challenge, their weaknesses may be exposed. They may not succeed in full, or they may even fail. But in these stories, heroes go back to the drawing board and rise to the occasion. When grad students express their difficulties in facing rejection, I ask them to take a step back and examine where they can improve, even incrementally, and then create a plan of attack (preferably via a SMART goal).

A nemesis isn’t always a person; it can be something abstract like networking or time. For me, grant writing was my nemesis. I faced defeat in grant submissions as a neuroscience grad student and postdoc. In fact, I faced many defeats. Part of the reason I was excited to leave the lab bench and start working as a career adviser was the prospect of no longer writing grants.

Then as a program director for nonacademic careers, my new boss asked me to use my grant-writing skills and apply for grants to create professional development resources. I had to fight the feeling of dread, because I had told myself I wasn’t skilled at grant writing.

But I was determined not to let those past rejections stop me. So I reframed the task as an opportunity to fight for the chance to help graduate students and postdocs realize their potential and launch into careers with their super skills. In the process of regrouping, I found new mentors and also discovered new people with whom I could write. I found a way to face that nemesis of grant writing.

Assemble a team. As a superhero, you may not need a team most of the time. (After all, you’re a superhero.) But when a challenge is particularly large or daunting, or when you know you don’t have the knowledge or skills to succeed, it can be helpful to assemble a team or find mentors. Team members can provide intellectual, physical, emotional or social support. In Black Panther, Princess Shuri had her brother, King T’Challa, to encourage her and give her context for situations. Who are the mentors and friends to whom you can turn for honesty and advice?

Particularly during the job search, where you may feel like you’re embarking on a journey to an unknown world, talk to professionals in the field to learn their origin stories and how they discovered their interests and the best directions for their careers. (See some suggestions on how best to reach out.) Ask peers who have taken that journey to share the hurdles they encountered and how they overcame them. Get coaching from career advisers to help discover and communicate your distinct experiences and origin story. Peers, advisers and mentors can help you identify your interests and values, as well as recognize your blind spots.

Your team could also include another authentic identity within yourself. For example, Beyoncé created Sasha Fierce, a persona she used to face anxiety on stage and give her the courage to perform freely. A postdoc I met in advising also had a form of performance anxiety. To face the extreme discomfort of giving presentations, she told herself she was “Professor XX,” who had something worthwhile to share and whom the audience was excited to listen to. In careers as in comics, reflecting on how you make yourself stronger, whether a team or another persona, can help you accomplish your task.

Exploring Your Own Superhero Stories

The process of self-discovery during your career journey can present exciting opportunities to meet new people (other superheroes!) and talk about possible futures. And if you’re having trouble narrowing down your myriad possible futures, start with Beth Godbee’s tips for tapping in to your intuitive self. You can also look for patterns from past jobs, hobbies and volunteer work that are woven into the fabric of your origin story.

If you’re doing these things, you’re practicing career resiliency: the ability to overcome challenges in the journey and see failures as opportunities to learn and improve. As a graduate student or postdoc, you get many opportunities to develop resiliency and reframe a failure. Take these moments to discover your origin story and your own unique combination of Ph.D. superpowers.

Bio

Jessica A. Hutchins (she/hers) is director of curriculum and graduate programs in the division of biology and biomedical sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, where she draws on her background in literary studies to help STEM Ph.D.s tell their professional and research stories. Thi Nguyen (she/hers) is associate dean of graduate career and professional development at Washington University in St. Louis. They are both members of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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