Self-reflection: Developing awareness of your inner spark

a blazing circular fire pit filled with wood. There is a brick patio in the background

In their opinion article “The need for self-knowledge in a changing world of work,” (June 21, 2021, Inside Higher Ed), Dr. Sonali Majumdar argues that knowledge about one’s values, skills, and non-negotiables is important for PhD career success. I agree that self-knowledge is valuable for finding and engaging in fulfilling employment. But self-knowledge only in relation to the PhD skills or only in service to the world of work seems limiting to me. When advanced academic training is largely a cognitive experience (“a life of the mind”) that occurs within a very small social-professional circle, graduate students and postdocs could wrap their entire identity and sense of purpose around their PhD and disciplinary identity. A disappointment in an area of their training can feel devastating to their sense of self. Knowing that graduate students and postdocs in their 20s and 30s are in a developmentally important phase, self-knowledge contributes to secure, functional, and healthy adult foundations for friendships, partnerships, employment, and community engagement.

I want PhDs to be able to communicate about their skills, interests, values, preferences, and strengths: who they are, what they need, and what fulfills them. Self-knowledge helps PhDs make conscious choices in all aspects of their lives that are aligned; they will know why they are doing something and whether they are acting in alignment with their values and commitments. When graduate students and postdocs are consciously engaged in the curation of all aspects of their lives, their academic work can be in balance and harmony with rest, play, movement, creativity, friendships, family, and community. I want PhDs’ self-knowledge to be part of their compass, the wind in their sails, the spark for their flame, their North Star. (I know, that’s all really sappy, but I do mean it. )

A left hand is holding a mug. It's a fifties-era woman with refrigerator magnets that say "Stop me before I volunteer again"

This post is a compendium of self-knowledge resources I often suggest to graduate students, postdocs, and professional development colleagues. I have a bunch of caveats to mention. Popular “typing” assessments aren’t absolute. Some have a bit of woo to them. There are likely problems of empirical validation and social bias. These assessments don’t take into account additional forms of knowledge including embodied (intuition, emotions, sensations), ancestral, intergenerational, family, and community. They also don’t take into account social contexts that are systemic and oppressive. I don’t share these resources as advertisements or as validation of the tools themselves. I do not mean for any results to be prescriptive, categorical, or deterministic about who you are and how you want to grow. I recognize that by sharing these tools, I am inviting clicks and I am being complicit in sharing things that could invite or perpetuate harm. Corrections, suggestions, recommendations, and calls for accountability are welcome. Let’s collectively improve the possibilities for self-exploration.

Should you choose to do any of these self-assessments, don’t give too much weight to any result. I find it more helpful to make meaning of them as part of a whole and to pay attention to words that feel particularly resonant and deeply true. Look for recurring descriptions, tendencies, and preferences that can illuminate and clarify what matters most to you. I hope that by facilitating your self-discovery, I am serving our collective inner-world liberation from perceived and real social norms (especially academic norms) that confine our self-narratives. I want to serve you as you build a strong, secure foundation of self- and community-wisdom to draw from as you make choices about where you put your energies, creativity, and labor. 

A creek at sunset with trees on either side. The creek is iced over in places and there is a reflection on the water of the trees.

Selected tools for self-discovery, self-knowledge, and self-reflection

My own self-knowledge summary

22 stickers with various phrases on them set on a table. A rainbow that says "keep going." A name tag that says, "hello, I'm about to cry." A peacock. A crab saying "Nope!" A catterfly. A turtle that says "good vibes." A Tybee lighthouse. "fuck this shit in particular." "Resilient as fuck." "I use fuck like a comma." "Just here to fuck shit up." A rabbit on a skateboard saying "do epic shit."

I summarized in this table some of my results from various self-knowledge assessments. I find it affirming to see several traits, like empathy and collaboration, show up across multiple self-assessments. And I’ve found it helpful to have additional language to describe my character traits and how those show up in my paid labor, volunteer work, hobbies, relationships, leisure activities, and communities. When I feel overwhelmed, uncertain, ungrounded, and lost in my sense of purpose, reviewing these summaries helps me find direction again. These summaries give me some discernment for choosing activities that will feel particularly meaningful to me. They also make me aware that I need to be sure to replenish my empathy and collaboration buckets.

Helping others
Working with underserved communities and populations
Understanding individual and societal behavior
Understanding group dynamics
Connecting ideas from different fields
Top 5 Interests, from ImaginePhD
Work effectively as part of a team
Work effectively with limited supervision
Contributing to an institution
Contributing to a discipline
Cultural competence
Top 5 Skills, from ImaginePhD
Intellectually challenging
Top 5 Work values, from Imagine PhD
Belonging, connection, collaboration, nature
Justice, diversity, equality, inclusion, humility, integrity
Hope, optimism, vulnerability, possibility
From Brene Brown, Dare to Lead
Inner harmony (peace with oneself)
Affection (love, caring)
Integrity (sincerity, standing up for beliefs)
Cooperation (teamwork)
Pleasure (play, laughter)
From Leadership Development Institute
Healer – tend to trauma
Weaver – see through lines of connectivity
Guide – teach, counsel, advise
From Social Change Ecosystem
Helper – thoughtful, affectionate, empathetic, sincere, warm-hearted, generous
Peacemaker – easygoing, accepting, receptive, reassuring, agreeable
Enthusiast – extroverted, optimistic, versatile, spontaneous, playful, high-spirited
From Enneagram
Appreciation of beauty and excellence (transcendence)
Leadership (justice)
Love of learning(wisdom)
Social intelligence
From VIA Character Strengths Profile
The visionary, imagining the impossible
Full of big ideas
See potential and possibility everywhere
Emotional, impassioned, expressive
From Adobe Creative Types
From CliftonStrengths

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