Telling Your “Heroic Journey” in an Interview

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Professional Development - Tips to Build Your Career

Telling Your “Heroic Journey” in an Interview


Brian Schwartz, SPS Advisor, Carthage College

Over the last few years, the Carthage College physics department has increased its emphasis on what we call the “professional development” of our students, whether they plan to further their education or to enter the workforce. One aspect of this is helping students describe their experiences and skills in a way that resonates with potential employers, particularly with someone who is not necessarily familiar with what a physicist really does.

The model we suggest is based loosely on “The Hero’s Journey,” an idea described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces but known to many through stories and films ranging from Star Wars to The Brave Little Toaster. The hero-to-be usually comes from a nondescript background but has something inside that makes them extraordinary. A “call to adventure” leads the hero to a series of challenges and the guidance of a mentor. Through both successes and failures the hero grows in strength and wisdom and understanding and, after completing some great quest, is transformed into something greater than could have been imagined. Our hero is then ready and responsible for making the world a better place.

We want our students to approach the interview process with the goal of telling a true story about themselves that is more engaging and reflective than what would appear in a transcript or on a resume. A good story integrates one’s personality and training and experience into a narrative that is universally appealing. Here’s a compressed version of what this might look like:

The call

The story begins with the “calling” to become a physicist, something like, “I’ve always wanted to know how things worked, and physics seemed like a way to figure that out …” Your call should convey what makes you extraordinary and why or how you chose the path you have been following.

The training

All heroes need to prepare for their adventure. For most, this does not begin until after high school. Take some time to reflect on those experiences that have made you what you are today. “My beginning years of college were (great, but/ rough, because) I wanted to do something more than just take physics classes—even though they were fun and I got to work with some really smart people.” Keep in mind that some of your most formative experiences happened outside the classroom, whether through outreach activities, public lectures, self- designed projects, or deep and serious conversations with other students and mentors.

The quest

Finally, cast some key transformational experience as a quest, “I had this amazing opportunity (REU/internship/research project …),” with a very specific object or goal that you helped to achieve. “It was challenging. At one point we were kind of stuck … [Here’s a very specific thing I did that seemed to help a lot.] In the end it was wonderful to see this incredibly complex thing come to completion and to know that I was a part of it.”

These are the basic steps of writing your story. The things that make you unique help you tell an exciting and archetypal story about yourself. Now go out there and be creative!

Good luck, young Padawan!

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