March 04, 2013

PhD Life Blog: Guite to Employability: Step 2. Identify your Strengths and Talents

This entry is published in the PhD Life Blog of Warwick Research Exchange. You can read the full article here.

In my previous blog-post entitled Guide to Employability: Step 1. Be Original – Know Thyself I claimed that it is paramount for doctoral researchers to turn their intellectual inquisitiveness inwards and ascertain their needs, wishes, and aspirations. Throughout my PhD years and beyond, I have kept focusing on the following salient point: what is it about a PhD process that makes one avert their attention from themselves so profusely? Seriously, what is it? Am I the only one who asks this formidable question?

The staggering reality

Have you noticed that, while undergraduates are grossly encouraged to engage in a plethora of extra-curricular activities, get actively involved in teams, pursue internships, and sentiently reflect on their experiences, PhDs are only geared towards their research project, as if it’s a one way street with no way out?! Have you noticed that the most prestigious and sought after employers come to campus to meet bright, educated, and articulate individuals, yet, PhDs very rarely return the favour? And to state the acrimonious obvious, have you noticed how undergraduates are more successful in their entry level career pursuits compared to PhDs? If you think that’s because there are inherently better prospects and more career opportunities for undergraduates, this is simply an indolent and ‘easy-way-out’ excuse! Undergraduates have more options simply because they actively pursue opportunities to explore and develop themselves!

But where do I start?!

I’d say start from the basics! To speak your language, in your research project the theory is secondary, it’s the evidence that renders it worthwhile! The only way to explore your options is to understand your strengths and talents, alongside your studies. This will be achieved by means of active exploration (= research) of your potential, involvement (= data collection) in various activities and opportunities, and reflection (= critical analysis) of yourself following such pursuits. Is the process reminiscent of something familiar?

Let’s start from the basics then!

Explore, Participate, Reflect! Isn’t this what you do as a professional researcher? So, research yourself. Go ahead, get involved in various activities and explore yourself, what drives you, what energises, what motivates you, what makes you get out of bed in the morning! Ultimately, where your strengths and talents lie! If you think that reading and writing are the sole and sacred duties during your PhD experience, you might be setting yourself up for disappointment! Ultimately, even as an academic in the making, you should consider training yourself in active networking, public engagement, consultancy, and effective collaborations with non-academic stakeholders (think impact and outreach here!).

The tools

Warwick University provides a plethora of options for you to get involved with various activities, develop abilities and, not only render yourself employable in the process, but mainly uncover your strengths while building new skills and enhancing existing ones. And if you don’t know where to start, here’s a brilliant tool created especially for you:

Warwick Portfolio: an online platform where you can find all the training and development opportunities Warwick can offer you. It allows you to develop skills in 8 areas (Communication, Leadership, Networking, Language, Practical, Critical Thinking, Ethics and Research Skills, and Enterprise), record them, reflect on them, and communicate them to yourself and others!

Guide to Employability: Step 2: Identify your Strengths and Talents

In a frantic recession-shaped era, where we are bombarded with the paradox of endless options and the ostensible lack of them, more is better than less. You might think you don’t need to develop further skills; your research and data analysis is time-consuming enough. It’s also very confining! Looking for potential academic or non-academic paths is not the right avenue to start your journey from! There is a myriad of post-PhD options at your disposal, I assure you! But just like in every worthwhile pursuit, it’s the journey that makes the destination. The latter will remain unexplored until you get there, but the route, the richer in experiences, the wealthier it can render you, if not in funds, definitely in potential!

To be continued…


February 04, 2013

The Mask: How Not To Be Yourself For Professional Success

A few days ago I attended a fascinating lecture for the WBS module ‘Styles of Coaching and Team Leadership.’ The facilitator focused on how to use Creativity as a Coaching medium to enhance group dynamics, management and leadership abilities. Amongst the prevailing themes was the notion of identity: how can one adjust and adapt their personality for optimum performance at work. One of the media that was alluded to was the use of a mask to help newly appointed managers to progressively practise their assertiveness, before unveiling and releasing it in the world of work. And that’s when I had one of those sigh-releasing a-ha moments

Identity and the Mask

Thinking ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ now, right?! Think again! A couple of months ago I received some formal feedback on a job interview. The main theme of the conversation was centred on my personality. I am – apparently – too confident, so confident that I seem to be wearing a ‘confidence’ mask, disguising covert weaknesses that, heaven forbid, I let out for the world to see! Just in case my linguistic ability or mental capacity prevented me from understanding the meaning of the word ‘mask’ – if anything, I live and work in a country that is not my native one – I was reminded of what masks were in Ancient Greek Drama. (Note to the reader: I painstakingly endured the study of two Greek tragedies and one comedy in Ancient Greek as a secondary school pupil in Athens, so I am pretty well versed with the ceremonial and ritualistic props of my ancestors. Note to self: put that on CV, don’t blame the interviewers for not knowing you know!) The feedback session concluded with the formidable hint (yet tacit invitation) that I explore my propensity to camouflage my true identity behind, indeed, a ‘confidence’ mask!

