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Recent years have seen a growing focus on making graduate education more inclusive, public-facing, connected to society -- and on celebrating the career diversity of graduate students. Studies of Ph.D. career paths, such as the Survey of Earned Doctorates, the Ph.D. Career Pathways project and the Coalition for Next Generation Life Science, indicate that, for quite some time, the career paths of Ph.D. holders have been nonlinear and spanned diverse sectors -- including academe, business, government and nonprofits.

Further, the COVID-19 pandemic led to frequent discussions on the future of work in general. Numerous podcasts and webinars have conjectured about the rapidly changing landscape of work, the rapidly changing knowledge economy and the need for higher ed institutions to evolve in order to meet the future.

Amid these systems-level thinking and discussions about identifying opportunities within inevitable change, where does the rubber meet the road for Ph.D. students, faculty members and administrators? In this article, I suggest that self-knowledge is the first step toward taking control of preparing and positioning for the future.

Self-Knowledge for Ph.D. Students

As a future-focused graduate student, you may wonder how to prepare for the broad gamut of fulfilling jobs out there, as well as those jobs that haven’t yet emerged but may be in great demand tomorrow. (Think data science five to 10 years back.) You can begin with one of the most important aspects of career development: self-knowledge, which involves understanding your relationship to work, your civic responsibility and your vision of the future.

Developing self-knowledge is important for your career development for a number of reasons. First, self-knowledge serves as a touchstone in a changing work environment and employment landscape. Data from participating universities of the Ph.D. Career Pathways project by the Council of Graduate Schools suggest Ph.D.s frequently change jobs at all career stages. That includes not just early-career Ph.D.s; as many as 40 to 60 percent of Ph.D.s across all disciplines who graduated eight years ago and 25 to 33 percent of those who graduated 15 years ago changed jobs within the last three years.

Therefore, you will very likely navigate many jobs in your career in various sectors, and while approaching diverse jobs and organizations, you need to be self-aware. For example, what are nonnegotiable, essential aspects of work that you require for survival as well as fulfillment? What are few undesirable aspects of work that you can tolerate in reasonable doses? Reflecting on these questions will guide you in a process of elimination and help you focus on specific kinds of jobs that are good fits.

Second, self-knowledge is important for communicating your authentic and holistic self to potential employers. On job applications and during interviews, candidates are expected to demonstrate their interest in a specific position or organization. Job seekers who spend time evaluating how a job description and an organization’s culture align with their values and interests can communicate their interest honestly and coherently.

Third, self-knowledge can help you navigate “gravity problems.” In their book Designing Your Life, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans define gravity problems as those beyond your control and therefore not actionable. For example, if you are an international Ph.D. student in the United States, immigration policies may pose a gravity problem that influences your career decisions. In the face of such gravity problems, self-knowledge becomes even more important as you weigh employment options that resonate with your core values and interests as well as communicate your strengths to employers.

Finally, self-knowledge is an indicator of emotional intelligence; it involves self-assessment of your competency and strengths as well as informs your professional development goals for career advancement. Employers value individuals who possess these attributes and skills. Self-knowledge will go a long way in helping you collaborate with your employers toward your professional development and advancement in different career stages.

How to Gain Self-Knowledge

You should engage in a self-reflection process just as you approach research: in methodical and data-driven steps. I recommend you follow these steps.

