Career Paths

How to Change Course Strategically To Find the Career That’s Right for You

Jacqueline Coley, Ph.D.

My best friend wanted to be a doctor for as long as I have known her. As a premed major in undergrad, she at first wanted to pursue medical prosthetics, but her interest later shifted to obstetrics. Today she is a practicing physician, as she always wanted to be.

For a lot of us though, choosing a career isn’t nearly so straightforward. You may be among those who don’t have a clear idea of what they want to do. Perhaps you’re interested in several fields but you’re having a tough time deciding which one to choose. Or you could be in a situation where you thought you were sure about what you wanted to do, but the role you ended up in is not what you expected.

Feeling uncertain about a career choice is where a lot of people get stuck. I know I did. About two-thirds of the way through my thesis project, I realized that research wasn’t as great a fit for me as I had thought it would be.

I attended graduate school because I wanted to make a meaningful impact on the world. I wanted to make scientific discoveries and mentor young scientists. I was going to publish papers, give seminars, and teach. At the time, I could see my future so clearly that I didn’t create a backup plan.

Within a few months of earning my PhD, I landed my first job outside academia. Although I learned some valuable lessons about the importance of company culture and leadership, I found that the best job on paper can become a nightmare if it doesn’t match your strengths or personal and professional needs. I also learned that you can’t do meaningful work when you’re miserable.

By the time I realized I was not happy, I had gotten so used to feeling awful and listening to the voice of self-doubt that at some point I stopped caring about my happiness. I thought, “Maybe I should be grateful to have a steady paycheck even though this job is unfulfilling and makes me feel like a failure.”

The Voice of Self-Doubt

One of the ironies of earning a PhD is that you become acutely aware of just how much you don’t know. Graduate students are taught to question everything as part of the scientific process. Even the language we use to describe our findings implies uncertainty: the data suggest…, the data indicate…, the data never prove….

Hyperawareness of uncertainty can lead to feelings of inadequacy or imposter syndrome. You compare yourself to your peers, whose projects appear to be going more smoothly than yours. You may feel like it’s only a matter of time before someone realizes you aren’t nearly as smart as it seems.

In the workplace, self-doubt can keep you trapped in a role that is unfulfilling or that doesn’t match your interests and skills because you’re telling yourself that you aren’t qualified to do anything else. Or you may talk yourself out of going after fantastic opportunities because you’ve already decided that you’ll get turned down.

Don’t believe your doubting thoughts!

Change Your Narrative

The voice of self-doubt tells you stories that are untrue. You have the power to choose whether to believe them or ignore them. You can choose to react or you can choose to change your way of thinking.

When you tell yourself that you’re terrible at something, your brain will make it happen. Have you ever told yourself that you’re terrible at remembering names, and then found that you often didn’t remember names? That’s probably because you have accepted the lie your brain told you.

If all you see are your limitations, you unconsciously limit yourself.

When I stopped focusing on what I thought I couldn’t do and started considering all the things I was good at, knew how to do, and enjoyed, I began seeing opportunities. I started to find solutions to my problems rather than more problems.

Graduate school teaches you so much more than how to do a handful of assays and statistical analyses. You learn skills such as project management, time management, conflict resolution, and resilience. You become an expert at problem-solving, learning, and critical thinking. The key is choosing to see your strengths and then using them to forge a path forward.

Be a Strategist, Not a Tactician

A desire to make meaningful contributions to science has always been present in my life. It has shaped and guided my decisions, but I never thought about the specific influence I wanted to have. Finally, I asked myself, “What in our world do I want to impact, and how am I going to do it?”

I was unhappy in my job. I knew I needed to do something different. I knew I wanted more, but my negating inner narrative prevented me from arriving at what that meant. I had been living my life like a tactician—laser-focused on the very next step and lacking any idea of what came after that.

When you only think in the short term, you never feel like you’re in control. You’re constantly reacting to situations, and you tend to feel insecure and anxious.

The solution for me was to become a strategist, not a tactician, and the key to being a strategist was becoming crystal clear about where I wanted to go.

The mistake I made was considering future roles through the lens of what I was qualified for when I needed to find work. This perspective limited me because I was thinking in terms of what I believed I could have rather than considering what I truly wanted.

When you start with the future life that you want, you can work backward and reverse engineer the steps you need to take to get there. You can identify the skills you need to acquire and what roles or jobs you may need to do to get from where you are today to where you want to be in the future you desire.

Being a strategist allows you to make proactive decisions because you’re clear about your destination. You’ll consider opportunities from a place of confidence because you’ll be able to assess whether they align with your goals.

Forging Your Path

Identifying the future I desired and learning how to silence the voice of self-doubt helped me to get unstuck and back on the path to doing meaningful work.

The truth is there’s no right way to navigate life—no curriculum to follow. So, although I can’t tell you what your journey is going to look like, I can share some lessons I’ve learned that I hope will help you as you create your own path.

  • Get clear about what you value and what sort of life you want to create.
  • Start with the end goal in mind and be strategic about what you do to get there.
  • Focus on solutions, not problems.
  • Silence the voice of self-doubt by reframing the story.
  • Take consistent action, even when you’re afraid, so that you will make progress.

It all comes down to one question: is the decision you are about to make going to move you toward the place you want and deserve to be? 

Keep all this in mind, and you will continue to move in the right direction.

Need Some Inspiration?

Read "How can I transition to a new field?" for advice from professionals who successfully made a career transition.