Making the ‘wrong choice’: why there’s no need to solve your entire life with your first post-PhD job

‘Your first job helps you learn and evaluate where exactly you want to be […]. Your first job post-PhD is your next step, not necessarily your end goal.

– Dr L. Maren Wood

I graduated from Careers Adviser School in 2016.

  1. Yes: Careers Adviser School exists.
  2. (It’s actually a Postgraduate Diploma, but that doesn’t have the same whimsical ring to it).

Since then I’ve worked almost exclusively with Postgraduate Researchers, the majority of whom want to talk to me about what’s out there for them besides a career in academic research and teaching. In these discussions, there’s a question that crops up repeatedly, which is:

“If I leave academia and move into a different line of work… What if I make the wrong choice?

This, for me, is where L. Maren Wood’s insight comes into play. I can’t even remember where I originally found this quote from her. It may have been on the Twitter feed for ‘Beyond the Professoriate’: the PhD Professional Development platform for which she is CEO. Or, I may have heard her present it in an online conference. Either way, my tiny, internal careers-adviser branding iron (very handy) burned it indelibly into my memory.

Let’s break down Wood’s insight to see how it might help if you are feeling overwhelmed by the thought of transitioning into work beyond academia and are afraid of making the ‘wrong choice’:

Your first job helps you learn and evaluate where exactly you want to be

Here, Wood presents your first job post-PhD as part of the iterative process that is a ‘career.’ This part of the quote gives us two useful reminders whenever we are feeling overwhelmed, thinking that we need to know absolutely everything about our options and must eradicate all uncertainty to avoid making ‘the wrong choice’:

  1. We can’t truly learn exactly what a job is like until we do it;
  2. We can never truly know the FULL range of options or roles open to us from ‘the outside.’

Only once we ‘get in’ – into a company, an organisation, a certain industry or line of work – can we really understand the range of things that we can do within that organisation or that industry.

I’ve worked with many PhDs who, after making the transition into a different sector, have since taken up jobs that they didn’t even know existed before they ‘got in.’ Your transition doesn’t stop after you land your first job beyond academia: that job will, in turn, expose you to other jobs and pathways and give you new information that you couldn’t see from the ‘outside.’

‘Your first job post-PhD is your next step, not necessarily your end goal.’

‘Wrong choice’ sounds scary. It sounds BIG. Wood encourages us to take some of the pressure off ourselves by breaking the big, amorphous concept of ‘career’ into simpler steps. As she expands in a later work, ‘Do not think you have to know what you want to do for the rest of your life before you leave academia.

For me, this points to an important pre-step: rather than pressuring yourself to solve your entire life with your next job, instead interrogate what does ‘wrong choice’ really mean for me?

To help us with this, let’s meet Claire. Claire landed an editorial job with a publishing company soon after her viva. Feeling she had pursued research as far as she wanted to, she was keen to try something else. ‘If you don’t fancy academia’ a supervisor had said, ‘you could try publishing.’ Reasonable enough, Claire thought. Six months into her job, Claire felt that something just wasn’t ‘right.’ She started to really miss using her quantitative skills and solving data-related problems. Her current work wasn’t giving her the opportunity to use these skills, which left Claire feeling apathetic.

Fast forward a year, and Claire is now a few months into a data analytics role within the same company. Her experience in her first job helped her to understand more about the bits of herself she wanted to be using day-to-day in her work, and why her previous stint in editorial had left her cold.

Would you therefore judge Claire’s move into her original editorial job to be the ‘wrong choice?’ It taught her a lot about what she wanted to be doing more of, and what would make her feel like she was putting her ‘best bits’ to work. It also ‘got her in’ to a company where she could observe the work of an analytics team from within and learn more about it. This is the kind of learning that Wood suggests we can only truly begin to accrue once we’re on the ‘inside’ of our first post-PhD job. Perhaps Claire’s first role was a necessary learning experience?