The notion of Identity

What is ‘identity’ really? Sophocles scornfully celebrated it in Oedipus Rex! Shakespeare triumphantly mocked it in The Merchant of Venice! Martin Guerre shared a marital bed (a wife, to be precise!) with an impostor masquerading as him because identity documentation had – regrettably – not been invented in the 16th century. And don’t even get me started on the Milli Vanilli fiasco! Let’s begin from the basics, then! Identity: ‘the distinguishing character or personality of an individual’, according to Webster dictionary. Key word here: distinguishing. Also note: character, personality.

Personality and Employability

What role can ‘identity’ play in Employability, then? Working for a Careers Advisory Service, I counsel students on how to present themselves in a professional, eloquent and marketable manner to potential employers! When it all boils down to that direct contact, the advice is mainstream: wear that well-pressed suit, polish those shoes, groom your hair, and look pretty and immaculate; use professional language, mirror the interviewer, and consider the tone/style of the company. The mask is acceptable in these terms, right? The ‘Mask’ means adapting your character and personality in a ‘socially acceptable’ manner. Key word here: Acceptable.

But where does personality come into all this in terms of sustaining a job? Is it acceptable that we adapt and adjust? When would that be useful (or even paramount)? And if we are teaching employability, alluding to the new buzz term ‘Career Adaptability’, shouldn’t we be touching upon this topic? And if we should, why aren’t we? And if we are going to, when are we going to?

The Mor[t]al of the Story

Going back to my normative ‘Mask-wearing’ climacteric, my interviewer got it entirely wrong! For the first time in my professional life, I consciously chose to remove all masks and be my confident, spirited, passionate self! In fact, my interlocutor got it so wrong, it was right: the sensationalist insinuation (sentiently or not I dare not wonder!) was that my culpability for not wearing the ‘Mask’ of the company culture cost me a job! Isn’t it ironic?! If only I had practised what I preach! Which brings me to the acrimonious dilemma: personal integrity or professional survival? What do you do when these two potentially clash? Is a mask acceptable then? I’d say, yes! Are you going to use it? I’d say, why not. But, a word of caution here: do it consciously! Consider what you lose and what you gain because masks, ultimately, are bound to obstruct, hiding you behind a veil of darkness!

To be or not to be yourself?

The great Transcendentalist (and one of my most esteemed teachers throughout the years) Ralph Waldo Emerson once said ‘To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.’ With the greatest respect to the celebrated Bostonian luminary, I can’t help but question the contemporaneous validity of his most fabled quote. When it comes to personal integrity, Emerson could not have been more apposite. When it comes to professional survival, however, I wish my Employability training had included the workshop ‘Personality and Adaptability at Work’! Oh how I wish it had!

Stay positive!

Ioanna



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November 19, 2012

Tell me what you're made of and I'll tell you who you are

Ever felt bored? Disillusioned? Disoriented? Frustrated... for no apparent reason?

What’s your Element? How Finding your Passion Can Change Everything
Have you ever read something that is so simple it’s revolutionary? The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything by Sir Ken Robinson, Professor Emeritus of Education at Warwick, is one of these simple masterworks. Robinson focuses on the life changing results that can occur when one discovers their ‘element’, the meeting point between talent and passion. That synergy between our strengths and zeal can remove the ‘work’ element from work, replacing it with fervour, anticipation, and verve.

