Growing up in Ireland, I was the youngest of four in a lively, opinionated family. My three siblings—all engineers—are very smart and true lovers of debate. To keep up in our family, you need to contribute your opinion. I learned at a young age that to survive in that clan, I had to speak up for myself, and that skill was hardwired early on.
For many people, though, speaking up and advocating for themselves doesn’t come naturally. Research shows that for many individuals, speaking up at work in meetings, asking for a raise or applying for a job that may feel like a reach may stretch outside of our comfort zone. But understanding your skill set and self-advocating are essential skills if we’re going to reach our career goals and be effective in our work.
Throughout my years in this industry, I’ve learned not only what my strengths are, but how to hone my self-advocacy skills, and I have shared that knowledge with my peers and staff alike. In that process, I’ve learned some important lessons from my peers as well. Below are some of the techniques I learned to determine where I wanted to go in my career, how I wanted to get there and how to talk about “my story” in a way that allowed me to self-advocate clearly and constructively:
Never sell yourself short
One of the most common mistakes people make is to assume they’re not qualified for a position unless they meet every one of the listed requirements for the role. I almost did that myself when I was starting out.
Early in my career as an immunology post doc, I realized I wanted to see more closely the impact of our research on patients. I made the difficult decision to jump to the business side of things. But when a friend showed me an advert for a position at a pharmaceutical company, my immediate reaction was “I’m not qualified.” I looked at the requirements and said, “I don’t have this; I’ve never done that; they’re looking for someone who is already in industry.”
My friend immediately pushed me by saying, “So what?” When it comes to experiences and skills, there’s a lot of crossover between roles and even industries. He helped me see that my experiences as a post-doc and researcher matched up with the critical skills the company was seeking. In about 30 seconds, he showed me how I could position myself to succeed in the role. In the end, I went for it and started on the career path that was right for me.
Know where you want to go
When people ask me for career advice, I always ask them, “Where do you want to go?” A lot of people squirm at the idea of articulating an ambitious goal, like a place on the leadership team or a C-suite job.
But what you’re doing is setting a vision for yourself and then mapping out a path to achieving it. You can decide along the way how you want this path to evolve. Maybe you stay moving in the same direction or maybe you feel satisfied with where you are. Perhaps you want to move in a new direction. The key is to set an aspirational goal and identify that destination and then really focus on the experiences and skills you need, as well as the scopes of responsibility you want to pursue.