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From PhD to Life

Stalled career search? Don’t give up


I recently spoke with a humanities PhD who’s having difficulty securing meaningful employment. After a one-year stint as a professor soon after he graduated, he’s worked for a private company for the past 18 months. “General office work,” he told me. “This used to be a summer job, and they hired me full-time in part to help me out while I searched for something more appropriate.” The reason we spoke is that he doesn’t know what would be more appropriate. He’s applied to other non-academic jobs in a haphazard way (his words) over the past several months. Colleagues and friends have wanted to help, offering to pass his resume around to people in their own networks. The trouble? His resume’s a mess. Without a position to aspire to, he’s unable to make a compelling case on paper.

His story reminds me of the tale told by this anonymous postdoc in Times Higher Education. He – or she – was not doing well. “My research is not progressing[;] my collaboration attempts have all failed.” Knowing that many others like her are competing for fewer and fewer permanent academic positions, she decides to explore her options in other fields.

I talk to people who left academia, and to people planning on doing so. I visit careers fairs and fill out personality questionnaires at Stanford’s career development centre. But this only reinforces my conviction that I like being a scientist and I have the skills to be one. I would be happy in another job only if it requires as much creativity, variety and flexibility as science does. Great. Either I drastically change my expectations in life, or I am back at square one.

I have a lot of empathy for this postdoc! Her findings are frustrating. But she’s been led astray in thinking that there’s no place for her beyond science.

First, let’s be clear about the purpose and value of personality, skill, and career assessments. They can be helpful if they provide language to express strengths and goals. They can help you broaden and then narrow down your options. They can suggest new ideas to consider, perhaps surprising ones. They can help identify patterns in disparate experiences. They can spark useful self-reflection. All these things are valuable, but none of them mean assessments hold the key to who you are and what job you should do. There’s no one key.

Second, let’s unpack the assumptions here about “science” (or academia) vs. everything else. I have no doubt that a career as a scientist can be marvelous, including a great deal of “creativity, variety and flexibility.” But it doesn’t follow that other careers lack for them. It is even possible that some of those other careers have more creativity, variety, and flexibility. It’s impossible to know without doing more investigation. This process can take a long time through no fault of your own. I hear science can be like that, too, eh?

The humanities PhD I mentioned at the outset refuses to give up after months of stalled exploration. He wants to take a more active role in the process. From my perspective, that process will include lots of self-reflection and many informational interviews, and maybe some trying things out by volunteering or doing freelance work. He’ll zoom in on what’s most important to him in terms of lifestyle and working conditions. He’ll identify the skills he has that he most enjoys using. He’ll reach out to old friends and colleagues, to ask about their jobs and careers. He’ll craft multiple versions of a resume, and perhaps apply to some jobs online, if only for practice. He’ll make new connections in a variety of industries. He’ll get ever closer to knowing what he wants and how to get it.

This will take a while; meanwhile, he’ll work his current job unless or until an opportunity comes up to move on to something better. Even if he stays where he is for another 18 months, as long as he keeps exploring, learning, networking, and doing new things, he’ll be making progress in his career. It may not be apparent to anyone else, but he’ll know.

If you find yourself stuck, don’t give up. There is lots more to learn, both about yourself and what’s out there. PhDs can find work that’s fulfilling and fun (at least most of the time) in a variety of different positions and industries. Unfortunately, we tend not to be taught how to do this, nor may we already have the knowledge and connections we’ll need to achieve our goals. I want this to change. But until it does, keep going. If anyone’s able to persevere, learn new things, and do some hard thinking, it’s us. And when you feel you’ve landed in a good spot, you can write a Transition Q & A post for me!

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. Marlies Ozias / February 18, 2016 at 12:10

    Great post Jennifer. I bounced around from lab to lab after my Master’s degree, thinking I would be content being a technician my whole life (eventually went back for PhD and am now in industry Medical Affairs). I think back to my time in grad school (MS and PhD) and I’m thoroughly disappointed in the lack of career training that was provided. Now maybe if I’d walked into the Career Office and said “help me”, I’d have a different story but I didn’t do that nor did they walk into my student office! My daily activities in grad school were to survive and get done as soon as possible. In today’s rapidly changing academic world where 1% of PhDs end up in academia and who knows how many are wasting their good years in never-ending post docs, both sides (the professors and the students) need to take a hard look in the mirror and rethink how we do PhD training. And let the proactive Career Advisement department be the mediator in that very interesting dialogue.

  2. SC / February 19, 2016 at 12:16

    Science is NOT just academia. Plenty of folks manage to ‘do science’ in biotech, government labs, regulatory affairs, clinical trials and so on. It is easy for us to get discouraged, but doesn’t mean we need to ‘give up’ on science per se. There is a big world beyond academia.