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Help me figure out my life post-PhD
December 7, 2012 12:59 PM   Subscribe

Having trouble figuring out what I want and committing to a career path and figuring out how to decide 'what I am', and crippled by perfectionism. About to finish a PhD and could use guidance on now to navigate the next step.

My undergrad is in engineering but I didn't really like the idea of working as an engineer -- just not very exciting and didn't feel important to me -- so I went off an did a PhD in Environmental Studies. Now I'm maybe a year off from finishing and have to decide if I should seek a postdoc or find a job, and should probably be thinking about positioning myself appropriately, but I'm having a hard time figuring out what to do.

I don't quite know who I am right now. Not an economist, not an engineer, not an environmental scientist, not a political scientist, though I have aspects of all of these. I see very few faculty postings that would suit me as they usually want strong disciplinarians who can, you know, teach undergrad courses and such. I have ideas for moving into energy economics and energy modelling during my possible postdoc which might position me better. But even so, while I thrive in academia and love the environment, I'm really on the fence about continuing on this path, because I want flexibility, and I want evenings and weekends free, and I want time to enjoy hobbies and relationships and such, and these things are hard as a prof.

Likewise I look at industry jobs and they also all seem really specialized. I can program but not enough to be a programmer; I know about policy and economics but I'm not a political scientist or an economist; I can analyse data sets and do stats but I'm not an analyst or a statistician; when I see job postings for such jobs they always want more specialization than I have. I think if I develop some of these skills a bit better and have a specific goal in mind I could be competitive, but how do I figure out which way to go? I would love to do research at a think tank or NGO or something, but jobs like this can be hard to find.

My ideal career has challenging rewarding work, important problems, good community, flexibility (i.e. good options to transition after a few years, ability to find work in different cities) -- and doesn't demand my soul in return, leaving me time to pursue my hobbies and relationships, or at least has the potential for that in the future. I don't care a lot about salary or prestige, yet still I feel like with these requirements I have made a non-overlapping Venn Diagram; there are no options that are perfect in every way. But I am a perfectionist, as I discovered in therapy recently, and the possible pitfalls of every path I see in front of me are paralyzing. What's more, I feel a lot of pressure to make the path I choose measure up to the potential that I supposedly have (a lifetime of being the smart kid, even now in my PhD where I am Golden Boy).

If I asked for career options from you, I feel that I would say 'no' to every option that you suggest, or would dismiss it by finding a way that it would be impossible to pursue. So the problem is not so much that I have no options or don't know what to do. It's that every option seems inferior or impossible in some way, and it's my own mindset that's holding me back right now. If you've been through something like this, how did you move past it?
posted by anybodys to Work & Money (11 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
I feel a lot of pressure to make the path I choose measure up to the potential that I supposedly have (a lifetime of being the smart kid, even now in my PhD where I am Golden Boy).

What does your advisor think you should do? What connections would your advisor want to set you up with? If he thinks you're the Golden Boy of your department, then he probably would give you access to the positions that would be the ones that would allow you to "measure up to your potential" and, more importantly, make the department look good.

I don't care a lot about salary or prestige ... But I am a perfectionist ... I feel a lot of pressure to make the path I choose measure up to the potential that I supposedly have

I suspect that salary and prestige are actually very important to you in terms of what jobs you would accept, because that would feed into your perfectionist tendencies and your need to feel like you're measuring up to your potential.
posted by deanc at 1:14 PM on December 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


If you've been through something like this, how did you move past it?

Yeah, so, here's the secret: don't get a career, get a job. Until you have actually worked in a field for a little while, you really can't see what the good parts and bad parts are, you don't have the perspective to plan a rational career path, and all that planning is pure wish-fulfillment anyway, because the job market just doesn't work like that. Pick something in a location you like that you're reasonably qualified for and apply for it. Apply for five things like that. Get an offer somewhere (hopefully.) Take it. Try it for a year, see what you like and don't like, meet people, develop some networking connections. Deal with the next step when it comes.