However, that quick précis may not quite do justice to Claire’s story or that of others like her. The year that Claire spent trying to shove her data-oriented peg into an editorial-shaped hole may have taken a toll on her mental health. It may have meant that her personal life had to take the back-burner at a time in her life when she least wanted it to. If that was the case, Claire might have benefitted from an opportunity to think in more detail about what a ‘good choice’ might have looked like for her before embarking on her job hunt: investing time upfront to save time later down the line.

So, for anyone out there afraid of making the ‘wrong choice’, here’s what I think we’ve learned:

  1. We can never have ALL the information.
  2. There are some types of information about jobs and career options that we can only gather once we ‘get in’ and start working somewhere.
  3. This means that trying to rule out ALL uncertainty before taking our next step is a fruitless exercise. At some point, we need to just do something. And that something never has to be forever.
  4. Instead of pressuring yourself to solve your entire life with your next job, work out what ‘wrong choice’ actually means for you in the context of your next step. If you fear making the ‘wrong choice’ about what to do post-PhD, what is it that you really want to avoid? And I don’t just mean something general like ‘I want to avoid a job I don’t like.’ What does that REALLY MEAN for you? For some people, the ‘wrong choice’ might mean moving into a job that conflicts with their personal values. For others, it might mean taking work that doesn’t let them use the bits of themselves that they want to be using every day. For you, it may be a combination of these things… or something else entirely.

Whipping through a quick career values or motivations inventory like ‘career anchors’ (Schein, 2006) can help you to start to dig into this. Secondly, as a researcher it’s easy to judge yourself on your research outputs rather than what went into producing those outputs. Remember that you are more than just your research, and write down a list of all the other things that you do day-to-day. Writing. Synthesising information. Interviewing. Analysing data. Presenting to an audience. Problem solving. Working independently. When you have your list, which of these activities do you tend to gravitate towards, and which do you go to lengths to avoid? This can give you clues as to your preferred work activities. Whatever you come out with, investing in this kind of self-reflection can help you to start to change that big, scary question of ‘what if I make the wrong choice?’ into a more positive statement + question of the following kind:

‘For me, the ‘wrong choice’ of post-PhD job would be something that doesn’t give me chance to use my quantitative skills on a daily basis. What choices can help me do this?’

‘For me, the ‘wrong choice’ of post-PhD job would be something that means I don’t have the time and energy to give to my family and am still often 100 miles away from my partner. Which options are most likely to help me avoid this?’

And that nugget there is what you want from your next step, which Wood reassures, is enough for now.

4 thoughts on “Making the ‘wrong choice’: why there’s no need to solve your entire life with your first post-PhD job

  1. The best career advice I ever heard came from two different people.

    My dad spoke with real wisdom as he put my mum in her place as she was of the belief that only by going to university that you could have a good career. He said; “These boys will find their own path in life regardless of what you want.” That was back in the early 80’s when going to uni was still a big deal and for the few and not the many..

    A bloke I worked for once said; “If you don’t like what you’re doing then do something else.”

    Admittedly he was depressed at the time as his business was struggling and he was feeling whimsical. Twenty years on and his business is going gangbusters and I retired.


  2. It took me several jobs after not going to Uni initially to realise what I liked, what I didn’t like, and what was out there. In one of those jobs I worked alongside an ex-careers adviser and was regularly in contact with local careers services (it was a training company) and decided that was a role I liked the sound of. Researched it further and applied for a DipCG shortly before I was made redundant – timely ! You’ve got to be in it to understand it – so true, I had no idea of the range of roles within a university until I worked in one.

    You’ve probably come across this, but I find it a very helpful way of thinking about next steps too:


  3. Right out of college, I went into an engineering position because I got my engineering degree. It did not fit with me at all. I loved the people, but I hated the job. It’s funny because everything about the job was perfect, had I done it maybe 3 years prior. My life and passions changed so much in college that I wasn’t happy with what I set out to get my degree in. I am currently in my 4th year of my PhD and absolutely love it. Research is my passion now but may change in the future. This is one of the reasons I know that the job I get post graduation will not be my last.

    Liked by 1 person

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