How important is having self awareness for graduate students? Here I’ll share my Birkman assessment and how it can benefit your research and career.

Why self awareness matters

You are a complex individual. Your interests. Your dreams. Your skills. Your wants. Your desires. The way you think about yourself and others, the way you  interact with others in small and large groups, and the way you interpret your conversations with others (whether verbal or non-verbal). All of this plays a part of how you go about your daily life and all of it affects those around you. Most of this we are not consciously aware of at any given time.

These complexities lead to a lot of confusion and misunderstanding, both internal (Should I do a post-doc? Why can’t I be as productive as everyone else?) and external (You know that time you had that big argument only to later realize it was only a miscommunication? Yeah, that).

But what if we could at least minimize this confusion? What would that look like? For starters having self awareness (i.e. knowing and understanding your personality, habits, and views of the world, other people, and yourself) could lead to more productive interactions with our labmates. It can also direct us towards a work environment that best suits our needs by giving us satisfaction, working the same amount but feeling less drained at the end of the day, and improving group dynamics within the teams we form.

Okay, great. So how does one go about getting self awareness? Here I’ll discuss a recent experience I had, what it told me about myself, how that is benefiting me now, and how you can do the same thing.

Birkman: self awareness assessment

Recently, I participated in a self awareness workshop put on through the NIH BEST program which is dedicated to providing career development tools for grad students. There are 17 institutes around the US that have BEST funding. During this workshop we took the Birkman assessment. This consisted of us taking an online Q&A exam with 3 sections: (1) what you think about most people (2) what you think about yourself (3) what you think about different careers. Below I’ll discuss 3 main aspects to this assessment and what you can gain from each segment.

1) Self awareness categories

The first thing they did during this workshop was hand me a sheet that had different personality categories with a bunch of numbers off to the side (see below). My first instinct was “Oh shit, I have to hide this. I can’t let anyone else see how [enter negative] I am… I wonder what other people’s looks like.”

self awareness categories

Self awareness categories. Numbers indicate intensity (see next figure for explanation). Red numbers mean the “need” and “stress behavior” are not the same.

In fact, there really was nothing to be worried about because the Birkman assessment doesn’t tell you how good or bad you are at anything. It tells you how you usually go about doing things and what type of environment or what type of interaction with others you need for each category. Then what you normally do or think when those needs are not met and you get stressed.

I was a bit skeptical at first, but once we started going through each of the categories in red (above) I started to understand that it really did match me pretty well in most cases. So, let’s look at Activity as an example:

self awareness test example

This shows that I see the importance of throughout planning, but I don’t let that hold me back from taking action. That’s nothing new to me and I agreed with the intensity of this value not being too strong, yet still pointing in that direction. What caught me off guard though was the “Will Need” and “To Avoid” sections.

What the “will need” was NOT saying:

I need to have a busy schedule that isn’t dictated by myself (i.e. great I’m a mindless robot).

What the “will need” was saying:

I expect to have a busy environment that is very demanding on my energies. I respond well to this environment and thrive in it instead of getting stressed by it. I will seek out activities that keep me busy because that is what I enjoy.

How did this help me gain more self awareness?

The idea of needing to have a busy environment (and the consequence of not having that) is something I really had never thought about. For instance, I’ve know for a long time that I tend to take on more than I can handle because I thrive with that constant pressure. But I was completely ignoring what my environment does to my stress levels.

The Birkman assessment tells me that without this background environment of a heavy schedule I tend to magnify the tediousness of my situation which results in mental fatigue. This leads me to boredom, getting discouraged, and getting tired easily.

You may say: But you are a grad student. You work in a research lab. How are you NOT in a busy environment?

Good question. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t people around me working. There are. But we have labs spread out, our office is in a different location, people are in classes, teaching, using instruments in different buildings/universities. From my perspective there is a lack of a busy environment in my direct surround at a given time.

Knowing now what I need and being able to recognize what thoughts I have when I am not in that environment, we discussed actions I can take to avoid this stress:

  • Getting people’s schedule so I know when they will likely be around
  • Listening to background music or audio books
  • Seeking out active events after work (that one is a bit hard in grad school)
  • Doing something physical when I notice lack of a busy environment

How does this self awareness guide my future career decisions?

It means I will try to be sensitive to the work environment when I check out a new lab or go for an interview. It doesn’t mean I shouldn’t work in a quiet or isolated space. But it does mean I will be less tired and be more fulfilled working in an upbeat, heavy schedule, and pressure for action environment where I feel “we’re all in this together”.

This was only one example out of the 11 components the Birkman test gives you for your self awareness assessment.

2) How you go about doing things and why it matters (Group Dynamics)

The next arbitrary segment focuses on the type of activities you are interested in, your usual style, your needs, and what you default to when under stress. In some ways it puts the first segment into a graphical form, but the power here is the information on how to build team effectiveness. A topic I’ve discussed here. Birkman calls this segment their “Life Style Grid” and it consists of 4 quadrants:

self awareness life style gird

By looking at these quadrants it’s easy to stereotype people’s interests based on what type of career path they have chosen. For instance, you might find sales people more interested in the top-right quadrant and academics more interested in the bottom-right quadrant. But that stereotype gets a bit muddled. For instance what if a graduate student enjoys the persuading aspect of their research when giving talks more than they enjoy working with ideas all day? Does that mean they shouldn’t be in graduate school? No, of course not. It means they approach their work differently than others might. They get their energy differently.

