PhD Career Transition: How to Stay Motivated
You’re in the midst of your Ph.D. and your stamina level has dropped? Blank page syndrome? You question the purpose of your Ph.D. because future employment seems unlikely? You’re considering a post PhD career transition? You are asking yourself, is it all worth it?
Let’s admit it: pursuing a Ph.D. is hard. The discipline required is overwhelming and there aren’t many tenure-track jobs around. It is easy to fall into a pessimistic loop. In other words, it is almost impossible NOT to worry about your future.
Turns out, that worrying may be precisely the wrong thing to do.
At least, according to research by Thomas Borkovec and Lizabeth Roemer, two psychologists at Pennsylvania State University who study the “work of worrying”. Although worrying prepares us for the worse, it also throws us into a deep frenzy that often paralyzes us.
For Ph.D. students that negative loop often sounds like this: “There are no tenure-track jobs, therefore, I don’t work on my dissertation enough. I don’t work on my dissertation enough, therefore, I feel unworthy and inadequate.”
How can you find the motivation to continue?
The first step is to build on self-awareness and catch worries at their beginning. And it starts by monitoring the negative talk that happens in your head. How do you do that? There are three ways to strike back.
- Distance yourself from negative talk. According to Martin Seligman, Director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, “just because a person feels unemployable, unlovable, or inadequate doesn’t mean it’s true. It is essential to stand back and suspend belief for a moment, to distance yourself from your pessimistic explanations at least long enough to verify their accuracy.” The best way to do that is to move from the art of worrying to the art of disputation. Negative talk can lose its power when you challenge it with evidence and alternatives, or when you question its implications and usefulness. Here’s how:
- Turn into an investigator. What evidence supports the negative image you have of yourself?
- Is there an alternative and less destructive and painful way to assess your situation and explain the way you feel?
- If you can’t find a tenure-track job, will that be the end of the world? Does the possibility of never becoming a professor make you less of a person?
- Yeah, yeah, yeah, the world is unfair. But what good does it do you to dwell on that? How is that line of thought useful to you?
- Focus on the positive: Focusing on the negative often leads to anxiety and depression. An easy way to counteract this negative tendency is to appreciate the positive aspects of your daily life. A good way to shift focus is to work on the practice of thinking positively. What do you enjoy about your work? How does getting your Ph.D. make you a better person?
- Take action: Yes, future employment might be uncertain. But how can you prepare for this reality while in graduate school? What steps could you be taking to prepare for other options?
The best way to stop worrying is to turn the uncertainty of your future into a plan B towards a successful PhD career transition. Invest in yourself to be prepared if your professorial career doesn’t pan out. Work on your emotional intelligence. In no time, you’ll be writing again with confidence, because you’ll know that you’re prepared to thrive no matter what the outcomes are and that you are working for the most important person in the world: YOU!
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 « Worry: Unwanted Cognitive Activity That Controls Unwanted Somatic Experience », in Pennebaker and Wegner, Handbook of Mental Control, p. 235.
 Seligman, Martin, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and your Life, p. 219.