- Dave Clawson, Head Coach, Wake Forest University Football
Life Advice, Career Development, Opinion, Sports!
November brings with it a host of collegiate and professional sports taking place in the United States from American football to basketball and hockey.
Being a sports fan is a complex endeavor that can be both painful and joyous. Depending on the resources and talent on your favorite team they may be more or less likely to win games or an eventual championship. But anyone who has watched a few sporting events knows that sometimes (even often) the team that is favored to win doesn't for a variety of reasons including mistakes, luck, and an opponent being better on that day.
Winning is both difficult and unpredictable.
I grew up as a Wake Forest University Demon Deacon fan as both my parents went there. My sister is also a Wake alumnus and lives near the campus, only a few hours drive from my current home in Southwest Virginia. As such, for the past few years I have been to many Wake games with her and witnessed the highs and lows of fandom.
In 2021, the Wake Forest football team won 10 games (out of 12) in the regular season and advanced to the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) football championship game. It was an amazing season for a school with the smallest enrollment among institutions competing at the highest level of collegiate football in America. Despite what was objectively one of the best football seasons in Wake Forest HISTORY, there were still 3 losses that took place that year including in the ACC championship game itself with my sister, her boyfriend, our tailgate buddies, and myself present to witness it. That loss in particular still stings. We all know from behavioral economics that losses loom larger than gains and indeed any sports fan can tell you that losses stay with you longer (and eat at you more as you play the "what if" game) than the highs of a win.
While 2021 was an amazing football season for Wake Forest, 2023 has been a struggle. A team that has been so offensively gifted the past few years has had a difficult time scoring in 2023. At the college level players graduate and leave and so some variability in results is to be expected. Regardless, watching "your team" make mistakes and struggle is challenging. You can see the players are putting in effort but the results are just not there. You hope they continue to commit to the work of getting better, gelling more as a time (chemistry between the players is important), and realize that next year things can be different. However, a variety of factors in modern day college sports makes commitment of players more elusive than it has ever been.
Seismic Changes for American College Sports Landscape
The modern college sports landscape has introduced an interesting set of incentives that have cast a spotlight on what an athlete gets from their experience playing for a university. It used to be that an athletic scholarship and the chance to build skills and a resume that made one competitive to be selected to join a professional team (and get paid a professional athlete's salary) was what a prospective college athlete could expect. Now, in the revenue-generating sports of college football and basketball mostly male athletes have the ability to get paid for the use of their name, image, and likeness (NIL). In theory this sounds like a great idea as historically colleges with large fanbases generated millions of dollars in revenue from the efforts (and results) of their collegiate players who did not themselves reap many financial benefits despite the risk of playing physical and often violent sports. Practically, though, the ability for players to receive NIL compensation has become a "pay for play" arrangement where the most promising players are offered serious money (especially for a soon-to-be high school graduate) to come play on a university's team. As you can image, institutions with more resources are able to offer more to these high school prospects than those with smaller fanbases, less wealthy donors, or less lucrative media contracts. Yes, there are a set number of scholarships a school can give out so it is not possible to hoard talent in pure numbers but NIL has allowed for some of the best talent to concentrate at a select number of institutions.
And NIL is perhaps even more "effectively" used in combination with the "transfer portal", which allows players already on a collegiate team to express an interest in potentially leaving the team for a "better" opportunity. Again, in theory the transfer portal seems like a good idea. Allow collegiate players who have yet to find the right "fit" to be able to change their environment such that they can get the coaching and experience they need to develop and grow. And if someone is graduating from their current institution and seeking to enroll as a graduate student at a new institution that isn't all bad in terms of the educational and professional development. However, when coupled with NIL offers the transfer portal allows for more well resourced teams to potentially "poach" players from teams that are either underperforming and/or under-compensating their current scholarship recipients. Growth in transfer players on college football bowl subdivision rosters from 2019 to 2023 was >220% (from 6.4% to 20.5% of rosters), indicating this mechanism is becoming a more popular way for teams to upgrade their talent.
Don't Quit Just Because Things are Hard
Personally, I also believe the current system makes it easy for players to "quit" on their current team. Things not going well individually or as a team? Not getting the playing time you want? Feel like the coach is showing preference in terms of increased playing time to another player that you think you are better than? Put your name in the transfer portal in December and look for greener pastures. But is such an action what is ultimately best for these young men?
The individual player challenges mirror larger team challenges and fanbase angst over "winning". In sports, unlike many other aspects in life, there is an objective record of outcomes associated with a team each season: wins and loses.
