Starting Your Post-PhD Career Exploration the Right Way ... with You in Mind!

Take some time out for self-reflection

As you begin your career exploration, it is essential to take some time to reflect on your interests, strengths, and values.

Academic life can sometimes be all-consuming. The long hours and weekends spent running experiments in the lab or grading papers in the office force many PhDs to put their interests and relationships on the back-burner.

The geographic limitations of academic life frequently take their toll on PhDs who end up separated from loved ones or living on their own in places they never had imagined.

The stress of academic life can put pressure on individuals, on relationships, and on families. It’s okay to admit that you aren’t thriving.

The good news is that you don’t have to stay in academia if you don’t want to. There are career options for you to explore whether you have a Humanities, a Social Sciences, or a STEM PhD.

Think of your needs

Before diving into job applications, take time to think of YOU.

What do you want out of your professional life? What are your (non-academic) interests, your personal goals, your skills, your values? What extracurricular activities do you enjoy?

During the course of your PhD, you may have forgotten why you chose to do the advanced degree in the first place.

Think about what motivated you to start your PhD program. You might say, “I started a PhD program because I am passionate about chemistry research.” Dig deeper still. Many PhDs pursued an advanced degree because they loved learning, because they wanted to mentor others, or because they wanted to make the world a better place.

You can learn, mentor, and change the world for the better in non-academic careers. You don’t have to stay in academia to do these things.

Re-discover your values

Academia comes with a set of values, and after being socialized in this profession for a number of years, you may have lost sight of what is most valuable to you.

What are your top values in your personal life? What do you value the most in your professional life?

If you are not sure where to start, the ImaginePhD website offers a values assessment that help you rank your top work values. The page includes a list of possible work values that you rank in order of importance to you. At the end of the exercise, you end up with the list of your top five values. Your list of values could look something like this:

  1. ethics
  2. intellectually challenging work
  3. creativity
  4. variety
  5. balance

In the Values Assessments Results provided by ImaginePhd, you will find a customized list of vetting strategies and questions to ask during interviews to help you find a company and a boss whose values align with yours. The questions will help you identify potential red flags. For instance, one of the tactics mentioned under the “Ethics” value is to ask “What is the toughest decision you have had to make in this organization?”

It’s important to assess your values because each company or organization has a set of values, whether they are explicitly stated or not. Knowing what your values are will determine the parameters of your job search. You can learn more about how to use ImaginePhD to plan your career over here.

Prioritize what is important to you

In the midst of your PhD, have you lost sight of what is most important in your life? Consider your top priorities. Perhaps you want to live closer to family after being far away for many years. Perhaps you want to find better work-life balance. Maybe you need to focus on your health or want to develop new skills.

Be honest with yourself and write down what matters most to you.

Reflect on what sets you apart from others

How do you spend your time outside of the lab, or of the library?

Think of your graduate school experience. What hobbies did you have that others did not?

You certainly have interests that set you apart from your peers and colleagues. These interests could provide clues to a new career or post-PhD life. Knowing what is special about you could help you identify a good fit with the companies you will learn about. Awareness of how you are unique will shine light on the value that you could bring to an organization’s mission.

Make a list of your strengths using assessment tools

There are different assessment tools available to help you identify your strengths. We recommend two in particular.

1. The Values in Action (VIA) survey on character strengths

The Values in Action (VIA) survey on character strengths is an assessment tool that will help you identify your top character strengths. The personality survey is free and takes about 10 minutes to complete.

The 24 values included in the VIA survey list qualities such as:

  • creativity
  • love of learning
  • judgment
  • prudence
  • appreciation of beauty and excellence

VIA Institute on Character’s website explains that character strengths are natural qualities that you possess.

Knowing which qualities are strongest in your personal character profile will help you see how you tackle life’s challenges and establish work relationships that matter to you.

Think about your current or past academic work. How did it match up with your strengths?

Measure new opportunities you may come across against your strengths. Do they align?

2. The CliftonStrengths assessment by Gallup

The CliftonStrengths assessment is a paid assessment tool that identifies and ranks your strengths. The company website explains that your strengths are natural tendencies and talents that you possess.

While the VIA Character survey focuses on character strengths, the CliftonStrengths assessment by Gallup looks at workplace strengths.

The 34 strengths which comprise the CliftonStrengths test are divided into four main themes: executing, influencing, relationship building, strategic thinking. After taking the test, you will find out which theme leads your strengths. Your unique theme string forms what CliftonStrengths calls your “talent DNA”.

The service provides a detailed report that teaches you how to leverage your top strengths to be more engaged, productive, and happy at work.

It may be difficult to talk about yourself as a professional outside of academia. The CliftonStrengths assessment report can give you language to use in that context, which you can apply to your LinkedIn profile and to your job documents.

Tell stories of experiences that energized you

Storytelling skills come in handy while interviewing and writing cover letters. It’s a great time to practice this skill at the career exploration stage.

Think about a time when you felt most energized in your life, a time that was so energizing to you that time flew. It could have been a meaningful time or simply a lot of fun. In that experience, you were present with your whole being. The story can be an experience you had at any age, in any context of your life.

Think of three or four stories from your life and write them out.

What were you doing? Where were you? Who were you with? What was the wider context? What was the result?

See if patterns emerge. What do your stories say about how you prefer to engage with the world around you?

Grow in self-awareness by discussing your exercise

Your friends and family can serve as sounding boards as you explore career options. Think about sharing some of the self-awareness exercises and assessments you completed and see how they react. Their feedback may reveal facets of your personality or skills that you had never previously considered.

It can be enlightening or even fun to have your family, colleagues, and friends take the same assessments to compare results.

Use your self-awareness insights as a metric

As you move forward in your career exploration post-PhD, use the self-awareness you have gained through these exercises to measure opportunities that come your way. It will help you to make good decisions.

You can always come back to the exercises you wrote out to remind you of the good things that you have.

Remember that you have strengths and values. Remember that you have felt energized.

It will be good for your self-esteem and for your self-confidence.

For more resources to help you with your job search, attend a free Beyond Prof event

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