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In A Professional Slump? These 5 Things Will Get Your Career Back On Track

I heard this story from a mid-career PhD I worked with and wanted to share it.

Here’s what they told me when we started working together…

“I hit a slump in my academic career many times. 

I got passed over for tenure when I knew I was the best candidate. 

Grants would get denied, and I would think, “This is just a slump. It’s a minor setback, is all.”

I would have to drag myself to the next lecture hall some days, and I’d tell myself, ‘It’s normal to get bored and discouraged every once in a while.’

I just kept on going to the next paper, the next project, the next class, thinking that this lack of motivation and these feelings of failure were “just a slump.”

The problem this PhD was having was that they were in a professional slump, just waiting for something better to materialize. They weren’t putting their energy where it mattered: getting their career on track and getting out of academia. 

If you’re hitting a brick wall in academia, it’s time to honestly examine where you’re at

You can take some comfort in knowing that getting into a slump in academia is somewhat inevitable. There’s nowhere to go, no way to advance beyond a certain point.

For many mid-career PhDs, their only options are to a) settle into the the will-I-won’t-I tenure cycle or b) join the ranks of the adjunct gauntlet. 

The hardest part to accept is that the school that gave you your PhD doesn’t think you’re good enough to work there.

And forget moving on from teaching or research to a postdoc – who could afford to live on that shoestring budget?

Professionally, this slump means you’ve gone as far as you can in academia.

Complacency can be tempting, but you can’t ignore it. 

If you let yourself become stagnant, you’re on track to do serious damage to your professional and personal growth. 

It means you’re too comfortable where you are and that you’re too comfortable settling for less than you deserve. 

But it is possible to break the cycle. 

5 Things You Can Do As A PhD To Get Your Career Back On Track

There are just not enough academic positions available to support all of the graduating PhDs.

The National Science Foundation estimates that the number of PhDs granted annually has grown nearly 20% over the past 40 years.

That’s great news for humanity, but, for the 99.5% of PhDs who do not wind up going on to professorship, this spells disappointment and frustration.

However, PhDs are highly skilled individuals who have an incredible amount of value to offer employers.

Industry positions offer a place for PhDs to find meaningful work outside the university setting.

Stop fighting the urge to move on from your stagnant position and welcome a new and exciting phase in your career.

Here are five strategies to truly embrace your industry career path and find a job where you can thrive.

1. Be critical of your current role and use your critique to commit to change.

Have your career goals changed since you started your PhD? 

Is your current role in academia in alignment with your career goals? 

Be objective here. 

Now, ask yourself: are you committed to changing your career goals? 

Here’s the main issue: if you’ve recognized that you’re in a slump, you already know it’s time to transition out of academia. 

Your peers who have left academia and are working industry jobs are getting things like professional development, a better work/life balance, and salaries that compensate them for their value as a PhD.

You have the skills to be objective in this instance. It’s time to admit that you’re bored in academia. You’re in a slump.

Most people who experience a work slump are bored. They’re looking for meaningful work that doesn’t involve constantly putting out fires or doing the same thing every day. 

As a PhD, the moment you realize you’re not being fulfilled in academia is the perfect time to jumpstart your career in industry.

2. Don’t give in to boredom. Instead, get active in your job search.

We all know that work isn’t always going to be a thrilling ride from one amazing project to the next astounding discovery. 

Occasionally things will get boring. 

You’re not a child, and no one is going to put your level of stimulation above the needs of the business or organization you serve. 

The bottom line is that eventually, you stop being challenged in academia.

According to BioSpace, boredom is a good sign it’s time to move on from your current situation and start looking at different opportunities in your field. 

Use this momentum to start networking with industry professionals and getting your name out there to hiring managers. 

A recent Forbes article posited that being professionally bored is worse than being burnt out. Why? Because that boredom leads to higher levels of professional turnover. 

This is the best time for you to renew your job search; jobs are available to you in industry. 

The inverse of this isn’t, “Oh, these positions are open because past employees got bored with the work. Ergo, I’ll be bored with the work, so I shouldn’t work there.” 

No, these professionals are moving on in their career development, just like you should be.

Current industries that are actively searching for PhDs are dynamic industries like biopharma, AI, data science and analytics. There are openings in these industries that line up with your transferable skills as a PhD. 

Use your academic slump as a starting point for your job search. 

Where can you network right now? Have you reviewed your resume lately? If you have time to ponder being bored, you have time to get your job search skills honed and ready.

The only thing that you can change in this situation is you.

4. Set new, ambitious goals for you and your career

According to Forbes a major sign you’re not taking control of your career is that you’re just hanging out on Linkedin, hoping to be noticed by recruiters. 

Don’t approach your career with temerity or complacency. 

Set realistic career goals and start right now by looking at your Linkedin

You’ve got the downtime, so take advantage of your job search to make your Linkedin more visible to recruiters. Set some job search goals. 

For example: I’m going to apply to this Project Analyst Position. I’m going to review my resume so that it fits their job requirements. I’m going to reach out to colleagues I know who have worked there in the past and begin networking with people in similar positions. 

You’re not making enough in academia, so what are your salary goals for leaving academia? 

Have you done your research about hiring salaries in your field, or how to negotiate for a higher salary? 

Academia didn’t teach you how to do these things, and you’re not going to learn while in a career slump unless you start looking ahead and putting your skills to use for yourself. 

5. Start meeting other people who already achieved your goals and get inspired by them.

You’re going to need to start networking

One thing that can help you keep up your momentum during a job search is meeting other people who have achieved similar goals. 

Get inspired by the post-academia success stories around you. Despite what academia would have you believe, those success stories do exist. 

Networking outside of academia is a huge step to getting your career back on track. Building a professional network not only helps you see what other jobs are available to you, but you’re also creating a new community that isn’t reliant on academic support.

Concluding Remarks

As a PhD, you can’t ignore being in a professional slump. Whatever the cause – and when it comes to academia, just pick one – you’re probably right, use that time to get your career back on track by networking with people who have been in your position, letting yourself be ambitious and start working towards goals that improve your career trajectory. I know you’re able to problem solve, so look at your slump critically and start planning your way out of it, and you won’t be bored if you stay on task with new, achievable goals.

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Dr. Isaiah Hankel is the Founder and CEO of Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by millions of PhDs and other professionals in hundreds of different countries. He has helped PhDs transition into top companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Intel, Dow Chemical, BASF, Merck, Genentech, Home Depot, Nestle, Hilton, SpaceX, Tesla, Syngenta, the CDC, UN and Ford Foundation.

Dr. Hankel has published 3X bestselling books and his latest book, The Power of a PhD, debuted on the Barnes & Noble bestseller list. His methods for getting PhDs hired have been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Nature, Forbes, The Guardian, Fast Company, Entrepreneur Magazine and Success Magazine.

Isaiah Hankel, PhD

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