The Fine Line Between Winning & Losing
A game that can run 3-3.5 hours in length for college football is eventually reflected in a single win or loss. There can easily be 80 plays per team with 22 players (11 on offense and another 11 on defense) on the field for each of them. While every player is not directly involved on every play for simplicity let's run the math assuming all 22 play a part in every play (which is more true than the casual fan realizes). This calculates to over 3,500 individual "actions" occurring in a single game. 3,500 actions and easily 80 total players involved per game. A game that again is ultimately reflected in a binary outcome: win or loss.
If you watch American football games for any length of time you begin to observe that the line between "winning" and "losing" is incredibly thin. Literally one or two plays out of the 80 or so each team runs can change the outcome of a game. So when one team wins and another loses, what really is the difference in talent and effort between them? Sometimes very little and sometimes a lot. One also must acknowledge that talent and effort alone don't determine outcomes. Luck is a factor for sure. Does a defender fall down and allow an offensive player to be open down the field for an easy touchdown pass? Does a sudden gust of wind knock a ball off course preventing a field goal kicking attempt from being good?
And what of the opposing team's effort? Fanbases will sometimes be so fixated on their own team that I think they sometimes forget that the other team has players who also want to win. So, your favorite team's success is not based completely on their own effort as they are playing against individuals who are also exerting effort and seeking an outcome (ie, a "win") that only one of you can obtain. And there are games where clearly the opposing team is just playing better or worst than your team, which will ultimately influences the outcome.
Development & Growth as Different Measures of Success
I say all of this to make clear that while teams are often judged on their record (ie, wins vs losses), these numbers cannot capture the effort of players, level of competition, and luck. A sensible fan should then not be so obsessed with these numbers but rather look more closely at the effort players are exerting. Players make up teams and with experience and development they can become more effective in their roles that will ultimately give one's team a better chance to win in the future. This is predicated on these players continuing with your team and committing to put in the work to get better over the years.
Wake Forest University's football team has been one particularly focused on developing its players with many "redshirting" (ie, not playing their 1st year) to allow them to remain eligible to be on the team for 5 (versus the usual 4) years. Most new additions to the team spend their first year practicing and learning the plays but never actually playing in a competitive game. This is the ultimately illustration of delaying gratification, realizing that the work they put in will often not be put on display for a year (or more!). This developmental model faces considerable headwinds in our modern era and the current collegiate sports environment. Will a freshman player with considerable talent and expectations be willing to wait their turn and trust the developmental process?
What is even the goal of playing on a collegiate athletic team? I mentioned many embark on this trajectory with the hopes of playing professionally but very few college players will "turn pro". So, while it seems to the external observer that the goal of playing in college is to become a professional athlete, the actual value in this experience is in the development of critical skills (leadership, dedication, hard work) for succeeding in the world after college. Furthermore, playing a college sport provides one memories that last a lifetime.
So, it is the JOURNEY of practicing, playing, and competing at the college level that matters most to most individuals rather than the DESTINATION per se. The phrase "focus on the journey not the destination" may be a tired one but that doesn't make it untrue. Results and outcomes are fleeting moments in time boiled down to numbers on a ledger X wins, Y losses. The experience of being on a team, forming bonds, and working toward a common goal is a rich one. A memory that will last and often ages well...many players come back to their alma matters many years later proud of their efforts playing on a past team.
Relation to Career & Professional Development
Chris, this blog normally focuses on career and professional development topics. What does all this sports talk have to do with that? A lot. First, most students and younger employees are seeking to grow and develop skills that will make them more marketable in the future (just as a college athlete is trying to develop skills and experiences for a professional career). Many will encounter challenges in these roles and setbacks are expected. Perseverance is key. Not giving up when things get touch at school, at work, etc... but realizing that through challenges comes personal growth and development.
Similarly, many of us focus on professional outcomes and not the process of developing as a professional. Just because you didn't get that promotion or land a new job doesn't mean the process of honing one's skills and revisiting and highlighting one's accomplishments aren't worthwhile in and of themselves.
In each competitive endeavor we undertake professionally the outcome may be binary - winning or losing - but we must look beyond that. Similarly a true fan must get past measuring "success" in wins and losses. Wins and losses are an external scorecard that cannot account for personal growth or internal state. We can lose but learn in the process. We can lose but know we are getting better and closer to a "win", even if we cannot completely predict when that win will come.
