Once upon a time… role models, stories and finding your own career Pathways

Once upon a time, I wanted to be a vet.  I was four years old, I liked animals and when we took my cat to the vet, I saw people who got to work with animals every day.  So determined did I seem,  that my mother even bought me a book about becoming a vet, Ms. Veterinarian by Mary Price Lee (the title might seem strange now, but back in 1976 it was rare for women to pursue veterinary careers; now nearly 60% of veterinary professionals are women).  Events took an unfortunate turn for my cat and I discovered the less pleasant aspects of a vet’s job – so I just as determinedly decided that this was definitely not the career for me.

How was I making my career decisions between the ages of 4 and 8? I had information based on my preferences (liking animals, and liking them alive), a role model (our family vet), and a book about careers as a vet.  Seems reasonable, but it’s safe to say, I wasn’t really thinking about things much, just operating on impressions.  I would like to say that this changed early in my career development but then this wouldn’t be much of a career story.

My high school didn’t offer careers guidance.  In those pre-internet days, I used the most ubiquitous and easily accessible form of information available, film and television. It may seem silly now, but thirty years later, children are still using television as a source of career information.  So – film buffs, it was 1981 – what film inspired me to be an archaeologist, and most significantly, at the age of 9, decide to get a PhD?  Other than a bit of dirt under the fingernails archaeology seemed free of occupational unpleasantness (current archaeologists may disagree) and I pursued this path until 2003 but it still didn’t feel like the ‘right’ choice.

Role models, as Robert Merton (he coined the phrase) demonstrated, are an important source of information about careers and professional identities- arguably the most important because often we are not even aware of their influence on our decisions.  Role models show us and tell us what it’s like to work as a veterinarian, an archaeologist, a teacher, a careers consultant, a policy officer, an entrepreneur, an aid worker, a cartographer.  Their career stories are valuable sources of information, advice, inspiration, ideas for experimentation, testing and exploring – but only if we don’t take the stories at face value and learn to ask our role models the right questions (although I admit, asking Harrison Ford what being an archaeologist was really like probably wouldn’t have got me much further ahead).

The poet John Oldham said, "And all your future lies under your hat." How can you make sure it's the right hat?
The poet John Oldham said, “And all your future lies under your hat.” How can you make sure it’s the right hat?

It wasn’t until I started working in careers as a researcher that I learned the critical questions to ask, of role models and their career stories as well as reflective questions to ask of myselfThis is how you make the most of what role models have to offer, and how you incorporate their information into an personalised, informed decision-making process.  Finally learning to do this helped me find my ideal career and set me on the pathway to becoming a careers consultant.

At Pathways 2015, you will have the opportunity to encounter the career stories of a diverse range of professionals with PhDs (i.e., role models). This is an opportunity to get beyond vague impressions of jobs and career paths:

  • What will you learn from hearing panellists’ stories?
  • What questions will you ask them?
  • What will you be listening for?
  • What friends can you make on the day?
  • What stories do they have that you can learn from?
  • What can you teach them from sharing your own stories?
  • In what ways do you hope Pathways 2015 can help you take the next step in your career?

Image: Brown felt fedora by Ivy Dawned is licensed under CC BY 4.0

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