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A colorful abstract depiction of ladders, spirals and other shapes


I recently attended the Graduate Career Consortium’s annual conference with a team of colleagues from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We presented our work on a new career allyship program designed to help improve career conversations between faculty members and graduate students. We learned from colleagues across the country facing similar challenges in very different institutional settings and varied locations within the university structure.

And we heard a powerful message in the keynote delivered by Simone Stolzoff, author of The Good Enough Job: Reclaiming Life from Work—jobs are not designed to meet all human needs. You can love what you do without making it your identity, without asking your job to become your primary conduit for self-actualization.

For those of us who choose to remain within the academy working with graduate students and postdocs in a nonfaculty role, specifically focusing on their career exploration and development, the idea that neither we nor the people we serve are defined by our professional outcomes might seem counterintuitive. To put it bluntly, our niche community of mission-oriented overachievers needed to hear Stolzoff’s message—not just for our students, but also for ourselves.

Over the past year, as I’ve navigated my own career transition, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to tell the story of a career through verbal and visual metaphors. What does a career look like?

The standard metaphor for career development is the ladder, which by its very nature compels us to climb. But what if, like most of us, your career takes an unexpected turn? The metaphor of the ladder doesn’t allow for happy accidents; it barely accommodates rapid controlled descent. It is linear, unidirectional and unforgiving. But for all its flaws, we can’t simply replace the ladder with another, better metaphor without considering the underlying values of graduate training.

Graduate students are trained to climb. Academe is one of the few remaining sectors in the United States that operates according to a clearly defined structure of internal progression. If all goes according to plan, today’s graduate student is tomorrow’s professor, ascending through a predictable set of ranks, perhaps remaining at the same institution from assistant to emeritus.

But that is no longer how most sectors work. Indeed, it is no longer how academe in general works, as Leonard Cassuto and Robert Weisbuch have demonstrated. The tenured professors on the research-intensive campuses where today’s graduate students are trained are not a representative sample of doctoral outcomes; as a result, graduate education is prone to survivorship bias.

The danger in defaulting to the ladder as a metaphor for career progression is that if a trainee “falls off” the ladder at any point, or finds that a rung is missing, or even that the entire edifice is shaky, the unidirectional pull to the top is reversed. The ladder represents a binary choice between success and failure. It is alluring because it promises certainty; but when that certainty dissolves, failure is, or feels, catastrophic.

Graduate students are trained to solve intellectual problems. Another metaphor for graduate education that gives more agency to the trainee is the maze. It has defined entry and exit points, but what happens in between is a riddle to be solved, an intellectual exercise that rewards trainees for successfully navigating obstacles. A maze builds resilience—a fundamental trait in any career. In this framework, the challenges of graduate school become bearable because they are logical and expected.

However, framing graduate school in this way can serve to normalize the inadequacies of the system and its impact on graduate student well-being. In this sense, the maze is the metaphorical equivalent of telling a trainee, “I know just how you feel. It was even worse for me.” The onus is still on the trainee to navigate the system without disrupting it.

In response to a presentation I gave on career development, Mary Dana Hinton, president of Hollins University and advocate for holistic student success, suggested reframing my maze as a labyrinth. The two terms are not interchangeable. Whereas the purpose of the maze is to entertain and challenge with its multiple blind alleys, the labyrinth eliminates the possibility of getting lost and ultimately leads to enlightenment. While a labyrinth isn’t linear, it is narrative: there is a defined beginning and end, and conflict in between.

Moreover, the structure of the labyrinth promotes, almost guarantees, the success of the person navigating its twists and turns. This is an affirming vision of graduate career development, but it requires the support of an entire ecosystem—not just the trainee, not just the faculty mentor, but also the program, the department, the school and the university.

Graduate students are trained to find patterns in data. At some point in their career, a trainee may discover that there are many possible end points or outcomes, and that the start of their journey began long before their first day of graduate school. They may realize that among the plethora of data points they’ve accumulated about their professional life, among the variables and correlations they’ve mapped, they are the only constant. They are the anchor within this evolution toward the unknown.

The metaphor that seems the most apt to me is a spiral, a repeating ring of experiences like the rings of a tree, where we constantly return to the beginning from a new vantage point of greater knowledge. Or it’s where we perceive new circumstances from our inner kernel of identity, depending on whether we interpret the spiral inside out or outside in. To paraphrase Walt Whitman, the spiral contains multitudes.

For me, it represents the wholeness toward which Stolzoff was gesturing when he encouraged us to seek fulfillment beyond our job, to bring the best of ourselves to other aspects of our lives beyond work. What would it take from us, from our universities, from our policies, from our practices, to make graduate education into an environment that promotes this generous and expansive vision of becoming?

Graduate students are trained to value (our) expertise. It is not sufficient for those of us who work with graduate students—whether administrators, faculty, or staff—to promote career diversity and work-life balance. We need to model those attitudes ourselves, transparently and consistently, for our own good as well as for the good of those who hold less institutional power than we do.

We know from research on teaching and learning that the beliefs we hold about our likelihood of success drive motivation along with the value we place on a given outcome. We also know from research on narrative that storytelling creates worlds in a dynamic interaction with lived experience. As a result, we know that the beliefs we model for our trainees, the practices we actively encourage them to adopt, and the metaphors that we use can help guide them along their path, however they imagine it.

Vanessa Doriott Anderson is assistant dean for academic and career development at The Graduate School of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a member of the Graduate Career Consortium—an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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