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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.

It’s finally April and, while most of the U.S. is bathed in sunshine and spring showers, Michigan is still lingering somewhere between Winter and Spring: it’s not an exaggeration to say you could be shoveling snow on Thursday, going for a nice long run in the sun on Sunday, and slipping and sliding your way into work on sleet come Monday. It gives a new meaning to our state slogan #PureMichigan.  

It is, however, fitting for the second of a series of entries I am writing based on Dr. Herminia Ibarra’s book, Working Identities: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career.  My focus though is on non-traditional students, those who came back to graduate school to pursue a PhD after already establishing their own hefty career history. In my first entry, I highlighted how Ibarra helps us understand our “Working Identity” by defining it by what we do, the company we keep, and the stories in our lives that link who we are with who we will become.  What particularly resonated with me about Working Identify was a small section in which Ibarra talks about why people pursue changing career paths, the barriers they face in wanting to make changes, and what finally pushes them to start changing:

“Many people have long-held dreams about their careers but for one reason or another have put them off…a person may have dreamed of becoming a writer, musician, or entrepreneur, but the practicalities of life were constraining…other people experience the deeper problem as an issue of authenticity, finding themselves caught in work situations that ask them to suppress too much of who they are…”

Ibarra goes on to talk about the point when inconsistencies in our work lives grow to the point that they can no longer be ignored, especially when they go against personal values, priorities and passions.  In my case, I had it in my head that in order to be successful, I had to work at an R1 Institution that was “well-regarded” (e.g. any Big Ten school) and working with people who were considered to be the leaders and best in their field. Before coming back to school, I had already been working at one such institution, so I thought if I leave, it should be for a job at an even bigger institution with more resources and more diverse students.

Several months ago, I had the opportunity to make such a move. Moreover, it was to an institution in a major metropolitan city. I went to the campus interview ready to sign on the dotted line on whatever offer they gave me when, in the middle of the job talk an idea popped into my head – “I’ve done this already.” Of course, I had not worked with any of these individuals or institutions before, but what I realized was that the position I was interviewing for, was the next logical step from what I had been doing previously; it was not a career change, but a job change.  

At this point, you may be thinking, “So what’s the problem with that?” The problem was that the moment I realized I had already left a great job, with great people, at a prestigious institution to go to graduate school. Why was I going back to a job I could do without a PhD? This was the moment I realized I didn’t just want a career change, but a career reinvention – I wanted to change who I was, what I was doing, gain new skills, and do something new!

At my previous institution, I was a administrator who worked with faculty and staff to put on programs to help recruit and support diverse students within academic units on campus. There was nothing wrong or unfulfilling in that work, but after working on those projects for almost two decades, I needed a change – the biggest was I wanted to be a scholar and conduct research! I also had other skills I really wanted to develop (e.g. quantitative analysis skills and publication skills). I realized in the middle of my campus interview that if I took that job, I would be on track to moving up in my previous career path, but the question that kept coming into my mind was do I want to stay on this path, or do something different? I study graduate education as a field, so I am well aware of what the future would hold, so part of me was wondering if I was taking this job because it felt “safe” and “familiar.” I also REALLY liked the people I interviewed with and they were all seemed like a fun and supportive community to be a part of. I thought to myself, what if I take this job and realize it’s not what I want?  Is it fair to take a job that I may not really want to stay in for a while? Moreover, is it fair to move my family to a place I may really not want to be in long term? I couldn’t answer that in the moment or the days that followed, and if I’m honest, I can’t answer that right now because it still changes from day to day.

Ibarra talks about three strategies for reworking our identity: 1) crafting experiments – trying out new activities and professional roles on a small scale before making a major commitment; 2) shifting connections – developing contacts, finding role models and new peer groups to guide and benchmark progress; and 3) making sense – finding or creating catalysts and triggers for change and using them as occasions to rework our story.  

Last summer, I had the opportunity to experiment with policy research through an internship in Washington, D.C. with the Council of Graduate Schools (and yes, I got to experience being a 40-year-old intern). This year, I had the opportunity to shift and expand my connections by engaging with some amazing scholars and practitioners in graduate education through the Graduate Career Consortium. Now, as I approach the time in my program when people start to look at prospective jobs, I’m trying to stop holding onto notions like “I need a job” and focus more on what can I do next that would allow me to continue my exploration into helping people  directly through my scholarship. Is it becoming a faculty scholar? Maybe becoming an author or a writer? What if it’s changing contexts by working for an association, foundation, or think tank? If I really want to change the system, maybe it means going into politics somehow. I have also come to the realization, it could mean going back into administration, but at a different type of institution or a different geographic location? This may sound like a contradiction to why I came back to graduate school in the first place, but that’s okay because, as Ibarra says:

“the in-between identities phase of a career transition is about bringing possibilities to life, proving they are feasible…learning whether they are appealing in practice or only in theory.”

So, like Winter in Michigan, I’m okay lingering around for a little bit and trying to figure out what I want to do. I’ve still got some time to decide what direction my identity is going to evolve in. So, where are you in your journey in graduate school? What are some of the identities you are thinking about trying out and how are you testing them out to see if they fit?  

[Image by Flickr user Dereck Gavey and used under a Creative Commons License.]

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