One of the things that is really difficult about undergoing change or even contemplating change, whether environmental, political (and in the UK we’ve had plenty of that in the past couple of days!) or personal can be the fear of the unknown. At the same time, change is pretty much a given for post-PhDs. To start with, there will be quite a profound change once you change your status from PhD student to PhD holder. Following that transition, there may be career-related changes, such as for instance shifting from fixed-term research posts to a permanent academic position or maybe deciding to explore the option of non-academic jobs. Or there may be yet another twist on your path and after a time out of academia you may decide to hedge your bets and see whether after all, an academic career could still be a possibility. Inevitably, there is an emotional as well as a logistic component to undergoing change and whilst there are numerous models out there attempting to define how people experience change, one that I particularly like is Prochaska’s model of six stages of change. I first came across it in the context of running and sports nutrition, perhaps not surprising given my interest in long-distance running, however I believe it has a lot of traction for post-PhD transitions, especially the contemplation and determination stages which precede action – i.e. this is where you start exploring your options and undertaking research, something that as PhDs we’re really good at! I certainly spent quite a lot of time in the determination/research stage when considering which path to take once I realised I didn’t want an academic role. I remember that I found it helpful to read about other people’s journeys and quite enjoyed articles similar to the Q&A transition series run by Jennifer Polk, an academic coach behind fromphdtolife.com, who interviews PhD holders a couple of years out of their doctorate to find out how they fared after making the decision to leave academia.
At the same time, much as I enjoyed these transition accounts, sometimes I found them almost too polished, after all, these were stories told from a particular vantage point of successfully reaching that next stage. At that point I was more in the “messy middle” and would have appreciated stories that addressed some of the niggling fears I had about what it actually would look like to work in a 9-5 job as opposed to an academic post. Interestingly, I came upon such a post quite recently, with Anna Shevchenko talking about her decision to quit her PhD and her relatively fresh experiences of starting out in a non-academic role, talking about what she gained as a result of the transition but also honestly discussing some of the negative aspects such as loss of flexibility and how that impacted her. My post will similarly talk about some of the discoveries I made since transitioning into project management, focusing on some of my biggest fears (and myths related to non-academic jobs), which I later found out are shared amongst quite a few of the coachees I have since worked with.
You will lose flexibility – this is something that weighed quite heavily on my mind and came up quite often in conversations with other academics who kept warning me that non-academic jobs were much more regimented and did not offer the flexibility of academia. In terms of my lived experience of a number of non-academic roles, you could argue that they were right to a large extent. As a full-time project manager in the IT department, the expectation is that people should be able to get hold of me between 9-5 (and I expect the same of others). At the same time, there is some flexibility within reason to adjust my working week to the ebb and flow of the project work and technically, I don’t have to clock in or out, it’s much more important that my work gets done and I can report progress on my projects or at least explain why things are not going ahead as fast as they should. Personally, I am more than happy to trade off some flexibility for the ability to leave work at work and have clear boundaries and be able to switch off (although sometimes it is easier said than done if it is a particularly stressful or busy time!. I thrive on structure and quite like routines but I appreciate that this is a trade-off that not everyone is willing to make. For instance, at the moment, I work for an institution which is quite reluctant to allow its employees to work from home and requests are only granted occasionally and have to be agreed by the line manager, which brings me to the next point on the “fears/myths” list.
You will be micromanaged – that is an argument that a former principal investigator used, I guess to try and scare me off taking a role as project manager in professional services. My other alternative was unemployment and/or holding off for yet unidentified future research projects so the threat didn’t work that well. Reflecting back, he did manage to pinpoint something that did worry me as I was trying to contemplate an unknown future in which I feared I would have to constantly report my whereabouts and perhaps would be seriously limited in terms of what I could and couldn’t do. I wasn’t a stranger to the world of work or having a manager, but the jobs I’d had previously were either tutoring roles where I was self-employed or part-time positions in student services where the input from the manager was along the lines “this is what you’re doing today, off you go”. I must admit that after starting in my first proper non-academic role, I did go through an initial period of adjustment to the world of management and reporting structures. After all, I went from being largely left to my own devices and perhaps meeting once a month with my PhD supervisor and then principal investigator in the context of research assistant roles to regular 1:1 meetings with the line manager. Once the initial shock wore off, I actually found it felt really helpful to have the ability to check in with someone on a regular basis and talk about how my work was progressing, with the obvious caveat that not everybody’s experience of line management will be as positive as mine. I also found that I appreciated having that accountability structure in place and preferred this to what felt like a largely unstructured process of undertaking academic research in social sciences.
You will no longer have an opportunity to be creative – to an extent, that is an aspect of being in academia that I perhaps miss the most at times as I did enjoy being able to play with different approaches to methodology, experimenting with different styles of writing and engaging with research participants. After all, the key requirement of the PhD, i.e. making an original contribution to knowledge is very much the essence of creativity, the dictionary definition being “the use of imagination or original ideas to create something”. Whilst there is some room for creativity in project management, it does feel quite formulaic and process-driven at times and I do have to consciously seek out opportunities to be creative and not get lost in the minutiae of keeping various logs and registers and trying to get people to stick to the plan. At the same time, given the human element of project management and the unpredictability of human behaviour, there are ample opportunities for problem-solving and coming up with creative solutions to the various curveballs that arise in the context of software implementation.
You will no longer be able to generate new knowledge and learn – that was possibly the worst lie I was told about non-academic jobs and equally, one of my biggest and yet unfounded fears. In fact, in the past six years I learnt a vast amount, both formally and informally, about project management, coaching and mentoring, leadership and management and countless other areas. In particular, the move into IT project management meant I received a crash course in software development and technical architecture. I was really lucky to have access to excellent professional development opportunities and was able to complete two postgraduate certificates (in online learning as well as coaching and mentoring), the Aurora development programme for female leaders and a number of project management qualifications, all supported by my employers. Once again, I consider myself particularly lucky in that respect as this is not necessarily a feature of all non-academic roles but I was very keen to ensure that these opportunities would be there when I moved into my current role. And whilst expertise in my new world is not really measured in a number of publications or their REF-able status, there is very much an emphasis on knowledge sharing and a lessons learnt review is part and parcel of every project I work on. It is true that I no longer get to go to many conferences, but I wasn’t terribly keen on them in the first place and I do have opportunities to participate in user group meetings and professional association events instead.
You are giving up on the opportunity to have “the best job in the world” – last but not least, this is a myth I found particularly insidious and something I struggled with quite a lot during the contemplation/determination stage of change. A lot of academics around me talked about their jobs in terms of a vocation and often commented on the privilege of having “the best job in the world” where they could engage in their passion for research and teaching. As a result, at times it felt I was betraying academia by deciding to venture elsewhere and that part of the programming was really difficult to overcome in the process, as I have written elsewhere on this blog. I no longer really believe in the need to wrap up my personal identity around an academic job, or any job, for that matter, but it took a lot of soul-searching and a lot of time to be able to let go and grieve for a version of a future which never happened. At the same time, quite a lot of good things happened on my post-PhD journey and I am very keen to continue telling my own story as well as the “messy middles” that others may be going through. In fact, the next big project could be a book that focuses precisely on that topic – watch this space!