So what if you’re good at it – do you enjoy it?

I wrote a letter of recommendation today for a young woman – let’s call her Alexa – who has recently completed her Ph.D. and has decided to leave academia and try her hand at something quite different.

As I noted in my letter, Alexa is one of the most capable young women I have ever met. I don’t say this lightly: I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know many bright, creative, hard-working young women and men in academia (and also outside of academia). Nonetheless, Alexis stands out in my mind for her ability to tackle and complete difficult projects – and to do so without breaking a sweat. Of course, it helps that she is razor-sharp and a creative thinker, but these qualities alone do not guarantee success (I have more to say on this topic, but I’ll leave it for another day). Simply put, Alexis thrives on challenges that would stop many of us dead in our tracks.

Part of Alexa’ success to date in academia stems from the fact that she has already struck a balance between work, exercise, and social events that most of us struggle to achieve throughout our lives. Another part is owed to her upbringing in an academic family, which has helped her to hang on through the rough patches (more on this in a future post, hopefully).

However, the very factors that have contributed to Alexa’ success in academia are the ones that are now motivating her to leave it. For the first time in her life, she has dared to question the long-held assumption (hers and everyone else’s) that she would follow family tradition and become a professor. Sure, she has what it takes to succeed in academia — but what if she simply doesn’t enjoy it?

At first Alexa tried to ignore her nagging doubts about her career path, worried as she was about making a mistake or disappointing her family and her devoted mentors. No doubt she also worried about what others would say, or think. (That would be understandable, since academics can be real snobs!) Ultimately, though, Alexa concluded that it doesn’t matter what other people think. It doesn’t matter that she’s come this far. What matters is that she find work that benefits others and is personally fulfilling*.

This seems so obvious, right? So why do we all know students who slog through Ph.D. programs without deriving the least bit of pleasure in their work? Ask yourself: do you like what you’re doing, or at least some aspects of it? Which career paths would allow you do the most of what you enjoy and the least of what you don’t enjoy? How might your answer change if you didn’t care what other people thought?

*According to Wikipedia, personal fulfillment is the “achievement of life goals which are important to an individual, in contrast to the goals of society, family and other collective obligations.” It’s actually hard for me to see how one could possibly achieve personal fulfillment without some sense that one’s work benefits society either directly or indirectly (I’m talking to you, stock traders), but just in case I’ve made explicit the fact that Alexa wants to help others.


About Silvia Bunge

I'm a tenured faculty member, and the head graduate advisor in my department.
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