Stop Fear From Dictating Your Career Choices

Thomas Magaldi gives advice on how to overcome long-held yet false assumptions that often drive behavior and limit opportunities.

June 5, 2017
 
 
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Regardless of discipline or degree level, internal fears about job choices and advancement can inhibit our careers and professional development. Career fears can be particularly pernicious because they often manifest themselves as what we believe to be perfectly logical thinking. It is difficult to distinguish between truth and fear, because fear feels like reality until it is examined and challenged.

We are all walking around with long-held assumptions driving our behavior that are actually just fears trying to protect us. As a student and postdoc, unconscious fears prevented me from thinking clearly about my career. Some internal thoughts that I battled during my training included: “I am qualified to use only the specific technical and research skills that I developed as a student,” “My decision to pursue a Ph.D. may prevent me from ever buying a house,” and “If I don’t use my analytical skills, I will never have a stable career.” While this internal chatter might seem extreme to others, as a student and postdoc, I was convinced that such false perceptions were true.

When making important career decisions, you must recognize your fears and how they affect your judgment. Once those fears are clear, you can implement strategies to mitigate the influence they have on your choices. Some universal concerns in academe, such as threats to science funding and reduction of resources committed to the arts and humanities, are legitimate and should be viewed pragmatically when career planning. But most of our fears are exaggerated and can harm our career decisions. Fortunately, it is possible to overcome them.

Fear of Missing Out

Fear of missing out, or FOMO, is the fear that others are experiencing an exciting event or opportunity without you. The FOMO phenomenon is exacerbated by social media as people post pictures of their tropical vacations, CrossFit workouts and unicorn-themed coffees.

FOMO not only applies to trivial pursuits but also pertinent career decisions. Many students romanticize the career paths of others and denigrate the career paths they have initially envisioned for themselves. I frequently observe this in young students who move away from faculty jobs before they really understand the true advantages and disadvantages of this career path.

In mild cases of career FOMO, students and postdocs might gravitate toward clickbait articles with titles like “Top 10 Reasons You Are Wasting Your Time in Academe” and “People in Industry Careers Are Happier.” In an extreme case of career FOMO, students can make reactionary career decisions to mimic the glamorized career paths of their friends and colleagues.

If you are experiencing career FOMO, first recognize that you are not alone. As a student and postdoc, I glorified the career paths of friends and family who did not pursue a Ph.D. Since those who do not pursue a doctorate normally have a significant financial head start, my glorification of those careers revolved around superficial success.

I often fantasized about how my career and material success would be different if I had only found a job immediately after college. Such thinking prevented me from appreciating the innate advantages of having a Ph.D. I fortunately dispelled those fears during a chance encounter with an M.B.A. student from a top-five business school.

When I told the student about my background as a scientist, she replied “Oh, a Ph.D. I wish I had pursued a Ph.D. instead of an M.B.A. There are no interesting career paths for M.B.A.s anymore.” I was shocked! How could a talented person who was primed to secure a cushy Wall Street job with a salary in the high six figures be envious of a Ph.D.?

I realized right then and there that no single group of professionals owns a monopoly on career anxiety. We all possess insecurities and fantasies about our careers. How we deal with those perceptions will determine whether we find fulfilling positions. So the next time you fantasize about a career path that another person is pursuing, think about this quote from a postdoc I advise: “Sometimes the grass is greener on the other side because it has more [horse manure].”

The second part of coping with career FOMO involves identifying your distinct interests, values and talents through introspection. Self-assessment programs like Strengths Finder, MBTI and myIDP can aide this process. For tips on how to use self-assessments, read the “Carpe Careers” articles from Natalie Lundsteen and Stephanie Eberle. When you exalt another person’s career path, self-assessments will allow you to understand whether this career aligns with your true interests or whether you are simply distracted by its perceived glamour.

