Exploring Careers and Finding Purpose in Your PhD
For as long as I can remember, it was very clear to me that I wanted to get my PhD in psychology—I loved research and learning about what motivates people to make atypical moral decisions. I didn't, however, think a lot about what I wanted to do next. I realized that the thrill I got from generating an idea, getting results, and contributing to an existing knowledge base could be earned from a wide variety of tasks and career paths. This led me to deep dive into learning more about myself, what I love to do, and what I would like to do for the rest of my work. Here, I highlight a few methods that helped me reflect on my experiences as a PhD student and set the stage for what I would like to do next.
The first step to working towards a future goal, counterintuitively, might be to reflect on the past and present and gain a deeper understanding of what motivates you on a daily basis. You can find purpose by identifying what you love, your skills, your needs, and what can help you earn a living. By figuring this out what career would help you achieve an intersection of these different motivations (also called ikigai, a Japanese concept that means something that gives a person a sense of purpose). Check out how you can use the Ikigai diagram to find fulfillment.
Explore Academic and Industry (Alt-Ac) Career Alternatives
Don't rule out something because you've never done it before. Getting your PhD means that you not only have knowledge about a very niche topic but also that you are now equipped with many transferable skills. Here is a quick list of nonacademic career options. This post on LinkedIn also explains how you can transition from a psychology PhD to a nonacademic job.
Talk to as Many People as You Can
Even a 20–30 minute conversation with people working in areas that you have a potential interest in will provide you with an excellent perspective of the pros and cons of that job role. You will learn more about what skills you need to gain by asking something like "What does a typical day or week in the life of ___ look like?" This can help you learn so much more than what you would get in books or courses. Talking to a wide variety of people pursuing nonacademic and academic careers can help you clear out any confusion about what to do next. Connecting with alumni from your program is a good place to start. If you feel uncomfortable talking to people now, you might find it valuable to passively consume information about careers after grad school by finding relevant groups and people on social media (Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter).
Get Your Feet Wet
It's never too soon to learn about what you would like to do after your PhD. In fact, if you do this a few years before you graduate, you might also have the time to complete a summer internship or two. This will give you experience and skills that will later become transferable. And you will also be able to learn if you enjoy doing something not only in theory but on paper too. Last year, our co-editor, Katie Austin White, wrote a great piece on how to look for summer internships.
Don't Forget About Your Mental and Physical Health
The final year of your PhD and the time before or during your job hunt is a vulnerable time brimming with emotion and feelings of uncertainty. At this time, you could be preoccupied with getting things done and your mental and physical health might drop down in your list of priorities. But acknowledging and managing the mixed emotions you might be feeling (e.g., happiness about being close to the finish line and worry about the future) is crucial. It will help you to address these emotions before they get overwhelming. Self-care, whatever that might include for you, helps. Personally, I've found journaling positive and negative experiences during the day and writing about one thing I'm grateful for has helped me end the day on a positive note, even on more difficult days.