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In June, several University of Michigan staff members who support students in their professional and career development in different schools and colleges across the university had the opportunity to learn the Designing Your Life curriculum from the Life Design Lab team at Stanford University. I was drawn to the curriculum after hearing one of the Designing Your Life co-authors, Dave Evans, speak to graduate career development professionals. He shared that Stanford’s life design course for graduate students gives them the opportunity to design multiple possible lives for themselves after graduation.

Following the training, I developed a six-week, non-credit-bearing course that met at 9 a.m. on Fridays for graduate students from all different disciplines. Thirty-one brave souls rolled out of bed early every Friday morning to engage in activities designed to help them answer the perennial question: What do I want to be when I grow up?

Participants read Designing Your Life by design scholars Bill Burnett and Dave Evans and then engaged in deep reflection, hands-on activities and group discussions together. Being a social scientist, I of course conducted a confidential before and after survey to measure the impact of participation in the six-week program.

What I found were substantive and statistically significant increases among the participants in their hopefulness about their career potential, faith in their ability to build a successful career and confidence to ask others about career paths. Participants also reported a significant decrease in feelings of stress brought on by uncertainty about their future careers.

Such results are consistent with past research evaluating the Designing Your Life courses at Stanford. As one student put it in response to an anonymous feedback survey at the conclusion of the six weeks, “I have more excitement and hope about crafting a good, joyful life that allows me to make the type of impact I want.”

Designing Your Life provided an outstanding framework for students to gain self-assurance in and tools for their career exploration process. If you do not yet have a Designing Your Life workshop or class on your campus, the book is widely available, and you can gain several pearls of wisdom by watching the career-advice videos on the Stanford Life Design Lab YouTube channel. Below, I will share with you three design principles for career exploration that emerged as the most valuable lessons the participants took away from spending six weeks thinking about how they could design a life in which they will thrive beyond the Ph.D.

Start With You

Take time to take stock of where you are at right now in your career process: your values, your strengths, your philosophy of work. Career development process models typically have four stages: self-assessment, career exploration, goal setting and job searching. While this process need not be linear, self-assessment is typically the first step. Similarly, the design thinking framework starts with empathizing with the user and figuring out what they need. When designing your life, you are the user, and you want to start by empathizing with yourself.

In the frenzy and anxiety of considering a career, graduate students and postdocs often jump ahead in the process to career exploration or job search tasks, such as networking or crafting the perfect CV or résumé. Those later steps are vital, but one of the common themes that emerged from our life design seminar was that the students were incredibly grateful that we started by setting aside the time to think through what work means to them and why it matters.

The Designing Your Life book calls this “building a compass” and has several excellent reflection and discussion activities, inviting readers to consider what work means to you (your “workview”) and what matters most to you in life (your “lifeview”), as well as how those align with each other and where they might be in tension. Participants in the course believed strongly that it was important to start with this self-assessment and self-empathizing stage. As one participate put it on their anonymous final feedback survey, such reflections “opened my eyes to see what my goals are more clearly, about my opinions on work and worldview.”

The reason starting with self-assessment is so crucial is that it prepares you to use your time most effectively as you shift to taking action: getting out there to network, refining your CV/résumé and considering the experiential learning opportunities you want to pursue. Getting clear on yourself helps you to focus those efforts. Graduate students and postdocs are busy people, and I often hear them report that they feel overwhelmed at the idea of having to explore multiple career possibilities when their time is so limited. I am frequently asked, “How can I prepare for a faculty career and other possible careers at the same time?” Once you build your compass, you will be more thoughtful about which direction you need to head as you try things; you will explore only those fields that best align with your views on work and your values.

In addition to the generative and thoughtful self-assessment activities that are available in the Designing Your Life book, you can find several excellent (and free) tools available online created by graduate career-development experts just for you to evaluate yourself. For STEM students, MyIDP is available, which includes assessment tools to reflect on your skills, interests and values, as well as to help you to set skill goals and consider potential career paths. For humanities and social science students, the newly launched ImaginePhD also offers discipline-specific assessments to help you identify your skills, interests and values. Once you’ve completed those assessments, you can compare your profile with the skills necessary for jobs that are of interest to you and establish goals for your graduate program and your future career.

Set aside a few hours and dig into the self-assessment tool that appeals most to you -- the life design book activities, MyIDP or ImaginePhD -- and start with you. Empathize with yourself to build your compass.

