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When I began writing recently for Inside Higher Ed about career opportunities beyond academe, my first essay mentioned a sentiment that is pervasive among Ph.D. students: “I don’t know how to pick a new career path.” The following is an elaboration on the perspectives I have encountered on the topic, as well as a few ideas for beginning the process of imagining alternatives.

The Challenge

Individuals who elect to pursue a Ph.D. often do so at least in part for immaterial reasons. My deep love for storytelling motivated the research I completed for my dissertation. I have friends whose work is dedicated to solving problems that help afflicted people for whom they care. And I recently met a group of oceanographers who were enamored with all things maritime for reasons so innate that they were unable to succinctly articulate the source of their passion.

The professoriate doesn’t always make good on the promises it makes when it comes to job fulfillment, and many Ph.D. students won’t have the opportunity to find out whether or not a faculty career path would have delivered what they’d hoped. However, if you elect a pursuit other than the professoriate, the affective aspects of the work you are seeking often surface. In my own career exploration, and in my conversations with mentees, I’ve seen a pattern of desires emerge.

“I want a career that is mission-oriented and more than a paycheck …” A job hunt with affective search criteria can be isolating. Members of your community might view your desire to love your work absurd. The notion that work would provide “more than a paycheck” has inspired many of the Ph.D. students with whom I have conversed to reflect on the limited number of people who get to make that requirement of their work. For many, work is work, and you don’t need to love or even like it. And, for others, the possibility of liking it will never be within reach.

How much true fulfillment can and should your work provide? And where can you find it? A recent essay in The Atlantic argued that Americans today turn to their work in search of the fulfillment historically offered by organized religion. Although that argument initially sounds alarming, many of the folks I know leaving the professoriate desire a fulfilling, mission-oriented career and struggle to know what that could look like outside the professoriate.

My own journey parsing out my list of priorities—affective or otherwise—has been greatly facilitated by conversations with a career coach and by the metacognitive exercises of observing my energy levels as I undertake specific tasks. If you have noted this sentiment in yourself, I recommend that you ask yourself a few questions and use the answers to begin crafting a career wish list:

  • What is it, specifically, that you hope to get out of your work? “More than a paycheck” is, after all, vague. Find a conversation partner who can you help you focus on what you truly want.
  • When you think of a mission-oriented career, what type of work comes to mind first, and whom could you talk to about it? In my experiences, the disconnect between what a job looks like from the outside and how it is experienced on the inside can be quite large. Find people on LinkedIn who are doing a job you think you might like to have and ask for an informational interview. How can you discern whether or not it would match your expectations?
  • Which activities in your day-to-day deplete you, and which ones restore your energy? You may find that you enjoy building surveys but loathe reading academic articles. Perhaps you find the performance of being in front of students tiring but don’t mind grading.

If it sounds hard to parse out what you are looking for, that’s because it is. As you learn, grow and evolve, you may need to re-parse, so do your best to normalize the process.

“ … and I don’t want one of the commonly pitched career alternatives.” Staff roles in higher education are a commonly examined alternative for Ph.D.s looking to leave the professoriate. The advantages of this strategy are fairly clear—colleges and universities understand the value of a Ph.D., former Ph.D. students are intimately familiar with how different areas of those institutions operate and, as a Ph.D., a large portion of your network is in higher education. Staff jobs may be a good option for individuals who love higher education and seek to move away from the research and/or teaching elements of the professoriate. However, you may very well encounter some of the same frustrations that drive Ph.D.s to abandon the professoriate—reduced state funding for public universities, attacks on intellectual freedom, the relative geographic remoteness of certain campuses, a desire to live in one specific place and so on—in administrative offices on college campuses.

As the dialogue on careers outside the professoriate has surged, many Ph.D.s have presented UX/UI research as the next most viable career option, particularly for those of us who have degrees in the humanities and social sciences. It is true that many companies have turned to bright Ph.D.s, well versed in research and analysis, to fill such roles. The jobs offer solid paychecks and benefits in desirable urban environments. The professional advice for landing these jobs often outpaces professional resources for other career alternatives, which can lead to the impression that UX/UI jobs are a logical choice. However, as Regina Fuller states plainly in a LinkedIn post, “UX research has Ph.D.s in a choke hold,” and there are other paths you can take. So what do you do if you simply don’t want that type of job?

When I asked Fuller what advice she would give, she said, “Ph.D. students should explore career opportunities in nonprofits, foundations and government sectors. There are many well-paying jobs that exist outside of the tech space that offer competitive salaries, work-life balance and opportunities for career advancement.” As you browse job ads in those sectors, patterns will emerge that point to what hiring managers are looking for and whether those positions are a good fit for you.

“It’s a bummer to apply to jobs that don’t require a Ph.D. and don’t list a Ph.D. in the preferred qualifications.” Yes, the fact is that a good majority of the jobs Ph.D. students will consider taking outside the professoriate will not give priority to their degree. Pursuing a Ph.D. in the humanities or social sciences with the explicit goal of setting yourself up for a career outside the professoriate may be ill advised.

If, however, you have only learned since you enrolled in your program that you don’t want a job in the professoriate, or if you are committed to the process for other reasons, do not despair. You can find many ways to acquire the skills and qualifications required for a job you desire, and a Ph.D. may well be one of them, even if it is not the only way. It is never too early to seek the counsel of resources on your campus or of your department’s Ph.D. alumni on how you might even more closely align your doctoral experience with your future profession.

“I don’t know where to start.” If this is the first time you are contemplating what you might like to do after you defend your dissertation, I propose you start with the Post-it note exercise that never fails me: grab a stack of small sticky notes and write a single skill or interest on each one until you have 20 to 30 notes. Try combining them three at a time, setting the rest aside and asking yourself what career might lie at the intersection of those three skills/interests.

Here are some examples of what that looked like in my case:

  1. French + teaching + young people = high school French teacher?
  2. Writing + literary criticism + culture = job at the Los Angeles Review of Books?
  3. Young people + international = nonprofit work with youth

Perhaps you’ll come up with a combination that is particularly generative for your search.

Returning to the Challenge

If the process of discerning what profession you might like beyond the professoriate creates inner turmoil, know you are in good company. Searching for fulfillment, professional or otherwise, is a lifelong process, and we live at a distinct moment in time in which the very concept of professional fulfillment is being questioned. Even if none of the suggestions I’ve outlined here are quite right for you, keep reading and keep having these important conversations with other people in your community.

Jocelyn Frelier, former faculty member in the humanities, now works in nonprofit at the intersection of women’s advocacy and international development.

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