Change Your Work, Change Your Identity

By Sharon Belden Castonguay posted 02-13-2018 08:02


I began my career in law and business schools, where we often witnessed a phenomenon in which students begin their programs with the goal to enter a related “helping” profession, like public interest law or nonprofit management, only to change their minds after spending some time in school. In some of these cases, the issue is simply money: professional school is expensive, and needing to pay back loans can affect career decisions. And many of these students will find themselves caught up in the competitive nature of these graduate programs, and realize that the money and status within their chosen professions comes most easily to those who enter highest paying fields, say, corporate law or investment banking. 

But while money may be one important factor when making early career decisions, there is also the fact that by training to enter a profession, it becomes part of your identity. One of my favorite studies of professional socialization was conducted by sociologist Cary Costello. Having practiced as an attorney before getting his Ph.D. and entering academe, he was interested in studying how people formed professional identities. About his own experience, he reflected that while he had had a number of jobs before starting law school, they never came to define who he was—he never referred to himself as an ex-food service worker, for instance. But he did continue to think of himself as an attorney, even though he wasn’t practicing law. This is not uncommon among those who go through long periods of training, including those who may have graduated from medical school but are not practicing physicians, or Ph.D. scientists who are no longer at the bench performing experiments. 

Cary Costello looks at a sociological concept called habitus. Simply put, habitus refers to the manner of thought and presentation that one assumes, largely unconsciously, as part of one’s social identity. Habitus includes one’s worldviews, tastes, body language, and even manner of dress. Habitus can be seen at multiple levels: for example, the habitus of an American from rural Iowa would likely differ from a native of Tokyo in nearly every possible way. But habitus goes well beyond national or even regional culture. When one enters a career, one is likely to also assume a new professional habitus. 

Costello’s dissertation research explored the effect of professional school education on habitus, that is, how students changed their dress, how they spoke, and even what they ate, by virtue of attending graduate school. He conducted more than 400 hours of observation of the classroom experience of law students and graduate social work students at Berkeley, a top school in both disciplines. Some of the differences he noticed may not be surprising to you, such as their habits of dress: the law students tended to wear plain white button-down shirts, while social work students preferred to dress in black. Law students favored fancy coffee beverages, while social work students were socialized quickly to only bring overtly healthy foods, like smoothies, with them to class. Costello even observed one social work student, early on in the year, who brought a bag of Doritos to class but attempted to hide it as she ate, clearly worried that her classmates would judge her choice of snack. 

Costello uses the terms identity consonance and identity dissonance when discussing the relative difficulty students had with adopting the new habitus expected of them. Identity consonance occurs when one’s professional socialization and emerging new professional identity is not at odds with the personal identities with which one entered professional school. These students easily adapted to their new environments, and were better able to focus on their work; they essentially already presented themselves in terms of their speech, presentation, and manner of thought as lawyers or social workers. 

In contrast, Costello posited that students who do not fit the traditional mold for these fields on any axis of identity, such as with regard to gender, race or ethnicity, religious or political beliefs, disability, sexual orientation, or social class will often experience discomfort. If there is a mismatch between any of one’s personal identities and the professional identity they are socialized to adopt, identity dissonance occurs. Such dissonance is a continuous variable; that is, it can be experienced a little or a lot, and one can also be identity consonant and dissonant at the same time, but along different personal identities. For instance, a new investment banker might feel consonant as a white member of the upper-middle class, but dissonant as a lesbian woman. As this dissonance can be unconscious, it is often difficult for the individual to recognize what is happening and to develop coping strategies. 

But it’s important to understand that dissonance is not always a bad thing; in some cases, the new identity can be empowering and positive, particularly if the new persona is of higher social value than the personal identity it displaces, and is one to which someone aspires. For instance, if neither of your parents went to college but you’ve always wanted to be a doctor, you might experience identity dissonance at some point during your academic or professional training. But taking on that new identity of “pre-med student,” “medical student,” or “resident” could result in positive dissonance since they are in line with your aspirational identity. However, those who do not find benefit with their new identities, and want to keep hold of dissonant personal identities, can experience negative dissonance, which can affect performance in school and eventual professional success. Costello found in his study that negative dissonance also frequently affected students’ personal lives, particularly if friends and family did not understand and appreciate the changes undergone via the professional school experience. 

Dissonant habitus can include something as simple as manner of dress. One very common example I’ve often noticed in my work as a college career counselor is the difficulty many students have shifting between a student habitus and a professional one when they begin looking for internships. Carrying an attache bag instead of a backpack, or wearing a suit instead of jeans and a T-shirt, can be uncomfortable at first for many, if not most. But there is a continuum of difficulty there. Some students stand up a little taller when they have their suits on, ready to assume a professional identity and internalizing it as the next step in their personal as well as professional identity development. Others have a very hard time with it, and agonize over whether to, say, remove piercings, or cover up tattoos, or dye their hair back to its natural color.

To be clear, there is no right answer here—everyone needs to decide for themselves how much dissonance they are willing or able to tolerate. But I do think it’s useful to label this discomfort and understand it for what it is so that students can navigate it with insight. 

Source: Costello, C.Y. (2005). Professional Identity Crisis: Race, Class, Gender and Success at Professional Schools. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.

Editor's note: Sharon Belden Castonguay will be launching a Coursea course in May that uses this theme. More information on the course will be available toward the end of this semester. Although there's a charge for the course, you can audit for free.