An honest self-assessment will not only steer you to career paths that are aligned with your career goals but also help you to communicate your value and commitment to future employers. I once worked with a postdoc who complained about the state of academe when interviewers asked him why he was leaving the faculty career track. He realized that those negative tirades cost him several job offers. When we drafted an answer that conveyed what he was moving toward instead of what he was running from, he received an offer to work as a patent attorney. When you start the job search, remember that employers want to hire candidates who make deliberate career decisions based on evidence.

Fear of the Unknown

Depending on their discipline, students and postdocs can spend anywhere from five to 15 years in training. Because academe becomes familiar and comfortable, many students and postdocs fear the unknown landscape outside the walls of the ivory tower.

For instance, I entered graduate school with the goal of becoming a professor at small liberal arts college. After careful introspection, I realized that I had that goal because I was only exposed to the career paths of my undergraduate mentors. Moreover, immediately focusing on faculty jobs at small colleges assuaged a persistent inner voice that compelled me to identify a career plan -- any career plan. Therefore, I never felt the need to invest in exploring other opportunities.

When students and postdocs do venture out, they might settle for the career paths in front of them -- perhaps those that their mentors suggest or their friends have pursued. While those are great places to start, your exploration should not end there.

To overcome a fear of the unknown, you should spend at least one hour each month learning about a career path that you had not considered before. Designate sacred time on your calendar to attend a career event on the campus, read about a career path or conduct LinkedIn searches of alumni who are working in interesting careers. Catch yourself before rationalizing why a particular career path is not for you. If you have not spoken to someone working in the field, it should not be ruled out.

Finally, conduct informational interviews with people working in careers outside of your comfort zone. If insight from informational interviews fits with the values, interests and talents you’ve identified during your self-assessment process, consider such paths as viable options. During those informational interviews, ask people about their initial concerns during their first job search. You will be surprised to learn that successful professionals shared many of your same fears when they were trainees.

Fear of Inadequacy

Some students and postdocs believe the training in academe only prepares them to study one specific research question. As a result, they fail to explore new and interesting career opportunities due to a fear of inadequacy.

By now, I had hoped that the concept of transferable skills would be pervasive. But I consistently encounter trainees who do not see the value they posses beyond their specific research expertise. Resilience, resourcefulness, communication, analytical skills and problem solving are all skills developed during your training that can be applied to many professions. In January 2017, the Economist magazine featured articles on the future of the global work force. It identified lifelong learning as the most important skill set that workers must possess to remain relevant for future jobs. The Ph.D. is essentially training in resourceful learning. Given enough time and resources, Ph.D.s can adapt to any situation.

If you fear inadequacy and rejection when considering career paths, gain confidence in your abilities by understanding and applying your transferable skills sets well before you are ready to look for other jobs. Volunteer for student clubs, professional societies and outreach organizations. Take online courses or learn about new fields via podcasts and industry-specific magazines. (See my article on how to conduct professional development on a hectic schedule.)

For instance, a friend took an advanced Spanish class during a particularly challenging point in her thesis research. Although her experiments were not working, taking a class outside of her field provided a much-needed reminder that she was adept at learning quickly.

As you talk to people during informational interviews, ask them about the skill sets that they use on a regular basis. You will be surprised to learn that they developed the most important ones during training.

FEAR -- False Evidence Appearing Real

Regardless of your training and level of education, fear is a powerful emotion that can lead to poor career decisions. Therefore, pay attention to the internal narrative that you repeat to yourself about your career.

In particular, start evaluating the evidence you are using to support your arguments. For clarity, it is important to deconstruct your perceptions when you are relaxed and not overwhelmed. If you are having difficulty being honest with yourself, you might benefit from talking about your career with others. If you have access to a career services office on the campus, use it. If not, seek out professional coaches who are skilled at helping others identify and achieve career goals.

I have worked with personal and executive coach Jane Bliss Birk, who not only helped me recognize my career fears but also provided input to this article. Once you understand your fears, you can implement strategies to mitigate the effect they have on your decision making. Controlling such fears is a crucial step in pursuing the fulfilling career path that you deserve.

Bio

Thomas Magaldi is the manager for career and professional development at Memorial Sloan Kettering and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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