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FROM PHD TO LIFE

Transition Q & A: Sara Langworthy

By JENNIFER POLK | August 25, 2015

Sara Langworthy earned her PhD in developmental psychology from the University of Minnesota. She’s currently an educator at University of Minnesota Extension’s Children, Youth and Family Consortium and an organizational consultant and co-founder of The Exchange Loop organizational consulting firm. Sara is the author of Bridging the Relationship Gap: Connecting with Children Facing Adversity. Find her online at DrLangworthy.com and follow her on Twitter @DrLangworthy. Find her educational videos online at  www.youtube.com/developmentalenthusiastchannel.

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What did you hope for in terms of employment as you completed your PhD?

I knew pretty early in graduate school that I didn’t want to go the traditional researcher/professor track. I loved research and writing, but I knew that the pressures of the academic life would not be good for my long-term wellbeing. To me, the traditional track wasn’t the most effective way for me to do work that would reach the children and families who could most benefit from scientific study of the brain and development. I wanted more of an active role in taking what we know about child development and making it useful to people across various fields and walks of life.

What was your first post-PhD job?

Policy coordinator for the UMN Extension Children Youth & Family Consortium, Instructor at the UMN Institute of Child Development and a Research Associate for my old graduate lab. Yes. I had three part-time jobs for that first year after graduate school. It kinda sucked. But it did allow me to continue to hone some unique skills simultaneously (e.g. teaching a writing intensive course to undergraduates, running the MRI machine for research studies with children, and working with Minnesota state legislators). Let’s just say, it kept life interesting. The job that lasted, and eventually grew into a full-time position, was the policy coordinator job, so I’ll focus my answer on that.

As a policy coordinator, I primarily co-led a research study on where MN state legislators got their information on early childhood development, and whether a science museum exhibition on the topics of early childhood was a beneficial way to communicate that research to state legislators. I also advised on how to translate research for policy-specific audiences, and developed some new programs around these translational efforts.

How did you get this job?

I wish the answer to the ‘how I got this job’ question boiled down to something other than a combination of being at the right place at the right time and pure dumb luck. But that’s how it felt in the moment. In looking back though, I realize I took advantage of opportunities that presented themselves, even when I didn’t feel fully qualified for them, and before I knew they’d be advantageous to me. In other words, I went into every potential experience not with a thought of “Oooh, this could land me a job someday!” but with an eagerness to learn new things, and a willingness to work hard and be collaborative.  In fact, some of the things I did that I thought at the time would certainly turn out to be advantageous for landing a job didn’t turn out to be fruitful at all. But I’ll be honest, in my jobs, I use the philosophy of “make yourself completely indispensable so they can’t imagine life without you” and so far, it’s worked out pretty well.

What do you do now?

Now I’m on team DO ALL THE THINGS. Seriously, sometimes I look at my life and think “Okay, Langworthy. Time to pick a direction.” But I’ve always been eager to learn and try my hand at new things. I find the challenge really enjoyable. Which is why I know that a steady job at one place doing one thing for the rest of my life is not what will fulfill me.

So, in the handful of years since I completed my PhD, I’ve worked on projects that have had me meeting with state level policymakers in several states, and projects that have had me partnering with a local elementary school in Saint Paul. I’ve done a lot of writing, research, and communicating about the science of child development. I’ve written and produced several videos on topics like historical trauma, children’s mental health, and community-based partnership work (All of these can be found on CYFC’s YouTube Channel).

I’ve also written a book titled Bridging the Relationship Gap on the effects of trauma and stress in early life and what care providers can do to help build resilience in kids in their care. The book will be coming out in September (more info here). I’ve also recently started my own YouTube channel Developmental Enthusiast where I make educational videos on the science of child development that teachers and professionals can use to help others learn about what we know from research about children and families. I’m also a co-founder of The Exchange Loop, and organizational consulting firm that specializes in helping public facing organizations to understand and address their most pressing challenges.

In short, I try to use my skills in whatever ways I can to I help other people do their work better.

What kind of tasks do you do on a daily and weekly basis?