If we all focus a bit more on the process of personal growth and fulfillment versus looking at external measures to define success, we would all be better off as fans and professionals. You can't fully control if you "win" or "lose" but you can determine your mindset (if not always your mood). Certainly losing sucks and no one likes it. But being more reflective on an experience may allow us to take something positive from it regardless of the outcome. We may have lost the game but the defensive is playing better this year and hopefully the offensive improves next year as well (in the case of Wake Forest football). We didn't land that job we really wanted but we were reminded of all we have accomplished and have to offer our next potential employer.
The Internal Scorecard
I believe the key to moving from an external scorecard to internal growth is via personal commitment to our own development and not allowing factors external to us (and often outside our control) to govern how we feel about ourselves. This is a hard thing to do but we all would be better off adopting this mindset. And we can't give up when things get difficult. Success means more if it is achieved through overcoming adversity.
According to the professor and author Arthur Brooks, satisfaction is "the joy of accomplishing a goal with effort" (learn more about the art & science of happiness in the TEDx Talk featuring him, below).
The with effort part is important as it is achieving something through striving and overcoming obstacles and challenges that is rewarded in our physiology and psychology. You won't be satisfied if you always take the easy way out and don't commit to doing the work to get better at your craft (as an athlete or professional).
This past Saturday, Wake Forest played its last football game of the season at Syracuse and I was down at my parents house for the US Thanksgiving Holiday. Typically my Dad doesn't like to watch the whole game as it makes him nervous but we did turn it on with about 5 minutes left in the game. Wake was down but had a chance to go ahead with a score. They had scored more points in this game than any against conference opponents and had a relatively new player in leading the team at the quarterback position. We were excited to see the team executing on offense for a change as they moved the ball down the field. In the end, it came down to one play where the team couldn't get the ball in the end zone. But how exciting to witness what the players were capable of. We were proud if disappointed in the outcome. That performance gave us hope for next season.
And the post game press conference summed up our thoughts on really the whole season:
"I am not happy with our record but these guys showed up everyday, they prepared hard, they practiced hard, they played hard down to the final play....I understand we are expected to win football games and we accept that expectation but I am proud of our players."
- Dave Clawson, Head Coach, Wake Forest University Football
In the end, winning is great but it certainly is not guaranteed nor should it always be expected. Rather, relying on our own internal scorecard (a term popularized by the legendary investor Warren Buffett) and knowing work is being put in that will pay off is critical. In an ironic way the next win will mean more because of the past losses it can be measured and contrasted against.
This is also true in our professional and personal lives. After all, satisfaction, according to Arthur Brooks, only occurs when an accomplishment is achieved through effort. And so we all should seek to improve, to strive, to develop ourselves because we know that is winning at a personal level and no external force or factor can take that away from us.
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Life Advice, Personal Perspective, Job Search, Career Development
With near infinite distractions and choice available through modern technology, humans are often left adrift and detached from reality. While we think escape from life's hard problems is the answer, ultimate satisfaction usually comes from commitment and the overcoming of challenges. Dedicated: The Case for Commitment in an Age of Infinite Browsing by Pete Davis is a book that I think captures our current societal state while offering insights on what can be gained from commitment to causes bigger than ourselves.
In the book and his 2018 commencement speech at Harvard Law School that inspired it, Davis laments we, especially younger adults who were raised with the internet, smartphones, and on-demand content, are stuck in "Infinite Browsing Mode." This state, facilitated by technology, leaves us swiping through endless choice, content, and information and often paralyzes us from commitment. It may be most apparent as an issue in examples like browsing Netflix for a show to watch or scrolling through countless dating profiles on apps like Tinder and Bumble but it goes beyond this. It has permeated our society and culture and leaves people either afraid or unable to commit. Solving the world's biggest problems requires action not passive "browsing" and people would be on the whole happier and healthier if they detached from their screens and engaged with the physical world.
Making the effort to commit and live in the physical world is hard. It requires vulnerability and courage and a willingness to forego the easy but often unfulfilling online world for a messy, challenging, yet beautifully flawed "real world".
The book highlights three fears that stand in the way of making commitments:
I find the third point interesting as the author defines this as the worry that commitments we make will threaten our identity or sense of control. He mentions, and I agree, that there is a "messiness to working with other people" and that no organization, institution, group, employer, etc.... is going to perfectly match the characteristics we might desire and/or feel perfectly aligned with who we are.
It is certainly "easier" to remove the messiness of working with other people from one's life but it would lead to a less fulfilling experience. You can imagine that when we have a choice about whether to associate and work with others we may be even more hesitant to do so given this fear of association and all the challenges interpersonal relationships (even professional ones) have. But removing other human beings from our professional and personal lives is not the answer. We are a species who evolved to cooperate (and also compete & fight). It is core to our humanity and despite the challenges of working with others, it is something we cannot and should not excise from our lives.
