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From PhD to Life

Recognizing your own good work is hard!


“How’s business?” I was asked this by a fellow panelist at an event I recently participated in. “Good!” I responded, and then added my usual caveat: “I’m not yet covering my expenses but I’m getting there.” Reflecting on this now, I want to go back in time and change my answer. Why? TBU. This acronym (thanks Ian) stands for “true but useless.” I let one of my inner critics speak for me.

My gremlins also made an appearance a couple days later. A colleague sent over a bio of me that she’d prepared, to attach to a conference panel application. Reading the one-paragraph bio — seeing what she’d chosen to include — was an interesting experience. At first, an inner critic popped up, questioning whether what she claimed of me was in fact true. Somehow, the bio seemed a stretch; yet I couldn’t pick out anything disingenuous or outright faulty. I recognized myself in her description . . . but it still felt weird! Yes, I’d done those things and yes, this was an honest way of describing my work. But? Well, there is no “but.” My inner critic clearly wasn’t keeping up with my accomplishments of late.

The following day I hosted a #withaPhD Twitter chat about celebrating. I invited participants to reflect on their achievements and savour good feelings. They tweeted about signing book contracts; having happy, healthy families; writing honest, courageous blog posts; moving forward in their careers despite failures and stresses; clicking “send” on significant emails. It was fun and rewarding for me to acknowledge their accomplishments. I asked follow-up questions such as, “What was important to you about doing this?” and “Which of your character strengths did you draw on to help you get it done?”

In a world of “How’s your dissertation coming?,” “What’s your next research project?,” and “So, you got a job yet?” all the many necessary steps along the way are obscured. But those are the steps that get us where we’re going. Those are the steps we need to acknowledge, celebrate, and feel motivated by in order to keep moving forward. It may be that the only good dissertation is a done dissertation (for example) but it won’t get done unless you work hard, focus your efforts, take risks and stay healthy.

“How’s business?” Next time I hope I answer positively, noting a few of the steps I’ve taken toward my goal. My life and work aligns with my values, builds on my strengths, and includes lots of fun and engaging activities. These things are most important to me, and they are what I should emphasize.

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. Evelyn / October 24, 2014 at 02:10

    Hi Jen,

    I fully agree with your point here.

    Transitioning to other areas other than the academia after PhD is a bumpy road, which I share with you and many others. Yet, I think very few of us would regret having done a PhD. Mine has changed my life completely in a positive way!

    Salute to our journey,

  2. Jennifer Polk / October 24, 2014 at 12:04

    Thanks Evelyn! Bumpy for sure, and I agree about the lack of regret, generally speaking. I’d love to know more about your journey… perhaps you’d like to share in a Transition Q&A? 😉 [email protected] to be in touch directly.

  3. Anna CohenMiller / October 29, 2014 at 17:12

    Great points Jen! Love the TBU aspect. It’s so easy as academics, and female academics, to add those caveats. A new lesson I hope to learn.

  4. Jennifer Polk / October 31, 2014 at 10:29

    We are caveat queens!

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