Tell me what you’re made of and I’ll tell you who you are
‘I don’t know what job I want to do but I’m going to apply anyway’ is a phrase I hear from numerous students on a daily basis, when I inquire after their motivation for their chosen career field. The chagrin and frustration I experience can be paralleled to theirs, I’m sure. Pursuing ‘world class education’ in one of the most reputable academic institutions in the UK and beyond is hard enough. Paying a hefty fee for a degree that, in theory, should be ‘value for money’ – alas, this phrase has entered the Higher Education industry exacebrates matters further, as the ‘value’ for many corresponds to retribution in kind, that is, a job. Right or wrong, that’s not the point! The point is the following: If you are prudent enough to place a ‘value’ on your degree, have you taken the same trouble to place value on yourself? Let me makes this clear:

Where does you value lie?
Your value lies in your strengths. Have you ever been encouraged to really consider and reflect on your talents, your passion, your intrinsic capacities? If yes, have you done so? If no, when would be the right time for you to start doing so? How can you convey your value to others, if you can’t reflect on it yourself? Let’s start from the basics: skills vs. strengths

What’s in a Skill? What’s in a Strength?
A skill is a quality you have mastered through practice and repetition and have habitually become accomplished at it. you rarely consider whether you like it or not, as it’s what you’re good at.

A strength is an innate talent, a capacity that, while it improves and strengthens with practice, it feels so pure and inherent. A strength makes you ‘tick’, gives you the buzz to go about doing your work, and makes time move a lot faster than it actually does. Combine your strengths with passion and that’s your ‘element’, your calling in life, if you will!

Task of the day
This is a tool that can help you understand your value(s) to start with… Please, answer these questions by listing five items for every answer:

1. What am I passionate about?
2. What are these activities that I derive the greatest joy from?
3. I am happiest when I do the following:
4. What are my friends saying I’m really good at?
5. What are my skills?
6. What are my natural talents and strengths?

Now, go through your answers and list down the common characteristics that occur and re-occur in them. This is your 'element', what makes up your purpose in life. From here, you can proceed to ask yourself:

7. What are the jobs that could entail some of the above?

My Element
A few days ago, while helping a student for with his interview preparation, I was asked the following question: “Why do you do this job? With your knowledge and expertise you could be doing anything you wanted!” While this assumption merits a few more (sensationalist maybe?) blog posts, I was stupefied at my instant answer: "I do this job because on a Saturday morning I can’t wait to go back to work on Monday!" And it's true, promise! When I’m with students time stops! It does not matter if it’s one or ten hours, I give my autopilot a bad name by doing the job better than him… and I'm loving it. You can say I’m in my ‘element’.

In hindsight – hindsights, what priceless gifts they are! – if I look back, I could have spotted my ‘element’ very early on, but life was too busy and my inimical societal and academic conditioning was too comfortable to bother! Yes, the long and winding journey was worth the wrong choice of jobs, destructive co-workers, self-exploration and self-awareness that followed and rendered everything worthwhile. Yet, you don’t have to go through all this…

So, what’s your ‘element’?
Do the exercise above and discover your strengths that lie dormant and wait for you to awaken them and put them to use. Feel free to share your findings with others here! It’s time we all looked inwards before we pursue our dreams and realise how incredibly precious, wonderful, unique we are; the prevalent ‘other way around method’ is set for despondent disillusionment…

Stay positive!

Ioanna


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November 14, 2012

PhD Life Blog: Guide to Employability: Step 1. Be Original – Know Thyself

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This entry is published in the PhD Life Blog of Warwick Research Exchange. You can read the full article here.

On 16th December 2010, an article of The Economist entitled Doctoral Degrees: The Disposable Academic, caused much controversy by claiming that disgruntling doctoral experiences and brutalising career prospects render a PhD highly unnecessary and a ‘waste of time.’ The author maintained that universities take advantage of PhD students and use them as ‘cheap, highly motivated and disposable labour’ that will ‘do more research, and […] more teaching, with less money’ to conclude that ‘the interests of academics and universities on the one hand and PhD students on the other are not well aligned.’

Don’t believe everything you hear: You make your PhD, it does NOT make you!

It is not in the scope of this blog entry to agree or disagree with the Economist’s piece, although I know quite a few PhD students and graduates who would report similar experiences. In fact, as a PhD graduate, I could be the first to point my finger to an inept academic system that, I felt, failed me. What my gruesome yet invaluable post-PhD experience has taught me, however, is that systems don’t change unless mentalities do, and futures don’t alter unless presents transform. As professional researcher myself, then, I would like to begin by looking at you in the eyes and ask:

What’s your research in?
If I had a penny for the number of times I’ve been asked this question as a PhD candidate…! As doctoral researchers, I am sure you have built a well-oiled questioning machine, equipped with your inquisitiveness and intellectual curiosity. Research must run in your veins by now! But have you turned your questioning machine inwards? Have you really asked yourself what you wish to get out of your PhD? What’s the plan A? What’s the Plan B? (Yes, two options are better than one!) These are by no means trick questions nor provocative ones.