In last month's post I spoke to current challenges in volunteer engagement with non-profit organizations across the United States. I see how this could be the result of individuals' fears of association mentioned above. Why would a person who already sees the challenges of working with others in their professional or personal life choose to work with even more individuals in a volunteer capacity? Why add more stress and potential interpersonal conflict to one's plate when you aren't paid to deal with it? How can you effectively work with and motivate individuals in these settings where no compensation is tied to their engagement? These are certainly valid points and challenges non-profit organizations have always faced.
The difference now, though, is that potential volunteers have so many options to occupy their time and even activities that may make them feel like they are making a difference. Sharing one's reactions and concerns on social media requires a few clicks on a keyboard or screen and can leave one with the impression that they have "done good". And certainly, engaging with organizations and causes online can be effective and useful in its own way. Nothing, however, replaces true engagement in a cause or organization and the satisfaction that can come when working with others towards a common objective or goal.
Breaking out of "Infinite Browsing Mode" in our age of distraction and cynicism requires us to dedicate ourselves to something larger than us - to a cause or community that matters.
Davis talks about sustained commitment and that many of us are led to believe we will find "success" or self-actualization through some major, life-defining moment like the climax of a Hollywood film. Often, however, we change and grow gradually and our lives are filled "not with big, brave moments, but a stream of little, ordinary ones out of which we must make our own meaning." And in an age of endless distraction, staying committed to work or causes over time is very challenging. He goes on to state that everyday boredom, distraction, and uncertainty threaten sustained commitment.
Dedication and Your Career
As someone who works to support career and professional development of graduate students and postdocs, I think a lot about how developing oneself and advancing toward a career goal also requires a gradual and sustained approach. Commitment to learning a bit more or advancing a bit more in one's craft can ultimately yield results but it rarely happens overnight. Similarly, "networking" to land a job takes time and should ideally be done months if not years in advance. Relationships need to be cultivated to yield fruitful results.
I wrote a few years ago about compound returns in growing one's network and ultimately career. I need to update that piece soon as I have certainly seen how the visibility of this blog, my website, and my personal "brand" have grown over the past few years. Importantly, this didn't happen overnight and requires a relatively small but sustained commitment on my part: to publish a blog post once per month. I have been doing this since early 2019 and after nearly 5 years, I am seeing sustained interest in the resources and content I share here and in my monthly newsletter (launched in January 2021). I think doing all this helps me build professional credibility and also provides me a means of sharing resources and readings I care about with others who may be interested. It allows me to extend my reach beyond my day job and contribute to the field of graduate and postdoc career development.
While I wouldn't call myself a "thought leader" in this space (and don't really like that term to begin with), I do think maintaining this personal website, blog, and newsletter has allowed me to build professional capital. After I landed my current role at Virginia Tech, our Senior Vice President of Research and Innovation commented that he really liked my website. While I don't think having this platform got me my current role, it certainly was an attribute that stood out to my employer.
Do you need to go out and create website, blog, YouTube channel, or newsletter to build your personal brand? Not necessarily. The point of this story is that I found an avenue outside my work responsibilities to contribute to my community and share resources. Furthermore, my efforts are gaining traction after dedicating myself to continuing these efforts over many years.
What could a commitment to your own career and professional development look like for you? Maybe a Coursera course or training on a skill you would like to build? Or perhaps attending a campus workshop on a topic you have been curious to learn more about? There is so much out there for you to engage in and online platforms like Coursera, LinkedIn Learning, and even YouTube make accessing new knowledge and developing new skills easier than ever.
The same technology that distracts us can empower us. As with so many things, it is how we use the internet and online platforms that matters.
Commitment to a Craft, Activity, & Others: Developing Good Habits
Maybe you want to focus on activities that go beyond pure professional development for career advancement. This could include committing to read 5 pages of a book that interests you each day or spending 30 minutes each night knitting a sweater for your grandma or spending an hour every Saturday tending to your garden. Or how about taking ~45 minutes each month to call your Mom and check in on her? It could be anything that brings you a sense of fulfillment and purpose. And committing to such time is important for your mental health and well being. I personally love my ~30-minute morning walks each day where I listen to a podcast and learn something new (on diverse topics from business and economics to neuroscience and the job search process). These small acts, executed consistently over long periods of time can lead to dramatic changes to you, your environment, and those you care about.
For more see this short video covering some topics and recommendations around good habit formation from James Clear's book, Atomic Habits.
