I was recently reflecting on a thread from the Chronicle of Higher Education discussion forum which focused on confidence after leaving academia, quite topical in light of forthcoming #withaphd Twitter chat on the same topic. The thread suggested that the choice of following a non-academic career path is a bit of a double-whammy: not only do people lose confidence as a result of undertaking the PhD but they often suffer from confidence issues following the decision to leave the academic tribe and struggling with the move into an unknown territory whilst trying to shake off the feeling that they have “failed”.
To start with, it is quite paradoxical that the very process of becoming a highly specialised expert in an area (aka undertaking a PhD) can generate feelings of lack of confidence and that the feelings don’t seem to lessen in intensity as you progress further up the ladder. That lack of confidence and the nagging feeling that you may get found out as a fraud, despite evidence to the contrary – and having the “Dr” title in front of your name does prove you were able of making an original contribution to knowledge – has been described as “impostor syndrome”, a term coined by two psychologists in the 1970s. If you happen to experience that chronic self-doubt, you’re probably in good company of other overachievers, however that critical voice in your head is not terribly helpful for career progression, especially if the route you have chosen is a non-academic one. To start with, your confidence may be already low because you may have internalised the belief that you have “failed” as an academic and as I wrote elsewhere, I believe this is a particularly unhelpful narrative and I’m quite keen to challenge that. Yet another aspect of the struggle may be the challenge of translating the skills gained thanks to your research degree into non-academic roles and that transition is likely to involve a number of setbacks.
In some ways, confidence is not exactly a prerequisite for a successful non-academic job search and there is a lot to be said for the “fake it till you make it” approach. At the same time, confidence does help to cope with inevitable rejections and perhaps some not so helpful feedback you may receive from your academic circle on your journey out of academia. I’d love to say it doesn’t happen, but as I wrote elsewhere, this was something I experienced myself in spades, both the rejections and criticism of my decision not to stick it out with the search for a permanent academic role. In fact, I still occasionally struggle with confidence issues as a result of changing fields as IT project management is quite far from my original comfort zone of being a PhD sociology graduate. The first time someone referred to me in a meeting as an “IT professional” I almost did a double-take and it took me a while to realise that the comment was indeed addressed at me. My strategy has been to embrace the new status and enjoy the fact I have so much to learn; as a PhD graduate it is indeed something I am really good at and I’m trying not to lose sight of that. I am also mindful of the fact that given the pace of technological change, I will probably continue to strive to gain mastery in my area but may never fully arrive and I have confidence that this is OK.