• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


The Career Coach Is In: Advice to a Wandering Twentysomething

This week, I’m going to include the full letter from a reader, because I think it’s a great illustration of what many of us go through in our twenties (inside academia or out), searching for the right career fit, for validation, and for our own definition of success. This is what she wrote:

June 8, 2008

This week, I’m going to include the full letter from a reader, because I think it’s a great illustration of what many of us go through in our twenties (inside academia or out), searching for the right career fit, for validation, and for our own definition of success. This is what she wrote:

I already have non-academic job (albeit at a university) and am pondering whether I need to finish my PhD. I have an MA in communications, which directly applies to my current career. I view myself as a professional in my field, and am currently moving with some success into freelance writing.

For the past five years I have been puttering along at doctoral classes. First in my undergraduate field of history, with the idea of teaching. Then I enrolled in my university's doctoral program in communications. I left that program after being told by a professor I could never finish it while keeping my full-time job. Finally, I have wandered over to higher ed administration, and I generally like the program. I even have a solid idea for a dissertation. At my current rate of progress I estimate that I could finish this degree in another three years. But what then? I'd be 31, not a bad age for a newly minted Ph.D., but I have little desire to teach and need control over my geographic location.

I entered into this program with the idea that it could further my career in higher ed. However my recent successes with freelance writing lead me to believe I could be much happier working toward doing that full-time. My ultimate fear is that by completing the PhD I would make myself overqualified for anything in the communications industry.

My feelings on the subject are complicated by family members pressuring me to finish my doctorate lest I "fail" at something, and the fact that many of my friends are struggling on the academic job market right now. I've been able to drag my feet on this because all of my classes are free as a university employee; otherwise I would be concerned about adding to my student loans. Any input is certainly welcome!

Sign me,
Overqualified and Unmotivated at a southern U.S. research university

Dear Overqualified and Unmotivated,

Your story is not unfamiliar. In fact, I think it highlights well several issues we’ve already discussed on this blog and that I discussed every day with graduate students as a research university career counselor.

Here are my short answers: Do you need a PhD? No. Will a PhD make you “overqualified” in the communications field (or the writing field)? No.

And here are my long answers: Do you need a PhD? Honestly, it doesn’t sound like you need a PhD, which is an academic research degree, since you don’t seem to have a great desire to be an academic or a researcher (or a teacher, for that matter).

When I hear you use phrases like “puttering along” and “wandered over,” I hear that you are sampling the doctoral path for lack of real knowledge of what you want to do -- but that you are, as you say, ultimately unmotivated to pursue an academic research career in any of the fields you have dipped your toes into. Which is just fine, by the way! I think many of us who spent good portions of our lives at universities believe that we must pursue a PhD to be ultimately successful, whereas in the rest of the world, it is simply not needed for a fulfilling and successful career

However, my answer to the overqualified question is also “no.” A PhD can be attractive in the communications field and the writing field, both of which are fields I have strong experience in. A PhD is not needed in these fields, of course, and there are many successful people in these fields without one -- but a PhD won’t hold you back in these careers, either. I’ve worked with PhDs in both communications and freelance writing who use their degree to gain respect and show their qualifications as an expert in what they are writing about or simply their ability to write or edit. It is simply a choice, not a necessity or detriment. So, I consider this “overqualified” question a non-issue.

I think it is actually more important to notice in your letter your reliance on others’ opinions of what you should do as your motivator – a professor telling you not to pursue the degree, your family telling you to finish. And here I ask, what do YOU want? If completing the PhD is something you want for yourself, or because you are passionate about it, that is one thing. If it is a “should” or a proximity issue (meaning, you are at the university so why not get a PhD?), that is another thing. It sounds like the latter is more where you stand now. And to that I say if you are more excited about freelance writing, think about how much more energy you will have to put toward this career path if you stop “should-ing on yourself” or worrying about others who think you “should” get a PhD. Release these “shoulds” (and your time taking classes you are unmotivated about) and you free yourself to pursue something you actually are motivated to do.

Again, please understand that you are not alone in your wanderings and questions. The twenties is typically and developmentally the decade of our lives when we really discover our own core values, boundaries and desires for our life. Just because you have explored academia does not mean you “fail” if you don’t pursue it. In fact, I’d posit you will feel much more like you’ve failed yourself if you don’t pursue a career you are actually excited about just because you started out with another one early in your adulthood.

As I advise every week, it seems, I hope you will hook up with a career coach or counselor on your campus (or off) and do some real self-assessment work. You may also want to pick up the book Hand-Me-Down Dreams: How Families Influence Our Career Paths and How We Can Reclaim Them by Mary H. Jacobsen for a great guide on how to separate your own desires from your family’s and others’, and how to communicate what you need for success on your own terms.

Overqualified and Unmotivated, I think if you step back and read your own letter again, you will see what you need to do. And I have a feeling other readers will see themselves in your letter as well (and I hope they will comment here for you, too). You are clearly in the process of discovering what motivates you, and I wish you the best in pursuing it and enjoying the journey.

Wishing You Your Own Vision of Success,


P.S. As always, I invite and welcome reader questions at mamaphd@insidehighered.com


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