Dedication and commitment to any cause, activity, or action helps develop the habit of said action. And once something has become a habit, it becomes automatic and less subject to disruption by our rationalizing mind with excuses like "I will get to that tomorrow" or "the weather is bad today". Habits become a sticky aspect of our behavior...hard to disrupt. In some sense, habitual actions become a part of us. Who wouldn't want to develop the habit of self improvement or volunteering or being a more kind and compassionate human being? Most of us want these things but if we do not commitment to consistently engaging in these activities we are almost certainly doomed to fail. Forming a habit requires considerable intention and effort early on but ultimately it can become second nature.
To close, dedication and commitment are not easy. But they also can start from small acts, performed consistently over time. The formation of good habits that help you develop and grow or contribute to other's well-being are ultimately worth the initial effort. They leave us with improved skills, more diverse interests, and/or those around us more supported, engaged, and loved. We all feel like we could be doing more to both better ourselves and make the world a better place and certainly there is much to be done. But starting small and realizing that any action you take either internally or externally can lead to meaningful changes in your life and the lives of others is critical.
It won't be easy at times to stay committed to causes and activities you care about but in the end it will be worth it.
"Commitment is about choosing to pursue—in the face of our limited length—boundless depth, for the more time we add to something, the more beautiful it becomes. The two meanings of the word “dedicate” are revealing. First, it means to make something holy (like “dedicate a memorial”). But it also means to stick at something for a long time (like “she was dedicated to the project”). I don’t think this is a coincidence: We do something holy in the extraordinary moments when we set out on long hauls, and we do something holy in those countless ordinary moments when we sustain them."
- Pete Davis, Author of Dedicated: The Case for Commitment in an Age of Infinite Browsing
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Neuroscience, Career Development, Life Advice, Personal Perspective
In last month's blog post I discussed how our perspective matters in how we interact with and see the world. As I was exploring research to cite in that piece I came across some very interesting work related to how how a person's mindset can affect them, physically.
Much of this work comes from Alia Crum, an Associate Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. The Stanford Mind & Body Lab she directs studies how subjective mindsets (e.g., thoughts, beliefs, and expectations) can alter objective reality through behavioral, psychological, and physiological mechanisms. Her first publication, Mind-set Matters: Exercise and the Placebo Effect, found that informing female hotel room attendants that their work cleaning rooms was good exercise that satisfied the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's recommendations for an active lifestyle perceived themselves getting significantly more exercise 4 weeks later than a control group despite no overt change in their actual physical activity. Informing the attendants that their work was good exercise also affected their physiology measured at the 4-week time point. In fact, the subjects in the informed group lost an average of 2 pounds, lowered their systolic blood pressure by 10 points, and were significantly healthier as measured by body-fat percentage and body mass index.
This study is a remarkable demonstration of how perception and belief an affect not only how one perceives their actions but also how this impacts their bodies and health. Crum has gone on to examine other interesting effects of mindset and beliefs on human physiology including how a milkshake perceived as more caloric and decadent increased participants' feeling of satiety ("fullness") and reduced ghrelin levels (a physiological signal for satiety) more than a milkshake labeled as healthy/diet despite the fact the milkshakes were identical in their make-up. The simple belief that one shake was more decadent and rich (despite it not actually being so) led to a physiological signal of more "satisfaction". Beliefs are powerful things.
Watch Dr. Crum's excellent Ted Talk discussing her research & the impact our mindsets make.
And while certainly these findings are interesting and potentially impactful in how we think about food and exercise, Crum and others have also demonstrated the power of mindset on our mental state and ability to function productively in the world.
For example, stress can both enhance and hinder human performance and work by Crum and colleagues show that one's stress mindset can impact both physiology and behavior. Based on responses to a scale developed by these researchers (Stress Mindset Measure), individuals fall into either a “stress-is-enhancing” or “stress-is-debilitating” mindset by default. Importantly, though, information presented to individuals that emphasize the enhancing nature of stress show improvements in self-reported health and work performance. Additionally, the authors found that individuals with a stress-is-enhancing mindset have a stronger desire to receive feedback on their performance and show more adaptive cortisol (stress hormone) profiles under acute stress.
Crum's stress work indicates the importance of mindset on how we respond to challenges in the world. One of her most recent publications, though, takes her lab work out into the real world. Specifically, they investigated differences in how individuals viewed the COVID-19 pandemic at its outset in Spring 2020 and the impact these varied viewpoints had on a variety of measures collected from them 6 weeks and 6 months later. Over 20,000 American adults participated in this study at intake (which took place on the very day the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a global pandemic: March 11, 2020) with analyses investigating subgroups that completed the follow-up assessments at 6 weeks (May 2020; n=9,643) and 6 months (October 2020; n=7,287) post initial assessment. A total of 5,365 COVID-negative participants completed all three surveys and were included in the subsequent longitudinal analyses by the team.
