You're Not Alone

Derek Attig provides resources to show how others have handled the exciting yet challenging process of figuring out what comes next.

September 25, 2017
 
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Reconsidering your career goals in graduate school can be both exciting and scary. I work with hundreds of graduate students every year who are starting to explore careers beyond the professoriate and who are open and curious about their futures. But many also experience feelings of isolation -- as if they are the first graduate students to question their path and so have no one who shares their anxieties and concerns.

In fact, people with graduate degrees have been exploring and pursuing careers beyond academe since graduate degrees were invented. And people with graduate degrees continue, every day, to do so. What that means for you is that there is a vast and continually growing community of folks to learn from.

This post offers suggestions for places to start finding that community, with resources to help you feel less alone and show you how those who came before you (or who are right there with you) handle the exciting, challenging process of figuring out what comes next.

Read and Listen

By reading “Carpe Careers,” you’re already taking an important step: reading a variety of perspectives to learn from people who have been where you are now. So keep it up. But there are also many other things to read, or even listen to, that can help.

If you are the sort of person who reads Inside Higher Ed, you’ve probably read Kelly J. Baker’s writing before. Starting in 2013, Baker spent several years chronicling her sometimes bumpy transition out of academe and offering sharp observations about academic life. More recently, after becoming editor of Women in Higher Education, Baker collected many of those essays into a striking and insightful collection called Grace Period: A Memoir in Pieces. For our purposes here, the most impressive and effective thing about it is that it gives you a ground-level, chronological view of Baker’s struggles and discoveries as she changed her concept of herself and built a new future. Baker makes an excellent partner with whom to learn about the challenges and opportunities that a transition out of academe can provide.

If you want something shorter than a book, or a bunch of stories about transitioning from grad school to a variety of jobs, then interviews are a great option. They offer concrete proof that others have been where you are, plus practical tips and ideas about how to transition as smoothly as possible. Many graduate schools post interviews with graduate alumni (here is the series I coordinate on my campus), so see if your university has done that. Other excellent sources for interviews include From Ph.D. to Life’s Transition Q&As, What Are All the Ph.D.s? (no longer updated but filled with great stories), Ph.D.s at Work and the TRaCE narratives. They are all full of people who took circuitous paths from their graduate program to the career that satisfies them today, providing lots of models for career success.

Listening can give you even more direct access to the voices in this community, so seek out podcasts by grad students and postdocs exploring academic life or career transitions. The Recovering Academic podcast, for example, is produced and hosted by a trio of scientists at various points in their own career journeys. That makes it especially useful for feeling like you are part of a community of people asking similar questions about life beyond graduate school as they converse among themselves or interview others.

Participate and Connect

Reading and listening is a great place to start, but you will need to participate actively to take full advantage of the community available to you. Reassessing your goals and exploring careers can be very inward facing as you think about and reflect on your own values and interests. But it’s just as important to get out of your own head and interact with people who are undergoing (or previously underwent) that process.

One pretty easy way to do that, which doesn’t even require you to leave the comfort of your bed, is to participate in a Twitter chat. The premier example is the #withaphd chat, which happens every other Monday at 8 p.m. EDT and brings together graduate students and Ph.D.s to address a variety of topics related to post-Ph.D. life. Founded by Jennifer Polk of From Ph.D. to Life and currently organized by Lisa Munro and Kristi Lodge, the #withaphd chat is a low-risk but exciting way to connect with people across the United States and around the world to ask questions, share stories, get advice and more.

It’s up to you how you participate: you could lurk at first, or set up a pseudonymous Twitter account that you only use for chats, or use it to make connections under your real name. Another potentially useful chat is #MindfulPhD (which meets every other Monday), cohosted by Katy Peplin and Rebecca Enderby. It offers an opportunity to be thoughtful about your life in graduate school and make mindful plans for what comes next.

Twitter chats are a fantastic resource, but I recommend finding ways to interact in person, too. See if there is a VersatilePhD meet-up in your city. Find out if the next conference you plan to attend has career-focused sessions or receptions with people working in industry or government. Take advantage of resources and events from your university’s graduate school or career center: participate in workshops, show up for employer information sessions, participate in networking events.

Even if every single event isn’t completely grad student focused, you can learn about jobs you aren’t familiar with, interact with people at different points in their careers and keep your attitude positive and forward-looking. And use your department’s alumni list or LinkedIn’s alumni tool to find people doing work that interests you, then reach out to conduct some informational interviews to learn more about their work and potentially build long-term relationships.

None of this will completely rid you of any feelings of isolation you may be experiencing. After all, you are the first person to reassess your goals and figure out your career. But they can help you connect with the vast community of advanced-degree students and graduates who’ve been there before. And in the process, you can find some useful next steps and support to help you take them.

Bio

Derek Attig is director of career development at the Graduate College of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 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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