One approach to career counseling, advocated by theorist John Krumboltz, incorporates the theory of "learning experiences": that we learn about occupations, and how to select a career, by drawing on our direct experiences or modeling what we see in the lives of people around us. This means that analyzing our own experiences is valuable--and that learning about the experiences of others can also be instructive. So let me introduce Elsie.

Elsie is 30-something and married, is expecting her first child, and loves science. Her husband's career is fairly flexible. She has a doctorate in toxicology from a well-known research university. As a graduate student, she had a first-author paper, contributed to a second paper, successfully submitted several meeting abstracts, and had leadership and teaching activities common for graduate students. She is currently doing a postdoc in parasitology--her field of interest due to some brief work experience before graduate school. She's been working at a prestigious research university for over a year, and her project is going well, with writing projects in the works. An outsider might view Elsie as "having everything": Her career is on track, home life is good, and she knows she wants to stay in science.

So why is Elsie seeking career counseling? When I first met her, she said her interests included becoming a faculty member at a research university, working in parasitology or in industry developing drugs to treat parasite infestation, or becoming a science magazine editor. Bright people often have many career opportunities, whether they're aware of them or not, and even the most successful science trainees sometimes seek alternatives to the typical academic career track. Elsie sought career counseling because, despite her current success, she wasn't sure what she wanted to do next.

Elsie's case is not exactly typical; for one thing, I've never met her in person. For another, she knows that I'm using her example for an advice column. These facts may alter the dynamic of our interaction, since Elsie knows that I have interests in our interaction than the long-term health of her professional life. But other than that, the process I've gone through with Elsie is much the same as it would be for anyone who walked into my career counseling office.

After some chitchat, a career counselor typically begins by asking why the client is seeking assistance. The counselor then gathers some basic work history and personal facts, much like the ones summarized above. In real life, a counselor would continue based on what he or she perceives to be the client's needs. I asked Elsie to complete a couple of exercises in order to make her more conscious of the values, goals, and life experiences that will influence her career choices.

The first exercise she completed was a values card sort. She sorted a stack of 50+ cards (like playing cards) that each had a value stated on them. After identifying her top 15 values, she ranked them by their relative importance to her. Some of the things she valued most were having financial security; being a good parent; having a pleasant home environment; using her mind, her skills, and her abilities; working internationally; and being respected.

The second exercise I assigned Elsie is one you may do yourself without the assistance of a counselor. It has a variety of names among career counselors; I'll call it a life diagram. To complete this exercise, you'll need a large sheet of paper, a pencil, and some private time.

  • First, draw a line on the paper with a beginning and an end representing the beginning and the end of your life. This line can be straight, have peaks and valleys, or randomly progress across the page.

  • Next, fill in significant events in your life starting when you were little and progressing until your current age. Focus on times when you had personal growth, accomplished a major goal, and experienced events that changed your life.

  • Fill in the future, up to age 100. Include as many accomplishments you can, and note approximately when you expect to accomplish them. These should be things related to your professional and personal life.

  • When Elsie completed this exercise, she was surprised how her parent's divorce and the moving around she experienced as a child influence her today. Elsie doesn't want to move too much when raising her child. Elsie also found it was hard to make solid career predictions such as "become an assistant professor" or "get tenure." Instead, she listed vague generalities; many her more specific goals were not career-related, or not obviously so. For example, Elsie hopes to serve as a mentor for someone, set up a collaboration overseas to work on parasites, live abroad, learn Spanish, and do some traveling.

    I then asked Elsie some open-ended questions:

    • How does her desire to work abroad and travel fit with her desire to stay put while raising her child?

    • What, exactly, do working and living abroad mean to her? Where? For how long? What kind of work?

    • What other location-related factors might influence her job selection?

    Elsie told me that she and her husband would like to live somewhere where their salaries could provide them with a good standard of living.

    I've also encouraged Elsie to work on the following information-gathering tasks:

    • Identify a number of organizations or companies that do parasitology research.

    • List at least 10 universities were she might consider accepting a faculty position, regardless of whether a position is available.

    • Rewrite her CV to greater reflect her postdoctoral status. Additionally, create a list of strengths and weaknesses an employer might see in her from what is on her CV.

    So what's the end game? There isn't one, at least not yet. This isn't a process with a definite conclusion, at least not in the short term. Hopefully, Elsie now has a better understanding of her career goals and the relationship between the personal and professional aspects of her life. I think she now has deeper insights into what drives her. Elsie and I, together, are working toward a career plan that will, with a bit of luck, be consistent with her goals and her personal values.

    I hope that Elsie's example can show you how self-reflection, planning, and research might help you make decisions about your future career. I'll report on her progress in the spring. Career activists do something--such as self-assessment exercises and occupational research--when it comes to planning their future. Complaining or saying you'll do that eventually never gets you anywhere!