Your Personal Narrative: Framing Yourself in a Positive Light

 In jobs: preparation and placement, PhD/Postdoc Blog, wellness

How do you show someone your worth? How do you convince them that you have what it takes to succeed? How do you find worth in yourself and convince yourself you can succeed? Tell and re-tell your personal narrative. Tell a story that highlights your accomplishments, learning experiences, and individual growth points in a coherent narrative.

I’m in the midst of writing a few fellowship applications, and I have to admit, I’m struggling to concisely summarize the events in my life that have led to and prepared me for applying to these particular fellowships. When I first decided to apply to these fellowships, I felt like all the recent decisions I’ve made in my life were building towards this particular next step. But now that I actually have to demonstrate and explain that professional arc to an admissions committee; I’m racked with uncertainty. During that process, however, I had the revelation that I had constructed a clear narrative arc out of my past experiences because I needed to. That’s what’s kept me going so far. It was only when I had to write it out that the inaccuracies, embellishments, and omissions in that narrative became apparent to me. Next, I turned to the internet to see if anyone else had had this same revelation: I guess Mark Twain was right, there are no new ideas.

Tell a story that highlights your accomplishments, learning experiences, and individual growth points in a coherent narrative.

The importance of the personal narrative

In a 2015 article in The Atlantic by Julie Beck, some psychology researchers discuss the idea that the very act of constructing a personal narrative with a beginning, middle and end – either intentionally or unconsciously – is a critical factor in determining how we see ourselves and how we feel about our lives. Furthermore, when we tell these narratives to other people, they give that other person a window into those views and feelings. They are accurate projections of our personality: our values, motivations, and worldviews are all communicated through these narratives. As Beck aptly summarizes, “A life story doesn’t just say what happened, it says why it was important, what it means for who the person is, for who they’ll become, and for what happens next.” Stories are how we make sense of the world, and they can be a powerful tool for telling you and others how to make sense of you and your place in the world.

How to construct an excellent personal narrative: Coherence

With thought and help from others, you can create a narrative that is coherent.

Researchers who study the utility of creating personal narratives with respect to mental health and personal well-being have identified two literary devices that make for a good narrative 1) thematic coherence and 2) causal coherence.

A narrative is thematically coherent when one can identify motifs and recurring values that run throughout a narrative. For example, the desire to turn personal struggles into effective change motivated me to form a student advisory board within my academic department and to sit on advisory committees within the Vice Provost’s office.  That same motivating desire might resurface again if I become a convener and consensus builder in the Federal government to advocate for more effective STEM education and training models (just putting it out there, Universe!).

A narrative is causally coherent when one event clearly leads into another. For example, when the personal growth and professional skills gained from a part-time job in your university’s Career Center make you a competitive candidate for a full-time position creating professional development resources for graduate students and post-docs at a university or research institution (again, just putting it out there).

But sometimes it’s difficult to find that coherence in our life events. After all, life is chaotic and messy. Should we lie to ourselves and others? Probably not a good idea. I think this is where re-framing can be a powerful tool. But re-framing can be hard, especially when you’re thinking about personal life events that you’ve lived – some viewpoints die hard. Telling our narratives to others, maybe even people that lived those events with us can be incredibly helpful when you’re trying to re-frame an event. Everyone brings their own biases and expectations to their life experience, and that can help you see an event from a different angle. For example, when I first started exploring career paths outside of academia, I felt like a failure – like I was betraying all the time and effort that my mentors had invested in me. But after talking to professionals in other industries, some with graduate degrees, some without, I realized that they did not see my situation in the same way. They saw someone who had achieved a lot and gained a lot of knowledge through education. They saw someone who was now seeking the next opportunity to apply that knowledge and make an impact in the world. This is just another example of how your friends, family, colleagues, and mentors can be an invaluable resource for helping you to find the silver lining and re-frame your personal narrative.

Telling our narratives to others, maybe even people that lived those events with us can be incredibly helpful when you’re trying to re-frame an event.

Finding the silver lining

One of my fellow BEST bloggers, Adriana, seems to have discovered the power of the positive personal narrative, whether she realizes it or not. In her latest blog post she talked about her experiences often being unexpected and unplanned, but with the benefit of hindsight, she identified the silver lining of those unexpected turns in her life’s path. For example, when she moved to the University of Louisville she says she would have liked to be at a more prestigious institution. But in her current narrative, she found the silver lining: if she had attended a more prestigious institution she wouldn’t have had the opportunity to grow her own skills and help others by creating training programs!

So, with that exposition, I’m off talking to some people in my network to re-frame the stickier parts of my personal narrative. I want to show these fellowship admissions committees that based on the experiences that I have sought out and learned from in my life, I will bring value to their organization and will in return benefit from the opportunity they are offering, to in turn benefit their organization and those they partner with! Wish me luck!

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