Looking Back to Look Forward

By Anna Marie Trester, FrameWorks Institute / Career Linguist

This weekend at Beyond the Professoriate we will come together to look back, to reflect on aspects of our training that show up in the work that we do today. We reflect on the journey, on the process. But why do we do this?

I think the answer begins with trying to identify what we share as PhDs, which I suggest has to do with a cultivated and honed shared set of practices, including having been trained to think in quite abstract ways. And thinking abstractly may at first seem to be a bad thing when we are working to discover the connections between this things that we know we are good at doing, and know that we really enjoy doing (so much so, in fact that we decided to devote YEARS of our life to studying those), and the professional expression of these knowledge, skills, and abilities. But as it turns out, the process of navigating a career takes every bit of our training as researchers, analysts, and pattern-finders. Additionally, thinking in abstraction may be particularly useful in finding meaning in our work.

This morning I was reading Shawn Achor’s book, The Happiness Advantage. He is a big fan of the research of Amy Wrzesniewski, a Professor of Organizational Behavior at Yale School of Management. Her work is focused on how people construct meaning of their work, and she looks especially at contexts where this work is challenging to describe, or difficult to see (i. e., virtual work). I think this is apt for those of us who have careers that involve professional expression of thinking in abstraction. In one creative application of her work taxonomy on job, career, calling, he challenges his clients to write “calling descriptions” instead of “job descriptions.” What would it look like to think about every task that you do as part of your job as contributing to something that you find meaning in? And as he described, this might take a few steps, or what we improvisational theater performers might call “and because of that’s.”

So let’s take for example, something that might seem like drudgery like data entry for tracking expenditures.

  • Where’s the meaning in that?
  • This process helps us to better understand how much money we spend.
  • Where’s the meaning in that?
  • This process helps us to see how much money we have left
  • Where’s the meaning in that?
  • This helps us to think about how we want to spend the money we have left
  • Where’s the meaning in that?
  • This helps us to more intentionally do the work of

As he describes, this is not about false affirmation, or papering over real problems or trying to Stuart Smalley your way through your job. This is about consciously deciding to remember why we do what we do, why we care about what we care about.

And so that is what I think is one of the prime opportunities that coming together on Saturday affords us: a chance to look back in order to look forward and think a bit together about why we do what we do in the ways that we do them.

I am a linguist, and for me, linguistics is ultimately about recognizing patterns, understanding how patterns express themselves. Beyond the Professoriate is a place to chase down patterns like how training in something like ethnography can show up in very different ways in very different kinds of work down the road. This is why I always ask of my interviewees for the “professional paths in Linguistics” section of my blog Career Linguist things like “how do your skills and training in linguistics show up in your work?” I try to get at least three answers.

But for all of us who have been trained as PhDs, such deliberate tracing back and reflecting on the links between our training and our work helps us to connect with meaning. Asking ourselves, “What makes me be good at this?” helps us to better understand our strengths, which helps us to better use them. When we make the conscious effort to remind ourselves why we care about the things that we care about, it can help us find the energy to do the aspects of the work that might be less than thrilling, or to work to recreate our jobs so that these tasks change, or work to create a career that involves a job change!

Getting to where you are going next begins with knowing where you are. Such navigation is essential for job-seekers and job-havers alike as we are all ALWAYS traveling on a path and moving forward. What comes next?

Join Anna and other PhDs who made the switch to a career in writing, teaching, or editing for a panel discussion dedicated to the topic, Saturday, 2 May, 2:00 – 3:20pm EDT during Beyond the Professoriate online conference. Register to attend.

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One thought on “Looking Back to Look Forward

  1. Pingback: Looking Back to Look Forward | Career Linguist

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