I hear lots of academics who are at the career crossroads talk about their options in a dichotomous fashion — “I’m not sure if I should go after an academic career or a nonacademic career.” Yet the reality of the job search is rarely ever that black and white for PhDs with diverse and evolving interests. Rather than frame your career decision making as an “either/or” choice, take an “and/when” approach.

PhD job seekers tend to take an all or nothing approach when considering their career options. This either/or approach causes frustration and angst as PhD job seekers try to look into the future to make the best choice. Why not build transferable skills, transferable experiences and professional networks that build you up as a professional? Notice I didn’t say — that build you up as an academic or as a scholar or as an employee in a nonacademic job. Your professional capacity is broad.

I’m not advocating sitting on the fence of indecision; instead, I encourage PhDs to think broadly about their skill set, talents and transferable experiences to create viable options for an enjoyable, sustaining career. So how do you break out of this limiting “either/or” frame?

Know that you will do many things over the course of your career. Some of these will happen simultaneously, while other opportunities will roll out over time.
Taking the long view can relieve some of the pressure you feel to “get it right” with your current career crossroads. You will not be at this crossroads forever. Give yourself the space to explore the option that is in front of you, and then move on to the next opportunity at a future date.

There may also be cases when you choose to do two or more things simultaneously. For example, during the first two years of my first postacademic job, I presented at two conferences, taught one course, and published two articles. Truth be told, it got a little exhausting after a while, so I stopped selected activities when I felt like the fun and interest was gone.  Be sure not to overextend yourself in your simultaneous endeavors, thereby potentially jeopardizing the quality of your work and impact, as you pursue your interests.

The takeaway: it’s okay to want to do more than one thing. Just pace yourself and know that you can do both; it’s just a matter of when– hence the “and/when” approach.

Build it before you need it.
You can begin to build your professional profile right now in ways that will contribute to your overall professional advancement. Whether you are a graduate student, recent grad, postdoc or faculty member, you can participate in committee or board leadership, organize a speaker conference and event, volunteer your time to an initiative or cause of interest, or intern (for faculty, instead of internships, consider mid career fellowships or summer appointments that can give you exposure to new fields of work).

The point here is that you don’t know how your ideas about academia may change over the course of your graduate school or faculty career. Building your skills and experience are great ways to give yourself options before you desperately need them.

Give yourself the opportunity to explore and develop your interests. You will find that some of these are meant to be avocations while others will form the basis of your vocation. But all of them will enhance your work skills and increase what you have to offer to employers.

Eventually your “and/when” approach will help you gather enough information and experience to make an informed choice in career direction. Until then, plan to explore.

I’d love to hear from you. What are some ways the and/when approach can or has helped you create more options?

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