Taking Stock of Yourself

November 06, 1998

If you are in crisis about giving up an academic career, it helps to focus on the opportunity in the crisis. Partly, that entails reassessing your values, passions, and gifts.

Even if you always intended to at least consider a non-academic career, it's still worthwhile to check out your reasons, clarify your direction, and familiarize yourself with a self-assessment process that will serve you throughout your career.

Typically, this involves ascertaining your values, goals, skills, interests, and gifts, and considering how they affect your preferences about work.

In other words, what's important to you about your work? Consider these issues:

  • The work environment, such as the physical characteristics of the workplace, organization size, culture, and the people, both colleagues and clients.
  • The conditions and life-style implications of the work -- for example, stability, income and benefits, prestige, time commitments, flexibility;
  • The tasks and functions you will perform and the work style;
  • The substantive content -- the organizational mission, product, or service, and the profession.

Note that your skills primarily affect your choice of tasks; your interests, the substance of your work and the organization's purpose, and your values, the work environment and life style.

For example, how you choose to exercise a gift for writing and a passion for science depends on your values. A desire for financial security might send you into corporate communications; for autonomy, into freelance science writing; for variety and intellectual challenge, to patent law; or for public impact, to government or a think tank.

Ideally, you want a career that falls into the area where your values, interests, and talents intersect. However, it is possible to find work that utilizes your skills, does not contradict your values, and provides you the financial sustenance and flexibility to follow your passions and express your gifts "extra-curricularly."

In my view, there are many ways to compose a life, and the music is satisfying as long as you are true to yourself in most dimensions of your life.

Here are a few exercises to get you started. (Look for more in Outside the Ivory Tower available from or in most self-help career books.)

1. An old staple, probably first suggested by Richard Bolles of What Color Is Your Parachute? fame: Think back over the experiences you have had in your life and pick three to ten that have the following characteristics:

  • You were the chief or a significant actor;
  • You, not the world or significant others, regard it as a success: you achieved or created something with concrete results, or acted to solve a problem, or gave something of yourself that you are proud of;
  • You truly enjoyed yourself in the process.

List each experience, explain why you consider it a success, and write a paragraph or two detailing the experience step by step. Extract from these stories the values and interests revealed about you and the skills and attributes you displayed. Then look for patterns.

In other words, what do they reveal about what you like to do and do well? For example, an A.B.D. in music I've worked with recalled a "peak experience" participating in an organized cross-country bike tour, which led her to investigate and ultimately take a job leading bike tours.

2. Think about your interests and passions. What do you do in your spare time or what would you do if you had spare time (think about creative, outdoor, social, and intellectual activities)? What did you love to do when you were young? If you were given $500 to spend in a bookstore, what types of books or magazines would you spend it on? What do you think and talk about? Is there a cause you feel passionately about, some injustice that you hate, or something that the world or your community needs?

One of my favorite examples of following a passion is the assistant professor of math who loved playing games (particularly Magic). He now works as a game designer for Wizards of the Coast, the producers of Magic. Then there's a neurobiology student I worked with who developed a passion for combating illiteracy and is using a post-doctoral fellowship to make a career switch to educational evaluation.

3. Your "gifts" are those talents that you employ so naturally and happily that you may not even consider them special. Because using your gifts expresses your uniqueness and brings you joy, you need to find ways to incorporate them into your work and life.

To ascertain your gifts, review your "success stories" and look for talents that appear consistently. Also, think of what totally absorbs you or what people often ask you to do for them or what help you most enjoy giving others. Finally, try asking people who know you well what they think your particular talents are. (You will also want to take inventory of your skills. A future column will be devoted to skills and how to transfer them outside academe.)

An anthropology A.B.D. identified two of her gifts as teaching and jewelry making; she now has a freelance career teaching writing skills to consultants, and she creates and sells her own jewelry. An A.B.D. in British history found he had a talent for computer programming, which at first helped support his graduate education but eventually led him to a career niche in bioinformatics (creating software tools for molecular biologists).

Introspection, with the help of exercises, is necessary for knowing yourself, but it is not sufficient. You need to connect it with what's out there in the world. To do that, brainstorm with friends, observe closely, and question lots of people about their work, like that master interviewer, Studs Terkel.

Although using career books, the Internet, and trade journals can be productive, essentially you must embark on a networking venture. And networking is one of the most valuable skills we can learn.

The more you learn about possibilities, the more you can clarify what you're looking for. It's as important to rule things out as in, and often you can do that in a low-cost way by talking with people about their jobs or doing an internship. Sometimes you rule things out only after you've been in a job (as I did in my administrative job for a research center), or perhaps your values or your life circumstances change (such as having children). It's a long, iterative process, but as I see it, the journey is the point of it all.

P.S. I loved receiving your e-mail responses and hope you will keep them coming, even though I -- alas! -- cannot respond individually to them (unless I ask permission to incorporate your story or words into a column).

Margaret Newhouse is assistant director of career services for Ph.D's at Harvard University.