Academia really skews the picture, because you can legitimately get one job, get tenure, and never change jobs again. Everywhere else, that is the equivalent of grandpa's stories about what he did in the war. It just doesn't work like that any more, so getting set on a "career" is not usually a productive way to look at life.
posted by restless_nomad at 1:16 PM on December 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


I don't quite know who I am right now. Not an economist, not an engineer, not an environmental scientist, not a political scientist,

None of those are "who"; all of them are "what" - they are what you do. You can have a job without being that job.

If you spend too much time and energy looking for that perfect career that will somehow show you who you are, you'll miss out on all kinds of good stuff. Especially if you're at a point where you haven't really done much for pay, and so lack that kind of perspective.

Don't marry your identity to your job or career. You contain multitudes.
posted by rtha at 1:40 PM on December 7, 2012


Check out the Versatile PhD community - great resource for questions just like yours.
posted by arnicae at 3:36 PM on December 7, 2012


Do you enjoy teaching? There are undergraduate majors in environmental studies that are looking for people who are trained across disciplines to teach across disciplines. In a teaching focused job at a primarily undergraduate institution, it is possible to find work/life balance, much more so than chasing grants at a research university. Because most grad students have spent all of their time at research universities, it's easy to forget that there is more to academia than that type of school--in fact, most professors do not work at research universities.

If that sounds at all interesting to you, you might reach out to nearby colleges to see if you could teach a class there, perhaps over the sumer, to get some experience and see if it's for you.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:11 PM on December 7, 2012


If I asked for career options from you, I feel that I would say 'no' to every option that you suggest, or would dismiss it by finding a way that it would be impossible to pursue. So the problem is not so much that I have no options or don't know what to do. It's that every option seems inferior or impossible in some way,

Sounds like you've basically been in school your whole life. What you're going to realize at some point is that being the "smart kid" and the "Golden Boy" in your PhD program really doesn't mean jack in the working world. And if you persist in your attitude towards work that you describe in this post, where basically you want a job that's tailor-made for your interests, gives you plenty of free time and geographic mobility, and is, by your judgement, "important" and "rewarding", and anything less is "inferior", buddy, you're in for a rude awakening.

I also was the smart, gifted kid in my class growing up, and went straight from college into one of the top law schools in the country, and was top of my class, and got multiple offers from prestigious international law firms paying six figures -- challenging, important work, plenty of geographic mobility, though certainly not very much free time. My rude awakening was that the behaviours for which you are rewarded in school, and the indulgences that you get in school, do not continue once someone starts paying you a salary to get work done for them.

College and grad school seem like a job because you're putting in a lot of work, competing with others, and getting evaluated through grades. But this is an illusion. The professors and the university are really your employees, and you are a customer. Don't let your academic success give you a false sense of your actual competencies and opportunities once you start a career.

My advice would be to take the best-paying, most challenging, most prestigious job that you think you can endure for a few years. Save up some money, learn as much as you can, do the best work you can. You can always move to job that gives you more free time, or a non-profit/NGO, whatever. But you know most of the people at those non profits and NGOs have pretty impressive career histories and worked their asses off for years before they moved into the non-profit sector.
posted by banishedimmortal at 9:40 PM on December 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Thank you banishedimmortal. I think this is the sort of thing I need to hear. Also thank you restless_nomad.

I'm fighting this still in my head because things feel way harder to me than you've made it sound (though a lot of this might be my own negative self-distortions) -- PhD's are not professional programs, so firms do not chase you down to give offers, and the skillset is so niche that there are not many jobs I'm qualified for -- certainly not five in the same city. Sniffing around for jobs I find ... not much of anything, unless I either greatly relax my standards, or try to develop and repackage my skills to better fit the job market.

What's bothering me, I guess, is that I feel like 'relaxing my standards' means giving up the idea of finding work in my current field and instead applying for jobs I could have applied for out of undergrad, entry-level programming jobs perhaps, like my old engineering internships. It will be hard to swallow that as it feels like throwing away six years of training and education which I am not (yet) emotionally ready to do, and likewise I can't shake the feeling that there would be much more interesting skilled jobs available to me (as an analyst, perhaps?) if I just developed my skills a bit better, and the only question is what to do, what move to make to get there, and here's where I feel the paralysis because I just don't know.

