Career Development Theory Review: Super’s Life-Span, Life-Space Theory

January 25, 2016

Donald Super created a developmental model which emphasized how personal experiences interact with occupational preferences in creating one’s self-concept. Many theorists before him simply looked at personality and occupation and focused on a trait matching approach.

One of Super’s greatest contributions to career development was his emphasis on the importance of developing a self-concept, as well as his recognition that this self-concept can change with new experiences over time. Before this, career development was mostly seen as a singular choice; however, Super viewed career development as a lifelong activity.

This might not seem groundbreaking today, but it was a marked change from the way theorists thought when Super began formulating his theoretical concepts in the 1950’s. In addition to recognizing that people change over their lifetime, he also identified different areas or “life-spaces” that help make a person who they are. The six main life-spaces that make up who we are include: parent/homemaker, worker, citizen, leisurite, student, and child. So many of these roles imply that other people are involved in our lives and thus impact who we are. There are many other spaces in one’s life – other than work – and Super believed that these inhabited social spaces didn’t constitute a distraction but were an integral part of the rainbow of our lives. (Figure from http://career.iresearchnet.com/career-development/supers-career-development-theory/.)

Image of Super's Life-Span, Life-Space Rainbow

Super’s self-concept is the belief that our identities and by extension our career identities are a product of how we see ourselves. Our vocational choices put this concept into practice in the real world.

Super’s Five Life and Career Development Stages

1. Growth (Age: birth – 14)
Characteristics: development of self-concept attitudes, and general world of work

2. Exploration (Age 15 – 24)
Trying out classes, work, hobbies; tentative choice and skill development

3. Establishment (Age 25 – 44)
Entry-level skill building and stabilizing work experience

4. Maintenance (Age 45 –64)
Continual adjustment process to improve position

5. Decline (Age 65+)
Reduced output, preparation for retirement

The stages that Super outlined are guides looking at a macro-perspective of one’s life. These stages often correlate with important events and denote a time of transition. Look at the stages and see where you fit in. Do you agree with how they are laid out? Some critics have argued or adjusted these stages and say that the language used is too deeply rooted in a 1950’s perspective.

Either way, if you are looking for a key takeaway in reviewing this theory and trying to find a practical application to your life, then simply remember this. Super’s work was important because his idea of the self-concept profoundly changed the field of career development.  It challenged individuals to construct their own identification and understanding of their life-space identities including that of their careers. Take a moment to think about and list all of the roles (scientist, parent, yogi, dog owner, caregiver, student etc.) you assume in your life. These roles will likely change depending on your life stage.  Super’s theory is a good reminder that an individual’s life situation changes with time and experience while noting that the concept of vocational maturity may or may not correspond with biological age. People may find themselves in the Exploration stage at 35 years-old since people tend to cycle through these stages when they go through career transitions.

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Multi-Generational Workforce

January 22, 2016

There are now at least four generations in the workforce which can present both opportunities and challenges.  A multi-generational workforce has an ability to blend the unique experiences and skill sets of each generation into one shared mission. However, with this blending can come some challenges, especially when it becomes evident that each generation possesses a different mindset and attitude about work.

The generations that find themselves colleagues are: Vets/Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, GenXers, Millennials/Gen Y, and soon to be Gen Z.  It is not uncommon to see a 58-year-old Baby Boomer on a work team with 24-year-old Millennial while reporting to a 41-year-old GenXer.  Traditionalists (also referred to as Vets) are fewer in numbers but often retain a position of power and influence.  We can all think of at least one example of an older PI who has no plans to retire anytime soon.

Dates and categorizations of generations often vary according to source but generally the breakdown is as follows: Traditionalists/Vets – born between 1920-1943; Baby Boomers – born between 1944-1960; Generation X – born between 1961-1980; Millennials/Gen Y – born between 1981-2000; and soon to Gen Z – Born between 2001-present.

Boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials have the highest numbers in the workplace and many have tried to identify the key strengths and challenges for each generation.  For example, an organization, EY analyzed the characteristics – both positive and negative – of these three main generations, including how they are perceived by others.

The collective personas of each generation are frequently discussed and debated.  Boomers are often seen as productive, hardworking team players who are devoted to organizations, but they are also often viewed as the least adaptable and tech savvy.  Gen Xers are often seen as adaptable, entrepreneurial problem solvers, but they are also often viewed as cynical about authority figures and disliking traditional or rigid work environments.  Millennials are often seen as passionate, globally-minded, and efficient multi-taskers; however, they are also often viewed as self-entitled and lazy.

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Antagonistic exchanges between members of different generations often get a lot of attention and it can be easy to simply focus on differences.  Remember though that generational terms, like Boomers, Xers and Millennials are often oversimplified labels. Sure, each generation does develop a certain kind of collective identity, but individuals in each generation may not exhibit any of the characteristics commonly associated with their generation.  Knowing each generation’s general characteristics might be helpful in better understanding an individual who belongs to that generation, but there is bound to be a lot of variability as well, so beware of generational generalizing.

If this is a topic that you’d like to learn more about, you might be interested in signing up for OITE’s Workplace Dynamics workshop series. And lastly, just for fun, you might want to take this quiz offered by Pew on “How Millennial Are You?”


NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Biomedical Engineer/Lead Medical Device Reviewer

January 11, 2016

Name: Joshua Chetta, PhD

Job Title & Organization: Biomedical Engineer/Lead Medical Device Reviewer, FDA

Location: White Oak, Silver Spring Md

How long you’ve been in your current job: 1.5 years

Postdoc Advisor, IC (when at NIH): Joseph Frank, Clinical Center

What do you do as an Engineer/Device Reviewer?
I’m in CDRH, the Center for Devices and Radiological Health. Most people know about the FDA in its capacity as a drug regulatory agency, but it also regulates medical devices. Things like implants, pace makers and all the hardware that you would see in a hospital room – all of the monitoring devices. So, the medical devices have their own regulatory pathways. My day to day job is to review applications from companies for clearance to market a device in the U.S. In some cases, those are straightforward applications, especially if there is already a similar device on the market. In other cases, it can be more complicated, especially if it is a new device or a new technology that we haven’t seen before.

How is the workflow structured?
I am in the Dental Device Branch which I wasn’t expecting to be as interesting as it is, but we get a lot of really fascinating stuff sent our way.

A submission will be assigned to an individual reviewer, who will act as the lead reviewer. Depending on the complexity of the device and the submission, the lead reviewer can either handle it on their own or call in others for consult. There are subject matter experts in the FDA whom we can ask for help. So, with respect to the review, there is the science side of it but there is also a project management side of it. I have my deadlines and I have to write my analysis and reports but I also have to get other people’s reports and compile everything to come up with a consensus.

What are the most important skills that you utilize in your current position?

Absolutely communication skills are vital, both oral and written. The ability to talk to people from different backgrounds and not only to make yourself understood but to understand where they are coming from as well. The ability to keep good records is extremely important since everything we do has legal ramifications. It is important to keep track of why decisions were made and the justification for those decisions. Emails, telephone/conference calls all need to be logged. This is essential because a lot of what we do can have an impact down the line. For example, if a device comes out and is questionable or it doesn’t do well, then it needs to be clear why a decision was made, so being meticulous with our written record is pretty important.

Of course the other thing is that you also have to have to look at data, analyze it and synthesize it. Often, you are working with short deadlines, and with test reports that may or may not include all of the information you’d like, or with studies that haven’t necessarily been designed well. A lot of the time, you are trying to do the best you can with what you have. It means relying on the scientific and regulatory knowledge of yourself and others to fill in the gaps. The process involves rigorous scientific analysis as well as trying to navigate through the regulatory framework, to come up with the best rationale to justify a decision. So there are a few constraints that make it interesting.

