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From PhD to Life

Standout moments from your past can help define your future

If your job search is falling flat, try remembering a moment when you felt most energized or engaged – this will give you valuable insight into yourself.


When it comes to sorting out what you want to do next, you need to get past the “any job, anywhere” thinking. You need something more manageable, both for yourself and for anyone attempting to help you along the way. So you start to do the things folks like me suggest doing, including conducting informational interviews with professionals doing work you think might interest you too. Ideally, you do a few and stumble upon what seems like a great fit, and then you pursue that.

Now, that’s great and all, and it works for some. But what if you keep having conversations with folks in roles that seem to make sense based on your skills and interests, and still nothing seems exciting? “Keep going” is one answer, certainly. Another, possibly more useful one, is to go back to a step in this process, and focus inward.

The standout moments exercise will help you do that, so you can move forward more effectively.

Here’s the prompt: “Think about a moment when you felt most energized or engaged. Be specific.”

Your moment can be from any context or age, and not just your academic or paid work. Specificity is key so you can really hone in on what made the experience what it was for you. Something that lasted a few minutes or perhaps hours is great; “teaching” is way too broad.

This is a riff on the “seven stories” exercise from What Color Is Your Parachute, the classic career guide written by Richard N. Bolles. (Read my review of the 2019 version here.) His exercise prompts readers to write about brief episodes or tasks they accomplished that they had fun doing. In the version of the book I first read, he used the word “successful,” as in “think about times you felt most successful.” I don’t love that term for those in the midst of a career transition, though if it speaks to you, run with it. Folks I interact with may be coming out of toxic situations or have spent years doing work that never really did it for them. But everyone’s got moments where they felt truly engaged and energized.

Read also: Redefining success and failure in academia

With a moment in mind, write out the story of what was going on. What was the context, what did you do, where were you, who were you with, what did you accomplish? This writing is only for you, so try not to judge yourself as you write. Just get it out. A page is plenty; half is probably fine.

You can do this for each of seven different moments, but I find that even three or four can be quite instructive. Once you’ve got a handful of stories, it’s time to analyze them. What themes emerge from your tales? What’s the same across all or several? What do you find surprising? How were you as a person in these moments?

When I did this exercise after graduating with my PhD, one of the moments I remembered was when I was the lone researcher left in the national archives in Ottawa late one Sunday night. I’m smiling even now as I think of it. I was reading letters written by a young Canadian soldier stationed in Vladivostok who was part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in Siberia during 1918-19. He wrote letters to his “sweetheart” back in northern Ontario. There was one letter in particular that made me laugh out loud, which was slightly embarrassing, I admit. (Who knows what the concierge at the main desk made of me, if anything.) The soldier wrote that he was “as mad as a wet hen” because his Trans-Siberian Railway dreams came to naught after he was denied placement on a trip to Omsk.

Thinking and writing about this moment reminded me of other times at archives and or otherwise reading letters, diaries, and similar first-person accounts. A reflection that came out of this exercise was that I’m energized when I learn about people, directly from those people. Archives were fun for me in part because they facilitated that learning. Getting specific in my standout moment and comparing it to other similar moments helped me understand that about myself.

Another story I wrote was about when I was a teaching assistant, leading group discussions during tutorials. Some of those were really fun! My (untrained) approach was, I later realized, much closer to facilitation than instructing. I saw my role as supporting students sharing their own insights so they could learn from each other, together. I had an English teacher in high school who did this, and I must have modelled my TAing on him without recognizing it at the time. My story about my TA work didn’t include what someone else’s story might – creating assignments (though I did that), grading (ditto), or going to course lectures (also ditto). Those other things could be great, but they didn’t make the cut as standout moments for me.

Read also: Taking stock: the importance of teaching self-reflections

The two moments I’ve shared come from my time as a PhD student, doing activities that were part of my program and funding package. Other times that stood out to me included organizing and attending pub nights (though I rarely drank alcohol), starting a personal blog, and co-hosting a podcast. Insights I gained include that I am a community builder and booster and that I love interacting with people in meaningful, empowering ways that enable learning, including my own.

These insights still come in handy. They keep me grounded and focused on who I am at my best. They remind me to pursue opportunities where I can show up as my best self and be supported in and celebrated for doing so. Knowing myself is all the intrinsic motivation I need to keep striving.

The standout moments exercise won’t tell you what kind of job to get. What it will do is help you ask better questions about what you’re exploring and to whom you’re speaking with about possibilities. And fortified with useful knowledge about yourself and targeted information and insights from other professionals, you will make better career decisions going forward. You can always listen to your gut, but it’s even better when you’ve got solid evidence to back you up. Doing this exercise will give you plenty of fantastic evidence.

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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