One of my favorite gigs every year is as guest speaker for a course called Designing the Professional. Aimed at Ph.D. students and postdocs, it offers the design thinking tools and frameworks described in the book Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. The course helps many people who started their Ph.D.s with aspirations for faculty careers to imagine a variety of possible paths and begin to explore different opportunities.
As a guest in the course, I am invited to recount my career story (four jobs in the 22 years since my Ph.D.) with an emphasis on the transitions. What was I thinking and feeling? How did I make choices? How did the journey unfold?
My narrative resonates, I suspect, because it hasn't been a smooth upward trajectory. I washed out of a tenure-line faculty position at a research university in my fourth year. Fifteen years later, after my sister died, I quit my job as an associate vice provost and worked on part-time projects from home and grieved. Only in retrospect have I given that dark time the cheery title of “My Sabbatical Year” when I want to explain the break without talking about my sister. The students definitely hear about rocky transitions replete with uncertainty.
The metaphor that I use for describing my career -- and all careers -- is a book with chapters. The choice of metaphor is crucial, as metaphors shape our thinking about abstract concepts. They help us make sense of the world. They highlight the features that are similar and help explain how things work. (As a onetime linguistics major, I must give a nod to linguist George Lakoff.) The most common metaphors for describing careers are paths and journeys; the academic job market has been described as a game. I prefer the literary metaphor.
Some parallels between chapters and jobs are obvious.
Chapters add up to a book. A series of jobs adds up to a career. Each chapter is self-contained. Each chapter builds on the one before. Chapters are of varying duration. All of those are true for jobs. Themes and threads run through chapters and link them together. Sometimes a chapter has a satisfying conclusion. Sometimes a chapter ends with suspense and questions. Sometimes there are abrupt shifts and changes between chapters. But as the book continues, we see how the chapters are connected.
Beyond those obvious similarities between careers and books, the metaphor of chapters for a career is particularly useful for doctoral students and postdoctoral scholars for several less obvious reasons.
You are the author of your story. You have a lot of autonomy and can make choices. Marcia Baxter Magolda coined the term “self-authorship” to describe the internal capacity to define one’s beliefs, identity and social relationships. Unfortunately, for many students, one by-product of six-plus years of doctoral study is an erosion of your sense of control.
You can take steps today -- large and small -- to reclaim your autonomy and reassert yourself as the author of your life. Articulate your values, seek out campus resources, bolster a skill, create an internship or briefer immersion for yourself, read a book about careers beyond academe (this, this, this and this are favorites of mine), or explore free online tools like MyIDP for scientists or ImaginePhD for humanists and social scientists.
It’s not a permanent choice. The chapter metaphor challenges the notion that a career is something that you pick once. That may appear to be the norm with a faculty career. It can be frightening for those looking beyond academe, because the stakes for making a decision seem huge. Thinking of life as a series of chapters opens up the idea that you have the ability to make choices over and over again.
Your first job after your Ph.D. or postdoc is not a lifetime commitment. If you are dissatisfied and disappointed, you can leave. Learn from your experience. Make another choice. Move to another chapter. Understanding that your career will have several chapters lowers the stakes for each choice. (This was well articulated in this post and this post.)
Most people’s careers evolve this way. Faculty members are unusual in having the same job for life. And today, even faculty members rarely stay at the same institution forever. Some of them also move into administration, radically change their research focus or invest in projects beyond academe. So, while it seems like faculty members have the same job for life, they almost never do. Their careers go in chapters, too.
The real story isn’t obvious. The chapter metaphor reminds us that you need to read the book to know the story. You can’t know someone else’s tale just from their job title or a short biography. As may be clear from the bits of my life that I shared earlier, if you only knew my job titles or major accomplishments, you wouldn’t guess at my struggles.
One sentence in a bio is just a chapter title. You need to ask more questions to learn the details of someone’s career path. Equating a list of milestones with someone’s full story is like reading a book just from the chapter titles.
As a Ph.D. student, you are surrounded by faculty members and scholars whose professional lives seem to be a meteoric rise from one success to another. This is far from the truth, as those who have written about CVs of failure or shadow CVs remind us. Everyone’s life is complex and uneven; this is the texture of a story.
Ph.D. students gain perspective on their feelings of professional uncertainty when they can appreciate that bumpiness is inherent in life, not a referendum on their own worth. “What have your career ups and downs been?” and “How did life’s inevitable upheavals influence your career choices?” are two questions you can incorporate into an informational interview. People are remarkably generous with their time and willing to share their experiences.
It is important for those of us who are mid- and late career to take the risk of being vulnerable and honest when we are asked for an informational interview or to speak to a group of students. When you have the chance to tell your career and life story, be sure to reveal the setbacks as well as the satisfactions. (This post is a good example of how to give an authentic account of how life’s plot twists shape a career.)
There are unwritten chapters. Just like an unread book, the ending of your life and career is not yet known. Unlike a book, however, your story is not predetermined. It is not yet set. No one knows what will happen in the chapters yet to come. In fact, you have many possible future selves in you. Your story might unfold along any of a variety of possible paths. Many are interesting and meaningful. In this regard, a career is a bit like a “choose your own adventure” book from childhood.
The path and the professional life that you traverse will be uniquely your own. It will be dictated by a combination of the choices you make and by circumstances you can’t control. This truth should give you the confidence to make decisions, paired with acceptance that much is beyond your control.
You should pick a few themes. Finally, the chapter metaphor reminds that you don’t do it all at once. Chapters have different themes. At different points in your career, you have the opportunity to emphasize different goals, accomplishments or skills. Professionally, it can be helpful to pick a few key goals to focus on, rather than diffusing your energy on too many. Defining your top priorities helps with saying no to other requests.
Sometimes your career is the most important part of your life, and sometimes other aspects of your life -- parenting, avocational pursuits -- take center stage. Most Ph.D.s and postdocs are in their late 20s, a life stage that often includes forming families. You can decide how to balance and weight your personal and professional goals. Likewise, in your career, you can pick a few goals for your next job. You may want to, say, hone a particular skill, or supervise others or move into a new employment sector. Don’t imagine you can do everything all at once.
In the coming years and decades your career story will be revealed. Likewise, your personal tale will unfold. Embrace the uncertainty and marvelousness of your unique saga; write your book of chapters.