When to weigh anchor

“It came to me in a dream.”

This sentence has been the explanation given by visionaries throughout history for their inspiration: religious mystics, Frank Ocean, this amazing footnote. But as the rudder that steers the passage of a career in an ordinary life? That seems foolhardy. And yet … such dreams can clarify subconscious desires. The dream I had two days ago, troubling and brief though it was, seemed to shake free a couple of thoughts that had been rattling in the background of my mind for a while.

I have seven months left in which I’ll continue to receive a salary for my PhD. With time diminishing, I am increasingly aware that I am not certain of my next tack. I would love to continue working with volcanoes, and there are many pleasures associated with academia that I really relish (the intellectual freedom, developing an argument, writing (!)). However, I am aware that academia is no longer the prevalent route for PhD students – if it ever was (as this Tweet succinctly states). Seven months left is scary. I’ve started to look back nostalgically on the three years since I started at the University of Bristol, and ahead to the departure of friends from the postgraduate community (I know I should live in the present! I’m trying!).

As PhD students we are paid to seek answers to interesting questions. We learn the importance of asking questions that adhere to the ‘Goldilocks’ principle – those that are neither too big, nor too small, but just right. (Sidenote: ‘Goldilocks’ provides plenty of good life advice, including that porridge is the best breakfast, and to never take advantage of a bear’s hospitality).

Here is an example of a question that is too big:

What career should I choose after completing my PhD?

An example of a question that is too small:

The question above terrifies me. Let’s do a Buzzfeed quiz instead – what about “What cake am I”?

Examples of questions that are just right:

How should I carve out time to think about the next stage of my career?

What aspects of my life, and my job within it, do I find the most fulfilling?

The first “just right” question might be very easy to answer – and I imagine that PhD students will like it because it involves coffee! What I have started to do, which works for me, is to set myself ‘career dates’. This is a regular amount of time dedicated to thinking about career directions. Once a month, for an hour, I will take myself to a nice local coffee shop and treat myself to a café au lait while I browse the internet for what’s out there. I’ve only done this once, but have future dates in the diary. I think this idea could be useful for many students uncertain of next steps, and could work either with company or solo. For company, inviting someone from the department or in a related field – a mentor, a postdoc, someone further along the ladder who you admire – would be perfect. If they’re available, asking them about their career trajectory and the decisions that led them to their current position could clarify our own goals. In your solo time, you could spend the hour on targeted job searches, or dedicate a page of writing to what transferable skills your PhD has given you.

Career Anchors is what I worked on during my first, most recent coffee date. (Note: the highlighted text takes you to Google search, and the top link gives you a download of the Career Anchors questionnaire). This questionnaire is a good way to approach our second “just right” question, by considering what your values are, and what motivates you. Of the eight Career Anchors provided, what are the ones that most shape your self-image? Personally, I scored highly on Technical Competence, Service, and Lifestyle. I imagine the answers may feel familiar, but also surprise you! My highest score was for Lifestyle: aspiring towards a situation that allows me to integrate my personal needs, with my family goals and the requirements of my career. That makes sense to me. Nowhere else than Bristol have I found it so enjoyable to aspire towards balance.

It’s true that I don’t want to quit working with volcanoes. As I think about the postgrad cohort I’ve been a part of since 2016, though, it occurs to me that a sense of community is extremely important to me, and should be an steering factor in my future searches. It is really important to learn this about myself now, before I’ve decided (thanks, Careers Anchors!).

Oh, about the dream? A friend was trying to persuade me to go to a festival this weekend, saying my volcano skills were needed there. Despite the temptation, I woke up right before I was about to say “Yes” (is that self-restraint?). Although it was difficult to resist, and felt like an ‘end-of-summer’ hurrah, balance this week means prioritizing work and saving money. I imagine there’s going to be a few dark months ahead, in which I struggle through the winter to assemble my disparate thoughts into the architecture of a thesis. However, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and believe the path will take me out into another Bristol summer. I want to be here for another year – that’s what came to me in a dream.

If you want to discuss Careers Anchors further, comment below or PM me!

Another great resource I’ve heard about for deciding career direction is the book “What Colour Is Your Parachute?“. Someone who uses this name that confidently must be listened to.

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