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I have been working in graduate and postdoctoral career development for more than seven years now, and that has included helping students and postdocs create individual development plans (IDPs). Usually, the first step in creating or revising such a plan is to reflect on one’s interests, skills and values. Of these three, I find that my grad and postdoc students find determining their values and understanding why we are discussing them as part of their career planning to be the most challenging. Therefore, I want to explore what we mean by values and why they are important to the goals we set, the plans we make and the career journeys we take during our lives.

By values I mean the ideas, actions, people and things we hold as important and rich with meaning in our career and work life—those that are foundational or central for us as scholars and professionals. Within the different IDP frameworks that exist, values are what each student, postdoc or other person who is creating the IDP finds to be most important to them.

When we discuss interests, skills and values together in the IDP-writing process, we do this through a self-reflection and self-assessment process. For interests, we are asking ourselves what we like doing or what type of work keeps us engaged. When assessing our skills, we are determining what we are good at doing intellectually, emotionally and physically. With values, we are examining what matters most and makes life fulfilling in whatever way that’s important for each of us.

I may find certain jobs and roles intriguing (interests) and be good at them (skills) but not find them to be as meaningful to me personally (values) as other roles might be. In such situations, I will have to struggle to fully invest myself in my work in the same way as when a role perfectly aligns with what I value most in my professional life. I have experienced this in my career, especially in the position I held before my current one.

While I am grateful for that position, I know now that job didn’t align well with the type of work that I cared most about. The job paid well. It helped me to have a home and food and to care for my health. It provided me with flexibility, great faculty members to engage with, good colleagues to partner with and interesting challenges. Other faculty members gave me positive feedback, and I did relatively well in that position. But ultimately, my heart wasn’t in my work, and I struggled to find my niche and fully succeed in the role.

That does not mean that I didn’t find any value in what I did in that job for three years. It was just that what I found most meaningful was elsewhere, in another role. When I made the move to working full-time with graduate students and postdocs, I discovered something that I was not only interested in and good at but also passionate about. In retrospect, once I started my current position, I was able to see clearly that while I thought that my work in faculty development was meaningful, counseling graduate students and postdocs was significantly more valuable to me.

At the same time, I am fully aware that each of us holds different values. I find myself saddened and sometimes angered by people who degrade others who don’t find intrinsic value in teaching or research or another specific type of academic work or who criticize doctoral graduates for taking jobs in corporate settings. For some people who make career path choices that are different from what we would make, consider that they may be following their values. Earning enough money to care for family and loved ones reflects a value. Choosing a job or work sector where one is paid based on one’s sense of worth reflects a value. So does selecting a career path that allows one to focus on self-care, or travel, or having well-defined boundaries. I encourage each of us who read this to honor what others choose, to trust that they are making the choice that matches what they value and minimize how much we superimpose what we find most important onto the career choices of others.

Reflecting On, Sharing and Aligning Our Values

What is important to each of us can deeply motivate or demotivate us in our work lives. When talking with graduate students and postdocs, I urge them to reflect on what they value most professionally. Is it flexibility? Autonomy? Collaboration? Structure? Travel? Routine? I also encourage them to list those values on note cards or Post-its and then to arrange them in groups or clusters. Sometimes, considering the different values we hold together or in contrast can help us see which of those values most drives us and which ones we miss when they are absent in our work lives.

Also, if you feel comfortable doing so, I encourage you to talk with friends, colleagues and trusted mentors about the values you hope to live out through you work and career goals. Being able to share and trust others with such information can be a powerful exercise and help you continue to explore what you find most meaningful in your professional life.

Ultimately, what we value can shape why we do and why we do it. Acknowledging and focusing on how our values have influenced our choices related to work can help us create a career path that better fits who we each are. Just as I found a workplace that matched with what I valued in my work, I hope that each of you can do the same. Exploring what was important for me in my work helped me to discover where I might best find it and how to think about getting there.

I encourage each of you to think through the ways that the work you do can connect not only to what you’re interested in and good at, but also to what matters most to you. And then determine how you can follow a career path that aligns those three aspects of who you are—and who you hope to be—in the workplace.

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