I mentioned previously that during my fairly intensive job hunt I did some work with a coach to help me build up some more emotional resilience as I was dealing with a fall out from interview rejections and feeling quite stuck in my situation at that point. One of the things that the coach got me to do was to revisit my own personal values and use that as a starting point to examine my job search progress and my issues with interviews. My initial reaction, to tell the truth, wasn’t exactly enthusiastic and I remember thinking, great, we can look at the values till the cows come home but I don’t really have the luxury of letting my values drive my job hunt. After all, the pressing need that I had at that point in time was to find a solution to the fact that my fixed-term contract was running out and it was becoming clear it would not be renewed. Nevertheless, I decided to humour the coach as what she asked for seemed innocuous enough and I figured it couldn’t hurt my chances.
In terms of the exercise itself, you could easily gave a go at it yourself and start by consulting a list of values. There are different versions available online, one that I particularly like is from Mindtools but putting “values list” into a search engine should do the job. Then, without thinking about it too much, pick 10 values that appeal to you most. When I did the exercise, stability, structure, continuous improvement, community and a couple of others were very high on my list and then we used this as a starting point for a discussion about exploring my options in terms of the job search. That is, at that point in time I was very keen on finding a job within the higher education sector and so cast my net quite wide and applied for a number of jobs that would mean moving quite far away if I was successful. This was clearly at odds with my stated value of wanting to have strong community roots and stability. Interestingly enough, feedback from one of the interviewers consisted largely of “I didn’t really have a sense of why you wanted the job” and my recollection from the interview was that I literally didn’t want to be there, as in that particular location and maybe this is what came across in my answers. Through the discussion on values I felt encouraged to try something new and expand my search beyond universities so that I could stay in my geographical area and rebuild my sense of stability which had been undermined through four years of Monday-Friday commute. This led to my decision to engage with recruitment agencies and ironically, that did yield a job offer at a university but at that point I was open to exploring different options as long as I could be part of an environment that supported learning and knowledge sharing as these were key to me as well.
I am not for one moment saying here that the answer to post-PhD transition woes is “follow your values and the rest will follow” as things are nowhere near that simple and quite often, people will simply not have the luxury of making career choices that are aligned with their values, especially not when it comes to economic survival. At the same time, looking at your values might be helpful in terms the long-term game and especially if you are considering moving into a different direction, such as for instance move away from the academic path and explore non-academic roles. It can also help in terms of avoiding clear dead-ends, for instance, well-meaning acquaintances suggested freelancing or self-employment repeatedly as an answer to my job search woes. Knowing that I value stability extremely highly, at least I could knock that option straight on its head. My penchant for stability and structure also meant that I wasn’t that keen on heading straight into options that promised “fast-paced environment”.
How could that work in practice for you? Let’s say that you value “intellectual status” and “originality” and academia is indeed one of the places that can offer that. Still, if you’re coming up empty in terms of the academic search or you’re simply curious about what else is out there, you might want to start exploring careers that could be conducive towards those particular values and this is where doing your homework comes in (and that’s a subject for a whole other blog post!). Then the other questions you may want to reflect on is whether the post-PhD career route you have chosen will allow you a chance to realise those personal values, either now or at a later stage. If that is not the case, how happy are you with the trade-off, especially if there is a clash between some values and you’re somebody that cherishes “originality” but rates “stability” and “structure” equally highly and an academic job search may mean a string of fixed-term contracts in different locations across the entire country. Are you aware of the costs of the choice you’re making?
In my own case, a fledgling career I had before embarking on the PhD was in activism which I loved and which allowed for fulfilment on the community, justice and diversity side of things, all of which are extremely important to me. At the same time, reflecting back on it, the trade-off in terms of personal instability and lack of structure ended up taking too much of a personal tool on me which was one of the reasons why I made the change from being at the frontline of the movement to research and embarked on a PhD in sociology. As it turns out, that choice needed re-evaluating as well but most importantly, what the work on values did for me was to help me shift the narrative from a “failed academic” to a “values-informed career”. That shift felt quite powerful, especially as I’ve spoken to so many PhD holders in a situation similar to mine who feel frustrated with having to re-invent themselves yet again when the PhD was supposed to be the be-all and end-all. Through examining my personal values, at least I could see there was a narrative that underpinned my career path and I had more choices that I thought were possible.
- Do you have a clear understanding of what your personal values are?
- Did you feel that your personal values came into your post-PhD transition at all?