As a graduate student, you have a knowledge base and skill-set that makes you an attractive candidate to prospective employers in industry, government, and nonprofit sectors. But how do you understand your career options and translate your skills, content knowledge, and interests into job opportunities?
This question is a lot like the challenges businesses and corporations themselves have faced in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. With globalization, increased competitiveness, and drives to keep profits high, companies have sought new competitive advantages in fast-evolving marketplaces by using a process for innovation called design thinking. Design thinking is a set of creative strategies—from brainstorming, researching, and prototyping, to iterative implementation—that use a designer’s methods to convert value for customers into market opportunities for producers.
In this context, think of yourself as the producer of “brand you,” and companies as the consumer. Are they buying what you’re selling? By encouraging you to think outside the box, design thinking fosters traits like creativity, confidence, communication, empathy, curiosity, playfulness, learning from failures, optimism, and an intention to pursue unconventional solutions that work. Design thinking recognizes that the best answers are often not linear, and makes room for contingencies to generate insights. In the context of your career search, this allows you to put aside preconceived ideas—which may, in fact, be holding you back—and reach a solution from a bottom-up perspective.
This is the first blog post of a three-part series, and is adapted from IDEO.org’s free online publication “Design Kit: The Human-Centered Design Toolkit.” Parts two and three will look not just at how the design-thinking process can help match you with an inspiring career, but how you can design your own business from the bottom-up.
Blog 1: Design Thinking for a Better Career Fit
Design thinking gives you a series of frameworks to expand your possibilities and awareness of your choices. The following stages of research and implementation provide a set of loose rules that allow you to perceive your challenges differently.
IDEO, one of the most prominent design thinking consultancies, considers that the following stages are the keys to successfully performing a design-thinking challenge. First, get inspired! Then, generate a lot of possibilities. Finally, think about ways you can implement your ideas as practical solutions that give you a sense of how something might work in the real world. But what does this actually look like?
First, you’ll want to get inspired and gather all the knowledge you can. Remember, this phase is all about divergent (not convergent) thinking. In other words, your priority here is to generate a lot of career ideas, not to decide in advance on the best one. Follow these steps:
- First, frame your goals. This goes beyond choosing a career itself. This is about choosing what a career means for you. What personal values, dreams, and satisfactions do you want your work to provide for you? Questions to ask yourself include: does my goal allow for a variety of possible solutions? Does my goal fulfill some social need, value, or pain point? And does it take into account the contexts and constraints of my life that I cannot change at the present time? Some examples include:
- “I want a career that allows me to give back to the community and pursue my interest in the social sciences in Little Rock, where my family lives.”
- “I want to work at the cutting edge of security and technology issues that allows my clients to realize the full potential of their business value in the today’s marketplace.”
- “I enjoy caring for others, and want to be known as an innovator in expanding business opportunities for hospitality in South East Asia, so I can be near my parents.”
Start by thinking about your skills, interests, talents, passions, and previous work experiences. Then practice writing down your goal. It should be short and easy to remember, a single sentence that conveys what you want to do. Try doing this multiple times until you get a sentence that feels just right. Remember, a goal that is too narrow won’t offer enough room to explore creative solutions. A goal that is too broad won’t give you any idea where to start.
It’s rare that you’ll arrive at the best formulation of your goal on the first try. To arrive at the right goal for you, practice running each of your sentences through the following criteria: does it drive towards impact? Does it allow for a range of possible solutions? Does it take into account possible constraints in my life—things I cannot change, including aspects of my personality? Refine your answers to these questions, until the sentence that captures your goal feels just right.
- Second, create a plan. In this stage you’ll get organized, understand your strengths, and start identifying what you’ll need to come up with career solutions to your goal. Reflect on your timeline for entering a new job; your personal budget; what skills and resources you’ll need; and what connections and relationships may be useful to you.
A good place to start is with a calendar. You may want to print out or make a large one and put it up in your living or workspace. Mark key dates. These could be deadlines, important meetings or interviews, and travel and vacation dates. Once you have your timeline, take a look at your budget and your connections. Do you have everything you need to pursue your goal and find the best career for you? If you are facing any constraints, how will you get around them?
Your plans for a best-fit career may very likely change as things evolve, and that’s perfectly ok. You can always change your plan as you go. In this stage, make sure to examine not just the career ideas you’re interested in, but also yourself. Perform self-assessment evaluations, like Gallups Strengthsfinder or the MBTI-Strong test. (Each of these is available from our office at the Graduate Center.)
- Third, you’ll want to brainstorm. This is where you drum up a large range of ideas about work that you might like to do. In this phase, emphasize being open to lots of ideas. Let yourself be creative and even idealistic, rather than realistic and pragmatic. You may even want to write your ideas down on post-its and affix them to the wall.
