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Looking for career growth? The best way to move forward may be to pause

Put yourself front and centre in your career planning.


“So, what are you going to do after you graduate?” This is a dreaded question for many graduate students. Not knowing the answer may feel paralyzing. At the 2021 Canadian Career Symposium for Graduate Students and Postdoctoral Fellows, our speakers shared how pausing in a career journey can actually be the best way to move forward. During a time of career uncertainty, rather than rushing headfirst toward things that ultimately may not work for you, take a deep breath, and consider the steps suggested by some of our conference speakers.

Your pause should begin with introspection. Reflective questions are not easy to answer and an open mind is needed to fully benefit from the self-discovery process. No self-censorship allowed! Our keynote speaker, Molly Grisham, encourages asking yourself questions like: “What part of your life feels like you are driving in the dark?, “What is your root system composed of?” or “What have you been carrying that you need to set down?” Answering these questions can be challenging and uncomfortable, but the return on investment can be substantial. In the chat, we saw people use metaphors to unpack these questions while recognizing the need for more time to dive deeper. It takes longer than two minutes to identify personal goals and values. More importantly, none of these goals are set. Career values and decisions change with time, life stage and experiences. Think of your journey when you started your undergraduate studies to now and all the lessons you learned along the way. When working through these questions, be kind and compassionate to yourself. Instead of focusing on “What I should have done,” reframe your thoughts to let go of self-judgment. Loleen Berdahl and Jonathan Malloy (Work Your Career) reframe the question as: “Given both my future goals and the information currently available to me, what is my best decision right now?” Start your career journey by prioritizing and valuing yourself, wherever you are in the process.

Armed with insights about yourself, the next step is to contextualize your self-discovery. In “The Individual Development Plan (IDP) Explained” and “The Science of Happiness” workshops, presenters encouraged defining your career values, preferred skills, and strengths, and the meaning you derive from work. Talking about IDPs, Lorna MacEachern and Emmanuelle Arnaud suggest that you define what a good “fit” looks like for you – whether it is in your relationships, accomplishments, or career. Melissa Dalgleish and Matthew Geddes continued this conversation by guiding us through the PERMA framework and providing tips on how to identify your state of flow. Knowing these things will help you align your goals with your activities as you move forward.

Before investing time, money, and energy, you need to plan your career activities. Our expert panelists from the Labour Market Information Council explained that knowledge of labour market trends can help you to identify the right activities to reach your goals. Whether you need to know the top skills for your sector, hiring forecasts for your region, or projections for your preferred profession, labour market information can take the guesswork out of planning. However, to gain a competitive edge, informational interviews are key to sorting fact from fiction. Informational interviews, mentoring, and networking are key to securing not only your first opportunity, but the ones that come after.

At this point, you have a lot of information about yourself, your skills, your preferences, and your professional direction. Now is the time to begin sharing with others through carefully curated stories. Have a fascinating research topic that you want to promote? A breathtaking discovery? An idea that bridges your dissertation and directly connects with the organization of your dreams? Great! But before you start drafting a jargon-filled pitch that few people will understand, remember to put your audience first. Ask yourself “so what?” Keep asking that question until you drill down to the part of your story that will have meaning for your audience. The same strategy applies for writing resumes, cover letters, and even your LinkedIn profile. Put yourself in the audience’s shoes when crafting your story and explain why it matters to them. Whether you’re looking to connect with community organizations, internship hosts, or employers, our moderators and panelists all stressed the importance of putting the audience first when developing your pitch.

Careers and career planning are not linear! You’ll go back and forth between the stages and topics more than once, and that’s okay. You might hear “no” a few times, but more often, you will find people who want to support you on your career journey. If you’re wondering where to start, consider which of these activities suggested by our presenters resonates, and remember small steps add up:

  1. Reflect regularly to identify goals, challenges, values, preferences, and strengths in how you define success and happiness.
  2. Research! As graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, this is where you excel. Gather information from labour market information sources and informational interviews on employers, hiring, professions and career pathways.
  3. Tailor your message to your audience when networking, pitching, or applying to positions.
  4. Say yes to opportunities that come your way and support your career plan, but be prepared to walk away if the fit isn’t right.

So, the next time you feel pressured to rush forward with your career activities, hit pause instead; put yourself front and centre in your planning, and your future self will thank you.

Mabel Ho is the director of professional development and student engagement in the faculty of graduate studies at Dalhousie University. Catherine Maybrey is the coordinator for the office of postdoctoral affairs and research training in the school of graduate studies at McMaster University as well as the owner of CM Coaching Services.
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