What do you want to be when you grow up?!

Primary school, secondary school, undergraduate degree, postgraduate study – many PhDs have spent their whole life working towards goals that are education related. It’s natural to think of an academic position as the logical next step or culmination of all those years of work. And yet, it’s also worth taking some time out to reflect and ask ourselves, by completing a PhD, have we actually achieved what we originally set out to do? What else do we want to achieve in our lives?

These are important questions, because each of us has hopes, dreams and ambitions that help to drive us on, or which we’ve not yet fulfilled. Knowing what motivates us is important as we approach the end of our PhD, because these hopes and ambitions can help us to generate options for career paths outside of academia.

So take 15 minutes out of your day to reflect upon the following topics:

1. Childhood dreams. Think back to when you were a child. When grown-ups asked you ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’, what did you say? Did you want to become an professor or researcher? Write down your dreams, however fantastic or mundane they sound. Is now the right time to begin to realise those dreams? Can you pursue a career path that will help to make your dreams come true?

2. Ambitions. As we grow up we develop ambitions and goals that we strive to achieve. What were, or are, your ambitions? Financial – make enough money to live comfortably? Environmental – save the world? Have you put your ambitions on hold while you take the time ‘get your qualifications’? Now that you’re in sight of completing your PhD, is it time once again to focus on achieving your personal ambitions? Jot down your ambitions and consider the career path that would best help you to realise those ambitions.

3. Challenges. Sometimes we set ourselves challenges in life – or they are set by other people for us. Maybe someone once challenged you to ‘get a proper job’? Maybe you’ve sat too long at a desk and want to master the art of gardening? What about running your own ethical business? Walking to the North Pole? Write down some challenges that excite or frustrate you. How could you tackle and overcome these challenges after completing your studies?

Having spent some time reflecting on these topics, think about where you are now in your life. Despite everything that you’ve accomplished (and a postgraduate degree is a tremendous achievement), do you still feel a sense of unfulfilment? Could you feel more fulfilled if you took steps towards realising one of the dreams, ambitions or challenges that you’ve noted down? Think also about the people who matter to you, and how they might be surprised, but also full of admiration, if you took bold steps towards achieving a personal dream or ambition.

There are no right or wrong answers to this exercise. Exploring these aspects of your character will help to confirm that academia is right for you, or bring to light potential career paths outside of academia.

Further reading

The Four Steps to Finding Your Passion, by Stephanie Huang