Career / Career Development / Speaking Out

What to do when you are at career crossroads

. 5 min read . Written by Shivani Kowadkar
What to do when you are at career crossroads

How often do we find ourselves at crucial junctures in our careers, when we are in a tight spot, when we have to make a choice? Fortunately, I have never been in  a situation like this in my career, until now.

Deer in the headlights

It was so much easier sailing from one grade to another. In school, the end of a grade and the beginning of summer was always followed by monsoon showers and the inevitability of the next grade. Those were summers without any burden of choice. These smooth seasonal transitions got me sailing from one grade to another till the end of my Masters. I always knew what I had to do.

The choice of my stream after matriculation, the subject for my majors, the area for my masters – each of this was just the next logical step for me.  Like a deer, I had been sprinting gracefully from one point to another in my career. Faced with the confusion of ‘I don’t know what to do next’ for the very first time, the deer finally is in the headlights.

Today, having completed my Masters and being in my first job, I have been posed with a slew  of question marks for the first time. Not only do I have the burden of having a choice, I also have the responsibility of executing that choice.

To do or not to do – The commitment that is PhD

The conundrum I’m dealing with here, is whether to continue working after a year or to plunge in the PhD haul. In addition to the questions I’m battling in my head, there are external factors like your relatives peddling advice. ‘Once you start working, it’s hard to go back to studying’, they say. ‘Get your PhD done in the flow of it, a job hinders that flow’, is another remark one gets to hear very often.

While I believe it’s rather hard to let go of the lure of a monthly salary, getting back to studying after a job should not be as herculean a task as it is made out to be.  As long as you’re genuinely interested in your discipline, getting back into the habit of studying should not be a task.

Leaving the lure of a monthly salary

But a monthly salary and all that it brings along with it is nothing short of an addiction. Being paid regularly for a full-time job puts you in the most comfortable of spots.

My grandmother used to say that with financial independence comes a change in one’s gait, the way one walks. I never quite understood what she meant until mine did.  Paying your own bills, having your own hard-earned money in your account, not being answerable to anyone other than your employer, all of this changed my gait. One walks more confidently now like you’ve finally forayed into the trade of the world. This is the sweet spot I am huddled in right now. Wrapped up in a thick blanket on a December day in Delhi.

This spot becomes sweeter and warmer, knowing how harsh the cold would be in the open, without a blanket. In the same vein, the current spot of financial freedom feels more comfortable knowing what the condition would be without it. Starting the PhD phase is the equivalent of stepping out in the cold and throwing away that lovely blanket. Just the thought of what it would be adds to the reluctance of letting go of financial freedom.

Funding the PhD

Funding the PhD is a different ball game altogether. The funding scenario will depend on the university, country and continent, I’d be doing my PhD in. I will be making an entry into a terrain teeming with numerous scholarship applications and loan applications. The term ‘loan’ sounds daunting to my 23 year old mind.

Fortunately, I have the privilege of having supportive parents who are more than willing to invest in my doctorate. But that doesn’t make things easier in my head because this will be their biggest investment in me and an additional worry for me about living up to their investment. Watching their blind faith and confidence without any prior asset risk evaluation gives me jitters.

A PhD is a long-term commitment. It calls for blood, sweat, tears, focus, time, and some more time. Your thesis is your offspring. You cannot abandon the thesis mid-way. It has to be nurtured carefully and brought out to the world. For someone who fears regretting the order placed in a restaurant, the mere thought of making this commitment can spark feelings of self-doubt, uncertainty and insecurity.

Upsetting the personal equilibrium

Yet another reason behind my reluctance is the personal and familial equilibrium that the PhD will disturb. A fear bigger than that of writing lengthy SOPs and VISA applications, is the fear of upsetting the personal life apple cart. Over the years, I have worked at and carefully built personal associations. I know for a fact that at the end of the change, you adapt and everything falls in place. Going through the thick of the change and functioning properly while in it, is where the reworking lies.

The reluctance stems from the prospect of tediously reworking relationships in my life, at least the important ones. The PhD will change everything. It’s not just about the distance, but the fact that a doctorate will be the biggest preoccupation for a good 3-4 years. A major chunk of energy will be devoted to this compartment of life and that will affect other compartments.

The distance and the 4 years of PhD commitment would translate into breaking off other commitments in personal relationships. Some of them will be reworkable, but some won’t be. And I fear for the latter, the ones that would be beyond any realm of adjustment and reworking.

Although, we have heard how change is inevitable and how it’s the only constant more often than most hackneyed phrases, each decision comes with different degrees of change in different aspects of life. I will have to adjust some chords more than the others to attune them to my decisions. Inevitably, some chords will suffer more than the rest.

A constant pursuit?

When I was writing my dissertation during my masters, the back of my head was occupied by  the stress of getting a job. Now that I have one, the PhD question lingers on in the back of my head. It’s hard-hitting to realise the amount of time we spend living in the back of our heads. At work, we think about getting back to school or getting another job. At school, we think about our employment prospects.

In good time, when I will have an answer to whether or not I should apply for my PhD, there will be some other conundrum popping up in the meadows of the back of my head. I wonder if one ever reaches a point where the pursuit ends. Does it really end? What would you have done, had you been in my shoes?