Professional Identity: What Is It, And Can It Ramp Up Or Stall Your Career?  

Karen Tkaczyk

Professional identity is defined as “the attitudes, values, knowledge, beliefs and skills shared with others within a professional group,” by BMC Medical Education. I read the words, but found the concept hard to articulate with concrete examples when I became a Career Advisor at MIIS 7 years ago.

It changed when I did a mock interview with a seasoned translator, coming to MIIS to study Localization Management with the goal of becoming a  Localization Project Manager. I asked her questions about how she would deal with various challenges in managing localization workflows. My aha moment came when, time and time again, she kept veering towards the perspective of translators. I thought to myself: “Now I get it. She is still thinking like a translator rather than a Localization PM.” Once I understood the concept, I started to see around me how the inability to change one’s professional identity diminishes their ability to pivot to new career directions.

Karen Tkaczyk has successfully transitioned her professional roles multiple times. Most recently, she has transitioned from a freelance translator to a management role at MasterWord. I sat down with Karen to talk about her journey with the goal of highlighting the how rather than the what. The process is applicable regardless of the professions of your choice.

  • Karen, please tell us a bit about the various transitions you have made in your professional journey.

My first professional identity was as a research chemist getting a PhD and then a development chemist working in the chemical/pharmaceutical industry. That was 1994-2000. Then I was a stay-at-home mum from 2001-2005. I started my freelance translation practice in 2005, and my identity was being a highly specialized technical translator, editor and trainer until 2021. Then I became employed again by an LSP in May 2021.

The common thread through all those phases is subject matter expertise. I was always known as the chemistry translator among my peers. And I did much fun science stuff like making the periodic table of cupcakes with my children. 😊

  • Let’s talk about your most recent transition. Why did you decide that you wanted to make a change and how did you choose your direction?

The short answer to why is that I reached a tipping point and to how is that I wanted to grow yet keep the SME focus. The longer version dips into the pandemic, into the sort of introspection and reflection common to many during that period, to the fact that we were approaching the youngest of those kids  leaving home, and partly financial: my husband was furloughed for a while, so we wanted benefits. All that got me thinking and opening up to the idea of change after such a long period of stability.

Then what direction? I wanted to rely on that subject-expertise that has served me well. I wanted to stay in language services—that is to say that for both those points, I wanted to use the years of experience I have, not try something new. I knew I had people/organizational skills that would serve me well. At that early stage I was open to both client-side and LSP, to both operations and client-facing roles. I had a target starting salary in mind that matched my typical net annual revenue. As a freelancer I had strong, stable revenue for the 4 years prior to the pandemic so that number was firm in my mind.

  • Before we started this interview, you shared with me that you have caught yourself being stuck in old professional identities. How did you build that awareness?  

When I am with freelancers (Say training on editing and proofreading, something I do periodically) I still use the first person, we/I. And I do the odd freelance job from time to time for old clients. I handed off most work to colleagues, but my contract allows for the sideline and I like to keep my skills up. For instance, I can see how various CAT tools look from the linguist side, periodically test whether MT engines are any better these days, and share what I learnt in terms of scientific writing skills with the next generation of freelancers. All of that forms part of my overall approach to keeping up with what’s going on the in the industry.

It’s often a positive though, to be able to look back at that identity: When I am at networking events that are largely client-side and LSP focused (For example, Women in Localization or LocLunch events) and explain my background, I often end up being asked for the freelancer opinion on something. “What’s it really like to…”

The other identity that trips me up sometimes is being a chemist. Sometimes I say “I was a chemist” to clients whose accounts I manage (who are often STEM grads), and more than one has said “You are a chemist” and they’re quite right!

  • What is your advice for new professionals who know their career direction, but finding it hard to create a professional identity?

Build awareness of what your strengths are and which roles that might make you naturally better at. It is much easier to identify with something when it is a good fit for your strengths.

Find a mentor or someone to inspire you who has been where you are and has achieved something you hope to get to. So model yourself after others, I suppose until you find yourself.

If you are using a job as a stepping-stone or placeholder on your way to the dream, be careful. Having something else aspirational as a goal or identity can make it hard to shine where you are, as you won’t give your all to the stepping stone. Yet to impress peers and managers, you want to shine along the way. So be aware and make sure you are not being lackluster as you work towards other goals.

I’ll also give you a negative tip. I’m not a proponent of “fake it till you make it,” a fairly common approach, especially to get a foothold in the freelance world. Try to build those skills first before you make claims that you can’t stand behind.

  • For people making changes mid-career, what have been the most effective ways for you to transition to a new professional identity?

Own it. Publicly. Tell your family and friends about the change. Tell people on LinkedIn or anywhere else you are networking. I have colleagues who have made a similar transition but haven’t told the world. To me that shows that at heart they aren’t taking the leap to change their professional identity.

What else? Spend time reflecting (say once a month) on the things you weren’t expecting in the new role and think about how the new role has brought you growth and whether you would have experienced that in the old role. That analysis can make the changes clear.

I have a very practical way to transition too: I don’t handle anything related to my freelance life (or for that matter, my personal life) on my MasterWord computer. I have another computer (and my phone) for that. That split means that I focus on the main professional identity during the work day, and only handle the “former” identity in off times. That makes the transition much cleaner.

  • Thank you, Karen, for sharing such in-depth and candid insights about how you’ve managed the transition. Any words of wisdom as we close this interview?

It has been a pleasure to discuss this with you, Winnie. To start with you said that the definition of identity included attitudes, values, knowledge, beliefs and skills. I think we have covered all of those here! To close I’ll add that transitions are natural. Let’s enjoy them.

Winnie Heh

Career Advisor