Study participants' mindsets (using a modified version of the Illness Mindset Inventory, for more see) about the pandemic were categorized along three dimensions:
Here is an excerpt from the discussion section of their paper explaining their findings:
"Those who endorsed the catastrophe mindset more than others took the situation more seriously; they stayed home, washed their hands, and (when it was recommended) started wearing a mask. Interestingly, this appeared to be at the expense of other aspects of their wellbeing.
This contrasts with the effects of the manageable mindset. Despite maintaining high levels of wellbeing during the pandemic, people who adopted the manageable mindset to a greater extent than others were much less likely to prioritize these CDC recommendations. As such, endorsement of this mindset may reflect an attempt to deny the reality of the global pandemic and a refusal to engage with it in a socially responsible way. Over time, as people adjusted to the changes necessitated by the pandemic, it may have become more adaptive.
The opportunity mindset seemed to provide the best of both worldviews; those who adopted this mindset to a greater degree compared to others staved off major declines in wellbeing without subverting the behaviors necessary to engage with the pandemic in a socially responsible way."
Opportunity, Optimism, and Your Job Search
Indeed, framing stressful and challenging situations as an opportunity is crucial to aid us in persisting in activities despite the perceived and real barriers we face. And viewing the stress associated with life as enhancing can help us channel our stress to productive efforts.
For many seeking to enter the world of work, the modern job search is one of those stressful experiences than can benefit from a mindset shift.
Your mindset affects your career.
Data show that students with a lifelong learning mindset (ie, a growth mindset) receive higher supervisor ratings of their performance in a co-operative education program and report higher levels of job satisfaction, work engagement, and job-related self-efficacy in their careers after graduation. In addition, they receive more promotions in their careers.
A study of Duke University MBA students mirrored these findings: those with an optimistic attitude about life (assessed at the beginning of their graduate program) received more internship offers, had better employment prospects at graduation, and were more likely to be promoted 2 years after graduation.
Your mindset, uncertainty, and the future.
We must acknowledge that while optimism and a growth mindset can help you navigate the world and your career more effectively, we are living through a time of rapid technological progress and change. The rise of artificial intelligence, machine learning, large language models, and more have added increased levels of anxiety amongst knowledge workers (a topic I will discuss in March's blog post). We must remember though, that by its very nature, the future is uncertain and unpredictable. Dealing with this uncertainty and change by abandoning your agency is not a winning strategy, however.
Regardless of what is happening in the ever-changing external world, we must believe that we have, at minimum, control over our mindset and, as a result, believe that things can get better for us despite the stress and uncertainty we face. Cultivate optimism and a growth mindset.
Indeed, optimistic individuals tend to have better health prospects and live longer and cultivating a growth mindset is associated with increased subjective well-being & health and relationship & job satisfaction.
Optimism & Your Career
I spend much of my working days thinking about how to help individuals with Ph.D.s navigate their careers. It is both a reflection of human nature and a sign of the times that some of the most educated individuals in society are stressed, anxious, and pessimistic about their job prospects.
Some of this is surely rooted in how academia has constructed graduate and postdoctoral training (ie, an apprenticeship model) as well as actual barriers to work that exist for international students and scholars needing work visas to be employed in the United States, for example.
A great deal of job search anxiety comes from the fact that humans are often wired to focus on what they don't have versus the attributes they do possess (see last month's post and a discussion of the negativity bias). We all have valuable skills and perspectives to share but we have to believe this is the case before we can convince others of these facts.
In addition, we need to work to channel our stress and unease about a job search into productive efforts (ie, view stress as enhancing vs debilitating). Instead of allowing our feelings of inadequacy to push us toward a state of inaction or resignation remember that growth and development is part of life. Just because you aren't good at something yet doesn't mean you can't develop that skill or competency.
Take a growth mindset to developing your growth mindset. Construct a plan to enable you to assess your skills, determine where you need to develop, and chart your future, ideally before you enter a job search.
To return to the fundamentals of your mindset, a critical first step to making progress in your career, job search, and life is believing you have something to offer and contribute. Focusing on your strengths and unique experiences can help and as we have seen in some of the data shared in this piece, simply reframing your beliefs (in this case about your job search) in an affirming light - I have something to offer and contribute - can make all the difference in your experience and even, perhaps, your outcomes.
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Tools & Resources, Career Development, Professional Development
This post is adapted from an earlier piece that ran in the National Postdoctoral Association's POSTDOCket online newsletter in May 2020.
