Last week I met with a warm and refreshingly-optimistic geology PhD student who wants to begin a nonacademic job search. She had already identified a few job search criteria, such as geographic location, employer type, and preferred job functions. So we jumped right into the session by working through her job search criteria to identify three professions that she would explore in-depth. Unlike many of the transitioning PhD students I see, she was excited by the thought of broadening her career options and using her skills in new ways. Still, she raised one area of concern that is hard to ignore for anyone transitioning from the academy to work:
“How will I manage the 9-5 work schedule? I’m used to defining my own work projects, and setting my own work schedule. If I want to work from 10am-10pm, I can do that now. But when I start working, I’ll have my projects dictated to me by someone else and on a schedule that they determine. I’m ready to start working but this makes me really nervous, even when I started my first job after undergrad, I remember how tough it was to adjust.”
I get it. I totally get it. It seems totally arbitrary to have to work on a set schedule everyday between the hours of 9am-5pm. These hours make up the better portion of the day. If you’re anything like me, I need an active workday. I cannot sit in an office behind a desk for the full day. In my first post academic job, there were plenty of days that I struggled with spending the better part of the day indoors and behind a desk. Although now that I reflect on it, I spent most of grad school in a library or home office behind a desk. I often completed my daily tasks ahead of time, and found myself taking on additional projects or advancing in our strategic planning schedule just to keep myself busy. Since then I’ve learned to that pacing helps you avoid burnout, piling on too many tasks at once, and alienating your colleagues, if your office culture is not that fast-paced.
That job involved a great amount of interaction with community stakeholders, policymakers, and civic leaders. However, I worked in a small office where most of my colleagues stayed close to the office. I had to communicate with my supervisor to show him that nature of the work and the need for me to be out in the community to achieve our strategic goals. Not that my communication with my supervisor was not purely about my need to break free the desk, but to be able to connect with our constituents in their locations. With some discussion and cultivation, my supervisor came to understand the nature of my work and made sure I had the tools I needed to do my work on the go — a laptop and cell phone.
Here are some tips to consider as you prepare for a more structured, 9-5 schedule.
1. Keep in mind that your new work will take place in a system. You will not be working alone.
Take a step back to see the larger ecosystem within which your work and position will take place. Your work will not happen in isolation of the work of your coworkers. You may or may not collaborate on the details of your projects, but others are counting on the product of your work to fulfill a larger team or organizational goal. For example, if you work in communications, your colleagues in marketing may need your work products to take to market while your finance colleagues need your project budgeting sheets to keep the overall organizational budget on target.
2. Start professionalizing your schedule now.
The geology student who came to my office described a scenario that many graduate students are familiar with: waking up at 10am to start work and reading/writing into the early hours of the morning. You can start to adjust your schedule now. Begin your research-related work earlier in the day. Also, create a weekly schedule to help you organize your To-Do Lists and accomplish your weekly personal and work goals.
3. Acknowledge the tradeoffs.
Many PhDs seeking nonac careers often say they look forward to the separation of work and life. Academic work, in their opinion, does not stop, making it difficult to “turn off” work even after you’ve moved away from the desk and computer. For these academics, the 9-5 schedule creates a boundary between formal work hours and personal time for rest and leisure.
One of my advisees, a cancer researcher/biology PhD, accepted a lab research position after completing her postdoc. She was concerned about making the transition but also recognized that this new phase of her work and life would allow her to develop new hobbies. We worked together to identify the areas she’d been missing out on during her demanding postdoc, which included a more dedicated yoga practice and spending time with her young nephews and nieces. Then we created a schedule for her to ease into exploring these hobbies. It’s not uncommon for PhDs to break out of academia and want to take on many new areas of personal development all at once. Just like with my work pace, I wanted to be sure this advisee would pace herself in accomplishing her personal goals, allowing herself to experience the academia to work transition without pressure or strain. She decided that the first two months of her move and new job, she would visit three yoga studios to find a class that best suited her. Later she would add in new personal goals like joining young professional associations and meeting other singles in her new town where she’d located for work.
4. Eventually, you may have the opportunity for a flexible work schedule after you’ve been in your position and demonstrated value.
Flexible work may include arrangements such as a compressed work week (i.e., 4 days instead of 5), telecommuting, or ROWE (results-oriented work environment). Before negotiating with your employer about a flexible work schedule, you want to be sure you have demonstrated value to your organization and have a plan to continue to do so when you are not onsite as often.
I’m the first to admit from my own experience that the adjustment from graduate school to the work world takes some getting used to. The post academic world of work is just that — post academic, post graduate school. Graduating PhDs are not the only ones to struggle with this transition; many graduating undergraduate students express similar concerns about adjusting to the schedule and structure of the work world. When it comes to the 9-5 schedule, remember this is a new phase of your life. It will require you to develop new strengths and habits to manage the features of this new area of your life and work.