My skill set is underused, how do I break the cycle and excel?
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This week’s problem
I am an assistant in a higher education institution and despite having a PhD, which allowed me to develop skills such as teaching and analysis, I feel I undersell myself. I become what others need me to be: I am overused in terms of my time and emotional efforts, and underused in my skill set. How do I break this cycle and excel in the way I am capable of and be seen for what I can do? Female, 30s
It is a positive first step to recognise you are in a spiral of increasing workload that stretches you less and less intellectually. You may also be aware that if you spend time in a role that does not stretch you, or where you do not feel fully appreciated, it will reduce your self-confidence.
Eleanor Roosevelt wrote that nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent, and in asking your question, you have withdrawn your consent and are ready to turn things around. So how to reverse the spiral’s direction, have more challenging work, and be more appreciated?
The first step is to free up some time; feeling overused seems related to underselling yourself, which could both be addressed by learning to be more assertive. For example, when approached with the next project, this is not about you saying “No” but “Yes, I do have these four priorities at the moment; where does this new job fit? I could probably do X per cent of it by tomorrow/next week/next month — how would that be?”
You may find that some training programmes would help you practise these skills and connect you with other people who feel similarly; many universities run the effective Springboard programme of assertiveness training for women.
A more assertive approach may feel uncomfortable initially, and you will have to choose when to apply it. Paradoxically, not being so responsive can demonstrate to others how much work you have and also increase the value of your work product in their eyes. You may find opportunities in your home and social life as well, where this approach might be helpful.
Having freed up some time, you can turn to defining the new challenges you seek. Start by assessing all the skills and experiences you developed from your PhD and work. There will be more than just teaching and analysis; for example, researching, writing, presenting and defending an argument. Consider which are transferable to your ideal new challenges.
Practically, how can you take on new challenges that would help others? The first place to start is in your current institution; perhaps there are projects in which you would like to be involved. Talk to your boss and let them know you seek more challenge and, as an example, have identified an important project to which you would like to apply your skills and experiences, and help them.
You will have to start putting yourself into jobs you may not feel ready for . . . Don’t be afraid of getting the sack. You will learn exponentially under these conditions. Have a nice day
Are you proactive in interactions in your job? Having the necessary skills shows [through] the questions you ask and the issues you bring up. Maybe a coach can help you in presenting yourself better. L. Bouma
You need to free yourself from the mental constraints of the office a bit; find goals that aren’t tied to work. Take up hobbies. Try some new things. Find friends that don’t work in your own industry for some outside perspective. bulldog2015
Jonathan Black is director of the Careers Service at the University of Oxford. Every fortnight he answers your questions on personal and career development and working life. Do you have a question for him? Email: email@example.com
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