First, take out a sheet of paper and divide it into six columns. In the first column, list every experience you have had—literally anything that gave you experience solving problems. These could include jobs, volunteer gigs, teaching, your dissertation work, your postdoc, a short-term project, a class assignment, a leadership role, a community activity, and more. You worked at a fast food restaurant when you were 18 and quit after 2 weeks when you realized what goes in the “special sauce”? List that experience, too. Then, for each experience, you’ll work across to complete the five remaining cells in the row: problems solved, skills gained, characteristics learned, what you loved, and what you hated.
For problems solved, think about what you accomplished and the tasks you completed as part of each experience. Include the technical scientific problem-solving you did as part of your research as well as nontechnical problems you’ve tackled, both as part of your research or through other experiences. For example, perhaps as head of the postdoc affairs committee, you helped organize a professional development conference for fellow postdocs. The problems that you solved included leading and organizing the team, negotiating for the space and food, developing marketing materials to encourage people to attend, giving the welcoming speech, and raising funds.
Finally, in the last two sections, articulate what you loved, loved, loved—and hated—about each experience. Be as granular as you can. Perhaps you loved working with X equipment, or thinking about Y subfield, or collaborating with someone with a Z personality. Maybe you enjoyed looking out the window at a tree—or a cactus. Maybe you loved being able to contribute to the betterment of humanity. Maybe you hated programming in Python, using an atomic force microscope, or not being able to travel as part of your job. Whatever it is, note it. This is the data that will help you more clearly understand yourself, articulate your needs, and design the career of your choosing.
Once you have your matrix reasonably completed, the next step is analyzing the data to draw conclusions and determine some avenues for further investigation. Look for two things: patterns and spikes. The patterns are repeated words and phrases in the column where you listed what you love. These repeated moments of joy could point the way to what your unicorn career could encompass. The spikes are places in the matrix where you have written a lot. This generally indicates that you felt energized, creative, productive, and happy when doing whatever it is you were writing about—that’s why you’ve written so much! These spikes help point the way to your true self.
This may sound like a lot of work, but I assure you that it will be effort well invested. Make it a habit to continue this data collection on a regular basis and you will begin to have clearer ideas about which career rue would be right for you. The data will also serve you well in your future career planning, helping you write customized CVs, resumes, and cover letters and prepare for interviews.
Mine your mind for the data to drive your career