Realize You Have Many Career Options

Designers reframe problems when they get stuck in a design problem, and Burnett and Evans have identified several “dysfunctional beliefs” that get us stuck on the way to building the careers and lives that we want. One of the most dysfunctional beliefs among graduate students is that the only possible career outcome post-Ph.D. is a faculty position. Before I share with you a fun design activity to help you reframe that belief, consider the empirical data. As Inside Higher Ed has reported, a recent study of over 5,000 humanities and social science Ph.D.’s found no significant difference in job satisfaction between Ph.D.s working in nonfaculty positions -- in both nonprofit and for-profit sectors -- and their counterparts working in tenure-track positions. Career development expert Melanie Sinche’s recent book, Next Gen PhD, outlines the results from her study of over 3,000 STEM Ph.D.s about their career satisfaction. She similarly finds that STEM Ph.D.s working in nonfaculty positions have equivalent job satisfaction when compared to those working in tenure-track faculty positions.

And if you’re more convinced by first-person narratives than survey results, take a look at the fascinating career stories shared by humanities Ph.D.s -- conversation designers, curators, learning specialists and consultants -- on the Humanities PhD Project site. In other words, across the disciplines, Ph.D.s are working in a range of satisfying careers. The career options are boundless.

Burnett and Evans reframe this dysfunctional belief and posit that we have multiple great lives within each of us, and we get to choose which ones we want to try on for size. Their book includes an activity called “Odyssey Planning” (a handy worksheet for the activity is available online) that invites you to design three versions of yourself, allowing you to imagine three career possibilities that make you feel energized when you ponder them. This reframing of a pernicious dysfunctional belief among doctoral students was one of the most high-impact activities for participants in my course. As one participant noted, “I realized there are many ways my life could go that are exciting and full of potential.” This activity also alleviates the anxiety that is inevitably created when we get the message that the faculty path is the only path to career satisfaction post-Ph.D.

To illustrate the power of such reframing -- that we all have multiple possible lives -- let me share the recent experience of a participant in Michigan’s public engagement fellowship program. The program provides doctoral students with internship opportunities to use their scholarly skills in settings outside their departments, such as museums, libraries or foundations. I reached out to a past fellow two years after her participation in the program to get her take on what the long-term impact of her internship experience had been. She reported that one of the most significant effects that her experience as a museum intern had on her was to reduce her anxiety going into her faculty job search. She enjoyed her museum experience and saw it was a space where she could use her skills and passions, and while she still wanted to pursue a faculty job, she knew there was another life she could happily live. She shared that this brief job experience in a different setting showed her that her skills and knowledge had value beyond academe.

That reframing helped to reduce her anxiety as she embarked on applying for tenure-track positions. She’s now a tenure-track faculty member at a small liberal arts college, secure in the knowledge that multiple other career options could satisfy her and use her skills. Participants in the six-week seminar felt similarly freed to be more creative, more hopeful and less anxious in their career exploration process when they realized that at least three careers could excite and engage them.

Don’t Explore Alone

The Designing Your Life book is full of design activities and possibilities for application. That said, the tools are even more powerful when leveraged through a community. One mind-set of designers is “radical collaboration,” and the final chapter of the book has some ideas for how you can build a team, because great designs require a group of co-creators. As one program participant in my course noted, over the six weeks, we together “created a community of support to have conversations about diverse career interests.” Students found reassurance in their shared struggle, and harnessed the collective creativity in the group through our brainstorming and design team discussions and activities.

You don’t need to have a life design course like mine to explore in community. Find a colleague or even a friend -- I guarantee your non-Ph.D. friends also want to design a life in which they can thrive -- and commit to a book study and having these conversations together. Burnett and Evans recommend you find three to five people and define roles and rules among yourselves. Beyond asking generative questions about your work view, worldview and career exploration ideas, a partner (or partners) will help to hold you accountable to take the next steps in the career exploration process that you’ve identified for yourself -- whether that be conducting an informational interview or applying to teach your own course for the first time to see how you like it.

To be candid, teaching the Designing Your Life seminar series on my campus terrified me. While at Stanford, I identified it as one of my most promising prototype ideas to take home and test, but I was scared to take a risk and try something new. Despite knowing it would be a great growth opportunity for me professionally, I kept thinking, “I’m not a designer -- I’m a political scientist now working in graduate professional development. Who am I to teach a design class?”

Without my colleagues on campus in the Ross School of Business and at peer institutions following up with me, encouraging me, asking me powerful questions and sharing their plans for their prototypes, I would have probably stuffed the materials away in a folder buried deep in my office. A team can help improve your life design ideas and cheerlead for you so you can muster what it requires to take action in your career and build something new.

The question of what we want to be when we grow up never goes away. I hope these three insights and tools from the life design framework help you to build your way forward in your continuing career exploration process.

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