Stuck And Purposeless In Academia? Here’s What To Do

Feeling purposeless and stuck? Every PhD will reach a point in their academic career where they have to reconnect with their purpose.

Maybe you realize that you are not doing what you are doing for the right reasons. That you are working towards some else’s goal.

Maybe you feel that achievements like a new publication or the title of “Doctor” are some sort of carrot that you have to chase without having a clear end in sight.

This is especially true at the end of your academic career, where you have spent years working towards your PhD, or chasing endless postdocs.

You start wondering what’s the point of it all and disillusionment sinks in.      

A member of our Cheeky Scientist Association Diamond recently shared their thoughts with me and I noticed they had lost their purpose:

“I have been chasing postdoc after postdoc without having a sense of security for years and now I feel lost. I’m not fulfilled. I don’t feel connected to my academic research. I’m doing something that’s smaller than what I’m capable of doing. I’m doing something where I don’t feel like I’m having a positive impact on others. I’m not enjoying it anymore. How can I continue to do what I don’t enjoy every single day without making a change?”

If this feeling resonates with you, you probably have lost your purpose too.

And though it might feel like a dark spot, know that this is an opportunity to reconnect with your purpose. As I said, every PhD reaches this stage at some point in their career.


Create A New Purpose Or Revamp Your Current One

Your purpose is the main reason why you do what you do every single day.

This can evolve throughout your life as you grow as a person and your priorities change.

But it is important to stay connected to your purpose no matter what. This will provide a rationale for your career. For your PhD work. For your life. 

Staying connected to your purpose will help you make difficult decisions, it will help you persevere in the face of uncertainty.

So, how do you stay connected to your purpose?

First, you need a certain level of security. You cannot enjoy what you are doing if you have to worry about how you’re going to pay your bills every month.

Unfortunately, academia doesn’t provide security anymore. 

You cannot innovate if you have to worry about funding running out, your next postdoc is going to be, or how you’re going to pay your bills. No matter how much you love your research.

Second, you need to change your mindset and remind yourself that you can do great things.

Academia is very often the land of the small. We usually have to force ourselves to feel a sense of reward from very small wins like getting moved from third to second author in a paper.

This leads to a small mindset. We forget that we started our PhD because we wanted to do great things. To have an impact in the world.

You need to go back to that can-do mindset to reconnect with your purpose.

Reconnect With Why You Got Into Research

I’m going to discuss 4 steps you can take to change your mindset and reconnect with your purpose.

These are not practical actions that you can do right now and be done with it. They will require some soul searching. 

But if you commit to the process, you will not only reconnect with your purpose, you will also get to a place where you can start making decisions that affect your life positively.

1. Identify your goals

You probably had some big goals and big dreams when you started grad school.

Spend some time thinking about the goals you used to have. Are there still things that drive you? If not, what are some new goals that you would like to achieve? 

Write them down and start planning for the future so you can achieve them.

You should always have goals that you want to achieve because your goals stem from your purpose and will help you guide your decisions.

So, how do you establish new goals? You think about the future, where do you want to be? What do you want to do?

Take your transition as an example. 

Many PhDs focus on targeting an industry position that sounds good to them without even knowing what that position entails.

This isn’t a natural process when it comes to setting up goals.

A much better approach is to identify what are the day to day actions you are currently doing that you would like to keep doing. What are the actions you don’t want to do ever again? 

Then, find an industry position where you can keep doing the actions you like and don’t have to do the actions you dislike.

A first goal could be to find that dream position that checks all the boxes. A second goal would be to get hired into that position.


2. Find inspiration in the actions of others

Maybe you feel that finding your dream industry position is an impossible task. That it will never happen to you.

This might be a good time to remember that the impossible has been done before.

Humans have sent people to the Moon, eradicated deadly diseases, connected the world with the internet, and this is just the beginning.

As a PhD, there is something great that you can do. 

How would your life change if you acted like anything was possible? How might your energy increase?

You can get into that mindset where you feel like anything is possible for you.

The first step to achieve this is to define what you want. This is what you did in the previous section.

The second step is to find inspiration.

