Social mobility is a concept most of us should be familiar with. If you’re not, social mobility is, in essence, the movement of individuals between positions of varying advantage (or disadvantage) in society – particularly in the context of social status and stratification. Social stratification here, encapsulates inequality and opportunity. In the context of this post, we’re going to focus solely on the social mobility within a working context, particularly around the completion of a PhD.
The core thread and message to takeaway is that, after completing your PhD, social mobility is something you shouldn’t overlook as it’s likely to be at your fingertips which could be leveraged in a way that you may not have considered before. In practice this will look like pursuing a career that is unrelated to your PhD, continuing to learn, developing as a person, or possibly building your own enterprise from scratch and becoming an entrepreneur. Fundamentally, the core reason for doing this is because the academic world and opportunities you currently have within academia aren’t the best. Things like long working hours, reduced well-being, relatively low pay, limited promotional opportunities, unstable careers, and sometimes unfulfilling work, are usually the driving forces away from academia. In essence, as you move away from these things and towards more prosperous work environments or work settings it should help facilitate and encourage you to move ‘upwards’ through your social status/stratification.
Of course, it’s remaining within academia is the easy, or most obvious option. It can actually be a really fulfilling and comfortable career path. However, the real embodiment of social mobility is going against the grain, going against the tide, and forging an environment and world that brings you a better quality of life and overall happiness. Your goal should be to thrive, not just ‘get by’. In other posts, we’ve covered concepts like identifying your life values and reaching your full potential and these all intersect with social mobility as they can provide you with a north star to follow.
In essence, the decisions you make regarding your career will dictate and direct the course of your life. Social mobility provides you with the freedom to course correct, to build a life and career that looks and feels good to you, and when you make a decision that isn’t the best one – say for example you pick the ‘wrong’ career after your PhD, social mobility allows you to course correct, get things back on track, and move towards the life you want to live. Before we get into the nitty gritty around social mobility, it’s important we call out and acknowledge that having a PhD is a privileged accolade. To even be within an academic institution, to have just the access and opportunity to a degree is likely to indicate some level of privilege – just having the opportunity in and of itself is not something everyone else has. As discussed elsewhere, only roughly 1.1% of the world’s population hold a PhD, which is a niche and distinct accomplishment.
Once completing your PhD however, the journey isn’t over. If anything, it’s just begun. In this context, epically if you find yourself drifting away from academia it can be difficult to make sense of your social mobility or utilise it in a way that is tangible and impactful. Social mobility in and of itself is about access to opportunities. Some of us may think a PhD or just any academic background doesn’t support or enable us to move across different career paths. Afterall, a PhD is extremely niche, and it can be difficult to make sense of how this applies beyond the academic walls which challenges the very notion of social mobility. It’s a common misconception to think that a PhD actually reduces opportunities for you – or at least you’d have to start again in the non-academic world with your PhD offering no additional benefit. However, this is not the case.
When it comes to your social mobility, it’s not about what you know per se, it’s more about how you communicate the things that you know. In short, your transferable skills. People typically operate in a framework of ‘can you do the job’, and for an interviewer to determine if you can do the job, they need to see evidence of competencies or skills – not necessarily accolades and titles. Whether it be from academia to industry, from one career path to another, or from one social stratification to another – it’s about portraying and presenting yourself in a way that can be understood.
In the working world, when we move from career to career, we often stick within same sphere. You stay on the one-dimensional career ladder, seeking to move upwards only. Here, you can get away with accolades and titles because these provide an implicit explanation of your skills and competencies. A PhD applying for a post-doc is relatively straight forward because it’s common knowledge that a PhD is research based. A project manager applying for another project manager role – the same applies, they’ve demonstrated these skills before so they can do it again. The further and further you get away from this ‘linear’ or one-dimensional career journey, greater emphasis needs to be placed on connecting your current competencies to the new opportunity. For instance, explaining your problem-solving skills that have developed from a PhD makes it easier to connect this skill to a consultancy career or analyst role and so forth. Highlighting your writing skills from your PhD might open career opportunities such as journalism, an author, or many other opportunities’ where writing is involved.
The more time we spend identifying our skills and leveraging them instead of our titles and accolades, the more and more opportunities emerge. The more opportunities you identify, the easier social mobility becomes. As you embark on your social mobility journey, you’re likely to move not just in a one-dimensional direction, but across different settings, classes, environments and more. This will increase your opportunities over time. Opportunities breed more opportunities. If you change careers, you’re likely to also pick up new skills, these new skills can be connected and mapped to other careers, and this diagonal-upwards or non-linear movement through your working life unfolds.
Because of this exponential increase in career opportunities, and the acquisition of a range of skills emerges – you are faced with a dilemma of what to do rather that ‘what can I do’. This is the essence of being a multipotentialite, having multiple potentials, multiple skills, and multiple opportunities. From this we’re able to create and build a life and career that we want, not one that has been thrust upon us due a decision we (or a family member) made in the past. Adopting this mindset over the long haul and moving through your career with a growth mindset you’ll find yourself in a position where you’re either unhappy, and if you’re not, you’re able to pivot into something completely different that can provide you with that happiness. The first thing to all of this is looking at social mobility through a positive lens. It can take any form it wants and provide you with the direction (no matter how unrealistic it seems) you want to go in. However, this can only happen if you take the first step and begin moving towards things you enjoy that contribute to your happiness, and/or away from things that make you unhappy or do not fulfil you. It’s time to stop going through the motions and begin shaping your life through conscious decisions.
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