  • Retrospection. Retrospection, or the act of reflecting on your past, can be a great first step for gaining a fuller understanding of yourself. You can identify themes and driving motivations, whether reflecting on the past year or your overall professional history, such as why you picked a specific undergraduate major, why you applied to certain graduate programs and why you selected a specific research area. If you have prior work and volunteering experiences, what motivated you to pursue those opportunities? Retrospection helps connect the dots of a nonlinear career trajectory toward creating a coherent narrative of a complex career path.
  • Introspection. Introspection involves reflecting on your current thoughts and feelings. After connecting with your past, you should examine your present self by considering the following questions: What parts of your day make you happy, inspired and engaged? What motivates you through challenging days? How does your worldview influence your relationship to work? One easy exercise is to make a list of likes and dislikes in your current work to help you identify your interests. Comparing observations from retrospection and introspection will provide better understanding of your professional and personal growth.
  • Extrapolation. Extrapolation is the process of estimating the unknown by applying trends of the known. Given your past and present, what kind of future would you like to contribute to? What problems do you want to solve? What systems and practices would you like to change? How can you be an inclusive leader? I suggest three exercises: 1) read job descriptions, 2) conduct informational interviews and 3) try Intersect Job Simulations. In each case, imagine whether your future self would be happy or sad by attaching either figurative or literal emojis to each of the responsibilities and skills listed in job ads, highlighted in informational interviews or applied in job simulations. Extrapolation will suggest multiple versions of your future self and may inform the kinds of work and professional cultures that will inspire you.

Additional Resources

If you want to gain more fluency and confidence in self-assessment and self-discovery, I recommend the following resources related to the career development of Ph.D.s.

  • Imagine PhD, developed by the Graduate Career Consortium for social sciences and humanities Ph.D.s,
  • myIDP by the American Association for the Advancement of Science for STEM Ph.D.s, and
  • ChemIDP by the American Chemical Society for chemistry and related disciplines.

These books also offer guidance for professional development through self-discovery:

Finally, I encourage you to acknowledge that versions of the self evolve with life experiences. While positive experiences can build self-confidence, negative and traumatic incidents may limit or damage it. You should seek professional help to process any traumatic events in your journey to self-empowerment. Ultimately, practicing self-care, celebrating diverse life experiences and joining supportive communities will contribute to self-efficacy in your professional and personal lives.

Self-Assessment of Ph.D. Programs

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic and discussions on structural racism inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement renewed calls for making Ph.D. programs student-centered, inclusive and accessible. Amid those calls, Putting the Humanities Ph.D. to Work, by Katina L. Rogers, and The New PhD: How to Build a Better Graduate Education, by Leonard Cassuto and Robert Weisbuch, advocated for structural changes to the outdated, exclusionary systems and labor practices in academe and offered ideas for reforms. As departments are homes for Ph.D. programs, such systemic reforms will require faculty and administrators to honestly assess the cultures within their departments.

Toward that goal, the American Association of Universities launched the first phase of its Ph.D. Education Initiative with a pilot group of eight universities, representing 31 academic departments, to make graduate education more student-centered and the full range of Ph.D. career pathways more visible, valued and viable for all students.

Based on recommendations by Rogers, Cassuto and Weisbuch, and collaborative learning provided by the AAU Ph.D. Education Initiative, I encourage faculty and administrators at institutions to work together to understand and reflect on the following questions:

  • What are the backgrounds, prior experiences and aspirations of your prospective and current graduate students?
  • Which career paths have your Ph.D. alums taken?
  • Does your department and university support diverse life experiences and the aspirations and professional development of current students toward the full range of career paths?

You should also consider implementing these actionable steps toward creating an inclusive and future-focused doctoral education:

  • Keep current and prospective students informed about the dynamic, nonlinear career paths of Ph.D.s by making the career outcomes data of Ph.D. alumni accessible.
  • Accept and celebrate the career diversity of Ph.D.s and use value-inclusive language instead of centering academe through use of terms such as “alternate careers” and “alt-ac.” Consider instead the inclusive terms suggested by the Council of Graduate Schools and capacious metaphors developed by James Van Wyck.
  • Include frameworks for inclusive mentoring and preparing graduate students for diverse careers within program review processes, and integrate career and professional development training and experiential learning within the academic curriculum.

Now, more than ever, students, faculty and administrators have a moral imperative and civic responsibility as higher education citizens to improve our educational spaces and build societal trust. The work of self-improvement and the path toward wellness and holistic development begins with the self-knowledge of both Ph.D. students and the leaders of their departments.

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