Let’s take a look at how Birkman uses this Life Style Grid:

my self awareness grid

What the Life Style Grid was NOT saying:

I really suck at communicating with people. I can’t deal with abstract thoughts and, unlike my peers, I don’t like to think of new approaches…I shouldn’t be a scientist.

What the Life Style Grid was saying:

Here my interests (*) indicates that I probably enjoy practical activities, but I combine them with other activities associated with the rest of the grid because my interests are close to the center. Other people who have interests in different quadrants, or more intensely in the red quadrant, probably enjoy those activities more than I do. No biggy.

My usual behavior shows that when I am working effectively I go about things in a more low-key, concentrative, team-minded, and detached manner. Still good traits to have as a graduate student even though you don’t find my usual behavior in the “thinking” quadrant.

Next, my needs show the kind of support or motivation I crave in order to show my usual behavior. This is important as it shows what you need from people around you in order to work effectively! Thus, I am at my best when others are objective, rational, decisive, and friendly. Interestingly, it also says “people who give you clear-cut decisions to make”. This is all great information for your lab to have about you so they can communicate effectively.

My stress behavior shows what I will do if my needs are not met (apparently needs and stress overlap >90% of the time). This will give red flag behaviors to watch out for which lets you figure out how to quickly get out of that mood and return to an effective state. For example some of my red flag behaviors are being busy for the sake of it, insensitive, and restless. These are all things given in the Birkman report and I have to say I agree with them.

Group dynamics:

Not everyone’s Life Style Grid is going to look like mine. We are all unique and will have vast differences. I saw some people’s who’s interest, behaviors, needs/stress were all in the same quadrant. And others who’s were all in different quadrants and at great intensities. This tells us that we will all approach a problem in a different way, communicate that problem different, and execute the action differently.

No wonder meetings happen so often, feel so inefficient, and the outcomes never seem to please everyone.

But what if we could make meetings (whether group or one-on-ones with our PI) more effective?

Well, I think we could if everyone in the group took the Birkman assessment together and started looking at how people usually go about doing something and what stresses them out. The end of the assessment includes a section (not show here) that gives an overview on how I work best with otherscommunicate with others, and perform in a team. It also gives suggestions for your PI on how to best coach you. These are all positive, actionable, suggestions for conflict resolution, giving fulfillment in our work, and (from the PI viewpoint) maintaining an effective lab.

3) You are more than just your interests (or are you?)

The last segment looks at different areas of interest and how intently you fall into those areas. These numbers can be misleading so make sure to continue reading:

self awareness interests

What my interest was NOT saying:

Wow, I must be horrible at math. Look at that numerical score! And I guess I’m just “blah” about most everything else. Jeez I’m boring.

What my interest was saying:

The way I like to explain these numbers is an indication of how much energy I’ll have after doing a task that falls into one of these categories. Let’s take numerical for instance: an 11 indicates that if I go do math or accounting I am likely to feel more drained afterwards than I would if I had gone and written a blog post (literary). It doesn’t mean I don’t like math or that I’m not good at it (I really enjoyed Calculus and did well in it) but I enjoyed it much more when I could take it as an intensive class over the summer rather than drag it on over a long semester. Why? It just worn me down. I found other things that I’d rather being doing because they brought me more fulfillment.

But just because something is low doesn’t mean I can’t go do that as a profession. An example we were give was a math professor that had a numerical score of 3! That’s pretty low considering it’s what they do all day. You’d think they must be drained at the end of every day, but that wasn’t the case. They also had an artistic score of 99. After some discussion they found that they didn’t like being a math professor because of numbers, but because of the abstractness of the type of math they were working on. To them it was art. It was beautiful and it fulfilled them.

At the end of the report you also get a Career Summary which can be an excellent resource if you are exploring alternative careers. Mine told me I should be either a chemist or microbiologist, but it gave me other career options that I scored high in like computer science and environmental technician (whatever that is).

Where can you find this self awareness assessment tool?

I’ve used my own Birkman assessment as an example for this blog post, and while it’s great to see someone else’s and try to contemplate where you might fall in this assessment, I highly recommend doing one for yourself. They will send you a 40 page document that goes over many other aspects I didn’t mention here.

Ultimately I think the power of this assessment is not just for you individually, but for a group of people (like your lab) as it will help with conflict resolution and open up new ways of using all of our strengths to the advantage of the lab.

If you are one of the lucky 17  institutes that have NIH BEST funding you will be able to find your campus representative and request to have this done. Send me an email and I’ll give you the name of the individual who administered our exam and did the analysis (they travel all over the US).

If you don’t have this funding, or like in my case you want your significant other to take the assessment, I believe it costs $70. The individual analysis apparently costs quite a bit, but on an individual basis you don’t need that service. In my opinion, that is best reserved for doing this in a large group.

Have you taken the Birkman assessment? If so, did it help you gain self awareness? Let us know in the comments!



Disclosure: I am not paid by Birkman to support their product or services. I in no way gained financially from writing on this particular topic. All views of what the assessment is saying are my own.

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