PETER IS THE AUTHOR OF THE BOOK, "TO BOLDLY GO: A PRACTICAL CAREER GUIDE FOR SCIENTISTS"

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"Make it thy business to know thyself, which is the most difficult lesson in the world."--Miguel de Cervantes

Many young scientists who explore nontraditional careers are seeking more than an "alternative" job. While their new career plans may have been initially motivated by perceptions of a grim job market, many are also seeking alternatives that better suit their personal goals, lifestyle aspirations, interests, and values. In short: A number of your fellow young scientists are seeking career fields that are simply better suited to them than science.

But how does one go about figuring out which career fields are the better match?

How do you know that another profession like science policy, management consulting, or secondary-school teaching will make you happier than, say, a prestigious job at the National Institutes of Health or a research university?

To put it bluntly, these questions are unanswerable if you don't have much of a clue about your own skills, interests, and values.

Enter Self-Assessment

Nearly every career counselor (and quite a few other wise folks) will tell you that the process of career development or career change starts on a foundation of self-awareness. The basic philosophy is that if you don't enjoy what you are doing in your career, you probably won't be very good at it.

Despite this self-evident fact, you would be surprised at how many people begin their job search by focusing on specific career fields and sending out scores of résumés--without some self-awareness about what they really want to do with their lives. Without knowing what turns you on careerwise, you run the risk of proceeding down a path that will leave you just as frustrated and stranded as you feel right now.

Self-Assessment Tools of the Trade

This column is about some of the formal methods of self-assessment that are available to you through your campus or neighborhood career planning and placement center. There are many other methods of self-assessment, including self-guided exercises, role-playing games, written exercises, and paired and group exercises. Many of these are quite good and you should try them. However, formal exercises, such as those we will discuss here, are by far the most common and come with a vast amount of research and literature backing them up. As a result, they are a very stable first step into the self-assessment process.

Formal methods of self-assessment are commonly administered like standardized tests, not unlike the GRE (although some are now available online). A career counselor may often help interpret your results. Some of these exams are used not only for career guidance but also to help unravel dysfunctional situations in the workplace.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Test (MBTI)

There are several varieties of these tests, of which the Myers-Briggs is the most well-known, including the Kiersey Temperament Sorter, the Singer-Loomis and Grey-Wheelright tests, and other variants. All are based on the psychological theories of Carl Jung, who believed that people could be sorted into specific "psychological types." Very Teutonic, eh? Actually, the four different variables that make up the MBTI make some sense and are somewhat familiar. They are:

  • Extroversion versus Introversion

  • Sensing versus Intuiting

  • Thinking versus Feeling

  • Judging versus Perceiving

The book Do What You Are by Paul Tieger and Barbara Barron-Tieger describes the MBTI in full detail and profiles all 16 personality types and the types of careers they find fulfilling.

The MBTI is used a great deal in this country, mostly by workplace psychologists and management consultants to diagnose dysfunctional relationships in the workplace. Does it help to know that your arrogant, self-aggrandizing, totalitarian adviser is an ENTJ? Only if it results in some behavioral change or the loss of his job!

There are some career fields where particular personalities might feel more at home. For example, a person who scores high in Extroversion might be more happy in a job in sales or project management than would an Introvert. A "Judger" might not make as good a counselor as someone who scores high in "Perceiving" and "Feeling."

The Strong Interest Inventory (SII)

The Strong Interest Inventory works in a similar way to the MBTI by evaluating your responses to a series of questions about work situations, occupational likes and dislikes, and subject-matter interests. The SII sorts personalities into two of six personality bins. The SII also takes your answers and compares them with answers from a host of control responses, received from people in a variety of career fields who consider themselves "satisfied" with their career. Thus, your answers are compared to those from a group of broadcasters, hair stylists, college professors, city administrators, and others.

This gives you and your career counselor two ways of understanding the results--an absolute scale as well as a comparative scale. It can be interesting to see what careers most closely match your answers to the test: In my case, my answers were quite dissimilar to those from the career field of "geologist" but strongly similar to those from "speech pathologist," "college professor," and "executive housekeeper." Go figure!

