Switching Between Your Career Narratives

As a Ph.D. or postdoc, separating your degree from a singular career path allows you to highlight the skills and experiences you've gained in a more flexible and adaptive way, advises Joseph Barber.

August 31, 2020
 
 
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Given the state of hiring for faculty positions over the next year, and possibly longer, I suspect that I will be having many appointments over the coming months with Ph.D.s and postdocs who are considering expanded career options -- perhaps for the first time. With a solid academic background and experiences that are well crafted for faculty roles, such students and postdocs will probably feel a lot of uncertainty about some of the future career paths before them. That uncertainty may relate to some of these questions:

  • What type of opportunities are available to me?
  • Can I really succeed in roles beyond faculty positions when I haven’t had any relevant experiences?
  • How will I know any opportunities will be a good fit for my skills, interests and values?
  • Who am I, or who will I become, if I change direction away from my long-held career goal and seek roles that are not faculty positions?

Many “Carpe Careers” essays have suggested online tools and resources that can help to answer the first couple of questions. (See here and here.) The writers have also shared networking strategies for how to gather information about different types of opportunities and what those opportunities may actually feel like from the perspective of a professional fit. Even if you are a hesitant networker, you can find advice on how to make that process manageable, productive and even positive -- take a look at the informational interviewing guide we share with Penn students and postdocs to help them get started.

But many of those resources and approaches won’t necessarily answer the last question listed above about seeking roles that aren’t faculty positions. It is obviously a very personal question, and it requires reviewing the lifetime of lived experiences that you may have brought with you as you have been working through your program or research. How have you imagined your future looking? How have you pictured yourself as you think about applying your experiences in a professional setting? How fixed is this future version of yourself in your mind?

For some students and postdocs with whom I’ve worked, this future image is extremely tangible and clear. It makes sense that if you have invested five to 10 years of time preparing for a faculty role, you may have created an elaborate mental image of what being a successful, engaged faculty member will look like -- even down to the quizzical look you hope to give students when they suggest research ideas that are not well thought through!

Nothing I am writing here should change the fact that you have this goal and may wish to continue to focus on it. Indeed, you should keep practicing that quizzical look in the mirror whenever you have the opportunity. What I hope to encourage you to do is to realize that this future is one of several future paths that can be engaging and satisfying to you. It is OK to explore different versions of yourself in your mind, and even in reality, where you may be able to see that same quizzical look being applied in a different professional context.

Some students and postdocs worry that considering alternative future narratives is an admission of failure. I would counter that by saying that what you are actually doing by imagining yourself engaging in a diverse array of career contexts is magnifying your impact -- making it more likely that the potential value you can bring will be realized. With a greater number of narratives about yourself in your head, you are more, not less.

You may also have a hard time imagining what an alternative version of your narrative might be. It can be difficult to think and then talk about yourself differently when you’ve been immersed in an academic culture that has a defined -- and, in fact, sometimes singular -- set of narratives. This is why when I read cover letters from Ph.D.s (especially in the humanities) talking about their research, they always frame their research from the perspective of “arguing” about something. Arguing is a very academic concept that doesn’t translate well into other career fields. After all, few people are looking for a future colleague who is going to be arguing all the time. But coming up with new ideas, brainstorming, convincing a stakeholder to change their approach, innovating -- those are just different versions of the same concept described using more transferable language.

You are all more than just your research, and many of you have experiences that are not research-related that may define you more clearly than your actual research. That is great! Taking all those elements, you can begin the process of seeing what options may exist for you beyond faculty roles by first listening to the narratives of other Ph.D.s who are not in such roles and then practicing your own versions of different narratives as you engage with others in your growing network. Separating your degree from a singular career path ensures that you can highlight the skills and experiences gained along the way in a much more flexible and adaptive way.

My own reasons for getting a Ph.D. were varied and not strategic in the least. Similar to the experiences of many other Ph.D.s, I had a supportive professor as an undergraduate who thought I would do well in a doctoral program and encouraged me to apply to the best programs in my field. I don’t remember them ever explaining what the Ph.D. would actually give me, and I certainly didn’t ask. No one else in my extended family had a Ph.D., and for me, that was a perfectly good reason to spend three years of my life researching chickens. I am still fascinated by animal behavior research, and being able to do that for an extended period of time as a student was certainly another reason to commit to the Ph.D.

But perhaps one of my main motivating factors -- and here comes my sheepish admission -- was that I liked the idea of people calling me Dr. Barber. OK, I’ll admit, that is probably not the best reason to get a Ph.D., but I am not going to be too hard on the undergraduate version of myself. One of the benefits of that ridiculous goal was the fact that it was extremely achievable and immediate. Once I had my Ph.D., and I decided that I could officially list “Dr.” as my salutation in every official form, I had fully achieved my goal. And with that goal met, I had a lot of flexibility in terms of what I did next from a career perspective, because the (again not-well-thought-out) goal I had didn’t tie my academic identity with one specific career outcome.

My Ph.D. has always been an important part of my narrative, but often for the stories I can tell about it than the research itself (hello, chicken who pooped in my lab coat pocket where I kept my keys!). I mean, I liked research but really hated statistics, so that was a bit of an obstacle. I enjoyed elements of teaching but teach best when I am talking about topics I personally care most about, and that can be a little limiting.

Yet in different ways, the Ph.D. has been part of the successes that I have had along my winding career path, and it will be for you, too. You may meet some employers who find it a little mysterious and others with whom it may be an advantage -- just because it makes you seem professionally and academically fancy. (In the field of fundraising and development, it can offer an element of credibility.) Some employers may wonder why on earth a Ph.D. could possibly be helpful for a particular role, but the fact that they even have that thought is a hook for a narrative you could provide that explains why -- a hook that candidates without a Ph.D. may not have.

Switching between different narratives won’t be the only step that you will need to take to explore career options beyond faculty roles. However, it is an important part of the process to ensure that you do so with a sense of optimism -- not with the worry that somehow you have let yourself or others down by potentially not living up to the long-held faculty image of yourself in your head. Enlist other people to support you in feeling this optimism -- and help your peers feel it, too.

And as part of the process, take heart in the knowledge that you, too, are close to achieving, or may already have achieved, my defining life goal of getting to select the “Dr.” salutation option on official forms. It’s something that makes me feel incredibly self-satisfied every single time I do it!

Bio

Joseph Barber is associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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