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A few months ago, I had an on-site interview with a start-up company for a project manager position. As the four-hour interview transpired, I remembered that I was interviewing them just as much as they were interviewing me. Sure, they would ultimately decide if they would offer me a job, but I, too, had much to consider. Leaving a stable job at the university for an industry job at a start-up would be a tremendous shift in not just the work but also the lifestyle.

The thought of working a job that required me to be on the phone upwards of 70 percent of the time and working 10-hour-plus days weighed heavily on me as well as my family (not to mention that this opportunity was in a high-traffic area, so commuting would be a serious challenge). This start-up was presumably doing well, but it would definitely present a greater level of instability, something that was a big factor for me as a father of a 2-year-old. Those were all factors that were swirling in my mind as I attempted to stay focused and respond to the questions placed before me.

I felt confident in my skill to do the work outlined in the job description. I even felt like I had interest in the work. What felt glaringly apparent was the misalignment of values.

Values, simply put, are what matters most to you. To inquire about your values, a good place to start is by taking a values assessment (for example, myIDP or ImaginePhD) and see which values rise to the top. I took the values assessment from myIDP and found I value the following (not in any particular order):

  • People contact: having day-to-day contact with clients or colleagues
  • Variety: having job duties that change frequently
  • Location: living in a place that is conducive to my lifestyle
  • Job tranquility: working in a low-pressure environment
  • Family friendly: having a job with policies supportive of families
  • Learn new things: being challenged to learn new skills or knowledge on a regular basis

These top values reflect deal breakers -- as in, I would not accept a job (or I would not be content with a job) that does not support those values. My current university work at the Clinical and Translational Science Center brings me all of these values most of the time, while the start-up would offer maybe two or three of them. Based on matching the opportunity to my values, the start-up opportunity was a no go.

Accessing Values

Learning about your values opens up an opportunity to reflect where you are. Start with a question, such as, “In which ways does my current position align/not align with my values?” Asking this potent reflection question is likely to provide a rich data point and avenue for further inquiry. I suggest writing down your response in a journal or sharing it with a trusted friend or mentor. By expressing and verbalizing what you are thinking, you can gain clarity on your embodied experience.

Another way to approach values is by developing a work philosophy/manifesto. To get to that, contemplate questions such as what work means to you and why you do what you do. What brings meaning to you and your life’s mission? For this kind of exercise, there is no right or wrong answer. Rather, the act of expressing your philosophy on why you work might help further connect you with that work. If you feel disconnected from your work, it might be a good time to check in with that disconnection. I suspect, in part, you may find a misalignment of values.

One of the exercises I do in the FUTURE Career Exploration Workshop series with Ph.D. students and postdocs at the University of California, Davis, is around exploring their work philosophy. After dividing them into groups of three, I have each person speak uninterruptedly about what work means to them and what is meaningful about work while the other two group members listen and witness without responding. Each person then has four full minutes to respond to broad questions about their work. This exercise allows everyone to verbalize and externalize what is important to them with the goal of gaining clarity on their relationship to work.

It’s important to note that values are going to be distinct to each individual, so there are no wrong answers here. Take the time to acquaint yourself, verbalize and express your values so that they can be leveraged in your career decision-making process.

Value Qualities

Some values change over time, and some don’t. Starting a family made me rethink my values. Rather than desiring a schedule that was flexible and boundaryless, I have come to realize how much I care about having nights and weekends for time with my family. Perhaps when my child is older, I will again prefer a more flexible schedule. On the other hand, a value I hold that I do not anticipate changing is how much I enjoy working with others. I know that in order for me to be happy in my work, I need to have daily interaction with people -- colleagues, students, trainees and others.

Some values come from within, while others have outside influences. If you are a Ph.D. student or postdoc, you may be particularly susceptible to external pressures and have many competing variables to juggle. It is often the case that you have to take into consideration the needs of others when making career decisions. But true alignment with your own set of values will probably yield a high level of contentedness.

In order to better understand which values are yours, it is essential to make time and space to express and verbalize your values outside of your lab/department/building. My suggestion would be to find others (colleagues, peers, groups) to do this exploration together. Campuses are dedicating more resources to make these opportunities available. If your institution doesn’t have any such groups available, think about starting one yourself. You may visit your campus career center or counseling center to find staff members who can promote, collaborate and organize such groups. Also, seek impartial mentors, as they can help support you in gaining clarity around values.

Leveraging Values

Knowing your values and being able to articulate them will support you as you make decisions about your career. Your values will inevitably shape the story you tell about yourself in email introductions, during informational interviews, at networking events and even on your application materials.

During an informational interview, for example, you might want to draw on your values in order to form questions. If you value work/life balance, you might want to ask about that. You also can listen and check for values alignment. Ask the person you are speaking with to elaborate when you start to hear them talk about values. You can also find additional information about values from organizations on their website and through their mission statement.

Connecting with others who have a shared set of values can lead to deeper connection and a sense of camaraderie. In our skills-focused world, do not forget the importance of values!

The underlying meaning of the word "value" is worth. What is worthwhile to you? And how can you move toward having work and living a life that align with your values?

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