PhDs in search of their first postac career ask this question lamenting, “I’m so disconnected from my interests outside of my research that I don’t know where to begin thinking about my life and career beyond the academy.”

There’s a lot of career advice that says following your passions will lead you to the career of your dreams. It’s true that doing something you enjoy and getting paid for it is a sweet. Still, I’m concerned that this emphasis on passions may make PhD career changers feel at a loss for a way forward. You’ve spent a lot of time, energy and thoughtspace to developing your passion for learning and research. To be asked to identify your passions outside of the all-consuming space of academia can be a challenge for even the most well-rounded academic.

Here’s a piece of priceless advice if you’re unsure about your passion areas: Passions are created in the doing. (Tweet this) They are not developed by simply thinking or reading about them.

magiccomfortzoneIn other words, you have to try something new or recognize something great that’s already present around you — then actually participate in that activity or interest. Passions may not feel like passions at the beginning, but they are developed in the doing.

Too often we ignore little nudges that try to capture our attention. I recall being in grad school and seeing an awesome announcement for a 9-month position with an international development organization to conduct research on Afro-Latin American populations. I opted not to apply for the position because I didn’t want to get “derailed” on my way to the degree.

In hindsight, I read this situation very differently (while still remaining kind to myself about the decision I made). Those nine months would have sharpened my research skills, expanded my professional network and even opened job opportunities for me (or for my future students). Not to mention it would have temporarily supplemented my income beyond my student stipend.

Undoubtedly, I would have had to juggle my coursework alongside the job responsibilities to make it work with my schedule. But that’s a recurring theme in adult life, especially when you’re talented and have diverse interests.

High performers must understand that opportunities and interests often pop up along your life path and they cannot be planned in advance. The seeming detours may actually be an influential part of your path, your story and your happiness. You can never say for certain in the moment. The beauty and difficulty of developing your interests and passions is to act and respond to these stimuli without entirely knowing where you’ll end up.

Years later I made a different choice when I got the nudge. I applied for a summer job at a research hospital in my town. They wanted to contract an ethnographer who could speak Spanish and conduct observations in the clinical setting. Having just come from a period of ethnographic research in Colombia, South America, I was super intrigued by the ethnographic method and the many settings where it’s used. So without overthinking it, I applied. In large part, I attribute that summer job with helping me land my first postacademic job in program management and partnership development in public health.

Here are a few tips to help you get in touch with your passions:

  1. Listen to your nudges. You don’t have to follow them all, but certainly don’t ignore them just because they don’t seem to be on your path.
  2. Intern or take on a part-time job.
  3. Become active in a civic organization, movement or political issue.
  4. Freelance. Take an existing skill and monetize it or donate it to an organization you care about.
  5. Become adept at interdisciplinary thinking. Open your mind to new ways of operating, thinking and being in the world. You can do this by reading, taking a course in a different department or school, or joining a professional club. You will develop an understanding for a different outlook– a skill that is perfect for any faculty member, researcher or high performing team member.

If this blog helped you think about your passions differently, I’d love to hear about it. Comment below or share this post with your friends on Facebook or Twitter.

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