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From PhD to Life

Make 2017 the year of “What if I…?”


A client shared this bit of wisdom with me a while back: Instead of admonishing herself with “I should…” she replaced it with “What if I…?”

Reframing the sentiment as an open question turns it into something positive and future-oriented. The answer focuses on the benefits of taking an action, rather than the guilt or shame that accompanies not doing what she “should.”

For my graduate student and PhD clients, “What if I…?” questions include:

  • submitted my draft chapter next week
  • took more control of my professional future
  • requested an informational interview
  • quit my program

Posing the questions gets them imagining possibilities without committing to any particular course of action. Focusing on what it would be like to do something brings any intrinsic motivation to the surface. What if you submitted your chapter next week? “I’d feel amazing.” Or perhaps the idea fills you with dread! That tells you something.

Before you decide what to do, check that your fears or “gremlins” aren’t clouding the issue. Is the dread of submitting that chapter due to what you know about your work and your advisor’s likely reaction to it, or is it more that you’re afraid of taking this reasonable, appropriate risk? If it might be the latter, be gentle on yourself as you investigate what’s going on.

In my work with clients I do best by them when I ask questions and then shut up and let them talk. That means I try to let silences be, not ask leading questions (for example: “Is it this, or is it that?”), and comment on anything I’m sensing, including my own emotions. That last part might sound odd — coaching isn’t about me! — but in my experience admitting that I’m feeling something can be a useful part of the process. Sometimes we know things intuitively without necessarily being actively aware of them.

Giving my clients space to respond is crucial to facilitating them taking important-to-them action.

You can use a similar approach on yourself when asking “What if I…?” questions. That means paying attention to your emotional reactions as you respond. It also means not cutting yourself off. A good trick is to write out your responses or to speak them out loud. Keep writing or talking until you’ve said all there is.

If you get bogged down, focus on just one small task: “What if I just drafted an email to a networking contact?” instead of “What if I send an email…?” for example. Take things one step at a time. You can always reverse course (by one step) if it turned out to be a wrong move.

What if you replaced “I should” with “What if I…?” in 2017?

Happy New Year, everyone!

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. Chris / January 17, 2017 at 11:40

    Great article Jen! I think replacing “I should …” with “What if I…” also changes the level of intention at the start of a project/goal in a good away.

    “I should (but not sure if I will)” has a negative intention, but “What if I (and what then are the possibilities) has a positive intention.

    I think this switch can really help people get started and then looking back at the possibilities that were stated over time can provide the fuel to keep going!


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