Leaving Academe and Lost?

Jennifer Polk and L. Maren Wood give advice for Ph.D.s struggling to find their values and their voice after leaving the academy.

May 2, 2018
 
 
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I’m going to defend my Ph.D. in art history in a few months, and I plan to pursue a nonacademic career. As I’m trying to figure out what my next move should be, I feel completely lost. I don’t even know what I like -- or what my core values are -- because I’ve been an academic for my entire 20s. Do you have any advice for Ph.D.s struggling to find their voice after the academy?

Both of us went through a similar process of leaving academe and finding our own voices.

Maren was only interested in working as a professor. She spent her time in graduate school singularly focused on pursuing an academic career. But she finished her Ph.D. in 2009 and graduated into the Great Recession. After three years on the academic job market, she realized that she probably was not going to obtain the tenure-track job she thought she wanted. The mourning process was intense, and she spent weeks pondering, “Who am I if I’m not a historian?”

Having never explored careers outside academe, Maren felt all the things you may be feeling: lost, without a community, unable to articulate her values or interests. In truth, she had a limited understanding of careers outside academe, which made it that much more difficult to imagine a new, fulfilling career.

Jen also found the transition process tough, emotionally and practically. She identified strongly with being an academic and Ph.D. holder, but she was ambivalent about working as a professor -- or anything else. “Lost” is a good term for how she felt at the time. She ended up embracing the transition process with the help of a career coach and by reading books and articles, attending workshops, doing plenty of self-reflection, and conducting informational interviews.

One book Jen appreciated is William Bridges’s classic Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes. Spoiler alert: Bridges was a professor of English before he transitioned into a new career! Feeling lost is a feature of what he termed the “neutral zone,” a period of detachment and uncertainty. Traversing the neutral zone is a necessary step on the road to a new beginning.

You already know values and interests are important. We agree and suggest you consider the following questions and exercises.

  • What do you most value?

We recommend not overthinking when it comes to identifying what’s important to you. You can -- and will -- adjust your list over time. When we do workshops on this topic with graduate students and postdocs, we often hear values such as family, work-life balance, social justice and honesty. At this stage, you don’t have to get more detailed than that. The key is to focus on what’s most important to you. It helps to have a list handy for those moments when you feel pressure -- from yourself or from others -- to do tasks that might seem like a good idea but don’t move you toward your goals.

  • What do you like to do?

Here are a couple of exercises to get you started identifying what kind of job you might enjoy.

First, conduct a deep dive of your academic career, identifying everything you do on a day-to-day basis. Then review your list: What tasks are energizing, and which ones are enervating? Maybe you love teaching. That’s great, but what specifically do you enjoy about it? Is it the opportunity to discuss your subject matter? Breaking down concepts and explaining them to others? Mentoring and helping other people achieve their goals? Editing and providing feedback on papers?

Second, create a Venn diagram. (See an example in this post.) In one circle, put all the things you love doing. In another circle, write all the things you think you’re good at, and in the third, all the things people will most likely pay you to do. In the middle is the overlap: the things you love doing, the things you’re good at, and the things people will pay you to do. That’s your sweet spot. We know that no job is perfect, but getting clear on your own ideal will help you make better career decisions.

The point of these exercises is to help you understand the tasks, roles and responsibilities you enjoy and why you enjoy them. Knowing your values, strengths and interests will help you articulate, in writing and orally, what you’re looking to do in a new job or career.

Consider the following two sentences: “What I enjoyed most about my time in graduate school was the opportunity to organize speaking events. I loved coordinating opportunities for people to learn, engage and grow, and to provide experts with the opportunity to share their knowledge.” A person with those interests and values can find lots of different careers in many types of organizations, industries and sectors. At the same time, this person probably wouldn’t be interested in being a prospect researcher in the fund-raising department at the Red Cross, even though a Ph.D. in art history has those skills.

Those two sentences (“What I enjoyed most …”) give prospective employers and members of your growing network a sense of what you can do. In addition, it moves you away from talking about yourself as, say, “a recent Ph.D. in art history.” Your credential might impress employers, but it doesn’t give them much information about who you are and what you can do.

After you have begun identifying your motivators and interests, start talking to people you know who work outside academe. Ask lots of questions about what the person does on a day-to-day basis, what energizes them about their work and what drives and motivates them.

Pay close attention to the words they use to describe their work. Focus specially on anything that surprises you. Then review your own list. Your friend who works in management at a bank might share your drive and passion for mentoring others. (Surprise!) You might decide to explore similar types of positions.

  • What is your value to employers?

Ask your friends and family members what they see as your strengths or how someone with your skills might find work in their industry. You don’t have to be interested in seeking employment in that industry: your goal is to learn what your particular value might be to employers. We often take our own skills for granted and assume that everyone is good at things we find easy or energizing. Other people, especially those with nonacademic work experience, will have a better idea of where you might fit in an organization or what your distinct skills would be in particular industries.

Finally, start rebuilding your community. The reason why we’re building an online community at Beyond the Professoriate is because we, too, felt a sense of loss when we left academe. (We want to create a space for grad students and Ph.D.s to connect and share the experience of career transition together. We’d love to have you join us!)

You can also go other places online and off to connect with others. Jen loves Twitter, where there is an active postacademic community. Or you can join or start a meet-up group of Ph.D.s working beyond the professoriate in your city or town. You might find support to start a group through your alumni office. The point is, what you’re feeling is not unusual -- it’s a common struggle for Ph.D.s who leave academe, and it’s good to find people who get what it means to be in your shoes.

Congratulations on your success so far. Give yourself time to consider what’s truly important to you and what an ideal personal and professional life might be. Seek out supportive communities and individuals, perhaps in surprising places. As you learn more about yourself and what’s out there, you will get closer to knowing what a good next step would be, even if it doesn’t feel that way.

And remember: your next job won’t be your last one, so it’s OK if the path ahead still looks unclear a few months from now. Try some new things, get to know different people and keep learning.

Bio

Jennifer Polk and L. Maren Wood are co-founders of Beyond the Professoriate, an organization that provides professional development services to individuals and institutions across North America. Have a question about your job search or exploring careers after your Ph.D.? Submit it here.

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