The Career Beliefs Inventory (CBI)

Traditional career counseling and many self-assessment exercises try to match the skills, interests, and values of people with jobs. However, many of us know that a number of other more complex factors come into play in seeking a career, such as our past experiences, mentoring, and the expectation of others. In many cases, what guides us toward some careers and away from others are beliefs we hold based on our past experiences. These beliefs may create barriers that prevent us from considering all our options.

The CBI is designed to identify those barriers. Like the other self-assessment instruments mentioned above, the CBI is a multiple-choice test that is graded by computer. However, unlike the other assessment tools, the CBI is based on principles of cognitive psychology and tends to examine personal issues related to career development. For example, do you have a strong belief that your past training should be used in whatever future job you get? If so, you may be limiting yourself to jobs with a strong technical component. Do you feel the need to have your career planned in advance? If so, you may feel anxiety at being forced to change careers. Issues of belief such as these are at least as important as skills matching when it comes to finding a new career.

Because the CBI is based on cognitive psychology, it is particularly valuable for those people who feel great anxiety and depression about their current career situation. Scientists who feel trapped by their training, or pressured by their peers or mentors to consider only a few career options, may benefit the most from the approach taken by the CBI.

Skills and Values Card Sorts

Standardized assessment tools have a number of advantages. They are based on years of research, sound theory (sometimes), and provide a quantitative measure of important attributes. However, standardized assessments usually take several weeks to score, cost money (unless your school provides them for free, which many do), and often need the assistance of a career counselor to interpret.

Skills and values card sorts (there are several) are a quick and easy way to explore the same issues by yourself. The card-sort process involves taking a stack of cards, usually listing particular generic work skills or values, and sorting them. The sorting is done in a matrix. First, you sort the cards according to one axis, for example, proficiency, which you would sort from "highly proficient" to "little or no skill." Then you sort each subpile according to, for example, the degree to which you like using each of the listed skills, from "strongly dislike using" to "totally delight in using."

After constructing the matrix, you examine which skills or values you found both desirable to use and in which you believe yourself to be proficient. Careers that depend on those skills might be a good match. In contrast, skills that you do not have and/or hate using should be avoided. This seems rather elementary, perhaps even a bit pedantic, but you might be surprised at how many people work in jobs that have little overlap with the skills they have and like to use.

The card-sort process works well because it is quick to elicit a first impression about each listed skill. Its effectiveness is limited, however, because it is a relative ranking, is based on self-perception, and can be strongly affected by your mood from day to day.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Career Tests

OK, now I'm going to substantially undercut myself here and say: Career development tests are not necessarily the best guide to a successful career!

There are some books that purport to direct people to their "ideal careers" based on tests such as the Myers-Briggs, but this sounds a bit too reductionist to me. If you think about your present work situation, you have to admit that more than one personality type might be successful in such an environment. In fact, one of the strengths of a team is that each member approaches things from a somewhat different perspective. The last thing one would want is a bunch of clones.

I have found that some of the most productive and innovative people in a profession have been misfits who did not fit into the typical personality profile. Sometimes it is the dissonance between a person and their profession that can lead to innovation and reform. These tests (except for the CBI) may indicate what fields might be a good match for you. But if your heart is set on being a concert violinist, and your test results suggest this is a poor match, go with your heart.

No test can provide the answer. However, these tests may reveal a few things that you had not considered or interests you did not realize you had. The results might challenge your perceptions about what you think you should be pursuing as a career and may provide that bit of motivation to strike off and explore a new area. And, if you think about it, that's not a bad start to developing your own career!

Peter Fiske is a Ph.D. scientist and co-founder of RAPT Industries, a technology company in Fremont, California. He is the author of Put Your Science to Work and co-author, with Dr. Geoff Davis, of a blog (at phds.org) on science policy, economics, and educational initiatives that affect science employment. Fiske lives with his wife and two daughters in Oakland, California, and is a frequent lecturer on the subject of career development for scientists.