In graduate school, particularly before I was 100% certain I would not be pursuing the academic job market, I worried quite a bit about my “story.” I didn’t think I was the type of person who had a good story.
A good story is one that ties all of your work into a coherent narrative. It shows the world that you have solid, consistent interests that you’ve explored through multiple avenues. It lets potential employers envision the type of work you might contribute to their organization and reputation.
Me? I was working in four labs simultaneously at one point, not because the projects told different aspects of a consistent story, but because each contributed something to my personal experience. In one I got to do psychology in a business school setting, which is a bit different. In another, I got to work with an admired professor. In a third, I was managing lab assistants and playing a leadership role. And the fourth? I just thought the project was cool. No story here.
The funny thing is, with a decade of distance and increased experience, I know see that I do have a story. It’s one I’ve tried to briefly tell in my website description: Organizational psychologist who changes behaviors to make people healthier and happier. Some of the threads that pop up again and again in my work are relationships, personal identity, motivation, high performance, and happiness. I tend to use a variety of questions and techniques to look at these concepts, but they remain the ones that captivate me.
Your Story At Work
Part of me was hoping that leaving grad school and shifting to the non-academic world would eliminate this frustrating focus on telling my story, but it has not. If anything, telling a good story about your professional identity and your contributions to the world is even more important now than it was on the job market. Your story helps you:
- Articulate your value, which can directly impact your compensation, status, and the quality and visibility of projects you are asked to work on
- Position yourself for new projects or roles that match your interests and talents, and help you grow to your next role
- Solidify a reputation in your professional network, which again will shape the opportunities you have and the new people you meet
How do you write your career narrative?
Your story in a work environment is a bit different that your story as a job candidate. Whereas the latter is very individually-focused and emphasizes your research interests, the former focuses on the value you bring to an organization. This may be financial value–it’s never ever a bad thing to be able to say you contributed to a specific financial achievement–but it may also be reputational or product-focused. While my advice is probably best suited to folks like myself who have a research and writing component to their job, it can be adapted for pretty much any role.
When you’re creating your career narrative within a workplace, some questions to consider include:
- How have you been able to directly contribute to stated company goals? (If it’s available, reference any document describing your company’s goals for the current year and use key words that align with those goals in your statement.)
- What story can your company now tell about its products or services as a result of work you’ve done? Have you produced case studies that can improve the company reputation or prove product value? Have you done research that led to improvements in what your company does? Have you helped make a process more efficient or effective? Have you made a customer happy?
- What is the bridge between your personal research and professional interests and your company’s well-being? I have found that there is a strong story I can tell that shows value for my company in pursuing work on health, happiness, and performance, especially as it relates to modifiable health risks. I have a less strong story about relationships, given the types of products we make, so this interest of mine has become something I pursue more on my own outside of core projects.
- Who do you know as a result of your professional expertise? Answering this question helps you to clarify how you might be shaping your company reputation in the wider marketplace, as well as understand the connections you might be able to create. Your value comes from being a broker of relationships as well as a creator of products or ideas.
My own career narrative is in process, and I suspect it always will be. But as I mentioned, time and experience make the process less painful, and it’s been gratifying to be able to slowly pull in additional threads from my past to my narrative. That was one reason I was so excited to find and re-read my teaching philosophy, and see consistent themes across the years.
So start thinking: What’s your story?