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From PhD to Life

Career transitions don’t happen overnight


In the three years I’ve worked as a career and life coach, and through the years of my own transition, I’ve learned lots about the process of changing careers. What fascinates me most are the thoughts and feelings that accompany such a shift.

When I talk about transition with my clients and others, I often reference the definition used by William Bridges in his wonderful Transitions. This now-classic self-help/business book (as it was classified on the hard-copy book I read) argues that transitions — as opposed to changes — are psychological processes. They take time, something we tend to forget. No wonder one study found that it can take PhDs three to five years to move into careers after graduation (PDF).

From my perspective, dealing with the psychological and emotional aspects of transition is one of the biggest challenges PhDs face. Years of academic socialization, expectations from the people around you and society at large, and your own “gremlins” (inner critics or negative self-talk) leave doctoral candidates and grads vulnerable to a host of hurdles. These make tackling the not inconsiderable practical aspects of career change all the more difficult.

Watch out for:

  • Conflating what you do with who you are
  • The myth of meritocracy in the academy – “there are good jobs for good people” is not true
  • Thoughts about “failure” and “leaving” and “waste”
  • Feelings of shame, guilt, and worthlessness
  • Untested assumptions about work in and beyond the professoriate
  • Uncertainty about your own values, priorities, strengths, interests, and goals – academic culture may have imposed a false set on you over the years

What to do:

  • Invest time and energy in self-reflection and -assessment
  • Give yourself permission to feel vulnerable and uncertain – it’s okay
  • Exercise your research and critical thinking skills – explore and learn about other forms of work
  • Reframe your thinking from “failure” to embarking on a new, better-for-you journey
  • Separate self-conceptions of yourself as an “academic,” “scholar” “scientist,” etc. from specific jobs – you can absolutely be an “intellectual” while working as _____
  • Listen to your gut, not your gremlins

As you go through this transition, remember that it is as much a personal emotional journey as it is a practical reality. You know yourself best, but be open to broadening out your self-conceptions and plans. Advice to “follow your passion” is only useful in the abstract – root strengths, values, and interests will manifest themselves in innumerable, unpredictable ways throughout your life and career.

If you’re struggling, know that you’re not alone! And that this takes time. In my experience it’s a rare PhD who doesn’t struggle with challenging thoughts and feelings. There is a way forward. If you need support for the journey, check out my Resources page for some suggestions, join me on Twitter for my regular #withaPhD chat – I’m @FromPhDtoLife, attend my in-person events on campuses and at conferences, or consider working with a coach. (I have a list of colleagues on my website you can consult, or let me know what sort of help you’re after and I might be able to suggest someone for you.)

Oh, and do join me on Wednesday, June 22, at 2 p.m. EDT for “Maren and Jen’s 7 Tips for Going Beyond the Professoriate.” This is a free webinar presented by Chronicle Vitae. Register to watch the live stream or view the recording later. After the webinar Maren and I will host a discussion in the Vitae Groups.

Jennifer Polk
Jennifer Polk is a career coach and entrepreneur. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 2012. For more information and resources, check out her website:
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