When we finish our PhD or decide to draw our academic life to a close, we impose a lot of pressure on ourselves to ensure that the next career or opportunity we aim for is the ‘right one’. Certainly, the fear for choosing the wrong job is something we all worry about, but to avoid the wrong career path, we need to know what the right one is. First and foremost, it’s probably not the best idea to frame choosing a new career as a wrong vs right decision. Ultimately, you can’t really go wrong. For arguments sake, even if you select the worst job humanly possible, that you despise every minute of it – you can just change again. A lot of the time we tell ourselves that it’s the be all and end all, when in reality this isn’t the case. It can be changed, and it’s perfectly acceptable to change your mind (and subsequently career) at any point, an infinite number of times.
Given that we can change or pivot careers at any point, there’s still an argument to be made around certain times being more advantageous than others. Things like your age, living circumstances, dependents such as children (if you have/want any), and your financial situation will accommodate more flexibility than others. We can also think of these factors akin to your life values. For instance, if you’re younger (in your 20s – 30s) you potentially have more flexibility as you’ll likely have fewer external factors to consider. Not having children and the absence of a mortgage or other financial debt can enable you to be more flexible with your first job out of academia.
If you’re a bit older, you may place more importance on a certain income as you might need to finance a range of expenses (like a mortgage, car payments, a bigger place to live if you have a partner) and have more ‘life variables’ or values you need to align with. Of course, this isn’t determined by age, you could be in your 20s with kids, or single in your 50s still basking in life – but the point is, it’s important to figure out what your bottom line is, your core essentials and what you need to feel content and secure from a career.
As already mentioned, age shouldn’t solely determine what your first job should be. However, it is a strong contributing factor to that first job post-PhD. Time is a finite resource, which subsequently means the younger you are the more of it you have. Due to having more time it’s a lot easier to get it ‘wrong’ or find something you like and then change your mind 5-10 years later. If you’re approaching retirement, it can feel a bit more challenging to suddenly embrace social mobility and career change (although that’s not to say it shouldn’t or can’t be done).
A big part of the process to career change away from your PhD and not pursue a post-doc, irrespective of your age, is largely to do with the amount of ‘risk’ you deem it to have. Risk can be in the context of finding a non-academic career that doesn’t make you happy, not being able to find something that offers as much security or stability (although academia is usually the not offering security), or fears that you’ll just make the ‘wrong’ choice for some abstract reason we can’t seem to put our finger on.
This post wants to reassure you that the fears and the risks you’ve evaluated in your head are a lot bigger than they are in reality. In the real world, it’s perfectly plausible and acceptable (despite what your supervisor says) to leave academia, regret it, and come back. This is more so the case if your research field is on a topic that won’t be ‘solved’ anytime soon. Things like healthcare, medicine, science, certain aspects of tech, or even certain non-STEM subjects like literature, won’t be disappearing in the next 10-15 years. In essence, it will be there if you change your mind and there isn’t really a ‘miss the boat’ kind of situation that can arise.
Equally, the younger you are the more risk you should actually take on. You can take on more risk if you’re older, but the general rule of thumb is that you should embrace more risk whilst you’re young. Similar to the points outlined above regarding debt, dependencies, finances, family etc, these are less likely to be at the forefront of your mind when you’re still in your 20s and possibly 30s. It gives you that flexibility to take risk. What you don’t want to do is play it too safe, avoid the risk, have that really loud ‘what if’ itching away at the back of your mind to the point where you suddenly break during your late 50s and opt to career change then – or worse, avoid career changing then because now you’ve lumped yourself with a mortgage and monthly bills that can only be sustained by academia!
Sure, career changing in your later years because you’ve had a change of heart or personal circumstances is understandable. But if you know deep down that you’re not enjoying your current PhD or academic career in the present day or you foresee it being unsustainable in the long-term, then maybe it’s better to change sooner rather than later. This benefits you both in terms of itching that itch you have whilst also providing you with an opportunity to reverse the decision if want to as you’ll have more time on your side. The key term here to think about is your trajectory. It’s completely understandable that moving away from academia is overwhelming and scary almost, but if you’re not on an ‘uptrend’ regarding your well-being, happiness, salary-goals, professional development or whatever else – it’s time to have a re-think.
This uptrend is probably the only thing to really worry about when looking to move away from academia. If you’ve worked through your self-identity and want to position yourself in a particular industry (e.g., Tech, Finance, Pharma, Social Care, the Arts, you name it) you’ll want to try and find a role that helps with this new identify formation. This solves no purpose other than to give you a sense of tangible credibility. Your PhD is credibility in terms of your competencies and intellect. But a role title is your credibility on how to apply your competencies and intellect. So, if you want to work in tech, try and find the first role closely related to tech. If you want to get into the arts, find a role that is closely related to the arts etc. This doesn’t need to be your perfect dream job, if it is, then great, but it’s more likely that it will act as a steppingstone to propel you on that upward trend to wherever you want to go.
Thus, the guidance here is to work backwards from the long-term vision. The specific end role is maybe too specific, so keep this at an industry level as we’ve already discussed. Identify what type of industry or sector you envisage yourself in, and then work backwards and find a job that aligns with this to help start accumulating that tangible credibility. It helps here to think about your life values and what industry will accommodate them the most.
Starting from the ‘bottom’ in a new profession is intimidating, but if that’s what needs to happen to kick-start that uptrend and move you on an upward trajectory, so be it. The long game is what you’re aiming for here. Circling around in that perpetual revolving post-doc door or avoiding the inevitable isn’t going to contribute to your long-term happiness.
In essence, what the first job is after your PhD isn’t too important. You will always have contingencies and opportunities to change again. If you remain determined and focused on the goal, you’ll eventually end up where you want to be. However, as long as you commit to a move away from academia in the first instance, you’ll start to build momentum you need to thrive.
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