Your Career: A Work in Progress
By Melony Sorbero, PhD, Policy Researcher at RAND Corporation
Life with a PhD is not easy. You’ve voluntarily selected a life where the hours are long, and the hours are too long to move forward without some degree of passion. So somewhere along the way you need to figure out what drives you - what revs you up?
I get revved up by a wide array of interesting projects that are going to have an impact, and joining RAND as a policy researcher made me feel like a kid in a candy story. When I was nearing the end of my PhD in health services research and policy, I considered both academic and non-academic positions, but selected RAND because it allowed me the freedom to be a generalist. I can work on a number of different projects where I need to be incredibly focused to get the work done, but it’s up to me as to where I direct my focus. I get to choose to work on projects that I’m passionate about. Plus, the idea of being able to directly impact policy with my work – perhaps even affecting legislation– just really excites me.
One challenge with being able to select from so many meaningful projects is that I can become my own worst enemy. I don’t say no enough. When you are just starting, you work extremely hard to prove yourself. You want to make your clients happy, and you want to meet your deadlines. When you become more senior, you work extremely hard because you feel that it’s expected you’ll pick up that new project or help with mentoring because that’s part of the job. It’s OK to do these things and feel good about them, but you also have to realize there’s only so long you can sustain that type of high-level intensity, and you need to protect yourself from burning out. Your career is not a sprint, not something you need to move through as quickly as possible. You need to approach it like a marathon. For me, it’s still a work in progress.
And part of my work involves proposal writing – be it for grants or contracts. I need to dispel the myth that if you select a career outside academics, you’ll avoid the process of writing proposals. Not true. Even when I’m working on a current project, I’m always looking for the next funding opportunity. Typically my standard timeline involves both working to complete currently funded projects while at the same time writing to obtain funding for future projects. I would suggest to any pre- or post-PhD trainee to participate early on with grant writing if it’s available to you. Ask to help your research advisor. Take a grant writing class. Learn to adapt your research story, write better and better shape your questions. Again, life with a PhD is not easy. You’re going to face a lot of rejection, so you’re going to have to dig deep and learn how to persevere.
Another thing I learned along my career pathway is how to work with the two-body problem, using careful consideration and communication. When two people both need to find satisfying jobs, it’s very unlikely that both will have the perfect job – at least not at the same time – if being in the same city is a priority. Sometimes the best that can be accomplished is to get a good job for both and avoid a great job for one and a poor job for the other. It’s a challenging situation where one may have to lead and the other will have to follow, but it won’t necessarily be the same leader over time. And that negotiation is something that each couple has to figure out for themselves. Your career is long term, not just the job at hand. It’s a work in progress.