Postdoc professional identity-making

Many positives can be gained by being a postdoc. You must be highly skilled, dedicated, and diligent. No matter what career you choose, your postdoctoral position is crucial to your success. 

But the in-between nature of a postdoc position, no longer a student or yet an academic with the security of a permanent job, can result in a continuous revision and renegotiation that can make it difficult to define professional identity.

What is professional identity?

Professional identity refers to the sense of self that is shaped by your professional roles, responsibilities, and experiences. It is the way that a person sees themselves as a member of a particular profession and the values, attitudes, and behaviours that are associated with that profession.

Professional identity is shaped by a range of factors, including education and training, workplace experiences, socialisation within the profession, and personal values and beliefs.

Defining your professional identity

This diagram represents the various aspects of professional identity (adapted from adapted from Healy and Hays, 2015).

Here are some steps you can take to help you think about your professional identity:

Societal role

What is your social context?

The wider societal roles you identify with. They might include: 

  • Race/ethnicity 
  • Nationality 
  • Gender 
  • Social class/socioeconomic status 
  • Sexual orientation 
  • (Dis)abilities 
  • Religion/religious beliefs. 
  • Cultural Identity

You might be wondering how these roles have anything to do with your professional identity, but social identity theory (one of various approaches to the formation of identity) asserts that it is through these identities that our sense of self is formed. Identify some societal roles that resonate with you.
Can you relate them to your professional identity?  

Professional role

How would you describe your professional role? 

“I feel like postdocing has given me the opportunity to specialise in my subject in a way that other jobs would not. There is also a focus on learning new skills, ways of working and networks that is distinct.” 

Postdoc in Molecular Biology

Core values

Consider the core values that inform your practice and your orientations to professionalism in general. This is a challenging task! There is more guidance on this in the define your values article.  

Values are expressed in general terms about what you have chosen as important ways to live your life: 

‘To be creative and learn from life’ 

‘To act wisely’ 

Approach and practice

What elements comprise your approach and practice to your work?

Why were you drawn to your particular subject, specialism and discipline?

Consider your: 

  • Ethical Principles 
  • Discipline or theoretical perspective 
  • Wider activities (like public engagement or being a representative)?

‘I was mad at the world, but not quite sure why, couldn't quite put my finger on it. Sociology gave me a lot of answers and framework for community work.’

Groove0, Reddit

For further exploration, ask yourself these three questions: 

  1. When was the last time you showed up… as yourself? 
  2. Yeah, you’re a postdoc, but what does that mean? 
  3. How have you formed your professional identity? 

What happens to Postdocs’ professional identity when they change careers?  

“When I was inside the academy, when I thought of a career trajectory which didn’t culminate in a professorship – I often framed it as what I would have to give up. Now that I am in my current role, all I can think of is the things I gained.”

Dr Geoffrey Belknap 

Former postdoc turned Head Curator of the Science and Media Museum, read more on Geoffrey's case study.

In 2016 a Vitae survey, asked researchers who have made the transition from European universities to employment beyond academia (856 respondents from 24 member states, representing 55 nationalities): ‘What do research staff do next?’ (reference) 

Comments from the survey report show that identity loss is a part of moving beyond academia for many researchers: 

‘...the loss of social identity comes through as a strong theme in the career stories and survey free text responses.’ 

Vitae

But they also found that over three-quarters of their respondents were satisfied with their career move. 

To explore this in more depth we spoke to former postdocs who moved beyond academia and asked them how they coped. The pivoter profiles demonstrate that the perception and navigation of identity change are highly individual. 

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