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From PhD to Life

The “dream job”


Last week a Twitter contact asked me, “Would you ever go back to academia if your dream job opened up?” We both knew he meant a university faculty position, tenure-track. We knew this because talk of a “dream job” is common among graduate students and PhDs on the academic job market. For me, now, the question was jarring because I don’t think about the academic job market at all these days, unless it’s to empathize and lament in solidarity with friends and colleagues. In fact, I told him, I am doing my dream job right now! I have zero interest in working as a professor, I added.

This was my in-the-moment response, but it’s not quite right. I don’t think about what I do in this way. I think about it in terms of engaging in activities that draw on my strengths, let me build fun and exciting new skills, honour my values, and align with my lifestyle priorities. You know, all the stuff I write about on this blog. It’s not that this particular job (or job title) is the dream; instead, it’s the alignment that’s ideal. That alignment could take many forms, and no doubt will in future.

The trope of the singular “dream job” in academia (or anywhere) is unhelpful. It obscures the reality of hard work, with all its attendance ups and downs. I’m grateful that I get to do what I do; that doesn’t mean I don’t think about ways to improve it, or wrestle with issues big and small. Do what you love, yes — absolutely! – but know that, like a loving relationship, it’s not all smooth sailing.

When graduate students and PhDs on the academic job market envision their “dream job” – a tenure-track position in Toronto or at a small liberal arts college in a bucolic New England town, for example – they give undue power to things beyond their control. (Whose dream? Be honest with yourself.) They limit their imaginings and self-reflections. They may not recognize the true nature of academic employment. There’s no problem with aiming for a job that suits you and your lifestyle. The problem is when you believe there’s only one job that will do. If your inner (and outer) critics are telling you so, ask yourself: Is this true? What does the evidence say? Where can you find out more information to test your hypothesis?

When I talk with PhDs who are settled into work beyond the professoriate, we don’t talk about regret or lost dreams. We recognize that we’re forging our own paths, in our own way. We shake our heads at the idea of a “dream job” in academia. We know from talking with our tenured or tenure-track friends that landing those jobs didn’t solve all their problems, even if they’re in a “dream” spot and enjoy what they do. We’re happy for them, but we don’t envy them. We’ve got our own worries and plans and goals.

Check out this thread on Twitter for more thoughts.

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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