The National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) is a member-driven organization, relying on volunteer efforts of its members to advance the mission of the NPA. One of the volunteer committees, the Resource Development Committee (ResDev), develops tools and resources for the postdoctoral community, including planning and implementing webinar series, and creating website content such as career development resources and guides for postdocs. Volunteering with ResDev is a fantastic opportunity for postdocs and postdoc administrators alike to provide essential input into the creation, curation, and promotion of these invaluable training resources while gaining leadership experience.
Anyone who is interested in getting involved with ResDev can sign up to volunteer via this weblink.
Resources Available for Postdocs
ResDev has developed three new career guides for postdocs: A Postdoc's Guide To The Postdoc Timeline, A Postdoc's Guide To Career Development, and most recently, My IDP & Me.
A Postdoc’s Guide To The Postdoc Timeline assists trainees in developing a research, professional, and career development plan for each stage of postdoc training, providing recommendations that start at the very beginning (first 6-8 weeks of the postdoc) through planning for transition (final 3-6 months). The timeline links to helpful resources and suggestions for incorporating the six NPA Core Competencies into an individual training plan.
The Career Development Guide introduces key concepts of the career development process, providing explanations and resources to assist in both career exploration and the job search. The guide discusses self-assessment, exploring various career paths, networking, and informational interviews, preparing job search materials such as CVs, resumes, and cover letters, interviewing, and negotiating. The guide has also compiled a list of helpful resources to get trainees started, including on-campus resources, books, online career guides, and other web-based resources.
My IDP & Me
While many postdoctoral scholars have heard they should consider creating an individual development plan (IDP), a practical guide to the IDP process is lacking. In fact, many postdocs forget that an IDP is part of a process and is a living, evolving document. You should revisit your IDP relatively frequently and the NPA’s ResDev committee’s new reference document, My IDP & Me, can help.
My IDP & Me is a comprehensive guide for postdocs seeking to develop a plan for their training and career development that assists them in reaching their long-term career goals. Particularly, this guide was created to highlight the IDP as a self-directed process. So, regardless of whether your institution promotes and facilitates the creation and use of an IDP, you can use our My IDP & Me guide to walk you through the process independently or dive into it more deeply.
To develop an effective IDP, you will need to take the time to make an initial assessment of current values (personal and professional), skills/techniques (within and outside of the area of doctoral expertise), and goals for the future. The My IDP & Me guide links to a variety of tools and resources to help you throughout the process from initial self-assessment to informational interviews and having (sometimes difficult) career conversations with your advisor. Using My IDP & Me alongside our Postdoc’s Guide to the Postdoc Timeline and other NPA resources can help you create a comprehensive plan for how your postdoc should evolve, making time for training and career development, from day one.
Essentially, you should use an IDP as a living roadmap to achieve your career goals. Taking time to formally reflect, research, and plan will let you target skills and connections you need to develop during your postdoc to help move into your desired career path(s).
Furthermore, the IDP can assist you in mapping out the steps you need to take to be competitive for multiple career paths. Exploring and preparing for multiple career paths will help you see that there are many potential careers available to you. In addition, this process will increase your confidence in your future, that you can be proactive in your career and professional development to set yourself up to be competitive for a variety of post-postdoc careers.
By using our My IDP & Me guide and other NPA resources, you can begin to empower yourself with the knowledge you need to prepare for whatever career lies ahead of you.
More from the Blog
Additional Readings & References
Tools & Resources, Career Exploration, Career Development, Job Search, Academic Job Search
The community of professionals supporting graduate student and postdoctoral scholar career and professional development is one of the most sharing I have been a part of. So many individuals and organizations have contributed resources and programming online, accelerated by the need to pivot to virtual programming during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This has resulted in an explosion of online tools, resources, and videos focused on a range of professional development topics from navigating the faculty job search to informational interviewing and negotiation. In this post, I will seek to organize and curate some of these resources to better assist graduate students, postdocs, and those who support them.
Resources for Postdoctoral Scholars (and beyond!)
The National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) has a range of resources on their website including a growing resource library (note content is being updated as part of a website refresh in Spring 2022) containing guides on topics from mentorship to career planning. If you are an individual (postdoc, graduate student, faculty member) at an organizational member of the NPA, you can also access these resources and a wealth of webinar recordings for FREE using your institutional email address upon registration as an NPA member.
Another great program to be aware of if you are current or prospective postdoctoral scholar or individual supporting postdocs is the Postdoc Academy which organizes two different online courses, Succeeding as a Postdoc and Building Skills for a Successful Career on edX.
