Our jobs = our identities? It’s your call.

One of the downsides of working as a journalist was that my job title came to define my sense of self. I worked long hours for an  embarrassingly low hourly wage (which I’ve detailed elsewhere) with minimal guidance from leadership at a truly awful company with others who were equally if not more burned out. But I stayed.

What kept me there in this entry-level position for two long years, including a year past the point when I realized how bad the situation was? I wasn’t ready to stop being a journalist.

Journalism is one of those seemingly noble professions, not that much different from education, that can be incredibly stressful due to high stakes,  questionable job security, and often lackluster working conditions, regardless if you’re in the newsroom of a newspaper, television station, radio, online publication, or a hybrid. Teachers may worry about the students they couldn’t reach or save; journalists worry about the stories that never were published. (That worry is occasionally paired with the feeling of self-loathing after a typo is published.)

Are the stressful working conditions worth it when one is given the opportunity to serve the greater good? To inform a community, to share someone’s story, to influence lawmakers, to hold public figures accountable? In order to do these things, one must be a journalist–is it worth it? For me, no. I encountered many wonderful moments as a news reporter thanks to the people I met on assignment, the things I got to do and see, and the people I worked with. But when it came time to think about my next steps in work and life, I couldn’t come up with an argument to convince myself to stay in the industry–best I had was that maybe things would be better at the next place. Maybe. But I could not, absolutely not, bring myself to being in “PR”–the nebulous world that in my mind encapsulated all things marketing, media relations, and employee communications, where journalists went to die.

So I left, to a graduate program to prepare for a profession that promised to be no less stressful and no higher paying than a journalist: college-level teacher. Lucky for me during graduate school, I worked in jobs at my university where I was able to apply my writing chops to marketing copy and internal communications and execute projects with the same deadline-driven gusto that is a requirement in any journalism setting. These tasks–ad and social media copywriting, web content planning, e-newsletter development for what I thought were meaningful projects–taught me that anyone can determine a sense of decency in (almost) any profession. I didn’t need to identify as a recovering journalist as I thought about my work and my career. Working as a marketing specialist, an account executive, a writer (all different professions, I learned…) could allow me to accomplish great things and make an impact in a community or organization–and I’d have the power to choose how much my career would define my identity as a person.

I don’t often directly apply the content I learned in graduate school in my current profession as a communications specialist contractor at a government agency. But I so value that experience as a graduate student employee in jobs that were transient in nature–stepping stones away from my former self and work-life, teaching me how to reevaluate my thinking of work and identity. On top of my thesis, the wonderful friends I made, and the ability to call myself a Master (who still makes typos), that empowerment was the best takeaway from my graduate program.

What about you? How does your work factor into your identity?

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