You’ve done it. You earned your PhD. You made it through some of the most emotionally stressful and intellectually challenging years of your career, successfully defended your dissertation and...now what?
In this three-part blog post series, Angie Voyles Askham shares her experience of finding a new path after leaving academia and offers advice for other early career researchers who may be in a similar boat. In part one, she explains how abandoning her idea of a "career plan" helped her find a job that she actually enjoys.
Written by Angie Voyles Askham, Content Marketing Intern
I’ve heard many people compare getting a PhD to having a baby. In my experience there are certainly some similarities. They are the two most challenging things that I’ve done; at one point or another, I felt like each of them was never going to end; and, once each of them were over and I was finally able to pause, exhausted and bleary-eyed, and savor the moment, they both left me with a warm fuzzy glow of joy and accomplishment.
It also goes without saying that there’s a huge gulf between emailing a PDF to a dissertation committee and actually birthing a human infant. There’s one surprising difference that jumps out at me the most, though, and it’s also the reason that the months after grad school left me feeling lost in a way that having my first child never did: the fact that, if you finish grad school and decide to leave academia, there’s no plan for what to do with your PhD.
Of course, newborns don’t come with instruction booklets, either. But while new parenthood is difficult and scary and tested me in ways that my graduate work never could, when my husband and I left the hospital with our daughter we knew that—above all else—our mission was to keep this tiny being alive and happy. That plan, no matter how simplistic, gave me a sense of purpose through sleepless nights and times of intense stress. Even when I felt I was failing, at least I was striving for something.
Finishing my PhD, on the other hand, came with no such plan. I knew that I wanted to find a new career, but I couldn’t even imagine what kind of career that would be. I had spent five years of my life working toward one very specific goal, and now that the goal was accomplished, I was entirely unmoored.
For the majority of my life, my plans have been tied to my progression through academia: first high school, then college, then graduate school. If I had wanted to continue along that path, I could have applied for postdoc positions and hoped that one day I’d reach the summit by landing a job as a tenure-track professor.
Partway through my graduate work, though, I decided that I didn’t want a career in research or academia at all. While I loved learning about neuroscience, grad school taught me that I had no real passion for designing or running experiments; I preferred sorting through the literature and making sense of what other people had discovered rather than trying to make discoveries myself. As a result, I dreaded running experiments, which hurt my work, which made me dread my time in the lab even more.
It was time to start thinking about a career change. Even though I was excited to move on and find something that I felt truly passionate about, and even though I knew that leaving research was absolutely the right choice for me, letting go of that last shred of a plan was terrifying.
Alternative career advice aplenty
One thing that helped during that time was learning that I wasn’t alone. For one reason or another—change of heart, change of circumstances, lack of success in applying for postdocs—most recent PhDs don’t immediately set down the traditional academic route. According to last year’s NSF Survey of Earned Doctorates (which reported data from 2017), 47% percent of science and engineering doctorate recipients took a postdoc position immediately after graduating, leaving a large number of recent grads who are either waiting to take that next step or decided to move on to an alternative career.
So it’s not uncommon to look for an alternative career, and as an increasing number of people earn PhDs over time, it’s only going to become more necessary. Thankfully we’re also seeing an increase in support for those who want to pursue alternative careers (even though grad students might not get that sense within their own department): many universities offer seminars and counseling for graduate students looking to use their PhD outside of academia, and entire websites and organizations have cropped up with the goal of helping graduates figure out what to do with their degree.
When I was struggling with how to find a new career path I became obsessed with these various resources. I read every article I could get my hands on and attended every lecture that I could find that made the slightest mention of “career advice.” I talked with a career counselor at NYU, brought home piles of multi-colored flyers, and took every career-fit quiz that they offered. I was desperate to cobble together some sort of a plan for what to do once I finished grad school, and this information was my life raft. I learned about science policy, research communications, publishing, and teaching; I began to feel overwhelmed, almost paralyzed, by all of the possibilities. How could I possibly know which of these careers was the right one for me?
Less planning, more doing
Ultimately, of course, I realized that no amount of preparation could help me answer that question. Even if I could answer it, doing so wouldn't unlock some magic door where my dream job was waiting. No matter what I was going to have to take the next step, try out something new, and see if it worked.
With that realization, I slowly began to abandon my need for a “plan” after my PhD.
I didn't give up on any goals, and I didn't stop dreaming big—I just stopped trying to follow a prescribed route. Instead of focusing on one particular career, I started looking for jobs that ticked certain boxes, like those that would teach me a new skill, allow me to improve my writing, or do something different that I've always wanted to try. All of the information that I had soaked up about career options gave me the confidence to make a path of my own.
Using this strategy, I've gained a better sense of the kind of career I want to have. I've learned what I value most in a job, what I enjoy spending my time doing, and I've also developed an interest in a couple of careers that I hadn't previously considered.
In part two of this series, I’ll share how I started down this (slightly unconventional) career path by trying out something entirely new—live radio—and what I've learned so far in my current role as Springer Nature's Content Marketing Intern.
Angie Voyles Askham is the Content Marketing Intern for Springer Nature’s Research Marketing team. She received her PhD in neuroscience from NYU in 2015 and has since worked in radio production, academic publishing, and as a stay-at-home mom.