Finishing your PhD is a strange experience. When you’re doing it, it feels like an eternity, almost like it will never end. But when it does finish it kind of ‘creeps’ up on you, out of nowhere, as if you didn’t expect it to end this soon. As we all know, PhDs are not a permanent career path. Sure, you may go on to pursue an academic career as a post-doc or other academic position. But nonetheless, your PhD needs to come to an end. We all embark on a PhD with this finish line in mind (sort of). For much of the journey however, the attachment to the ‘PhD student’ title becomes very intense.
Being a PhD student ultimately makes up part of your identity, which is also why finishing a PhD is quite a bitter pill to swallow. You have to re-arrange your self-perception almost to figure out who you are again. This is also one of the biggest barriers when it comes to career transitioning into industry and also leaving academia. When we reach this point theirs a lot of stress and anxiety in the air, mainly due to sourcing or finding the next job. What happens if we pick the wrong one? For most, the career choice won’t be in academia, even though this is everyone’s initial plan. Because of how competitive the post-PhD job market is, everyone should consider non-academic career paths. But this is where the fear sets in.
Leaving an academic career behind, or even diving into the unknown and career changing is a really big decision to make. It’s also not clear what to do if you’re torn between different options or aren’t familiar with how the rest of the working world (i.e., industry) operates. Furthermore, post-docs are so competitive that the goal shifts slightly and it’s more about finding a post-doc position, not necessarily the one that is right for you. Because of how important or big this decision feels, the margin for error, to get it wrong, feels extremely small. PhDs are typically perfectionists, and the thought of taking the ‘wrong’ job or career is a fear we all experience. For most though, the fear of selecting the ‘wrong’ career/job is disproportionate the reality of the situation – we worry more than we should. Of course, careers you apply for should be given some deliberation and consideration. On the most part, because of your versatility as a PhD student and all the transferable skills you possess, it’s important to think about how these skills can map onto different professions. More importantly, you should consider what kind of career will align with your personal values. This involves thinking about what’s important to you. How many hours a week do you want to work? How much work-life balance do you want? What are your post-PhD salary goals? What will make you excited to get up on Monday mornings? What career will enable you to reach your full potential? So on and so forth.
Because of all these deeply important questions we feel as though we have to get this post-PhD career decision right first time. However, this isn’t the case. Say you do get it wrong, that you hate the next job you take, what will you do about it? You can just change again! Furthermore, it’s also deeply important to know what the ‘wrong’ careers are for you. Candidates that embark on and complete a PhD often have minimal exposure to other career paths or industries. For most, academia is all they know or are familiar with. How do you know that academia is right for you if you haven’t explored other opportunities? How do you know other careers are wrong for you if you’ve never done them? Think of yourself as an explorer. As mentioned above, you should definitely give it some consideration and deliberation on what to do next after your PhD. But you should not cripple yourself into not making a decision through fears of getting it wrong. We want to adopt a growth mindset when job hunting and move toward growing and learning, not sticking to what’s comfortable – even if we know it isn’t ideal for us.
Making wrong decisions is part of adulting and that experience we have to go through to reach the end point we desire. This is no different for your career. Trying different careers out is acceptable. Knowing what careers you hate can assist you with moving you towards the one you love. Otherwise, you’re just shooting blind in the dark. Similarly, it’s statistically more probable that you will enjoy multiple things equally. It’s sort of counter intuitive to believe that you were put on the earth to have one purpose or to have one passion. Humans are complex, you’re likely to have multiple passions. This makes even more sense when you think about your transferable skills, because you can problem solve, write, teach, learn fast and more, you’re going to be able to do lots of different careers. Whether that be entrepreneurship, consultancy, project management, you name it, you can do them all, and you might like them all equally. Worst case scenario, if you don’t, you can just try something else. This is probably one of the key selling points for having a PhD, it’s versatility and applicability to almost every career sector on the job market.
Once you realise that making mistakes is possible, probable, and ultimately important as it allows you to move towards your final destination you won’t worry so much about picking the ‘wrong’ career after your PhD. It’s an invaluable learning experience, and if you do get it wrong – nothing it is stopping you from changing again. All in all, is a learning experience ever a wrong decision after all?
The world really is your oyster.
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