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    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online


Exploring Possible Selves in Graduate School

It’s Spring – A time for renewal, reflection, and reinvention!

March 28, 2019

John A. Vasquez is a Ph.D. candidate in Educational Administration at Michigan State University where he also works as a career consultant for graduate students and postdocs. You can find him on Twitter @maximsofjuan or at LinkedIn.

I love springtime in Michigan! On most campuses across the country, Spring usually means 60- to 70-degree weather, green grass, brightly colored flowers and bright shiny days. In Michigan, it means wearing shorts in 40-degree weather, soggy, brown, muddy “grass,” barbecuing in parkas outdoors, and the sun staying up past 4:00 p.m.! Spring is also a good time for thinking about reflection and renewal, especially so in my case. If all goes well and I defend in the Fall as planned, by this time next year I should be graduating and on the job market!

One of the books I’ve been reading lately to help me prepare for my career transition is Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career by Dr. Herminia Ibarra. She starts her book with two premises. The first premise is that our “working identity” is not a hidden treasure buried deep inside our core, waiting to be discovered. Instead, it is made up and defined by the things we do, the company we keep, and the stories we tell about our work and lives, both past and present but also in the future and in our dreams. The second premise is that changing careers means changing ourselves but, because we are made of many “selves,” changing doesn’t mean swapping one identity for another. Rather it is a process of reconfiguring a full set of possibilities.

In particular, I like the way in which Ibarra talks about people who are making career changes like myself:

“No matter how unsatisfying our old jobs may have been, our desire to leave them makes us confront big questions about identity: who we are, who we thought we should be, who we hoped to become (or feared becoming), and what we risk losing in the process.”

Ibarra goes on to provide multiple stories of people who made career changes, some significant, others not so much, by doing – trying out new activities, reaching out to new groups, finding new role models, and reworking their stories. Over the next few posts I’d like to share a little of my own journey or “reworking of my story” as a way to help some of you who might also be thinking about the same while you are in your program.

Identity in Transition
One of the reasons I came back to school right before I hit my 40s was because I honestly felt like I was going through a mid-life crisis. Home life was pretty bad due to a deteriorating relationship and the many arguments my partner and I were having over money, our kid, and other stuff you hear divorced people say. Work wasn’t much better – I had been working at the same institution for almost 20 years and felt like I had hit a ceiling in terms of my advancement and what I wanted to do next. I had spent many years working at trying to address issues and policies related to the climate for underrepresented students, and I had basically burnt out. When I talked to colleagues and friends about trying to do something different, they all kept pigeonholing me into the same type of work I had already been doing – diversity work.

Engaging in issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion is not a bad thing, and it’s something I haven’t really stopped doing, but after getting paid to put on programs and work with people directly on these issues for almost two decades at the same institution and not seeing much of a difference on our campus, I decided I needed to go back to school and focus on getting a doctorate so that I could do something else. I’ve written at length about my experiences in graduate school so I won’t bore you with repeating them. But what I didn’t realize until I read Ibarra’s book was that I was going through a transition – shifting from helping underrepresented students become scholars to helping underrepresented scholars tell their stories.

The Myth of the True Self
Who are you? That’s a question I’ve pondered a lot in grad school, and according to psychology, there are a lot of people who believe in the concept of a “true” or “authentic” self and spend years and hours of therapy trying to figure theirs out. What they’ve discovered is that there could be between five and 20 different things going on inside and around you that could be called “authentic” or considered “true” about who you are. Ibarra calls it “the Myriad of Possible Selves.”  More specifically, though, she talks about how people going through career changes carry a “whole cast of characters” in their thoughts and feelings about who they want to become and what they want to do. The reason they struggle is because they are going through the reinventing process, struggling to understand who they are. As I understand it, the struggle people are going through isn’t the process of “becoming their true self” but rather, the process of understanding who they WERE in their job, who they ARE as a person, and what they WANT (and don’t want) to do in the future. The hard part of moving through this process is that we all have feelings mixed in with all these thoughts, and everything is competing for our attention until something happens that makes us pause and give more deep and introspective thought about what’s going on.

Exploring Possible Selves
Over the next couple of articles, I’ll be writing more about my own experience about becoming who I am, especially as I go through this next phase of the dissertation writing process and start applying and interviewing for jobs.  As an older and non-traditional graduate student, I want to make sure I’m taking my career in a direction I really want to go in, and not just taking any job that comes along because of being afraid of not finding one. I’m not planning on taking the zombie approach to applying for jobs (i.e. applying to anything that sounds remotely interesting).  This means taking a very deliberate approach to introspection and thinking critically about what I’ve done, and where I would like to go.  Specifically, I’ll be looking at how to follow my skills and not my passion in trying to reinvent myself in graduate school.  With that being said, I hope you will join me on this journey. The next article I write will talk about how I realized I was “between identities” and how those epiphanies can happen at the most inopportune times!

[Image by Flickr user LadyDragonflyCC - >;< and used under a Creative Commons license.]


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