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So, What Do You Do?

How the Storytelling Scholar helped me find meaning in my research and understand my emerging identity as a scholar

February 7, 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.


“What do you do?”

When I was working full-time, I dreaded when people asked me that question, regardless of whether they worked in higher education or not. I remember one time, when I was at the airport on my way home from visiting family in the South when a friendly lady asked me that very question while waiting to board my plane.I told her I was the Academic Program Officer for Academic Initiatives and that my job was to help doctoral students get through their graduate programs and into the professoriate. Her response: “Well, ain’t that precious?” For those of you not from the south, that’s something your mother tells you to say when you can’t say anything nice.  

Now as an older, full-time graduate student, who is studying career expectations of postdocs, I am dubious of answering that question in academic settings as well as airport waiting areas. (Partly because I am in fear of hearing the academic equivalent of “ain’t that precious”: “Nice, you really can do research on anything in grad school.”) If you’ve read my previous articles, then you know that I’m someone who has been spending a lot of my time in graduate school trying to come to terms, not only as an older graduate student, but also as a future scholar.

It’s been a rocky road, but I’m excited to say that recently I found out that I’m an emerging scholar in storytelling science! I realized this last month during a session I attended at the Midwestern Divisional Meeting of the Graduate Career Consortium (GCC). I will always remember that trip, because we drove the day after the polar vortex to the conference and there were some places along the way. We thought it would be easier to take a cue from our fellows students and break out our skis. However, this was also the trip I first was able to articulate who I am and start thinking more deeply about my scholarly story!

At the GCC meeting, our day started off with a presentation by Professor Kate McDowell, Associate Professor at the School of Information and Interim Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a Storytelling Scholar. McDowell provided a number of workshops, including one called “Storytelling your Career” in which she helped participants find and curate personal stories that they can use throughout the job search process. While most people would probably think nothing of this, I couldn’t help but grin and nod, giving Prof. McDowell my best academic “I see you girl” look.

Storytelling as a field has existed for many years and many of us, especially those of us in career and academic advising have been trained and practiced in it. Unfortunately, many people (or at least I) didn’t really realize it was also something you could study as scholarship until I came to graduate school. After the workshop I went up to McDowell, and one of the first things she asked me was a version of that dreaded question – “what are you doing for your dissertation?” But, rather than cringe at the thought of answer, I immediately made the “duh!” expression: I use narrative methodology in my research – meaning I ask postdocs to share stories about their experience.

I love hearing people’s stories; and I love getting to ask questions in my research that makes participant stop and think: “Was there an incident or moment that helped you realize you wanted to be a scientist as opposed to something else (e.g a doctor)?” or “Can you describe a time when you felt you connected with an advisor, mentor, or PI and felt they really understood you and what you wanted to do in the future?” Or my favorite – “Can you describe an experience in during your PhD program or postdoc that made you stop and say ‘Hey! I’m an expert in this!’”

Listening to people’s stories is just how I do my research, it’s what I do. In many ways, now that it’s clicked for me, I feel like the process of “becoming a scholar” is not only manageable but also desirable! Like other older graduate students, coming back to school was tough, because I came “with baggage.” That part of my identity was always fighting with the idea of becoming a scholar because I thought I knew how “scholarly” research was supposed to be done. Now that I’ve realized what I did as a practitioner is also how I can conduct my scholarship, I am feel I’m on a path to not only becoming a scholar but having a great answer the next time someone asks me what I do: I help people tell their stories!

So… are you ready to answer the next time someone asks “what do you do?”

[Image provided by the author]


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