Jennifer Polk

Coach at From PhD to Life

From History Ph.D. to Life Coach?

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Image: Leapfrog, Queensland, Australia, 1910-1920

Back when I was looking to leave academe, I set up a variety of informational interviews to gauge my options, including one with a “business coach.” Not long into our interview, he asked me, “What does a history Ph.D. have to do with coaching?” The question had an accusatory whiff, as if my interlocutor thought I was barking up the wrong tree. And I admit, up to that moment, I hadn’t actually given the connection much thought.

Eventually, I managed to utter some semi-satisfactory answer. But in the many months since then, I’ve reflected much more on the connections between the seemingly disparate things I’ve done over the last decade. How did I go from academic to life coach? I used to roll my eyes at the very thought of a “life coach”! (Of course back then I knew next to nothing about the job.) Were there hints along the way that this is where I’d wind up?

I certainly didn’t notice them at the time. Now, though, I see many similarities between what I did in grad school and what I do now.

As a grad-student in history, I studied and interpreted people’s stories -- what they did long ago, and why they did it. I researched the activities of Canadian and American relief workers in revolutionary and civil war-era Russia. Fascinating stuff! I was committed to understanding their motivations so I could write about them and learn from them. As it turns out, I do much the same thing coaching Ph.D.’s and former academics through their career transitions.

As every historian knows, it’s hard to determine where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been. Just as the present is shaped by historical events, so, too, are people’s identities shaped by their past career experiences -- their stories, if you will. In the cultlike world of academia, work is a huge part of a Ph.D.’s personal and professional identity. Not landing a teaching job and/or deciding to leave academe can lead to an identity crisis.

That’s where I come in. For my career-transitioning clients, a key part of getting past that identity crisis is creating a new, positive, authentic story of where they’ve been, where they are now, and where they’re headed. As a coach, I listen and ask questions, and help clients reinterpret their stories. I also note when their inner critic is getting in the way of allowing them to move on with their lives.

Take the statement, “I love teaching,” which I often hear from clients. On the one hand, that’s great that you feel so passionate about it. When you don’t know what you want to do in life, start by focusing on what you love. On the other hand, it’s easy to feel trapped by the implied story behind that statement -- that “being a professor is the only way I’ll be happy.” That sort of thinking can stop you from digging deeper to the root of your love for teaching and discovering that there are other amazing-for-you careers where you can find the same fulfillment as you get from a classroom.

Of course, much as I’d like to pretend otherwise, connecting the dots wasn’t any easier for me at first than it is for my clients. I, too, turned to a career coach for guidance and did a lot of soul-searching before I opened my eyes to other career possibilities and forgot the silly nonsense I’d learned in grad school: that there was one narrow path to success for Ph.D.’s and anyone who deviated from it was a failure … yada, yada, yada.

Don’t believe it. The same interests and talents you honed in academia can help you succeed elsewhere.

My experience is a case in point. It was my need to understand why things happened and tell stories that first drew me to history and academic research. Visits to archives were fun because they were an intellectual adventure. I had an ever-growing list of questions that needed answers, and it was an amazing feeling when I closed in on them. Graduate seminars that revolved around historiography and ideology were also fun--but only if I could see actual evidence of those ideas playing out. Theory without applicability leaves me cold, I now realize, because it’s not helping to answer a real-life question or sort out a pressing issue. Thankfully, I’ve been lucky enough to find a new career that satisfies my desires to find answers, tell stories, and help other post-academically-minded people like me. Best of all, I get to see the positive results of my work on a regular basis.

But what if the connections between your academic background and a nonacademic career aren’t as apparent as they were in my case?

Consider the things you like doing now and what it takes to excel at them. Hint: Think less in terms of academic speciality and more in terms of general skills. Trust me, if you have a Ph.D., chances are you already have a plethora of talents -- like an ability to think, do research, write clearly, analyze data, work independently, manage a project, meet deadlines, lead a team, plan events, and speak in front of a group. Those skills are in demand off the academic track.

Once you’re aware of the abilities you already possess, you can start to imagine all the creative ways you might use them in a new career.

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