Tools to support post-PhD transitions

As part of my professional development as a coach, I recently attended a very interesting workshop on strengths-based coaching led by Michele Deeks from Work positive. Her work centres round helping individuals, teams and organisations to become more aware of their strengths so they can be “at their best” more of the time, rather than perform at a “so so” level. Her inspiration comes from principles of positive psychology of which I am a very big fan myself and in a nutshell, positive psychology shifts away from looking at resolving dysfunction or pathology and instead, focuses on ways in which individuals can improve their wellbeing, creativity and overall level of happiness. Given my interests, I immediately started thinking about how positive psychology principles could be used to support people on their post-PhD journeys. However, if you’re thinking I’m going to attempt to convince you to introduce a daily practice of standing in front of the mirror and telling yourself how fantastic you are, fear not. Positive psychology interventions are a little bit more sophisticated than that and even though there is some (healthy) criticism of the claims being made, there is a scientific base to the interventions and tools.

I have previously written about resilience and ways in which people can become more resilient so that they can perhaps cope better with the challenges of job-hunting, whether within or outside of academia. Within the positive psychology framework, resilience is seen not just as an inborn trait, it is perceived more as a muscle that can be trained and made stronger. The other take-away from positive psychology is around identification of personal strengths for those at any stage of post-PhD transitions, especially if that involves contemplating new career paths. Quite often, that involves moving away from the relative comfort zone of academia and a number of people I’ve worked with find themselves at a loss when trying to identify viable non-academic roles as their starting point is usually something along the lines of “all I know is how to produce research papers on esoteric subjects”. Yes, I can try and encourage people to consider their transferable skills but that often doesn’t really resonate with them and I found it helpful to get them to focus on their personal strengths instead as a way of opening that conversation.

At the workshop, Michele introduced us to a really useful tool she developed with her team, called “at my best” to help people identify the unique combination of talents, knowledge, and skills that they possess. The tool can be accessed online or in the form of a deck of 48 cards, each representing a particular strength conveyed via an image on one side and a single word on the other side. It acts very much as a prompt for reflection to help individuals become more aware of what their core strengths may be so that they build on that for instance when it comes to career-related decisions. Paraphrasing Michelle, in that situation you’d be encouraging a rabbit to hop rather than suggesting swimming lessons as the first step. Obviously, there’s a lot to be said about moving out of your comfort zone and I have certainly done that in my own career when moving into IT with no previous technology background, and I have supported a number of people to make a leap into the unknown. At the same time, knowing what your strengths are can be helpful to make more informed choices, even if that choice is to go against the grain of what they’ve always know and been familiar or comfortable with. Overall, it was a great workshop and I’m really keen to test out the tools in practice!

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