iJOBS StrengthsFinder workshop: Putting our strengths to use

by Vicky Kanta

Finding a job that perfectly matches our personality is a difficult task. Graduate students and postdocs are constantly surrounded by a multitude of career choices. However, what makes this search even more complicated is that many of us are not even aware of our innate abilities. For this reason, a recent iJOBS workshop helped us find and familiarize ourselves with our individual strengths.

The workshop was led by Dr. Susanne Killian, Senior Associate Director of the Graduate Student Career Development center at Princeton University, and Amy Pszczolkowski, Assistant Dean of Professional Development at the Princeton Graduate School. Both Susanne and Amy have extensive experience in career development training for students and faculty. At their current positions, they help students with their individual career plans and assist them with finding exciting career opportunities.

This workshop was based on StrengthsFinder, an online questionnaire by Gallup, based on the self-help book by Donald Clifton and Chip Anderson. It is based on decades of research in social work and positive psychology and has been extensively used in corporate settings as well as higher education. StrengthsFinder asks a series of questions about what is important to us, what we like and dislike, and how we would react in different hypothetical scenarios. Through these series of questions, it assesses our innate strengths (called “themes”), which are things that occur naturally to us, without any effort from our end. Some example of “themes” are Communication, Context, Analytical, Focus, etc. All of them are associated with certain characteristics that are explained in detail in the book and online.


An important distinction from other personality tests is that StrengthsFinder is not a skills assessment. In a neat example by Susanne, we can liken these “themes” to the experience of writing with our dominant hand; it is effortless and natural. If we then try to write with our non-dominant hand, we will definitely need to put more effort, but with practice we can get better – this is similar to our acquired skills, which we can slowly master but do not innately have.

Why is it crucial to know our “themes”? As Amy put it, “if we are not using our natural skills, then we may not be satisfied and fulfilled as a person.” Also, what makes a successful team is the ability to match people with different “themes”, who will complement each other and achieve things much more efficiently. Even though we may have an idea of our strengths, it is important to self-assess using these tools because most people may not assess themselves accurately. Furthermore, if we don’t know our strengths, we may not use them as often. Feeling like you are not using your best abilities can lead to frustration and feelings of inadequacy, so we should always ask ourselves how we can put our strengths in action.

All of the attendees had the opportunity to take the test before the workshop, so we all had a list of our top 5 “themes”. However, the interesting part would be to understand what these “themes” actually mean. At first glance, some of the “themes” were surprising; many of us got “Relator” in our top 5, even though we all agreed that graduate students and postdocs are rarely social beings. This is why it is very important to read the description of the “theme” because it may be entirely different from what we have in mind. In fact, “Relator” means having few, strong relationships, without necessarily being an extrovert. As we went through our lists, we explored some of the common elements, as well as some unusual findings. Susanne and Amy have done this workshop with many student cohorts, and said that some “themes” are always present among Ph.D. crowds, no matter the discipline. Some of these skills are “Learner”, “Input”, “Context” and “Analytical”. On the other hand, a few “themes” are almost never present in these groups, namely “Self-assurance” and “Woo”, which are usually associated with confidence and influence on people.

After this interesting discussion, we engaged in a few exercises where we had to stand up and answer a question by placing ourselves somewhere on an imaginary continuum between two extremes. For example, Susanne described a scenario where we had to go into a room full of strangers and meet everybody. The two extreme options were “Absolutely” or “No way”. It was no surprise that many of us crowded in the “No way” corner! This exercise showed us that people are usually grouped based on their top “themes” and that some “themes” often go together. For example, “Discipline” usually goes with “Focus” and “Consistency”. We then had to work on a very challenging writing exercise, where we had to think of times when we were “at our best”. It soon became obvious that this was not an easy task, but it highlighted the importance of reflecting on such times and thinking of how our strengths were put in use.

At the end of the workshop, Susanne and Amy made sure we have a good idea of our strengths and taught us how to put them in use. As Ph.D. students and postdocs, we are often too harsh on ourselves. However, we should always remember that we are already very accomplished people, among the 2% of the population holding PhDs! Thus, focusing on the actions that give us fulfillment will help us find balance in our lives. A dream career may not be easy to find, but our strengths may guide us closer towards it.

This post was edited by Maryam Alapa and Tomas Kasza

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