Keeping in mind a few principles will let you have a productive brainstorming session. First, defer judgment. You never know where a good idea is going to come from! Second, let loose your wildest ideas. Wild ideas can often give rise to creative leaps. Third, let yourself follow and build on ideas that immediately resonate with you. Fourth, consider sketching rather than writing your idea on a post-it—a picture says a thousand words! Fifth, go for quantity. Aim for as many new ideas about careers as possible. Crank the ideas out quickly and build on the best ones.
Feeling short of ideas? Consider using a google search for key terms that interest you; a LinkedIn search for industries that are relevant to you; books on career paths from your University’s career development center; professional associations, either non-academic or linked to your field of study; college catalogs and online course-listings, especially for schools of continuing education; or online databases hosted by government departments of labor. But I recommend that you use these only if you’re stuck. Often the best ideas come from personal free association.
- Fourth, you’ll want to perform secondary research on your career ideas. Getting up to speed on careers that fit your goal is crucial to your success and happiness. You can find out about careers not just through in-person conversation, but through secondary research: whether through online web searches (including Google and LinkedIn, as well as job search sites like Glassdoor and Indeed); by reading books about careers; or by perusing career guides accessible from our website, such as Vault or Wetfeet.
You can also look up the most recent news in the field. Use the internet, newspapers, magazines, or journals to find out what’s new. As you do this, try to discover recent innovations in this career path. They could be technological, behavioral, or cultural. Understanding the edge of what’s possible helps you ask great questions, and helps you imagine unexpected horizons of compatibility between yourself and your possible career choices.
As you do this research, write notes about the aspects of a given career that excite you. In a separate column, write notes about those aspects that seem like a drag, potential challenges, or simply aspects of the work that you’d like to gain more information about.
- Fifth, you’ll want to gather the most important tools and resources. Finding the best career for you isn’t just about talking to a lot of people, it’s about talking to the right people. Build a strategy so that your networking and informational interviews really count.
Before you start talking to people who can help you decide if a given career matches your goals, it’s important to have a strategy around who you talk to, what you ask them, and what pieces of information you need to gather.
Consider the extremes and mainstream tendencies in the industries or fields that interest you. What companies exemplify commonly-accepted benchmarks for business practices in this field? What companies are producing innovative, niche, or otherwise nontraditional work in the field? Let these considerations help you identify whom you might like to network with.
- Sixth, you’ll want to do some informational interviews. These involve getting to know the people who work in the career you’re considering and hearing from them in their own words. You can often meet these people at networking events, through LinkedIn, through friends and family, or through your university’s alumni database. Interviews can be a bit daunting, but by following these steps you’ll unlock all kinds of insights and understanding that you’ll never get sitting at your desk. Whenever possible, conduct your interviews in the person’s space. You can learn so much about a person’s mindset, behavior, and lifestyle by talking with them where they live or work.
When contacting these experts, give them a preview of the kinds of questions you’ll be asking and let them know how much of their time you’ll need. Come prepared with a set of questions you’d like to ask. Start by asking broad questions about the person’s life, values, and habits, before asking more specific questions that relate directly to their day-to-day work. Remember that what you hear is only one data point. Be sure to observe the person’s body language and surroundings to see what you can learn from the context in which you’re talking.
Make sure to ask people not just narrow questions about their work role and their day-to-day responsibilities. Also be sure to ask them about their personal challenges, ambitions, and constraints. This allows you to get to know them on a personal level. While this may not strike you as the most direct way to get information about a job, it lets you bond with the other person in ways that reveal your underlying compatibility with a certain trajectory.
- At this point, you’ve done a great deal of research and discovered valuable information about the priorities of different workplaces. Now, you’ll want to narrow down the career paths that speak to you. You’ll want to define the profiles of the companies that you’d like to work for, including its extremes and mainstreams.
In this stage, you’ll also want to get close to the kind of work that seems most promising. You can do this by shadowing an expert for a day at work, or asking them to give you a guided tour. You can seek out an internship, or even just try to do the work for yourself. Pay attention to how the environment and the workflow process makes you feel. Do you feel happy, excited, curious, and connected? Do you feel disengaged, confused, or apathetic? Take these emotions as signals about the possibilities you have for compatibility with a given career.
For many of you, these steps will be enough to feel confident about finding a career that meets your needs and desires. You may even discover career ideas that you’ve never thought of before.
In the next blog post, we’ll explore how to apply the foundations for career-search and self-evaluation that you’ve laid down to designing an entirely new career in entrepreneurship that brings your skills and talents to solving a pressing need that people feel, and to help make the world a better place. Stay tuned!