In many ways my daily activities have not changed a whole lot from when I was in graduate school. My days are usually filled with things like email, meetings, writing, data analysis, presentations, mentoring and teaching (albeit not the traditional kind). Though now I’ve thrown in a bit of video editing to spice things up as well.

What’s different between now and graduate school is the focus of those tasks, and the broadness of the topics I write, read, research and discuss. So in one week, I’ll have a meeting with a consulting client about how best to evaluate a month long state-wide choral music festival, create a video on YouTube about a developmental perspective on what it means to be human, and have a meeting at a local school about how we can mobilize the surrounding community to participate in growing a school garden. My weeks are nothing if not incredibly diverse in scope, focus and meaning. And I love that.

What most surprises you about your job?

Despite the fact that I’m not using my research skills and knowledge in the “traditional” way, graduate school really prepared me for my current work life. My experience of graduate school was one of immense structured flexibility. What I mean by that is I had certain tasks and projects that needed to be completed and there was a structure to that. But from day to day, I chose what I worked on, for how long and in what way. My life now is no different. It is full of variation and flexibility, but it is also inherently structured. It shouldn’t be surprising to me that I thrive in this sort of context, but sometimes it still does.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

Helping organizations solve pervasive, complex problems. I also love the flexibility and the diversity of the things I get to ponder, write and problem-solve everyday.

What would you change about it if you could?

Time. More time. Always. Seriously, I need a clone.

But realistically, I think the part that bugs me the most about my job at the University at least, is being a very small cog in a huge, slow-moving bureaucratic machine. There are benefits to being at a University to be sure, but there are downsides too.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

Launching The Exchange Loop has cemented for me how much I love helping other people solve problems. I love identifying the complex factors that contribute to challenges, and then gathering the information needed to address those challenges. I enjoy helping people mobilize the necessary resources, support and knowledge to address their problems and then sharing their story of change.

I also love the idea of continuing to learn, write and teach about the content that I spent years studying, but in non-traditional ways. I suspect that traditional academia would raise an eyebrow at my desire to write books about science for lay audiences, and my passion for making YouTube videos about the science of child development. But given the way the world is moving, people are consuming and sharing information differently than ever before. With the explosion of online video, short form content delivery is even more important to effectively engage learners. And it’s important to me that the voices talking about science in public spheres include people who have spent years studying and thinking about their content.

I realize that’s a pretty vague and roundabout answer. But at the end of the day, I want to keep doing the things I am passionate about, wherever that takes me.

What advice or thoughts do you have for post-PhDs in transition now?

I’ll be honest; it took me at least a year after I finished my PhD to feel competent and accomplished. Graduate school put me in a weird funk, and I’ve found I’m not the only one who has experienced this. I actually talk about this more in my recent video, 8 Tips for Surviving Graduate School, but basically, one of the first things I’d recommend is for you to work on owning your worth. Graduating with a PhD means you have entered a very small group of people across the world who have studied, thought, written and learned as much as you have. That’s something to be proud of. You are an expert, even if you don’t feel like one. Recognize the value and skills that you bring to the world because of that intense experience. Then go make use of those skills in a productive way.

Really, as with so many things, figuring out a non-traditional way to use your skills all about framing. I think one of the hardest things is translating your CV into a resume. But you can start by thinking about how your skills from your PhD experience can translate to a wide range of very marketable skills. A PhD gives you the ability to learn, understand, analyze and articulate just about anything. Think about how many unique skills it takes to, say, collaborate on a research project from inception to completion: collaboration, effective communication, critical thinking, knowledge of statistics, supervision and mentorship, etc. Those skills can be applied to most jobs out there. I think you’ll find you know how to do a lot more than you might think.

Also, and this advice is more personal than professional, find the things and people that fill you with positivity, and surround yourself with them. If the things that fill you with joy include your career, great. But it can (and should) include people and things OTHER than your career too.

ABOUT JENNIFER POLK
Jennifer Polk
Jennifer Polk is a career coach and writer. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 2012. For more information and resources, check out her website: FromPhDtoLife.com.
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