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Careers Café

Tell me your career story

BY LIZ KOBLYK | MAR 28 2011

When you have devoted years to specializing within an academic field, it can be mind-boggling to you and the people in your life if you consider a change. You might be worried that employers, too, will be confused by your desire for something different. A good career story will go a long way to reassuring people — including you.

A career story is not fiction or a marketing pitch. Instead, it’s a true description of your career path that draws connections between what you’ve done in the past, and what you are considering for the future.

It also highlights those connections with a specific audience in mind: whomever you’re speaking with. In other words, you never have just one career story. That’s good news, since many of us feel that our only story sounds something like this: “I’ve dedicated years to an educational path that I might not pursue. As far as I know, though, all I can do is write, research and teach.”

That was my early career story, at any rate, and I told it to myself again and again. Later, I learned to tell stories that helped me, because they accomplished two things: they connected my past to my potential future, and they told others how they could assist me. Those later stories sounded something like this:

“I entered academia because I love universities. Once I began my thesis, though, I knew that pure research was not for me. My favourite moments are spent coaching students during office hours. Now I’m looking into others roles within the university that will let me help people one-on-one to develop skills, rather than content knowledge. Who do you know who gets to do that kind of work?”

When I conducted informational interviews, my career story would sound similar, but it would end like this: “It seems to me that career advising would let me develop students through one-on-one meetings, but I’m talking with people in the field to get a sense of what skills are required, how the field is changing, and what steps I should be taking to better compete for jobs. So, thanks for taking the time to meet with me and to answer my questions.”

By the way, what you learn in informational interviews will help you further refine your career story, because you’ll become more aware of the skills that impress others, but also which you’re currently downplaying. You might even ask questions like, “I think my background brings advantages X and Y. Are there other strengths from my background that you think would be useful in this type of work” or “If you’d feel comfortable giving me some quick feedback on my resumé, would you mind telling me whether I’m underemphasizing skills and accomplishments that would interest employers in this field?”

The process of creating and reworking career stories is messy and challenging. It can test our confidence and creativity. Nonetheless, it helps both others and ourselves recognize that our skills have applications outside higher education.

So, what’s your career story?

ABOUT LIZ KOBLYK
Liz Koblyk
Liz Koblyk is the associate director of the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award at McMaster University.
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  1. Noel Semple / April 26, 2011 at 11:16

    My career story is that I want to be a tenure-track professor in a research-intensive Canadian university. Writing those words here, I feel like an 8 year old writing that he wants to be an astronaut who plays in the NHL.

    Why is it that? I think it’s because so much career advice for graduate students on the internet suggests that becoming a professor is an unrealistic ambition, and that the mature thing to do is give up. (I don’t mean to criticize this column in particular, which makes some very good points.)

    Everyone knows it’s a slippery pole to climb. But shouldn’t people be encouraged to visualize and work toward their most ambitious goals? Not merely encouaged to devise alternative career plans B, C, and D? Let’s aim for the moon. We will, at least, land in the stars.

    • Liz / April 27, 2011 at 16:11

      Hi Noel,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. It certainly can be discouraging when you hear the same career message from multiple sources. Your comment is also a good eye-opener for me. My intention is sipmly to say that there are many options out there. It can be rewarding as well as prudent to figure out what makes you tick, and where you could make the impact you want through your work.

      It’s not immature to pursue a profession that holds genuine appeal to you. Nor should you give up the moon–just realize that there may be many moons out there (my apologies for doing violence to your metaphor!). We’re flexible creatures. While one of our cultural narratives about careers says that there’s one “right” career fit, I like to think that we’re ignited by skills, environments, values and growth that we could accomplish in any number of career paths.