What is your favorite aspect of your current job?
There are a lot of really great things about it. First, the people that work here are great. The other reviewers come from different backgrounds. Since we review medical devices, we have everybody from engineers to clinicians, to physicists and chemists. There are all sorts of people here, so you walk down the hall and can ask a microbiologist what he thinks about sterilization. Then, down the hall on the other side is an electrical engineer who you can ask about circuits and software. That is a really, really great aspect of it – that everybody comes from a different background but we are all very much a team.

The other thing that I like is the actual science side of it – it is really interesting. There are a lot of ideas and new technology out there which people are trying to get through. It’s interesting to see how technology is progressing and how these things are moving along.

What has been the hardest aspect about transitioning into this career? What are some of the challenges you initially faced?
It might sound silly, but sitting at a desk is really difficult. I was not prepared for that. I’m evaluating the data in applications, so I am pretty much at a computer most of the day. I’ve found that being at a computer can be tiring. It is not the same as being in a lab where you are running around and doing different things all the time.

The other thing, which I probably should have expected, is coming in and not knowing much. It has been difficult, but thankfully the people that I work with are all amazing. There’s a lot of experience in my branch and everybody is incredibly generous with their time and answering questions. There’s a sense that they have all been here before and we are all in this together. I like that curiosity encouraged here. However, being the new guy and dealing with the steep learning curve has been humbling.

How did you come to choose this as your next step?
I knew after my postdoc that I didn’t necessarily want to go into academic science. I had kind of burned out on basic, or even translational research. I realized I wasn’t really cut out for it. I like this because it is very much on the application side of medical research and science. It is as close as you can get to helping change the way that medicine is practiced in the United States, by making sure that new technology gets out to market quickly, but that the data supporting it is strong. From my background as a biomedical engineer, this seemed like a really interesting way to bridge that gap between the social relevance of science and what we do in the lab. I thought that was going to be cool and it has been.

What was your job search like?
I knew people here, so that helped. My wife has actually worked at the FDA for a few years and the fact that she liked her job so much made this seem like an attractive possibility, because I wasn’t necessarily thinking regulatory science until I heard her and her friends from work talk about it. It was definitely helpful to know people.

Also, I used OITE. I used LinkedIn. Lori Conlan (Director of Postdoc Services at OITE) helped connect me to people and I actually ended up getting a few job offers at the same time. So, like people say – network, network, network.

What was your interview like and how did you prepare for it?
I did many, many practice interviews at OITE, which were all really helpful. I met with OITE to learn about what types of questions to expect and how to prepare to answer them. I find interviewing to be very intimidating, because selling myself is not a skill that I have much experience with. So I have found that practice is really important, in order to figure out how to get my points across succinctly and clearly.

The interview itself focused on creative problem solving and how I would go about doing things given certain situations, or how I had solved problems in the past, so it was actually a fun interview. It didn’t seem to focus so much on skill sets as much as personality and problem solving approach. The focus here is on having a broad scientific knowledge and a willingness to learn. Meeting with everybody and the interview process definitely sold me on the job.

Advice for somebody hoping to go down a similar path?
It’s tough coming from academic research, because unless you’ve been involved in the regulatory side of product development, or maybe tech transfer, I don’t think most of us have had experience with regulatory science. I guess if you worked at a regulatory consultancy or law firm that deals with shepherding applications through the FDA and the regulatory process in general that could help; however, at the reviewer level, there is an understanding that most people come in without much of a background in the regulatory side of things. The important part is to demonstrate broad scientific literacy, competency, and a willingness to learn new things and put yourself in a position where you aren’t going to have all the answers.

With that being said, I should have done more research on the regulatory process prior to my interview. I talked with my wife a lot and she explained the broad process to me. But there are resources on the FDA’s website intended to describe the process to industry, and I would recommend that people interested in working here take some time to reveiw those. But still, until you do it, it will all be theoretical and the nuts and bolts of it are often more complicated than it sounds.

