Finding a job you love is the ultimate goal of any professional career path. Every resume and cover letter you write, every marathon Zoom interview you sit through, you do with the hope of someday ascending to a job that is genuinely engaging and rewarding above and beyond mere monetary compensation.
Unfortunately, many graduate students and PhDs who embark on professional careers beyond the academy start off on the wrong foot. They begin the process by scouring Indeed or LinkedIn for jobs—any jobs—they’d technically be qualified for. The urgency to find a job supersedes any serious consideration of what jobs they actually want.
They thus skip a crucial step in the career transition process: identifying core values and discovering their optimal career pathway.
To launch a successful post-ac job search, you must build a strong foundation of core values for yourself. You must answers questions like:
- What energized you about your academic work?
- What do you value in yourself and others?
- Where will you thrive beyond the academy?
These are fundamental questions to any post-ac job search, even if they have little to do with the stated requirements and responsibilities of any particular job.
Contemplating these questions will help you discover your optimal career pathway. Your optimal career pathway is an abstraction, a Platonic ideal against which all real career opportunities will be measured. It’s a vital epistemological tool for evaluating your options and, ultimately, landing a rewarding non-academic job you’ll love.
This article will walk through how to identify your values and discover your optimal career pathway. We’ll interrogate which factors really energized you about your academic work, distill from those factors your core values and motivations, and explore how you can find a workplace that aligns with those values.
1. What Energized You About Your Academic Work?
Don’t ask what you can do with your PhD. Ask what inspired you to do a PhD in the first place.
People pursue advanced degrees, and subspecialties within those degree fields, for all kinds of reasons. They’re driven by different curiosities and questions that reflect their motivations, goals, and core values. They hope that studying this or that academic field will fulfill those goals and empower them to live up to those values.
In other words, people end up in particular academic fields because those fields aligned with the values they already had. Whether they specialized in American history, ancient philosophy, or molecular biology, the actual subject matter of their studies was a means to an end.
Remember, you are not your degree. To determine what energized you about your academic work, you must separate yourself from the subject matter of your research and identify what motivated you to devote the better part of a decade (or more!) to that subject matter.
For example, did you love teaching as a graduate student? Do you want to keep teaching in the future? Think hard about what parts of teaching you liked best. For instance:
- Mentoring young people
- Curriculum design
- Public speaking and leading discussions
Many jobs beyond teaching and education involve these skills and activities. If you like teaching, it’s really because you like doing one or more of these things.
Likewise, maybe you enjoyed your graduate research projects above all else. What part of your research energized you? A couple things come to mind:
- The thrill of puzzle-solving
- Discovering and learning about new forms of knowledge
- Micromanaging a personal project
You can see how this works. You must separate what you actually did in your academic career from the particular subject matter of your teaching, research, writing, and so forth. Pinpoint the underlying factors behind your love of academic work. Find career opportunities that replicate those factors in non-academic contexts.
Focus on what you can do, not what you know.
2. What Do You Value in Yourself and Others?
The previous section examined the particular skills and activities you enjoyed in your academic work. Now let’s look at what aspects and characteristics you value most, whether in yourself, in others, or in a workplace. You’ve identified what you want to do; now you need to figure out where and with whom you want to do it.
What do you value about yourself? About friends and family? About your academic colleagues? A few good answers might be:
Likewise, what do you value most about your work? This goes deeper than the “what energized you?” question above. It’s about figuring out what attracted you to academia and how academic work met those needs.
Suppose you determined that you enjoy research above all other academic pursuits. You then pinpointed “the thrill of puzzle-solving” as the primary factor animating your love of research. What do you value so much about puzzle-solving? Examples might be:
- Intellectual stimulation
- Creative expression
- Overcoming challenges
- Organizing complex information
- Innovative thinking
Again, take the factors you liked most about your academic work and distill from them your core values and motivations.
3. Where Will You Thrive?
Now that you’ve identified your values, the final step is to find an organization that aligns with those values.
We say this all the time at Beyond the Professoriate, but it bears repeating: “nonprofit” and “for-profit” are just tax statuses. All these labels tell you is how the organization files taxes and whether or not they are tax-exempt. They say nothing about the values of the work, the impact of the work, or what kinds of people work there.
Remember, the vast majority of jobs in the private sector are at for-profit businesses. There are around 1.5 million registered nonprofits in the U.S. While this might sound like a lot, it pales in comparison to the 30 million small businesses in the U.S.
If you’re skeptical about working in the private sector (as many PhDs leaving the academy are), the best thing you can do is start networking.
Do informational interviews with friends, family, and graduate-school colleagues. Reach out to alumni from your PhD program. Investigate your professional association and see if it has a mentorship program. Once you’ve done a few informational interviews with people you know, try reaching out to people on LinkedIn who work at organizations that interest you.
Informational interviews accomplish three essential things. You will:
- Learn about the day-to-day work at a particular organization or in a particular field of work
- Expand your network and build a community, thereby increasing your chances of getting hired
- Explore different career paths and determine whether, and how, they will be a good fit for you.
The place at which you work is every bit as important as the work itself. Networking is the best way to investigate different workplaces and test whether they align with your core values and have a place in your optimal career path.
Finding a job you’ll love will not happen overnight. It takes months—or even years–of personal introspection and professional networking to figure out what kind of job you want.
But, at the end of the day, you can’t talk about yourself in professional contexts unless you can talk about your core values. By identifying your values, you’ll also come to discover your optimal career path. Knowing this, you’ll be able to find people and organizations beyond academia who share your values.
If you have access to Aurora through your institution, please check out our video library. We’ve interviewed over 200 PhDs about their post-ac jobs and careers. You’ll see all the places where people who share your values work and thrive.
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