Expert, or imposter? Why post-PhD careers can take time to gel

‘We like to think that we should make a living based on what we enjoy doing. However it’s often the opposite way: we start enjoying jobs in which our expertise is respected. […] Passion and fulfilment often come after reaching some level of proficiency in a certain area and not the other way around.

Dr Natalia Bielczyk, of Welcome Solutions

About six months into my current job, I went through a really strange phase. I’d been hired as a specialist careers adviser working with postgraduate researchers. In so many ways, it was my ideal gig… but suddenly, I found myself hoping that PGRs wouldn’t turn up to the appointments that they’d booked with me. I would mentally sift through all the things I could do to get out of delivering an induction to 100+ researchers. As someone who thrives so much on having an audience that I once described myself as the Freddie Mercury of Careers Advisers (no, I don’t fully know what that means either…) the latter was especially odd. I felt like I was in this constant, fraught hinterland between fight and flight, and it was exhausting.

Sure enough, it was the old imposter syndrome rearing its head. The reason I wanted to crawl away from talking about PhD careers in front of anyone was because I was terrified of getting found out. Terrified that the next PGR I saw or the next colleague I presented to would be the one to realise ‘aha! You’re not a PhD careers specialist at all! In fact, you don’t even know what you’re doing in this job! Why should I take any guidance from you, imposter!There I was in what should have been my ideal job, paralysed by a constant fear of having my inadequacies exposed.

This is why I was so glad to see Natalia Bielczyk acknowledge the role played by our feelings of expertise in our enjoyment of work in her book What Is Out There for Me? the Landscape of Post-PhD Career Tracks. It’s also why, if you’re starting to look at jobs post-PhD, or feel like you’re struggling to ‘get going’ with professional life after your doctorate, it’s well worth considering the role that mindsets like conscious incompetence and imposter syndrome might be impacting on how you’re feeling about your work or your job hunt.

Doing a PhD means that we spend however-many years developing expertise within our niche pocket of the research world. We might become well-versed in the factors affecting the transition from primary to secondary school for youngsters from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. We might become the first to identify how to best use certain integrated chemical biology approaches to study cellular redox signalling. Then, when the PhD is over, unless we secure a postdoc or industry role that is very closely related to our PhD… we suddenly have to go and do something else. We’ve spent years getting to grips with one thing, and now we have to go do something that might be really quite removed from either the expertise we’ve been building or the environment in which we’ve been working. And that can feel daunting.

These daunting feelings can manifest at all points of the job hunt. They can start with looking at a vacancy advert and thinking ‘I’ve spent 4 years in a theoretical physics department looking at quarks… can I really now apply to work for a consultancy and expect business people to take me seriously?’ They can continue into starting a job like I did, as feelings of competence built up during the PhD gave way to a gaping void of not-fully-knowing-what-you’re-doing. Having gone through PhDs, our standards for ourselves can be very high. We might feel that we can only class ourselves as ‘good at something’ or say that we ‘know what we’re doing’ when we achieve expert status in that thing… and even then, some of us still don’t trust our abilities.

At least my stationery is honest and transparent.

Bielczyk’s point therefore starts by challenging the privileged notion that to find fulfilling work, we should simply ‘do what we love.’ That’s all well and good… but as PhDs we already know that if what we love is our academic subject, then to turn that into a ‘stable’ academic career can take a LOT of time. Several postdocs. Hourly-paid teaching. Fixed-term contracts. Non-existent contracts… we might spend years piecing together these types of work only for many of us to get tired of the process, develop other priorities, and jump ship… or, eventually, land a permanent academic position. However, the association that Bielczyk draws between our feelings of competence and our enjoyment of our work really highlights that post-doctoral careers can take time to come together not only practically, but psychologically.

Bielczyk suggests that rather than ‘doing what we love,’ another way to think about fulfilling work is to love what we do, but to acknowledge that this can also take timeespecially for those with doctoral degrees. If we are side-stepping into a different research area or transitioning into a sector beyond academia, it can take time for us to feel like we have anything close to the same kind of handle on our new role as we had on our PhD.

I remember hearing some data presented at a conference a few years ago (vague, I know) showing that the further out someone was from their PhD graduation, the more likely they were to agree with the statement that, if they could go back in time, they would still decide to do their PhD. Some of the audience found this surprising but to me it was a no-brainer: the more time that participants had spent in their current roles/ industries, the more time they’d had to develop a sense of competence in those roles and industries. Over time, they had also gathered more tacit knowledge about how different working environments and cultures ‘work,’ so the less likely they were to feel that their PhD experience had rendered them ‘unemployable’ or ‘incompetent’ for any other field.

What can we do about it?

Anyone reading this about to embark on a post-PhD job hunt might easily think ‘great… not only could it take me months and months to get a job; it might take me even longer to feel like I’m any good at that job!’ It goes without saying though that everyone’s experience is different. If you’ve felt held back during your PhD by toxic or disparaging colleagues, you may thrive once you’re able to get stuck into a job in a supportive team and a culture where it’s totally ok to ask for help. But if the idea of pivoting away from your PhD work has you worried about how you’ll manage to build up competence in something new, here are a few things to think about:

  • Are the levels of mastery we expect from ourselves healthy, realistic, and in line with those that we expect and allow from others? I used to think that I could only be a ‘useful’ PhD Careers Adviser if I lived and breathed PhD Careers the way I felt like I lived and breathed my research. What I’m still coming to terms with is the fact that, in many lines of work, good enough is good enough, and we don’t need to know everything to still add value and be useful to people

  • Ask for help. Some university careers services offer support for several years after graduation, so they may well still be there if you’re struggling to work out whether you’re qualified for a particular role or you’re having difficulties adapting to your first post-PhD job

  • Look at the evidence. I’m a fan of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), especially for managing negative thought patterns. CBT asks us to put our negative thoughts about ourselves ‘on trial’ by looking for evidence to support and/or refute them. So, if we believe we aren’t good enough or that we are incompetent, we can look at feedback we’ve had from others, things we’ve achieved, progress we’ve made etc. to see if our belief has grounding, or if it’s just our imposter gremlins trying to hold us back

  • Talk to as many people as you can who have gone into lines of work that interest you, or who have made career moves similar to the move you’re looking to make. Hearing from real life people about how they made the transition and the expectations that their industry has of them can help you to understand that you don’t have to be the perfect unicorn

In an interview with David Mendes for the ‘Papa PhD’ Podcast, Katina Rogers says about her post-PhD career so far:

‘Everything makes sense when I look at it retrospectively, but it didn’t necessarily feel coherent as I was moving through it. It’s only several positions in that things started to feel like they were coalescing into something I could really sink my teeth into.’

So breathe, ask for help… and know that it’s normal to take time to find your groove.

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