People fall into a PhD through a variety of different avenues, but ultimately it’s usually because in some way shape or form you internalise the completion of a PhD as necessary for you to get where you want to go – to fulfil your purpose. Typically, this is driven by a deep passion for helping others, understanding a topic, and basking in your area of research day in day out. It’s what makes us feel stimulated, engaged, and switched on. This can be the case from the beginning if you don’t have a break from education – like most PhD’s. But this is also, if not more true, for people returning from industry as they often seek to work on something that has meaning and impact.
As you reach the end of your PhD you are sort of met with a really big inflection point. Because it has a natural end, you are forced in a way to ask yourself:
‘is this really what I want to do?’
‘is this my purpose?’
After progressing through your PhD, with your new acquired knowledge and skills, the landscape changes and a real disconnection can emerge. You might enjoy what you do, but maybe it’s not your purpose? You are passionate about your topic, but there’s something about it which makes it hard to get up for on Mondays. It’s starting to wear you down and it’s actually doing more harm than good to your health (this is a good indicator that it’s not actually your purpose and fulfilling). Or maybe there’s just this question at the back of your mind that’s debating whether this is actually what you want to do.
But if it’s not academia, or further research what is it?
This post is here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be anything. Of course, having a sense of purpose and narrative to fuel you waking up in the morning is essential to your life and career satisfaction and/or fulfilment. However, it doesn’t have to reside in one particular thing. Your purpose could actually be plural. Purposes. PhD’s are some of the most capable individuals on the planet, loaded up with enormous amounts of potential, but a lot of this talent and ability is wasted in my opinion. Not because academia and research are nonsense, but because it’s not always the most conducive environment for you to stretch and reach your full potential or purpose. After a point, research is ultimately a bit slow and rigid. You wouldn’t try and grow an oak tree inside a green house. I mean you could, but at some point you’ll run out of room as it attempts to burst through the ceiling.
The reason your purpose doesn’t have to be a particular thing is because PhD’s are more than capable of excelling in a range of different things. You’re what some might call a ‘multipotentialite’. For everyone wincing at how much of a horrible word that is, lets break it down.
Your potential is that vague abstract word which sort of refers to ‘what you could be’. It’s that elusive glass ceiling which we don’t really know where it ends but acknowledge that it’s there. One of the key goals in your life, or developmental journey, is to reach your full potential. A potentialite then is just someone who has potential. When you chuck multi in the mix, it just refers to someone who has multiple potentials. And hence the word multipotentialite is born (not my concoction before you judge). In better terms, your purpose and passion could arrive from a range of different places. Maybe the reason you haven’t found your purpose yet is because you don’t actually have just one purpose? You have many. Which also means you’ll get fulfilment, satisfaction, and your eyes will light up from a plethora of things.
But how do I find my different potentials?
Simple really, go be free. Life, including your career, is about a range of experiences. Usually PhD’s, researchers, and academics don’t have much experience when it comes to careers. The usual route is to do your degree, maybe a post-graduated qualification, maybe bounce a couple jobs in-between whilst you wriggle your way onto a PhD programme. Once you get through your PhD, you just stay in academia until the end. To truly know if something is your calling you have to have exposure to range of different things, in fact you might even love a range of different things. After your PhD, the world is your oyster! The qualification has value, and your transferable skills are now your ticket in. Leverage them. Leave academia, go do marketing. Leave academia, go do data science. Leave academia, go do consultancy. Leave academia, go be an artist. Leave academia, go be an author. Either way leave academia, because there’s probably thousands of career industries you haven’t thought of yet.
You could even do several things at the same time! See what happens! If you find yourself doing a range of different things, you’ll have valuable insight into what you don’t like doing. Knowing what your purpose isn’t is equally important as knowing what is. If it all goes horribly wrong, and you find out academia and research truly was your one calling – just go back. It’s not a definitive choice. You have the freedom to leave, grow, and come back when you’re no longer unsure of what you should do with your life. Even if you end up in the same place as you are now, you won’t have that un-scratchable itch about what else could be out there for you.
Disclaimer: There’s a reason why the vast majority of people leave academia and don’t return (and it’s not because they struggle to find a research position). So put on your boots, lace them up, and go explore your different potentials on your way to find your purpose(s).
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