January 14, 2019

What do you value?

Posted by AGU Career Center

What do you value?

When you start thinking about making a change in your career, whether to a new job or a whole new field, most scientists immediately focus on their technical skills.  Some may think about their non-technical (also called soft or transferable) skills – communication, negotiation, leadership, and so on.  Your skill set is crucial to your career success, and it is your expertise in these areas that allows you to get hired, and then to successfully do your job.

However, scientists often completely ignore another very important aspect of career development – their personal values. These are the internal factors that motivate and drive you, the things that you think are important, and that you need to have if you are going to be happy in your job.  For example, some people are motivated by challenge, and need to have difficult problems to solve.  Others are motivated by security, and would much rather have a guarantee of steady work, without regard for challenge.  An online search will reveal many lists of possible values, from which you can start to create your own personal values list.

There are many personal values, and different ones are important to different people.   Part of what determines how well you get along with your colleagues is how well your values match – do you all agree that honesty is more important than deadlines, or is it acceptable to stretch the truth a little bit?  If the latter, can you do this with clients?  Colleagues?  Supervisors?  If you firmly believe in always being completely truthful, but your co-workers are okay with misleading people as long as it gets the work done, you will probably feel betrayed, and start looking for another position.

Your values begin to form in childhood, as you learn what is important to others, and figure out what is important to you.  Values are not set in stone, and can change over time.  In fact, their relative importance to one another often changes over the course of your lifetime, as your personal circumstances and life stage change.  For example, when you are young and early in your career, you may see career growth and ambition as very important, and prioritize them over other values.  Mid-career, balance may become very important, as you grow both your career and your family.  Towards the end of your career, altruism or challenge may become more important, as you seek personally rewarding work, perhaps at the expense of additional monetary compensation.

Be honest with yourself, and determine what your core values really are, not what you would like them to be, or what you tell yourself they are.  For example, if you tell people that balance is your most important value, but you spend 12 hours at work every day, and then spend your entire weekend working from home, there is a mis-match somewhere.  Taking a long, careful look at how you spend your time can tell you a lot about what you truly value, and what your priorities really are.  If you are more often satisfied with your career and life, you are probably spending your time in a way that is in line with your values.  If not, you may want to look at making a change.

If you really want to collect some data, try tracking how you spend your time for a few weeks, or a couple months.  Don’t try to make any changes, just track what you are doing.  You will probably get some useful insights into where your 128 hours/week goes, and what that says about you.  How much of what you “have” to do is really required, and how do you do because that’s what you enjoy doing – or because you’re trying to avoid something else?

In addition to how you spend your time, look at how you spend your money.  Do you spend your own money on classes and certifications, so you can move to the next level at work?  Did you turn down a promotion, and more money, because you would have lost your autonomy?

Taking time to identify and understand your values will help you understand yourself, and maybe identify what you need to change to get all the pieces of your life in line.


Lisa M. Balbes, PhD, has been a freelance technical writer and editor at Balbes Consultants LLC for over 25 years.  She is the author of Nontraditional Careers for Chemists:  New Formulas for Chemistry Careers (Oxford University Press).