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A couple of days ago, a very significant photo popped up in a Google Photos “remember this day in 20xx” notification on my phone. The photo is of a park bench in the summer sun, one that sits in the quad on a university campus in Canada. It was where my career path took the decisive swerve that led me to what I do now.

I was an unhappy Ph.D. on a not very useful summer archive trip to the Canadian prairies. I had been ruminating for weeks, if not months: “I don’t want to keep doing this job. I don’t know what else I could do. I don’t want to keep doing this job. I don’t know what else I could do.”

It’s not that I hated the idea of being a professor. I just knew that, in the long run, it wasn’t for me. Maybe that’s a thought you’ve also had, seriously or in passing. But I didn’t know enough about what I did want to do -- and what someone might want to hire and pay me to do -- to move forward.

I had packed a book (this one) from a friend, however, who had moved from a Ph.D. in English to a job at Google. It was summer, so I had more time than usual on my hands. My archive work done for the day, I sat on that sunny bench and got started on the self-reflection I needed to do to figure out what might be next for me. The thinking in the sunshine I did that day has led me directly to my current post-Ph.D. career.

It’s no coincidence that I had my big breakthrough over the summer. Many of you have a lighter or no teaching load, open time to fill with research and -- if you’re smart -- self-reflection. By giving yourself a little more time, you can plan out concrete actions to take in small chunks throughout the academic year.

Interested in using some of your free time this summer to start doing the work of figuring out what might come next for you and what you could do about it? I’ve got a simple four-step plan to get you started. I would suggest not trying to do all of these at once. This kind of reflective work is mentally taxing and requires mental space and time. Do one of the following recommendations, let it percolate for a day or three, and then move on to the next. Happily, it’s still the summer, and you’ve probably got that time and space!

List all of the jobs and degrees you’ve done, and then freewrite about why you did them, what you liked about them and what you hated. The key to successful career exploration is learning about things you could and would like to do, imagining yourself in them, and, best of all, actually doing them and seeing how it goes. That’s the best way to figure out what’s next for you, and you’re going to need to do more of it. But you should also start by reviewing all of that trying and exploring that you’ve already done.

And you’ve done lots! You’ve probably had summer jobs, side hustles, even fully fledged former careers. You’ve taught or TAed, you’ve done research, you’ve done the job of being a student. Maybe you’ve been on committees, in student government or part of a union. List everything you’ve done that’s vaguely work or education adjacent, and then freewrite anything from a few lines to a few pages for each -- you’ll find the richer experiences demand more -- about why you chose to take that job or do that degree, what you liked about it (and liked doing in it), and what you hated.

Find the threads. Our brains are designed to find and create patterns, and such patterns can be incredibly helpful in guiding the next work you do in exploring and pursuing career options. But those same brains need raw material to work from. Your work and education history is the perfect raw material. Even if you’ve had a particularly eccentric career and educational trajectory, there’s some guiding force behind what you’ve pursued and why. Maybe it’s a skill you have that makes you feel great when you use it because you’re awesome at it. Maybe it’s the drive to learn new things and solve new problems. Maybe it’s an itch to explore the world and see new places. Find the threads, the patterns that inform what you’ve done in your life so far and why, and write them down.

Articulate what the threads are telling you and what actions they suggest. Now that you’ve identified the common threads that tie together your career trajectory up to this point, figure out what they’re telling you and what you should do about it. One of my threads was the realization that I loved work where I was helping lots of people succeed rather than focusing on my own success -- and, even better, if that success was tied to getting the important knowledge they’d discovered as researchers out into the world where it could do some good. Having identified that thread, I thought about ways that I could follow it up and the actions I could take. I decided that I would read the transition stories of other Ph.D.s (just google it -- they exist in all kinds of places online) looking for people who had jobs that involved teaching and supporting researchers. I would browse university job listings looking for those kinds of jobs. And I would talk to people at my own university about their jobs and how they got them.

Break it down and schedule it. Once you’ve decided what you’re going to do to move forward, break those actions down into small steps -- so tiny that you feel no resistance to doing them, if you’re worried that you won’t make them a priority. Then, schedule when you’re going to do them over the next few months. If you can do 15 minutes of active work on your career exploration plans every weekday, that’s more than an hour a week, even in the fall when you’re back up to a full teaching, research and administrative load. You can make a lot of progress in an hour.

It’s the summer. Sit in the sun (with sunscreen on, please). Enjoy having less on your mind. And use that space not just to research and read. Use it to also do the self-reflection that’s going to get you closer to where you want to be by next summer.

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