How to Deal with Uncertainty During a Post-PhD Career Change

One of the books my career transition coach recommended to me years ago was Comfortable with Uncertainty, by Pema Chödrön. I read it and it changed my perspective on life, in a really positive way. Chödrön’s “teachings” were so simple and yet they weren’t ones I’d ever considered before.

I bring this up because dealing with uncertainty — being comfortable in it — is such a huge part of the work I do with clients now that I also work as a coach. There’s uncertainty when it comes to many aspects of life and career: where you’ll live, what you’ll do, how much money you’ll make, who you’ll be. How long will it take to get a job? What job is suitable? So many unanswered questions.

The academic career path is one so many of us come to embrace simply by being enrolled in a PhD program. That path is pretty clearly laid out for us. A postdoc (especially in STEM fields) but then a tenure-track job within a few years of graduating, the sooner the better (especially in non-STEM fields). R1 or equivalent is preferable, though other types of institutions may do. Willingness to move all over the US (and Canada), even to the UK or Australia! And we know, for the most part, what we have to do: publish, present, teach. Win grants. Make sure we get strong letters. There’s networking involved in this, but we don’t necessarily recognize that.

As Maren wrote in her recent blog post, academic hiring norms can set PhDs up to fail when it comes to finding work beyond the professoriate. Yup, absolutely.

Coming from academia, where the path is so clear (if increasingly unobtainable), leaves PhD career-changers unused to what other folks may take for granted by now: that careers are winding roads, full of twists and turns. No amount of academic publishing or teaching can ensure success in this new landscape.

From Chödrön: “What keeps us unhappy and stuck in a limited view of reality is our tendency to seek pleasure and avoid pain, to seek security and avoid groundlessness, to seek comfort and avoid discomfort.”

Travelling a new terrain requires discomfort. It can feel like the ground is being ripped from beneath us. It is painful, emotionally, psychologically, even spiritually. Some focus on writing and publishing and teaching because it is comfortable in some way, it provides a base.

What happens if, instead of shoring up your existing flooring, you explored what was underneath?

My own advice to clients — and to myself — is to dig deeper. What lies beneath your passion for research or teaching (or, or, or)? What is it about the activities you enjoy that are truly meaningful and engaging to you? Out of all the tasks you perform, which bits energize you? Now, compare those bits. What are some similarities? And what about your values and priorities? What truly matters to you in life? The answers to these questions are your certainty.

This new certainly doesn’t tell you what job to take. What it does is remind you that there’s no one job that’s right for you. It helps you take a calculated risk because you trust that you know yourself, that you can make a good decision for you, now. That opens up a much wider world of possibility, one that doesn’t require you achieve tenure within the next 10 years, because that’s not the point at all. The point is something deeper, divorced from specific job titles or industries.

If you’re struggling to figure out what’s next, it might be time to get out your shovel and see what lies beneath the academic structure you’ve inhabited for the past few years.


Jennifer Polk earned her PhD in History from the University of Toronto. She is the co-founder of Beyond the Professoriate.

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