The Postdoc Academy’s upcoming online course opportunities are as follows:
ImaginePhD: An indispensable tool for career exploration
ImaginePhD is a FREE online career exploration tool created by members of the Graduate Career Consortium (GCC), a community of professionals working to support graduate students and postdoctoral scholars in their career and professional development. While this website is branded for a humanities and social sciences audience, I would argue it is one of the most powerful career exploration tools out there and useful to researchers in any discipline (myIDP and ChemIDP are also great resources).
Some highlights from the ImaginePhD platform:
Amazing Content Available on YouTube
Many career and professional development offices have put their content on YouTube, making the excellent advice and resources they share accessible to all. I applaud their efforts and highlight a few of them below.
University of Pennsylvania Career Services: Job Search Skills Series, many feature Dr. Joseph Barber, GCC Member
In addition, the Informational Interview Guide for Graduate Students and Postdocs from UPenn is an amazingly handy guide to perhaps the single most important action you can take to learn about your career options and build your network.
For the Faculty Job Search
University of Michigan School of Medicine’s Office of Graduate & Postdoctoral Studies professional development team, led by GCC members Dr. Shoba Subramanian and Beth Bodiya, have an amazing “Faculty Corner” Series, which features recorded interviews and professional development talks from expert UM faculty covering issues surrounding academic job preparation, interview and negotiation, lab/time/project/personnel management, funding, publications, and work-life balance.
See also Penn Career Services’ Faculty Job Search Prep Camp YouTube Playlist
As a side note, during my time at North Carolina State University, we curated some tips and resources for navigating a faculty job search on our ImPACKful blog.
A few other excellent YouTube Channels to follow for career & professional development resources:
Additional Online Resources
The University of California San Francisco (UCSF) Office of Career & Professional Development has a wealth of resources available on their website, organized by different training areas and career goals. Explore some of them at the links below.
The Academic Career Readiness Assessment (ACRA) is a powerful resource for those seeking a faculty career after their training. It seeks to capture the minimum level of qualifications a search committee at a research-intensive, teaching-focused, or research and teaching-focused institution expects in a faculty candidate and the level of expertise most desired of candidates in different domains (teaching, research independence, experience working with students, etc).
Learn more about the creation of the ACRA in this publication.
I also recommend Vanderbilt University’s Office of Biomedical Research Education and Training (BRET)’s Beyond the Lab Video Series, featuring informational interviews with Ph.D.-holders who have pursued a variety of careers after graduate school or postdoctoral training. These serve as excellent resources to begin exploring available career pathways in addition to modeling some of the questions you may want to ask as part of an informational interview.
And while the final online resource I am sharing is not from a university, iBiology, a non-profit organization funded by NSF and NIGMS, has an amazing library of professional development videos and self-paced online courses on topics including career exploration, planning your scientific journey (very relevant for early-stage graduate students), and how to give an effective presentation that you should definitely check out!
Utilizing Online Resources in Career & Professional Development Programming
If you are an administrator or faculty member seeking to provide career and professional development support to graduate students and postdoctoral scholars, how might you leverage the resources I’ve shared above? One approach is to have your students and postdocs watch a YouTube video on a topic of relevance and then spend your time with them discussing the topic in more detail and highlight institutional resources available to them. For example, you might have them watch a video on leveraging LinkedIn in advance and spend your workshop discussing how participants plan to implement the advice they received in crafting their profiles.
In addition, online self-assessment and career exploration tools like ImaginePhD allow for trainees to do some pre-work before coming to a workshop to discuss career exploration in more detail. I find having workshop participants explore the ImaginePhD platform on their own and then share something interesting they learned with others in a small breakout room opens their eyes to the richness of information and resources on the platform.
Using online tools and resources can really expand the bandwidth of a small office (or office of one) tasked with supporting graduate students and postdocs. In addition, resources like iBiology’s Mentoring Master Class: Peer Mentoring Groups overview empowers trainees to create their own groups to support one another in their training, job search, and beyond.
I hope by highlighting these online resources in one place, you can become aware of impactful programs taking place across the United States. Furthermore, now that many programs have moved online and are being recorded and widely disseminated, access to great advice and resources to help you navigate your career and professional development and job search has never been easier. I encourage you, whether you are a professional trying to provide career and professional development support at your institution or a student or postdoc, to take advantage of these resources and join me in thanking the sharing, collegial community of professionals that have made them open for all to access and benefit from. Get exploring today!
A neuroscientist by training, I now work to improve the career readiness of graduate students and postdoctoral scholars.