Telling your own stories in career transitions
Sometimes I give guest lectures to grad students about transitioning from academia to careers in industry. I always really enjoy these; I think the analytical, problem-solving, and insight skills of grads are amazing, and widely applicable to a growing number of jobs. At the same time, it can be such a difficult transition to navigate. I often get a ton of questions that center on one general theme: how do we make a case for ourselves when we're trying to change fields and don't feel like we have the same background as everyone else applying?
I get it. It really can be hard. When I was transitioning into industry, I felt lost, and muddled through a whole lot of processes that I didn’t understand. How do you convince a whole different field, especially one that speaks a different jargon from yours, that you’re valuable? How do you “market” yourself while remaining authentic? How do you mine your experience for relevant work, when you haven’t been given access to the type of work you want to transition into?
After you’ve boiled your CV into a resume, browsed the alt-ac tags on medium, and followed a few ten-step-checklists for scouring job ads, it can still be hard to know how to get across the tougher hurdles. But here’s something that really helped me: Talk about your experience and skills with a storytelling framework.
Along with research and stats, I write a lot of fiction. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how much the tools of narrative have helped me figure out how to talk about my professional identity. I think it helped me over numerous career transitions, so here are a few ways I think about it.
You get to be the protagonist.
Unlike in the academic research world, where we are trained to decenter our perspective and speak only of our findings as disembodied facts, you can make your career story about yourself. In fact, you have to. Think of yourself as the protagonist.
I found this a difficult switch. I hid behind passive jargon and labels, instead of describing my experience as a series of actions. I said that I worked on “developmental social cognition,” but not that I had sat every saturday morning in the entranceway of the local aquarium, patiently collecting hundreds of children’s responses to storybook scenarios. I said that I had “generated research articles,” but not that I had learnt to write an empirically-reviewed research paper and gone through the arduous process of incorporating scientific feedback. My career story had no life, and it was hard to understand from the outside, because I was asking people to infer so much about specialized, academic experiences.
But you really can treat yourself like the protagonist. Once you do that, other people can, too. Protagonists are accessible: we know them by their actions. Look at whether you've described your positions as a journey, where you made choices. Were these roles something that happened to you? Or can you find an outcome that you caused with your decision-making? As I began to uncover the protagonist perspective in how I talked about my career, everything I said changed. Things I hadn't thought about as useful skills before became key elements to the story. It wasn't just about dryly listing the outcomes of how many experiments I'd done, but why I'd chosen one experiment and method over another. I was a mentor to over twenty research assistants, and I spent extra time working on cross-cultural methodologies. It was decision-making and problem-solving.
Turn obstacles into quests.
Often when I help students revise cover letters or resumes, I notice they spend time justifying or explaining gaps in their experience. This can look like saying, “I know one of the job requirements is machine learning, and I only ever worked in a psychology lab….” or “even though I don’t have a degree in computer science…” I understand the impulse to explain these things! When we feel different from other people on the path toward a certain career, we want to acknowledge and justify our different skills. But this language can accidentally come off as overly defensive.
Thinking in terms of your overall story can also help with this. In stories, the protagonist will always encounter obstacles. In fact, it’s pretty boring if everything goes perfectly. One of the tricks I use to try to overcome my own worry about this is to imagine that these are quests, not limitations. The important thing for a protagonist is getting through the quests, not avoiding them altogether. Maybe the quest sets them on a new, unexpected path.
This is how I try to think about telling my story in a new field, too. I went to an undergrad that didn’t have computer science courses available to most students. I navigated into tech from the outside, with more of my years spent in social science. But my story changed when I learned to see that teaching myself to code on my own, outside of a classroom, was a valuable and unique experience instead of something that I had to dismiss or justify. The fact that I wasn't steeped in engineering culture lent me a fresh perspective in appreciating the human problems we were working on in applied research. It all became part of my story.
Make your good ending seem inevitable.
There’s a maxim about writing that says something like, “the end is always in the beginning.” This idea has always hit home for me--a really good story will echo pieces of the beginning, and even across unexpected twists and turns, we feel satisfied when it concludes in a place that seems right. Part of what you’re doing when you’re applying to a job (or any other situation where you need to convince someone of your skills) is weaving together a compelling story that makes you the fit.
This is the first thing I look for when I give feedback on student essays and cover letters: could nearly every sentence that lists out facts about their experience end with something like “...and that’s why I will be a good fit for this job”? Obviously, not everything will connect so directly, but the end should be clear, and it should be about the future. The next step in my journey should be this one.
This is scary for people trying to transition into a new field. It was scary for me. For a long while, I covered this fear by continuing to pile more facts and accomplishments into my career story. I would list bonus UX contracts that I did, or esoteric statistics models I’d figured out. These were all good things, but they weren’t actually about what I wanted. I was afraid to put passion, clarity, and desire into my career story. I constantly got feedback from peers that my cover letters and introductions were simply too dense. The future was getting lost in the past. I had workshopped my materials and identified my skills and thought of myself as the protagonist--but I hadn’t taken the final, crucial step of really believing in the future I was going after.
Finally, I made this switch. After all, we need to know what the protagonist cares about, so that we can care too. I re-drafted my cover letters to start and end with what I wanted: to work on real problems that impacted human beings, to use good ethical measurement to help empower people, and to work on a collaborative, fun team. These wishes and desires, backed up by more carefully-chosen facts, and given unique color by the obstacles I’d faced, became the heart of my career story. And when I let that heart have room, people noticed. They remembered what I’d said I was looking for, and connected me to more opportunities. I got more interviews, and found gigs that lined up with my values.
Whether or not you need to navigate into a new field like I did, I think working on a career story can be profoundly useful. I still come back to these exercises often. And we can have multiple stories. I'm constantly revising mine; another maxim about writing is that you never really end a story, you just choose a stopping place. So, here's one. :)