With eagerness (or necessity) to settle into a new job and get the tedious job search process over with, PhD job seekers often skip a foundational step of career transitioning — getting in touch with you, your interests, skills, values and work and life needs. One of my clients, Janet*, an Anthropology PhD student from Chicago, calls this process “soul-searching.” (*pseudonym to maintain client privacy)

She joined me and grad students and recent PhDs from various schools in the US and Canada in Options for Success, my 4-week group career exploration program. It was the summer before her last year in her PhD program. She came to the program with three vastly different career interests, design research, social work and academic teaching and research, and really needed help finding strategies to sort through her options.

I recently spent a day at a design research firm with some other students through my school’s externship program and learned that market research is absolutely not for me. I’ve been experiencing some burnout and am thinking more and more that something in the social service sector will be most fulfilling for me. I’m really looking forward to spring and summer when I can start looking for non-academic positions. I’m pretty deep into a soul searching phase right now, which is uncomfortable, but necessary.

Here’s the thing, career choices not just about the job you do, but also about who you are, the way you want to spend your time and energy, and the life you want to live. PhDs who transition to the nonacademic job market often bring with them the “apply to everything” job search approach of academia. If you want an academic job your advisors and committee members will most likely expect that you apply widely to increase your chances of landing an interview and offer.

Inventory of interests, experiences and transferable skills move to the back burner, and if the job seeker is in a particular rush to know what they’d do, they use the application process to “figure it out.” But this only causes burn out.

soulsearching1I get it. We feel more productive in our job searches when we are doing something. Even if doing something means applying blindly or without an efficient approach. The hope is that some job will come along to rescue you from the job search. This approach doesn’t work well in nonacademic or academic job searches. The people reading your job applications and interviewing you can sense your discomfort with and disconnect from the position.

It pays to take time to first figure out what you want and why, and then explore the match between what you bring and what your target employer seeks. One of the toughest parts of the career transition and job search process is to listen to ourselves and acknowledge what we need to thrive. It requires a certain amount of faith to keep down the path and trust the process during a time of change and uncertainty.

In her note above, Janet, realized that she had to begin to edit through her job targets to avoid burnout. She’d already tried for months the labor-intensive way of submitting endless job applications and building an imaginary world where she could do any of these jobs. Soul-searching acts as a mechanism begin to edit out the vast career paths available to you.

If you read Janet’s story closely, you saw that soul-searching isn’t the only thing she did to become more effective in her job search. In a follow up post, I’ll share more about what follows soul-searching to launch an effective transition to your first postacademic/ nonacademic/ alt-ac job.

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