When students write applications for graduate schemes in the corporate world, one of the main criteria is to show commitment towards a certain career aspiration and specify how a three year graduate programme will contribute towards their career development plan. Just like a training programme in a large corporation, your PhD is your apprenticeship for your future career. Make no mistake here, a PhD does not have to be the means to an academic end only! Have you decided what you wish to do post-submission and how your doctorate will help you get there? Did you and your supervisor ask this question from the very kick-off of your PhD? Do you keep asking throughout? I fear, more than I know, that most frequently the answer is ‘no’.

Who are you? What are you?

As a Job-Search Adviser and Postgraduate Researcher Enterprise Skills Tutor, I work with PhD students who, more often than not, dismiss the above mentioned questions as too daunting, putting off their career decision plans for the post-submission stage. I have classified the hitherto most widespread tendencies in three main categories.

The Whatever-ers: those who have no idea of what’s out there for them and vast reluctance to find out.

The No Way-ers: those who have ruled out the prospect of an academic career as a result of, more often than not, poor doctoral experiences and, at some point, will consider their options.

The Default-ers: those who, moulded in the droning shelter of a PhD, got so desensitised by the intellectual process of proving something original, that lose sight of the wider picture, and inevitably follow the only – in their minds – route available to them, academia.

I have yet to meet the fervently steadfast PhD candidate who forcefully marches their way towards a predetermined goal via the doctoral route! This, I hope, is my loss rather than the norm!

Guide Employability: Be Original – Know Thyself
As a professional in the making, you’re better off researching yourself, your dreams, your needs and your aspirations. Identify what you want and start building your professional background in the same way that you are constructing your thesis, with passion, commitment, and, most of all, originality. Your PhD fate does not need to be as acrimonious as the Economist correspondent proclaimed. You don’t need to be one of the many! You don’t need to be dispirited, lost, and steered. Conditioning can be as dangerous as conformity and doctoral environments can be, ironically, prone to both! So take charge of the present NOW and steer it towards your desired future. It’s only when you know yourself and your needs that you’ll be able to make the best decisions for yourself and market yourself effectively.  

To be continued…

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September 25, 2012

The pitfalls and scourges of the ‘by default’ pre–conditioned academic

So, you have a Phd? The facts you know and are terrified to admit:

1. Academic jobs are greatly diminishing in number; I believe we’re all in agreement on this one.

2. Many PhD students and graduates are increasingly compelled to decide against academic careers due to, more often than not, unfulfilling doctoral experiences, poor supervision, and finger-pointing lack of mentoring and support by supervisors and relevant university-wide support services; I believe many of us will be in agreement on this one.

3. Nascent academic recruitment strategies require that early career academics have published triple the amount of their erstwhile counterparts seeking their first job a decade ago. Moreover, their potential for research excellence is shamefully dependent on, if not deterred by, their chances of (or even success in) income generation. As for their teaching abilities, they will always come second place in reputable research led institutions. Have I been crude enough or can you take more?

4. With the upcoming Research Excellence Framework, taking the above into consideration is paramount to your turning your PhD traineeship into a promising and rewarding academic career.

But what happens if there doesn’t seem to be a way into academia, or if academia is not for you? Hmmm! Tough one! In the current economic climate a great number of high calibre, intelligent individuals exit the academic bubble after years of hard work in research, analysis, and production of praiseworthy original projects, feeling lost for words (and actions) as to how to identify and pursue opportunities for employment, market themselves effectively, and commence potentially fulfilling careers . Poor employability and careers guidance by Academic staff and Careers Services that, let’s face it, have increasingly ignored this disenfranchised cohort, have contributed towards the intellectual inquisitiveness of doctoral candidates taking over any career curiosity, not to mention planning! As for employability… academic research will do, right? WRONG! Can you take more honesty?

In my personal experience as a doctoral graduate seeking employment outside academia, I was shocked and aggravated to realise how little value the British recruitment system places on early PhD graduates. As a Job Search Adviser working with PhD students, the reality check is even more tremulous! On a daily basis I witness the formidable scene of many PhD students/graduates, not only unaware of what’s out there for them, not only clueless as to how to market themselves effectively, but mainly accepting that they are ‘overqualified’ and ‘lack practical experience’. Playing the same tape that employers play non-stop, they have accepted their fate and are - unwillingly - willing to start climbing career ladders from way under their intellectual level, pursuing jobs that will allow them to build practical experience in most cases already acquired, yet oblivious to its existence. Let's put things into perspective then. You have a PhD? It’s not about climbing, it’s about embarking!

