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Building an impactful career after your PhD.

Being ‘impactful’ is usually a reason to do a PhD. After the PhD, there can be concerns around losing this sense of impact and fulfilment. This post discusses how to continue having impact after your PhD, whether you stay in academia or not.

Typically, one of the main reasons to pursue a PhD and research career in general is because we want to give back by developing or producing something that is ‘impactful’ to the wider world, let alone the niche field. Without question, there’s a deep interest or even passion about the field in which we study during our PhD, by being able to contribute a drop into this pool of knowledge about something you really enjoy provides a really strong sense of fulfilment.

This is also why it can lead to some hesitation to even remain in academia due to the challenges around finding a post-doc or academic position in the same area or niche. Will it be impactful and fulfilling if the research is different? Similarly, this can make leaving academia after your PhD daunting too. If we’re not careful, it’s easy to build up a narrative in your head that you’re doing something for the greater good, saving people’s lives, helping others to understand what it is you love better. This can begin to form part of our identify and sense of self. This necessarily isn’t a bad thing, but we can find ourselves in murky waters if we’re not careful. It’s very easy to begin justifying an unhealthy work-life balance, poor working conditions, or sup-par treatment as they become ‘part of the sacrifice’. It’s easy to overlook the bad things in order to preserve our ‘altruistic’ selves.  

Finishing your PhD provides you with a nice inflection point, is this something you’ll want to do forever, is this the way in which you want to live? In other posts we’ve discussed selecting a career that helps fulfil your life values. This can help change the narrative and flip the script. We start to move towards careers that are self-serving yet still give us a sense of fulfilment because we’re living a life we want to live. However, what happens if having impact and being impactful at work is one of our key life values? Sure, you may be able to find a non-academic career that has better work life balance, it fulfils your post-PhD salary goals, or other core values to you, but if the work is mind numbing and not stimulating enough, or you’re not able to have direct impact, will you be happy?

However, this is a dichotomy that probably doesn’t exist. Justifying the sacrifices ‘in the name of good’ is one thing but saying that impactful work can only exist if sacrifices are made is just as dangerous. Approaching our careers with this lens creates a scenario where you can’t win, you either have the life you want where the work is unfulfilling, or you have a career that is impactful at the expense of your well-being and other life values. This post is here to say otherwise. It is possibly to have a career that is both impactful whilst also accommodating the things you want/need in your life. Each 24hours a day is a holistic experience, it’s the combination of having impact, working hours, enough down time, appropriate pay, etc that blend to determine if you’re satisfied at work or not.

Up to this point, in your professional career it’s likely that you haven’t had many careers outside of academia. It’s not a hard and fast rule, as some PhD students enter academia after they’ve tried out other professions (but again they may be falling into the trap of accepting the sacrifices that come with academia in the name of ‘impact’). However most PhD candidates haven’t explored much of the non-academic world. Now is your chance.

One of the key benefits to having a PhD is that it gives you a tremendous amount of social mobility, enabling you to pivot and change almost at will. It therefore makes sense to leverage this and try different things out. Not because you’re unsure (or maybe you are) of your career and future, but because there’s more to learn and your dream job exists out there somewhere, and you should go searching for it. This approach is similar to the kind of fears around finding the ‘wrong’ career after your PhD – whereby you’re worried that you won’t like a non-academic role as much, or it would be unfulfilling. If that happens, you can just change again.

You’re never truly stuck in a career and identifying what you don’t like is equally as important as identifying what you do like. The goal is to consciously explore different careers, try them out, until you find one that truly brings you that sense of impact and happiness. We spend most of our waking hours at work, it should be for something you enjoy. Alternatively, your career path may be just this continual process of doing different things, maybe there isn’t a tangible ‘end’ or distinct career path, and what makes you happiest is the exploration of multiple careers and multiple potentials. If things don’t work out, worst case scenario, academia isn’t going anywhere – you can always go back. Which again would be a good thing as it will only confirm that research and academia is where you want to be.

Home sweet home….

The part that gets difficult then is defining what ‘impactful’ looks like to you. Is it helping others? Is it making the world a better place? Is it solving challenging problems? Is it about providing more close-knit support to your colleagues as opposed to strangers? Is it teaching or explaining complex things to others? The list is endless. Everyone defines ‘impact’ or ‘fulfilment’ differently, so it’s important to reflect on this and make sense of this for yourself. It’s quite similar to identifying your core life values, there isn’t necessarily a ‘correct’ or ‘right’ answer, it’s just that everyone is different and so what works for you may not be applicable or relevant to someone else.

A useful way to identify what ‘being impactful’ means to you is to think back throughout your PhD and try to recall the moments where you felt the most fulfilled. Did you get the most enjoyment out of teaching? Maybe you didn’t care about making the world a better place and having publications or contributing to research so much, maybe you were at your happiest when you were explaining abstract ideas to your research team or to a non-academic.

Identifying the parts of your PhD that you enjoyed the most is a great way to pinpoint what impact means to you. It’s also another great way to identify which skills you like using. This can then inform the basis of the careers you search for and help you to map your transferable skills to pre-existing careers outside of academia. Once you have figured out what being impactful looks like to you, it’s easier to then search for roles that will provide you with this sense of fulfilment. It will likely be in a non-academic sense, but the goal is to identify a job that continues to provide you with the positives, whilst minimising the negatives – and as we discussed before, this does exist.

All in all, having an impactful career is often what a lot of researchers and academics want. Having an impact is what usually draws us in to research and academia. However, as we go through the PhD things change and the experience of work and our bigger life goals start to shift. It can feel like we must then choose between certain life values, like salary vs fulfilment, or job stability vs personal passions. However, this is a dichotomy that only exists in our minds. It is possible to find a career that provides you with both fulfilment and a respectable salary, or a career that offers job stability whilst also being something you’re passionate about. The trick is that you just have to find it.


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