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From PhD to Life

Do you know what career path to take?


“When did you decide to leave academia?” This question, or some version of it — “How did you know that you didn’t want to be a professor?” for example — is one I’m regularly asked. It comes up in conversation, on Twitter, or when I’m on a careers panel. It’s a fair inquiry, and the questioner tends to ask because she is wrestling with making a decision about her own future. But it’s a question that I can’t answer. There was no one moment when I knew the tenure-track wasn’t for me, and there wasn’t an easy process to come to that decision either.

The reality was messy; the reality was that I spent months, even years, unsure about what path to take.

Let’s take up this path metaphor. It’s one that also comes up regularly, because the wondering behind the question is really about this: what career path should I follow? In what direction should I go? The paths in this case are clearly marked: “Academia” or “Something Else.” But the markers need not be so clearly defined. And there doesn’t have to be just two paths. What if there were many?

In October, I was part of a career panel at the Universities Art Association of Canada conference. One of the moderators presented a variation of the path theme, taken from a talk given earlier that month by Paul Yachnin at Queen’s University: academia as a highway with many exit ramps (and, ideally, just as many on ramps). The idea is that the academy isn’t so far removed from other careers, and that taking an exit now — getting an “alternative-academic” job — doesn’t mean one can never come back. The highway is a useful metaphor, and a hopeful one for academic job seekers worried about taking a non-faculty job only to find they’re blocked from ever getting a tenure-track gig.

The highway metaphor helps job seekers envision a much wider array of next steps, none of which need mean the end of one’s academic aspirations. Good. But let me take out my map and show you . . . look: that highway is just one of many! There are lots of highways. They all have lots of on- and off-ramps, and they all connect to each other directly or indirectly. Some roads may be better for you than others.

If you’re struggling with the “what path?” question, take heart: you are doing this correctly! Get clearer on what your ideal destination is like. You don’t need to know what industry, company, or job title suits you. If you don’t, the roads you need to be on now are ones that get you exploring your options (conducting informational interviews, for example) or identifying your priorities, goals, values, strengths, interests, and skills. Once you’re more comfortable travelling these routes, you can plan the rest of your journey. And, you’ll know you’ve been on the right path all along — your path, unique to you.

As for me, learning about and focusing on what was actually important rather than on what others, including academic culture, told me was, got me to where I am now. Letting go of old thought patterns took time, but the process went much faster when I stopped worrying and got in the driver’s seat.

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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  1. Rahul / January 21, 2015 at 00:26

    I loved your analogy of the highway and ramps. I am in my last year of graduate school and it just hit me a month ago that i couldn’t do 5 more years of postdoc for a shot at tenure which might now even happen. I am contemplating consulting or entrepreneurship as alternates but breaking out of the mindset looking for academic postdoctoral positions has been difficult.
    I am glad there are people like you out there counseling and writing for the greater good of the ever frustrated “about to graduate-what am i doing here” graduate student. But I have hope and I will find a way out (or in).

    Thanks again

    • Jennifer Polk / February 19, 2015 at 13:09

      Thanks for reading, Rahul! There really are so many places to find happiness, fulfillment, meaning, intellectual engagement, challenge, etc.

  2. Anna / February 12, 2015 at 17:25

    Thank you for writing this. The #1 thing keeping me from walking away from a VAP position I’m in right now is the fear that I’ll never be able to return to this path if I leave the academy. So I really appreciate your idea of exit ramps and on ramps.

    I’m wondering, though, whether there are good examples out there of individuals who have done this, as in exited academia AND then entered again later? If so, I’d be eager to read and learn about those individuals. Thank you! ~Anna

    • Jennifer Polk / February 19, 2015 at 13:06

      You’re welcome! I can think of at least a couple people. Let me keep an eye out for stories to share or people to interview.