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From PhD to Life

Taking risks is key to a successful career change


One of the pieces of advice I give people considering their options after a PhD is to take risks. Not big ones, but small ones. One at a time.

These risks can take the form of drafting a resumé, just for yourself. Or conducting an informational interview, even with someone you already know. Or perhaps simply spending time considering your own priorities. All these things can be risks because they require that we make ourselves vulnerable, that we open ourselves up to learning, that we face the truth about what’s actually important to us. As a result we may realize we need to make changes in our lives. Change is hard.

Consider resumés. Jonathan Turner, a career educator at the University of Toronto who has a PhD in the history of science, told an audience at a non-academic career event that talking with graduate students about  resumés is often tough. The conversations he has with them about publications are among the most delicate ones. And no wonder. In the academic world, publications are highly prized, valued above all other contributions. The results of your scholarship woo academic hiring committees, but the skills employed in the process of publishing those results are what can woo non-academic hiring managers. Focus on process, not product, said Turner. That’s where you’ll find  resumé gold. Coming around to that way of thinking can take a while. I, for one, “had a hard time moving education from its prime location on my  resumé [M]y identity was wrapped up in the three new letters after my name.” No longer. Four years after finishing, I don’t identify with the degree itself anymore.

When it comes to informational interviews, it’s often a good idea to start close to home, with people you already know. The idea is they can help you ease into the process of career exploration because they want to help you succeed. The trouble is, they know you in the context of your current situation. The last question you want to hear is, “I thought you wanted to be a professor?” Or what if you find you need to reach out to people you know from your undergraduate days? You may have a PhD, but they could be ten years into a career. If you’re feeling any sort of shame about your inability to secure an academic position, these conversations can be awkward.

History PhD and sessional instructor Andrew Miller did reach out to “an old friend from undergrad days.” That man worked for the provincial government. “He in turn set me up with an informational interview with another civil servant who also held a PhD,” remembered Andrew in his Transition Q & A. “At his suggestion, I applied for an entry-level job that was advertised in the newspaper.” Andrew got the job, and that began an eight-year career with the Government of Ontario that lead him to where he is now, working as strategic leader for the City of Mississauga. It’s as close to his dream job as he ever thought possible.

One of my clients struggled with sorting out what was important to her. She was an adjunct professor, doing work her “mentors” (her word) thought she ought to be doing. She was close to these women; they supported her through years of graduate education and beyond, in professional and personal matters. Turning away from their vision of her career was tough. In time my client embraced what she truly valued, and shifted her perspective when it came to her mentors: they wanted what was best for her. She was allowed to change her mind about what that meant in practical terms. But it was a risky move for her, psychologically, to think about her own priorities. Now six months later, she’s launched her own business and is planning to transition full-time into that and related work in the next few years.

I share these anecdotes to show how important it is to take risks, even and perhaps especially ones that wreak havoc on our emotions. But you don’t have to take them all at once! My clients face them in sequence, often starting with sorting out values and priorities before moving on to informational interviews and then writing a top-notch resumé . (Shout out to Heidi Scott Giusto, whom I recommend to all my clients who want help crafting professional job documents.) They key is to keep moving forward, whatever that means for you, now.

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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