What are you going to do after your PhD?
If you’re like most PhD students, you may have started your PhD with loose plans to stay in academia when you’re done.
But for many PhD students there comes a stage in the PhD when they realise that academia isn’t for them.
That may be because of the famously (and horribly) precarious job market facing many PhD graduates, or because you’ve been turned off research all together now you’ve seen ‘under the hood’. Or perhaps you don’t think you’ve got what it takes.
The realisation that your future isn’t in academia can be an incredibly stressful one. For many PhD students, their entire lives have been characterised by being smart, and their identity is inextricably linked to studying and being in the university system.
Deciding to leave isn’t just as simple as choosing a different career path, it can often mean having to reinvent an entire identity.
The trouble is though, that takes time.
For one, it takes a while to work out what it is you want to do after the PhD, particularly if you started out intending to stay in academia. What’s more, if you’ve found the PhD traumatic, it’ll take time to process that and pick yourself up.
But there’s no rush.
Choosing a career path is one of the biggest decisions you’re likely to make, and not one that should be taken lightly. The danger of rushing is that you’ll end up making a poor choice, living to regret it, and end up back at square one not long after.
In this case, patience is a virtue.
Let me share my experience.
Once I decided I wasn’t staying in academia – towards the end of my PhD – I hurriedly searched for a job, and ended up being accepted into a prestigious civil service role.
But something didn’t feel right.
I knew deep down I didn’t want to be a bureaucrat, but I felt like I had to make a decision and felt like I needed to have everything in order before the PhD was done.
But in the end, I trusted my gut and rejected the job offer.
Instead, I spent the first year after my PhD working in a bar.
My friends and family thought I was mad.
I did too, from time to time. Thoughts like ‘I wasted time doing a PhD’ and ‘all that work and I’m back working in a bar’ filled my mind.
But I got a bar job because I didn’t know what I wanted to do once I made the choice not to stay in academia, but I knew I needed time to figure it out.
In hindsight, it was a blessing. The job allowed me to pay my bills but gave me the time and space I needed to truly work out where I wanted to be and what I wanted to devote my life.
It took a while, but I’m glad I waited. The years since have been happy and fulfilled.
So if you’ve decided to leave academia and are feeling unsure of what to do next, don’t feel under any pressure to rush. Years down the line you’re not going to remember or care that you took six months out of your career to focus on yourself.
Follow your gut, don’t rush, and have faith that you’ll end up where you need to be in time.
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