How long was your search and if you had to do it again, would you change anything about your job search?

One of my problems was that I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to do. Coming from an academic science/research background, the academic path seemed clearly marked out. Anything other than that was unknown. I took advantage of the courses and seminars which OITE offered because a lot of them focused on non-bench career options. Even after that though, I still didn’t necessarily know what I wanted to do, so it would have been nice to nail down a direction a little bit sooner.

I was seriously looking for a job for at least 9 months before I finally got any offers and I was looking in a less serious way for well over a year. It was a reasonably drawn out process, but if I had figured myself out more, it might have helped me identify my options sooner. At the same time, that exploration process was important as well.

Any last bits of advice?
You know, I was told this many times but it didn’t really hit home until after the fact. However, the thing that everybody says about networking and putting yourself out there and exploring different options is really important. I struggled for a while trying to find insight into what I was looking for and that only came after a long process, so try to embark upon that sooner rather than later. Finding a good job was (for me) about knowing myself and what I was looking for in order to find something fulfilling.


New Year’s Resolution: Meet with a Career Counselor

January 1, 2016

Cork board with a white sheet saying "Resolutions: #1, #2, #3"It’s a new year and you are probably making resolutions in the hopes that 2016 will be a successful and productive year. For career-related resolutions, a good place to start within the NIH is the Office of Intramural Training & Education. Here at OITE, we often make resolutions of our own in order to help provide new resources. At the start of years past, we have created Career Success Plans as well Calendars for Career Success. However, often the first place to start with career development and planning is by meeting with a career counselor.

There are many reasons why you might want to meet with a career counselor. Even if you don’t meet with a career counselor, it is likely you are having career related discussions with mentors and advisors. Here are some things to keep in mind in order to make the most of those discussions.

Honesty is Key
Many people say things that are disingenuous simply because it sounds good or because it is what other people want to hear. For example, you may feel pressure from your physician parents to go to medical school or you might feel pressure from the PI you respect to go into an academic job. Individuals often struggle with internal micro-pressures as well as external macro-pressures regarding career choices.

These can compound into choices that don’t feel right to you and are often accompanied by a sense of confusion or ambivalence. It’s not fun to be in this ambiguous state, which makes it so important to find a safe place to express these struggles. Career counseling is often the space where you can honestly and effectively work through these challenges with a neutral third party.

Manage Your Expectations
A career counselor (or any one person for that matter) doesn’t have all of the answers for you. It will be important for you to seek out multiple career mentors. This is important because not only will you not click with everybody but it also helps to hear a variety of opinions and approaches.

Participate in the Process
Sometimes people think they will go to their mentor or a career counselor and they will receive the answer of what they should do next. That is just not how the process works. In order for it to be effective, you must participate in the process. In fact, it is imperative that you be an active participant. The most effective career counseling takes place when an individual comes in with an open and proactive mindset. You might not be in a stage where you are open to this process quite yet. That is okay and this usually becomes readily apparent early on in counseling. But, it is worth a try in order to assess your readiness for introspection and change.

Perhaps there is an obstacle standing in the way of moving forward toward your goals? Sometimes this is a concern about grades, lack of experience or confidence. It can be helpful to talk about these perceived obstacles with a career counselor to help you evaluate them and find a way to overcome them or find a path around them.

Avoid Analysis Paralysis
Assessing and thinking about your skills, interests, values and personality traits is a vital part of any career counseling process. It’s often one of the first steps; however, introspection only gets you so far. There will come a point when you or your career counselor will challenge you to move forward in the process. This is not always easy and it might come at a time when you don’t feel you have everything figured out quite yet. You will still need to take action. Career counselors can help you identify your goals as well as the first action steps to help you get started.

If your resolutions are career-related, we wish you the courage to be honest with yourself and the strength and determination to be a proactive participant in your own career development. At OITE, we hope we can be a part of your career success in 2016. If you are at the NIH, you can make appointment with career counselors here.