As I mentioned in my previous blog entry, a career choice is up to the individual to decide upon. It is your responsibility to search within yourself and outside to understand what your calling in life is. No one can do this for you. Maybe the exhaustingly ubiquitous intellectual activity as a result of your doctorate has desensitised any other pursuits of needs, wishes, and ambitions. Yet, the skills you have developed as part of this process can and should form part of your employability armour for whatever you chose to do. And if you still haven’t found the time to sit down and list them, I’m sure you’ll recognise in yourself a few of these:

  • Research, data analysis, written and verbal communication
  • Time, budget, and project management. Add ‘Supervisor Management’ on the list, as well!
  • Intellectual maturity, ability to process information in a timely and efficient manner
  • Ability to work with limited or no supervision
  • Ability to work in a team, using relevant lab equipment
  • Strong commitment and work ethic, perseverance and management of uncertainty (and change)
  • Natural (by this point!) aptitude towards high quality work, originality, excellence
  • Ability to effectively impart knowledge and deliver training
  • Administrative experience (organising module timetables, producing student and module progress reports, participating in departmental meetings, managing whole modules)

Have I listed enough? So, to conclude… the ‘let’s start over’ attitude, let’s face it, is completely unacceptable! You are a highly intellectual individual who had the guts to take up an unknown project, breathe life and soul into it, and create something potentially original world-wide, something that adds value to scholarship and beyond. You have worked under the most uncertain conditions, more often than not with no remuneration, and you still made it. You have built and enhanced a highly sought after skillset you are most probably not even aware of. You are a hard worker that dared to take the difficult route and you should be incredibly proud of what you have achieved. If all this applies to you think impact, think innovation, think initiative, think creativity and communicate your PhD via these prisms. At the end of the day, it’s all about how you market yourself. It’s up to you… have you got faith in the product?! And this is not only a message to you but a note to self, as well!

Stay positive!

Ioanna

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March 22, 2012

Career Choices: 'Dad Said…'

‘My dad was in the business and loved it. He claims I will love it, too,’ a student recently told me when I asked what their motivation was for applying for a specific role. I caught myself feeling very unsettled with this statement, yet I was not entitled to question this further, much as I felt I had the student’s best interest at heart.

Choosing a career path after University can be one of the most challenging and most thrilling decisions a student will have to make. For some it’s a decision taken independently while others rely heavily on external advice and guidance. But what happens when one opts for a career that has been recommended by someone else due to the latter’s personal experience?

I have come across quite a few students who are about to embark on career paths that a very close family member, most likely a parent, have advised them to take. Factors like the potential of an exciting career, sizeable salaries, versatile clients, and ample opportunities for career progression are always part of the argument. Is this right or wrong? And should one even question this?

The danger here is not so much that one might overlook their own wishes, needs, and values for the sake of others’. Besides, there’s nothing wrong with considering the opinion of those who love us and only have our best interest in mind and at heart. It is what happens when others’ views become our excuse for not exploring our own values, our own needs, and our own interests and aspirations. Without such evaluation and awareness, how can we really know – let along articulate – our strengths, our qualities, our attributes and our motivations?

Let’s take this a step further… How, when one has not spent time to really assess their career interests and options, will they be able to convey their motivations, their passion, and their enthusiasm for the role to a potential employer? Yes, we all have strengths, skills, and qualities, but don’t we put them to better use when we are actually energised and motivated to utilise them?

To conclude, career decisions will be affected by many factors, including personal, academic, and cultural, to name a few. Still, as it is one of the first most significant decisions a person will make in the beginning of their adult life, it is important to remember that in the process it is not only the awareness of career interests that will take place. Most significantly, it is a wonderful opportunity for self-reflection and self-awareness, discover one’s self, who you are, where you are, where you wish to get, what you need, and what you have to offer. That is why, when opting to follow someone else’s recommendation for a career choice, it is very important to have somehow achieved this self-awareness.

Warwick Advantage offers a wide range of tools to help you with your initial self-assessment and evaluation. Give it a go, you’ll be amazed at the breadth of resources:
http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/advantage/

And remember, my colleagues and I are always here to discuss Career and Employability related issues with you.

Keep positive!
Ioanna


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  • Oh dear Ioanna your blog entries are always so inspiring to read…!! I have experienced the same th… by Terry on this entry
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