Crafting a new career identity

The longer you have been in a role the more your core identities tend to be wrapped up in your career. Consider the sense of prestige, engagement and stimulation that comes with being a researcher. It is no wonder that many researchers hope for an academic career.   

The thought of changing careers may make you feel lost and confused, unsure about how to reinvent yourself. This is all normal for major career changes. 

You are allowed to grieve your expectations 

As noted previously there are many positive reasons why researchers aspire to an academic career. That’s why career change can feel like a loss, even if it’s something you want to happen. 

If you are struggling with accepting these feelings or want to explore this in more depth: How to handle professional identity crisis

Careers are often talked about as though they are a singular linear route

As the book title points out in reality it's often more of a ‘squiggly line’.  

The same is true when you are trying to discover new aspects of your identity: 

The singular path idea can cause fear, because how can you know which one is right for you?  This can lead to hesitation or inaction: 

 “Am I making the biggest mistake of my life? What if it isn’t perfect?’ 

FOMO sufferer

You might decide to make a leap of faith into one of the paths to dispel the anxiety.

Any job will do! - This isn’t necessarily going to result in negative consequences. Though, it is possible that the hasty way the decision was made, motivated by fear, may not have given you time to consider what you really want.   

Take one step forward, then decide whether to rotate, return or continue

Instead of a singular path it might be helpful to think about several steps or pivot points: like a choose- your-own-adventure book, each action represents one step in a particular direction. When you have finished the step, you decide: 

Shall I take another step in this direction?  

Or shall I turn and pivot in another direction? 

Reinventing yourself may involve multiple steps or pivots.  

Seven strategies for reinventing yourself: 

1. Take action

Action leads to motivation not the other way round.

Whilst introspection is important, getting hung up trying to find your one true self, can become a form of procrastination. It is important to identify small practical steps you can take which will allow you to find out new information because this will arouse curiosity and motivation for the journey.  

Change what you do. Experiment with new ideas. Act. Pay attention to what you learn and use that feedback to assess what you think, feel and want

Actions to get you going

Motivation material

If you are feeling very uncertain and are juggling a heavy workload in your day-to-day work, pace yourself, because having too many new experiences can overwhelm you and tire you. 

 

 

2. Expect fluctuations in motivation

It is better to spend longer in contradiction, to oscillate between perspectives, than to prematurely make a wrong decision.

Accepting that there are multiple future identities you could adopt, is important to increase your flexibility as you research and try out new career ideas. Transition is often an emotional limbo that does not have a linear timeline.

 

3. Don’t expect to find the answer straightaway 

Look for small wins: incremental progress that gives you time to reflect on and apply what you have learned about yourself. It might take longer to navigate without a map, but will lead to more profound and holistic changes in the way you perceive yourself and your life.  

The ‘career path’ is crooked: 

“I don’t have to stay and be in academia for the rest of my life. I’m more aware that maybe I can craft my own future. Which is maybe a combination of the research position, but then a side-gig, or something like that, or leaving entirely – but keeping collaborations going. In terms of my career trajectory, it has become much more colourful.”

Cohort 2 postdoc, UoM, Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences.

It’s unlikely that you will get it perfect the first time. According to indeed, people spend 11 months thinking about and planning a career change and major career transitions take 3 –5 years.  

Remember! One step down the path then decide: pivot or continue? 

You may pivot several times before you feel clear on what you want or move though several jobs, gradually refining your goals and getting closer to who you want to be.  

 

4. Find opportunities to try out new lines of work and see how they feel 

  • How might you broaden your role?
  • How might you gain specific skills and experiences through special projects or assignments?
  • How might you gain greater visibility or challenge?

Here are some suggestions of things you can do to create a short feedback loop: 

  • Become a postdoc representative 
  • Try a job simulator
  • Look at voluntary roles in the union if you are a member, or societies, research councils or research institutes. 
  • Organising extracurricular activities or events such as a career seminar or a writing retreat. 
  • Undertake a professional teaching qualification, most institutions offer HEA fellowship. 
  • Research the diversity networks at your institution or in your field, and consider joining any you care about, or that touches you personally. 
  • Approach other departments at the university and see if there are any opportunities to shadow. 
  • Explore the organisations and stakeholders around your research to see if there are opportunities to develop or try out different things. 

  

You could also investigate the career development that is available at your university. Many universities have internal programs on leadership, managerial or project management skills. Volunteering in public engagement or widening participation may also be possible at your university. 

Postdoc Amanda Tomaz, part of the second Prosper Cohort, comments: 

“Since I started the Prosper journey, I have improved my confidence and stepped out of my comfort zone. Self-assessment tools, career coaching, and informational resources have played a significant role in my development. Since then, I have felt more self- assured, saying yes’ to new challenges and learning more about different opportunities within and beyond academia. 
More recently, I was selected to participate in the Cancer Research Horizons Lean Launch Program, designed to test a scientific innovation applied to a business idea and to determine and explore whether the concept has market potential.  
Without the development I had undertaken I never would have thought of applying for this programme. I am so happy to be experiencing new networking challenges and learning entrepreurial skills.  
At the moment I am happy and optimistic about pursing an academic career.”

Amanda Tomaz, Postdoc, 2022

As Amanda’s example demonstrates you do not have to leave your current career to push yourself out of your comfort zone and create opportunities to kick-start your personal and professional development by doing new things. 

 

5. Identify role models in other careers you are interested in

Identifying role models both in your current line of work and in new or distant fields and following their careers can give you useful inspiration and insight into other opportunities.   

Advice about how to find role models 

Informational interviews
 

  

6. Lurk in relevant communities 

Find out how they talk. Discover the keywords that various employers use to describe their hot topics. Finding out how they use whatever they use to solve whatever problems they solve – can help you to find and track online communities, that will allow you to eavesdrop on what is happening: what the issues, attitudes and social norms are. 

How to Discover Personal Keywords: 

  • Make a list of keywords related to your favoured skills, methodologies, disciplinary topics, theoretical approaches, and career interests. 
  • Use these as seed keywords to research employers and sectors related to your keywords. Keep a log of the new research terms you generate and the opportunities they relate to, and questions that arise. 
  • Use the keywords to search forum sites and social media sites to find other users and communities who are talking about those topics. 

Sites you could look at: 

Using personal keywords

Example: 

Jamie, a postdoc for 5 years, listed ‘applied psychology’ as one of their seed keywords. A LinkedIn search on this term: 

What was immediately apparent to Jamie, from this search was that companies who LinkedIn associates with the term ‘applied psychology’ also use the term ‘Human Factors’. At this point Jamie did not know what ‘Human Factors’ referred to in this context, but this action identified a new information gap that Jamie can investigate as part of their career research.  

 

7. Connect with others

The feelings of uncertainty around identity, when you are thinking about whether to change career, is a similar experience to getting your first job. Researchers, found that interactions at work help first time job-getters construct a new sense of professional identity. So talking with other people who are going through career transition can help you to process the changes you are going through, and accept the uncertainty. 

See if there is a postdoc buddy scheme at your institution. If one doesn't exist you could start your own:

How to run a buddy scheme

  

To recap:

Act, reflect, then flirt with your potential career identities. 

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