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Strategies for Cultivating Strength and Optimism Off the Tenure Track

This is the second article in my Transitioning PhD Blog Series, written by contributor Tracy Jenkins, PhD. 

As an academic facing the exciting challenge of a career change—possibly to a non-academic role—you may find yourself asking, “What do I want for myself now?” Do you want to find a job that is as similar to your area of study as possible, or do you want something completely different? Do you need to learn additional skills, or is your existing skillset as a scholar, researcher, and teacher adequate? There is much to consider when contemplating a career shift after having gone through the process of earning a PhD and working in academia for years, if not decades.

Limiting Beliefs Might Be Holding You Back

Contemplating “What do I want for myself now?” opens up an opportunity to reflect on what is most important to you, where you have been successful in the past, and what you most enjoy doing. It is common throughout this process to feel the need to make some internal changes as well, specifically around shifting or completely altering a strongly held belief or perspective of yourself and others that may be getting in your way.

The question then becomes, “How do I initiate the process of exploration around what I want to do, while acknowledging and dealing with limiting beliefs that may be obstructing my path?” It is common for PhDs to be quite comfortable with their area of study but lack confidence about whether or how their expertise is applicable to industry. This often stems from their belief that they may not be good enough to succeed outside of academia. It becomes “safer” to remain in academia.

The Power of Knowing Your Strengths

One way to overcome limiting beliefs like this is to take a comprehensive look at what you do well and to create a strengths inventory. The idea is that we all have natural strengths, and we are happier and more productive when we operate from them. If this line of thinking about strengths feels unfamiliar to you, I strongly recommend taking a strengths-based assessment, such as StrengthsFinder or the Values In Action Survey. These assessments help identify strengths you have that you will bring into everything you do—from professional endeavors to personal relationships.

For instance, the creator of this article series, Heidi Giusto, is a PhD who transitioned from being a historian to a resume writer and business owner. After taking the StrengthsFinder assessment, she described the “creepy” accuracy of her strengths report: One of Heidi’s top strengths is Context, which involves making sense of the present by understanding the past. Not only did Heidi draw on this strength in her historical work, but she also regularly uses it as she writes resumes. For each client, she presents a clear argument of the person’s qualifications based on past professional experiences. As Heidi reviewed her top strengths, her career transition suddenly made sense.

How to Identify Your Strengths

Typically, your strengths can be found in moments you are proudest of—professional and personal accomplishments that made you feel successful. Perhaps you gave a fantastic conference presentation or taught a tough concept to a classroom of undergraduate students.

Your strengths are also revealed in what you naturally do well—what you love to do and like to spend your time doing. When you give yourself the chance to examine the things you love to do, the activities that you become immersed in, lose time in, and bring you joy, you can see your strengths in full bloom. When your strengths are in play, time flows by in an instant because you are completely immersed.

If you need help identifying your strengths and don’t want to take an assessment, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What kinds of activities am I naturally drawn to?
  • What kinds of activities do I seem to pick up quickly?
  • In what activities do the steps just come to me without having to think too hard about them?
  • During what activities do I have moments of excellence and think, “How did I do that?”
  • What activities give me a kick, either while doing them or immediately after finishing them, and I think, “When can I do that again?”

An abundance of research indicates that when you have opportunities to use and share your strengths, you are happier and more satisfied overall. Through the expression of your strengths, you authentically communicate who you are, which leads to a greater sense of happiness. Because of your more positive perspective, you make a favorable impact on others and the larger community.

Once you have identified your strengths and fully see how they have shown up in your accomplishments and what you naturally do well, you may then begin to include your strength descriptions in career searches to find roles that align with them. You may also use these descriptions in how you communicate both orally (in networking conversations and informational interviews) and in written documentation (such as emails, your resume, and LinkedIn profile).

Overcoming Self-Doubt and Other Common Hang-ups

Now, what to do about self-imposed obstacles that may be getting in the way of career exploration and discovery? It is a common problem that often results from becoming consumed with self-doubt and inaccurate assumptions. One prominent assumption often held by PhDs wraps around the thought that it will be difficult to be hired due to being seen as overqualified. When moving through the self-reflection process, thoughts can manifest around these areas:

“I have tried that before and it didn’t work, so I am not going to try.”

“I do not have enough, or have too much, experience; no one is going to want to hire me.”

“There are very few options out there for me.”

From any of these vantage points, thoughts typically lead to a “why bother?” perspective. Feelings of hopelessness and anger reveal a deeper belief that “I simply am not good enough.” Coming from this perspective, there is consistent critical judging of yourself and others, which ultimately leads to feeling that choices are limited.

You can shift this perspective by first recognizing that these thoughts and feelings are very common and prevalent throughout the process of discerning what you want next career-wise. Second, by checking to see what assumptions you are making and evaluating what is true—what the facts are—you can begin thinking about yourself and your options differently.

You can do this by recording the first thoughts you have each morning as well as feelings that limit you, followed by the assumptions you are making that drive these thoughts and feelings. Next, think about what is true and fact-based and record this information. Finally, write how you intend to think differently, and the feeling that results.

Here is an example of challenging limiting feelings and thoughts:

  • Limiting Feeling: I feel tired and depressed when I think about searching for work in a market that might not value all the years of experience I have in academia.
  • Limiting Thought: This search will take a year or more because no one outside of academia will value my PhD, and I don’t think I have the energy to do it.
  • Assumption: It is going to take what feels like forever to get a good job.
  • What Is True? Just because it takes some people a year to find a job, doesn’t mean it will take me that long. Also, I can take concrete steps to educate employers about the value of my PhD through my application documents.
  • New Thought: I will invest whatever time it takes to find a job that is aligned with what I do well and enjoy doing to ensure that the position I land is a good fit.
  • New Feeling: I feel excited at the prospect of finding something new that clearly reflects who I am.

Just because other academics struggle to find non-academic jobs doesn’t mean you will too. You have the opportunity to choose to think and react differently to every experience. We all have the choice to shift from holding a limiting perspective to seeing opportunities all around.

You can make career exploration decisions and find roles that are in alignment with who you are and what you do well based on your strengths. A more positive perspective reflects wanting to learn from an abundance of opportunities and experiences, all while recognizing that change begins with you.

About Tracy Jenkins, PhD

Tracy Jenkins, PhD is a certified Career Transition and Academic Coach. She provides coaching that is based on an action-oriented partnership with a strengths-based focus to help individuals align with career and academic goals that reflect what they do well and enjoy doing.

Tracy currently serves as an Executive Leadership Coach to MBA students at the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. She has experience as a professor at NC State University and Louisburg College, and worked in research in the pharmaceutical industry. She is the current Vice President of the International Coaching Federation (ICF) Raleigh Area Chapter, and holds a PhD in Educational Research and Policy Analysis from North Carolina State University and coaching credentials (ACC) from the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (IPEC). You can learn more about Tracy on LinkedIn.

Heidi owns and operates Career Path Writing Solutions, a communications consulting firm dedicated to helping individuals and businesses communicate when it matters most. She delights in helping job seekers navigate career change and guiding business owners to present their value proposition persuasively. Heidi earned her PhD in history from Duke University and teaches professional development for various university programs and organizations. She holds certifications in resume writing, interview preparation, and empowerment coaching, and sits on the Certification Committee of the Professional Association of Resume Writers and Career Coaches.

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