Making yourself competitive for a new career and figuring out what that career might be are two peas in a pod, not two steps in a staircase. Instead of being done with one before moving onto the other, you might be best served by undertaking them both at the same time.
A little reflection is sometimes enough to get you started. If you’ve already been reflecting on patterns of what you like, or spending a few minutes each week noting what energized you and what drained you, you’re probably already getting an idea of tasks, bodies of knowledge, goals and environments that you prefer over others. Maybe you haven’t found anything that puts you in the coveted flow state, yet. That’s okay. (It’s also more than okay not to feel passion.)
Obviously, reflection can only tell you what you’ve found rewarding in the past, not predict the future. But it can suggest where to experiment next. Look to your list of what you’ve enjoyed, ask yourself which ones are both very appealing and not too frequently met in your life at the moment. Then, brainstorm ways you could get just a bit more of those things in your life.
They may be skills (like planning), bodies of knowledge (like refugee health), environments or work conditions (small groups), values (social justice), or approaches (community based research). Start with whichever is most appealing to you. If you’re on campus, you may not have to go very far to find some time-limited opportunities to try things out.
You also might be close to relevant conferences, especially if you’re looking into new fields, bodies of knowledge and approaches. If you can skip the fees and get in as a conference organizer, you have a free opportunity to find out what other conference attendees do for a living. You may even find some people who are willing to be contacted later for informational interviews.
So, how is this making you more competitive? Granted, trying things out in small measures is not the same as devoting four or more years of your life to a PhD. But it starts to build a compelling story – and a genuine one – in which you’ve identified what you’re drawn to and have sought out ways to build on it.
As you continue to explore, you will get a sense of where your limits are. Maybe you like organizing projects with lots of dependencies, and don’t love organizing volunteers. Maybe you’re more interested in building the relationships necessary to get community based research going, but you don’t necessarily want to crunch data. Running up against these limits lets you further refine how to direct your efforts. You’ll start interacting with people, organizations and ideas you wouldn’t even have known how to locate before. And that means finding opportunities you wouldn’t have been able to find before, either. Your focus starts to shift from past patterns to future options.
Of course, acting on those opportunities requires you to suspend your disbelief. More on that next month.