Advisers are pushing me to stay in academia and it's very tempting, yet I fear that could be just more hiding out from the real world, even if I do land that elusive faculty job one day. I really do want to get out there and see what I'm capable of -- land in a place with challenging work and opportunities to really stretch my wings. But still I don't know what that place is.

I begin to recognizing the self-defeating thinking here. I'm caught in loops. Do you see a way out?
posted by anybodys at 10:19 PM on December 7, 2012


I can't shake the feeling that there would be much more interesting skilled jobs available to me (as an analyst, perhaps?) if I just developed my skills a bit better

One way to develop those skills better (and, perhaps more importantly, to identify which skills are the most critical ones to develop to get the jobs you want) would be to take one of those less-than-perfect jobs in something related but not exactly right. It really sounds like what you need right now to be a stellar job candidate is some hands-on work experience outside of academia.
posted by restless_nomad at 11:00 PM on December 7, 2012


The Versatile PhD forums are being really helpful. Especially this thread. Just from a mindset point of view. Thanks again.
posted by anybodys at 1:54 AM on December 8, 2012


I can't shake the feeling that there would be much more interesting skilled jobs available to me (as an analyst, perhaps?) if I just developed my skills a bit better, and the only question is what to do, what move to make to get there, and here's where I feel the paralysis because I just don't know.

Have you spoken with the career office at your university? When I did that, on the cusp of finishing my PhD, they pointed me towards a lot of possible opportunities that I hadn't thought of, previously.

I would love to do research at a think tank or NGO or something, but jobs like this can be hard to find.

So are faculty positions. Getting a Ph.D. is hard to do. Lots of stuff is hard to acquire and, as you point out, the easy stuff is not at your level, so... start applying to think tanks and NGOs.

My advice would be to take the best-paying, most challenging, most prestigious job that you think you can endure for a few years. Save up some money, learn as much as you can, do the best work you can. You can always move to job that gives you more free time, or a non-profit/NGO, whatever. But you know most of the people at those non profits and NGOs have pretty impressive career histories and worked their asses off for years before they moved into the non-profit sector.

I agree with this, except for the last part, which is that there are plenty of people in the NGOs and non-profits who have worked there during their entire careers and end up as menial functionaries. But some of them have their evenings and weekends free, so... (and on the other hand, many of them don't have their evenings and weekends free, but they like the idea of working for them)
posted by deanc at 8:09 AM on December 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I come back to this thread every now and then so I can see how far I've come. I remember the turmoil and stress I was facing as I was finally face-to-face with serious issues I have grappled with for my entire life, kind of like the guy in this question that I posted an answer to. Basically the beginning of the end of the PhD had me facing the real world and forced to grapple with my deep need to be seen as high-achieving, which had me desperately avoiding any situation in which I couldn't be the best, i.e. all situations.

In my therapy I have since unraveled the root of these issues, which go back to very early childhood -- high academic achievement was my identity and what I used as a shield from some terrible emotional pain. Simultaneously I started to pay attention to the kinds of things I enjoy, which are the data analysis and visualization aspects of research, and began to recognize that I am a better programmer than most scientists and a better scientist than most programmers, and that there is actually lots of opportunity for a person like me. I picked up a project in my spare time to help flesh out some software skills and demonstrate that I can write code. I enjoyed it and learned fast. It sat well inside. I kept my ears open as I slogged away on my PhD.

In March I made a connection at a local data-driven software company that had been on my radar. I whipped up a one-page resume that said I was available part time while doing my PhD. Turns out they were hiring and they wanted me. Since the summer I have been working for them a few days a week and absolutely loving loving loving it. I get to play with incredibly rich datasets all day long, I am learning a lot and the work is very fulfilling, my team is great, and I'm developing skills that will let me have the career flexibility I crave, and I have also renounced the implicit vow of poverty that I took for no real reason. I'm still chipping away at the PhD and should have a draft of my thesis done by the end of the year. But most of all I've eased up the pressure on myself.

I guess this is a lesson about perfectionism and how it can fool you into thinking you aren't capable or desirable because you aren't perfect. It's been very hard work diving into this and letting go of it. But so so rewarding.
posted by anybodys at 1:36 PM on October 3, 2013 [6 favorites]


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