Don’t ‘plan,’ just ‘do’: how to let your career find you during your PhD

This post, written by our very own PGR Careers Advisor Holly Prescott, was previously published on the FindAPhD blog.  It follows on nicely from Shana’s posts before Christmas (part 1 and part 2) on her “extra-curricular” activities.

In the autumn of my second PhD year, after 3 glasses of 99p wine (stipend-allowing), I reluctantly agreed to help a friend out running campus tours at the University’s Postgraduate open day. I knew I’d have to walk around on the day with a lime-green, plastic ‘here to help’ sign, like a weird student-recruiting Lollipop Lady. But… my hob was broken and there was a free dinner in it for me. So I said yes.

A University of Birmingham Open Day

The truth? Green lollipop aside, I actually sort of enjoyed it. I enjoyed the simplicity of being helpful. So for the next year, I carried on helping with campus tours and advising at open days and other events. It gave me a break from my niche research. It gave me perspective. It even gave me a few extra quid to get my hob fixed.

Fast forward seven years, I’m chatting with another friend about to start his new job as an Academic Liaison Librarian, making sure researchers have access to relevant and effective resources to support their work. In our PhD years he’d made ends meet working late shifts on the counter in the University library, picking up awesome tips to help us evade loan fines. ‘Funny isn’t it,’ he said, ‘how seriously we ended up taking our side hustles.’

Then, the penny dropped. Those little extra things we’d done during our PhDs had ended up leading us to our careers. Moreover, they were careers that we enjoyed; careers that also gave us time to pursue our outside interests of acting, comedy and poetry.

Butterflies and boomerangs

My favourite career theorist (yes, that is a thing) John D. Krumboltz claims that trying to fit an evolving individual into an ever-changing labour market is ‘like trying to hit a butterfly with a boomerang.’ Don’t then, Krumboltz says, agonise over composing a rigid plan to find your single perfect career. Instead, just do something; put yourself in positions where career has the chance to find you. And through our side jobs during our PhD, that’s exactly what we’d done.

Some might say we ‘fell into’ our work; according to Krumboltz though, getting involved in things, learning what you like and using experiences during your PhD to do this isn’t distraction… it’s actually a form of experiential career planning. So many careers grow out of activities that we don’t initially undertake for ‘career’ purposes.

You are more than your PhD…

What’s the take away message then, especially if you’re embarking on a full-time PhD with little work experience? Every so often, do something that ISN’T your PhD. Yes, there are mounting pressures on PhDs that can leave us feeling like we have none of the time, energy or motivation to focus on anything else. But, ‘doing something else’ is also a way of taking care of ourselves. With an over-focus on the PhD, it’s easy for a sense of worth to become skewed. The idea that we are more than our research becomes less plausible. Not only had that open day job led me to a career of advising postgrads; it also, in a way, kept me PhD-sane.

Did I need a PhD on my CV to land my current job? Maybe not. Did I need my PhD experience to lead me to the work I do now? Absolutely.

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Helen Kara

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