Missteps and Steps in the Post-PhD

Looking back, the sudden feeling of weightlessness was the thing that scared me the most about stepping off of the well worn academic track. I didn't feel some miraculous sense of relief as much as I felt panicked and disoriented, as if the concept of gravity no longer applied to me. I felt ungrounded and like I was floating aimlessly, unable to propel myself in any single direction.

As graduate students, we had operated according to a series of small, yet clearly defined goals (teach this class, get this paper finished, pass my comps). Our smaller goals served to get us to the mid-level goal of earning the PhD, which in turn, was a step to get us to an academic job, and then finally, to the tenure track. We didn't set these goals; just by virtue of being graduate students, our goals were set for us. We assumed that the goals of our professors (to get us academic jobs) were our own goals.

Stepping off the academic track means all of those pre-defined goals suddenly disappear. Suddenly, we're not moving along a track of clearly defined goals, but frantically treading water trying to figure out which direction to move in next. The empowering thing, however, in the middle of all of the disoriented feelings, is that our greatest moment of crisis can also be our greatest moment of opportunity.

One of the things that no one warned me about was that I'd make a lot of mistakes along the way. In a spectacular bout of magical thinking, I assumed that I'd get off the tenure track and immediately bump into the exact right non-academic job. I'd announce to the world that I needed a job that involved research, teaching, and writing. The right people would find me. High paying job offers would arrive unannounced. I'd be wildly successful at something and prove to everyone (most of all myself) that my PhD hadn't been a huge waste of time and money.

What I was a little unprepared for was how big the world outside academia really can be. The weightlessness feeling took me by surprise, precisely because I hadn't expected it. I had little or no idea what I was doing or what I even wanted to be doing. I wasn't even sure if I knew what I liked doing anymore.

If any of this sounds familiar (or might be familiar in the near future?),  here's my crash course advice for the first few moments in your life off the academic track.

Finding our way in the non-academic world as PhD people requires a lot of exploration. There are going to be a lot of NO answers, which are every bit as important as the YES answers. Sometimes we've been operating with other people's goals as our own for so long that we're not even sure what we want any more. It is this spirit of exploration and experimentation that eventually leads us in the right direction.

Start small. You might try to get to know yourself again by taking very small steps. Question everything and assume nothing. Did you really love teaching students as much as you thought you did? Is helping people really one of your values? (It's okay to admit that you have talked yourself into liking things that you don't really like. I've met lots of former academics who have confessed to me in hushed tones that they really actually hated teaching.) Did you ever like writing? What fills you with a tiny spark of excitement? Maybe you start making some tiny decisions about what you do and don't like.

So with some better ideas about what we do and don't like, maybe we try out some temp jobs, do some volunteering, go in some weird directions, decide to freelance at something. And then you use the feedback you get to make some more small decisions. Maybe you find that your tolerance for the roller coaster of the freelance life isn't for you and you want the stability of a regular paycheck and you think GET ME OUT OF HERE. Maybe you find yourself working at a temp job in a cubicle in an open workspace where you're making endless spreadsheets about things you don't care about and you think to yourself OH HELL NO. That's okay. Maybe you find yourself doing some non-academic teaching and you secretly admit to yourself that you're having fun and could actually see yourself doing public speaking in life. Like, for money. And you think YES! Write that down.

You will stumble and make the entirely wrong choices. You'll find yourself working jobs that you thought you'd enjoy and you find you can't stand. All legit and normal. It's not wrong. It's just feedback. You're learning to get to know yourself again. No one is defining for you your goals and what you like and don't like. YOU'RE doing that work. And along the way, you're defining what's working for you and what's not.

Here's what I wish someone had told me: it's okay to make missteps. In fact, if you're doing the post-PhD life right, you'll be taking the all the wrong steps at first. As you keep going, you'll start taking more of the right ones. You'll realize that what YOU want and need in life really matters. Your wants and needs aren't optional or negotiable. In fact, what you want and need is absolutely vital to your happiness and quality of life.

So maybe you decide that sharing ideas really matter to you, so you start a blog to do just that. Maybe you realize that your most powerful strength is writing, so you start pitching freelance articles. Maybe you decide that living life without reading is insane, so you start editing at a magazine.  Maybe connecting with people and empowering them is your favorite thing ever, so you start coaching. Maybe you miss teaching so much that you start looking for a job that has public speaking built into it. Maybe you love connecting people with ideas, so you job working in a bookstore and helping people find books that speak to them.

And none of these things have been predefined for you. This is all you. You've decided what's important to you and what matters. And you're going for it.