The topic of “ideal job” seems to be coming up quite frequently in the context of the coaching conversations I have with PhD students and graduates. Sometimes it is because they hinge the process of career planning on identifying that ideal job and so are seeking tools and techniques to help them get there. Much more frequently, though, they already believe they know what the ideal job is or could be and are seeking coaching to help them put together an action plan to get there and to bridge the gap between the vision and the reality. I believe that coaching is a perfect tool to support both groups as it can open up the space for people to be creative about their working futures; equally, the support of the coach can be invaluable in helping put together an action plan that will help someone make progress towards finding a job that will be a great fit for their strengths and skills. Notice I didn’t really use the phrase “ideal job” here and as I will discuss in this post, I am actually fairly critical of the concept.
To start with, I find that the concept of “ideal job” can be a stumbling block, especially for those PhDs who equate “ideal job” with “academic jobs” and feel incredibly stuck both when these jobs don’t materialise but even more so if they manage to win the lectureship lottery, only to find themselves disappointed with the reality of their new roles. The first group often struggle with feelings of failure, and in the process of pining for the ideal role embrace very black and white thinking where success means securing a role that perfectly matches the imagined ideal and failure is everything else. Such an attitude will prevent them from even considering options that could be a good enough fit, if not a perfect one. The second group can find themselves feeling bitter and isolated, especially if they spent years in the pursuit of the ideal job, making considerable sacrifices in the process. I’m not trying to say here that the solution is to go for jobs that are less than ideal or even make you miserable, far from it – but the rhetoric of “ideal job” can be really unhelpful when you are trying to make progress and get unstuck if you’re unhappy with your career on your post-PhD journeys.
When I think about conversations I had with my coachees, I am reminded of the myth of soulmates where humans spend their lives in pursuit of a partner that will complete them and make them whole. According to Aristophanes, once the two halves find one another, there will be an unspoken understanding, bringing them joy and fulfilment. The myth of ideal job feels a bit like that, too, and seems to suggest that you need to keep searching until you find a role that will offer a perfect match to your skills and abilities and will align with your passion, bringing about a sense of fulfilment and completion. Except neither jobs nor relationships work that way. I quite like Dan Savage’s critique of the myth of the soulmate where he argues that the myth of “The One” may well work in the world of romantic comedies but probably nowhere else. He adds that there a probably quite a few of potential “soulmates” out there and instead, the real question should be about the “price of admission” and any deal-breakers you may have when it comes to creating a successful relationships. Equally, rather than obsessing about a job that offers an impossibly perfect fit, an alternative approach could be to reflect on your particular deal-breakers and non-negotiables, allowing you to broaden your options and stop missing out on exploring roles that don’t pass the “ideal job” test.
The other issue I have with the notion of “ideal job” is that it assumes your work should be your passion and by extension, if that isn’t the case, then you have failed. Once again, I will often find that my coachees internalise this assumption and their logic follows somewhere along the lines of: undertaking research/teaching/my doctoral studies (delete as appropriate) is my passion therefore if I don’t get a job that allows me to follow those particular passions, then I have failed. In addition, the other assumption seems to be that only academic jobs allow somebody to engage in research and teaching or generating new knowledge, which I’d argue is equally problematic. Cal Newport writes quite a lot about the danger of what he calls “passion hypothesis”, arguing that insistence on finding an “ideal job” that allows you to realise your passions can lead to dissatisfaction and burnout. No, he doesn’t mean to say you should deliberately seek out to be miserable, quite the contrary as he proposes that the key to job satisfaction is finding meaning in what you do, even if you are in a role that at first glance doesn’t exactly meet the criteria of an ideal role. I find that quite comforting when reflecting on my own PhD journey where initially I had to overcome the belief that foregoing academic roles meant I was not living up to my full potential and giving up the chance of ever having a fulfilling job again. After all, in the words of my previous principal investigator, by choosing project management I was giving up on the elusive possibility of at some point getting “the best job in the world”. As I wrote elsewhere, I was worried about entering the world of 9-5 jobs and while IT project management isn’t always terribly glamorous, I have been able to find deep meaning in what I do week to week, helping bring about what I hope is positive change and a better way of working. Not sure whether that classes as an ideal job, but for me that’s good enough and I often hope that my coachees will similarly be able to find their own paths that work for them.