PhDs often have a hard time thinking in terms of possibilities, allowing themselves to get inspired because they think that emotion is bad or inspiration is bad, but it’s not. You have to use inspiration to drive yourself forward.

A good way of finding inspiration is to read stories of impossible tasks or great things that have been done.

The impossible has been done before by human people like you, and you can use those stories as inspiration to drive you to achieve your own impossible task.

3. Don’t be afraid to bet on yourself

Understanding the importance of investing in yourself is crucial to achieve your goals and stay connected to your purpose.

Do you believe in yourself? 

Enough to bet on yourself?

The best way to figure out how much somebody believes in themselves is to follow their wallet. That’s what somebody told me once. 

I was deciding whether or not I should pay for one of the most expensive events I had encountered so far.

The price was about $6,000, just for the ticket of the event.

As soon as I heard the price, I thought “I can’t go, I could never do that.” 

But many people that I admired were going to be there. Many publishers. And I was trying to publish my first book at the time. 

So, this person said to me “every great breakthrough that I have had in my life has come after writing a big check.”

This inspired me to write the check and I cannot tell you everything that I learned by going to that event.

It not only helped me publish my book. 

It ended up spearheading Cheeky Scientist.

And it’s not about the fact that I wrote a check. It’s about the fact that I bet on myself.

You have to be able to bet on yourself. 

If you see something that has an incredible return on investment and you’re not willing to invest in it, it shows that you don’t believe you can do it. You don’t believe that it’s possible for you. 

But you should because you can.

4. Define and commit to your purpose

Now that you have defined your goals, found inspiration to believe everything is possible, and are willing to bet on yourself, you just need to make a decision.

You have to decide what that next step is. 

As PhDs we’re taught to never decide on stuff. We hear all the time that we should leave our options open. To explore all the possibilities.

And this might work well in academia, but this is a different space. This is the space of creativity. And you need to make a decision, you need to define your purpose.

Get in a good mindspace, a space that fosters creativity and write down all the things that you want. Turn off the critic in your head.

Don’t limit yourself. Don’t play it safe. Write down what you really want. Your ultimate goal.

I see many PhDs that tell me that they are aiming for R&D careers, but what they really want is to be data scientists, or medical sciences liaisons. They just don’t think that that ultimate goal is possible for them.

Those things that make you say, “I don’t know if this is possible for me.” Those are the things your purpose is made of.

Write that down. 

If you can’t find something that you have a burning desire to do. That’s exciting. That seems a little bit impossible. You’re not going to have a strong enough purpose. 

And you need a strong purpose that will drive you through the obstacles that are going to come your way. Don’t be purposeless.

You need the purpose first. You can create a plan later, but plans are not exciting. Setting up your dream scenario is exciting.

Have you allowed yourself to desire something great in the last week, month, even year? 

I want you to put aside everything that says you need to tamp yourself down. 

Stop chasing the things that other PhDs are chasing. 


Don’t think about your limitations, or the small goals of academia.

They’re beneath you. 

There are so many incredible things that you can do.

I’m an example of this, and I know thousands and thousands of PhDs around the world that are now too. 

I can tell you it is possible for you, but you can’t let that spark go out inside of you. You need to find your purpose and commit to it.

Concluding Remarks

As a PhD, you can do amazing things, for yourself and for the world. But you have probably lost your purpose after years in academia, and once you are purposeless, you lost your motivation as well. So, set up your goals, let yourself get inspired, bet on yourself, establish your purpose, and ask yourself, “what can I achieve that will allow me to fulfill this purpose?” And then commit to your purpose so you can achieve your truest potential.

If you’re ready to start your transition into industry, you can apply to book a free Transition Call with our founder Isaiah Hankel, PhD or one of our Transition Specialists. Apply to book a Transition Call here.

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Isaiah Hankel, PhD is the Founder and CEO of the largest career training platform for PhDs in the world - Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by 3 million PhDs in 152 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. Isaiah Hankel received his doctorate in Anatomy & Cell Biology with a focus in immunology and is an expert on biotechnology recruitment and career development.

Isaiah has published two bestselling books with Wiley and 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.

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