I just got off a coaching call where the key question we were considering was “How do I know what to do next?”. It is probably one of the biggest questions we all ask ourselves. And it is not limited to a particular stage in our career, or our life. However, I’m certain many PhD students find themselves at this point in the final weeks and months of their PhD. Indeed, it might be acutely so in the days and weeks after their PhD.
In some respects this makes a PhD much like a marriage. You propose. Your partner accepts. You plan the wedding. You get married. Now what? You spent months or years planning the wedding and honeymoon, but not what happens the day after. The same in a PhD. You write your application. Your institution accepts. You plan the PhD. You submit. Then what?
There are many ways to approach the idea of what to do next. None are right. None are wrong. The main thing to know is that doing nothing and/or paying no attention to life around you will make it harder.
The ten year game
A process of thinking about now based on the future. First, think about you in ten years. What will life be like? Will you be in a relationship? Will you have kids? Will you be working? Where will you be working? What will you be doing for work? How many hours per week/day?
From there, work backwards to five years. What will you need to have achieved after five years, in order to achieve your ten year goals.
And now work back to three years. What needs to happen by three years in order to achieve your five year goals.
Now, look at the next year and the one after that. Where are you now, and how are you placed to achieve the things necessary for your three year goals? What needs to start now? What needs to happen soon? What can wait?
If you’re not at the end of your PhD (or have some years before the question of “What next?” will need a definitive answer), you have the luxury of being able to try things and now what to do next. That means get involved in clubs, societies, committees, for-profits, not-for-profits, volunteering, organising, sport, music, art… Have a go. As you do, make some kind of note (mental, written, blog, video – whatever) of what you like, and why. Also note what you don’t like, and why. Be sure to try things that could be a potential career for you. If you want to become an academic, see if you can do some work experience in a place outside where you’re doing your PhD. If you want to become a researcher (and sector is not important) try academic, industry and government. If you want to consult – get experience at a consulting firm (or two).
If you’re at the end of you PhD, trying things is still a good way to work out what to do next – it just might mean you’re more aware of the frogs you kiss before you find your preferred next step.
Got PhD – What next?
Do something! Pick something
and start. If it is no good, change
Talk to people
If trying things is not for you, the next best thing you can do is listen to others talk about their experiences. This can be literal, or a bit more metaphorical. What do I mean by that? Well, you can talk to friends, relatives, peers, etc., about what they do and have done. Ask questions etc. Attend events (not just careers events) and talk to people there. But you can also use the internet. Read, watch and listen to blogs, vlogs, and podcasts. Read the feedback and chat sections. Follow threads and comments. Investigate the experiences of people in industries, sectors or roles you would like to have or could see yourself having.
Realise that some of your lower priority goals will actually prevent you from achieving your higher priority goals. You might consider writing and prioritising your top 20 goals. Then cross out items 4 – 20. They’ll be the ones that prevent you from achieving 1-3. Four through twenty should be the things you actively avoid.
However, of all the things you could do the most important thing to do is start. Don’t wait for inspiration or motivation. Make a start. Do something small today to ensure you make progress. Then do something again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day.
Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He has helped more than 200 PhD students, early career researchers and established academics build their careers. He has provided strategic advice on partnering with industry, growing a career building new centres and institutes as well as establishing new programs. Richard is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart.
His clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality.To find out more, call 0412 606 178, email (Richard.firstname.lastname@example.org) or subscribe to the newsletter. He’s on LinkedIn (Dr Richard Huysmans), Twitter (@richardhuysmans), Instagram (@drrichardhuysmans), and Facebook (Beyond Your PhD with Dr Richard Huysmans).