How PhDs Can Use Life Design to Build a Fulfilling Life and Career (Part I)

Over the past year, I’ve led a number of Life Design workshops for doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers at Johns Hopkins University. In that time, I’ve found that while Design Thinking works well for this group, many of them have trouble moving past their focus on a tenure track position in order to embrace the possibility and creativity that Life Design offers. Once they are able to reframe their career aspirations away from a “faculty or bust” mindset, the rest of the Design Thinking process comes rather easily for them. I’ve created this set of exercises that help doctoral students reframe their dysfunctional beliefs, find their own personal True North, better understand how their current work can inform their future careers, and effectively define their questions. So whether you are going into your first year of your PhD program or are in your fifth year of a postdoc of VAP position, this exercise is for you.

Because let’s face it, doctoral students and postdocs – perhaps more than any other group I’ve encountered – are truly “stuck.” For all of your intelligence, skills, accomplishments, and hard work, the culture of doctoral training has convinced you that you don’t measure up, aren’t “good enough” for the academic world and yet have little to offer to the world outside of the academy. You’ve internalized these ideas to the point that they shaped your own worldview and sense of self, but like all dysfunctional beliefs they are simply untrue and unhelpful. Moving forward in your career will require you to “think like a designer” and REFRAME these dysfunctional beliefs so that you can ideate and build your way forward.

To practice reframing, put on your teacher/mentor hat and imagine that an undergraduate in your class or lab has come to you for advice. She has just learned that her fall research position has been cancelled due to COVID-19. She is worried that because of this, her dream of going to graduate school is shattered, that all of the hard work that she has put in over the past three years has been for naught, and that her future prospects are dim. What would you tell your student?

Dysfunctional Belief

My fall research position has been cancelled. My fall is ruined. I will never move forward in my career.

If you are like most doctoral students I talk to, you will have no trouble helping your student see the possible bright side of the situation, see her setback as temporary and even as an opportunity for reflection and growth, a chance to try something new, to build her skill set or network, or to think creatively so that she can continue to move forward in her career. When we put on our mentor/teacher hat, REFRAMING often comes easy and we have no trouble thinking like a designer.

We are rarely so generous with ourselves, however. Let’s go through the career-related dysfunctional beliefs common within doctoral education, and take note of how many you’ve internalized over the course of your training:

  • I’m too old – or too far along in my training – to make a career pivot.
  • My Ph.D. program didn’t teach me any “useful” skills.
  • I don’t have any control over where I end up – academics just have to go where the jobs are.
  • I’m open to other career paths, but I don’t want to disappoint my advisor so won’t look into them until after I’ve finished my dissertation.
  • I’d love to spend more time exploring careers outside of the academy, but can’t take time away from my research.

And of course the big one:

Dysfunctional Belief

In order to be successful and fulfilled I need to secure a tenure-track faculty position

(preferably at an R1 institution)

Like all dysfunctional beliefs, these ideas strip us of our agency, take away hope and possibility, and put our fate, our happiness, and our sense of fulfillment into the hands of a shrinking (or non-existent) academic job market. But what if we could reframe each of these dysfunctional beliefs to make them statements that offered possibilities, encouraged new ideas, and allowed us the chance to design our way forward?


There are many paths to professional success and fulfillment, I just need to find one that aligns with my values and interests

By reframing your career search away from an approach rooted in the dysfunctional beliefs of the academic job market towards an approach rooted in your own values, you can begin imagining a life of possibility, get “unstuck”, and take that first step forward. But what if you are unsure of your values or unclear which activities bring you fulfillment? How do you know that the first step you take is a step in the right direction?

Photo by Valentin Antonucci on

Building Your Compass

Before generating ideas for possible career paths, I recommend first taking the time to better understand your values and reflect on broader questions about why you work. There are a number of analog and digital options out there to discern your values, but I still recommend the Lifeview and Workview exercises that are a core part of the Life Design toolkit. These exercises can be incredibly illuminating – it is not uncommon for scholars to go through a decade of training without ever asking themselves whether the academic position they are striving for aligns with their values, purpose, and definition of “good work.” At the end of one workshop that I led with a group of post-docs, one fellow remarked “I’ve been so focused on pursuing a faculty position I’ve never stopped to ask myself what I actually want from my career.”

If this is your first time articulating a vision for your life and work, this exercise can be challenging. For now, don’t worry about getting it “right” – these are living documents that you will continue to revise as you learn more about yourself and explore various careers and life paths. But even if your ideas change, putting your Workview and Lifeview into words will help you in determining whether there is coherence between who you are and what you do.

“By having your Workview and your Lifeview in harmony with each other, you increase your own clarity and ability to live in a consciously coherent, meaningful life – one in which who you are, what you believe, and what you do are aligned. When you’ve got an accurate compass, you’ll never stray off course for long.”

Bill Evans and Dave Burnett, Designing your Life, p. 38

Keep these documents handy. Together they form your compass and can help you determine whether the path you are on or the paths you are considering are guiding you towards your own personal “True North.”

Understanding Energy and Engagement

At this point, you might be tempted to log on to VersatilePhD or ImaginePhD and begin exploring career paths but before considering what you might like to do, I encourage you to spend some time reflecting on what you have been doing.

In an earlier post – Getting Unstuck (COVID-19 Edition) – I discussed how you can adapt the Energy-Engagement Activity Log (or Good Times Journal) to understand which activities from both your pre-COVID and COVID lives engage and energize you. I recommend doing this activity now, as it can provide some clarity around which activities you enjoy and which activities you do out of necessity, obligation, or routine.

This exercise can be particularly helpful for doctoral students and post-docs because it allows you to divide “RESEARCH” and “TEACHING” (likely the two professional activities that consume the bulk of your time and energy) into their component parts, and determine whether these individual parts are energizing or engaging. After all, even the most prolific researchers or successful teachers are rarely energized and engaged by all aspects of their jobs.

This exercise is also helpful because it encourages you to look beyond your research and academic training for career inspiration. Doctoral students and post-docs are often pressured into viewing activities like hobbies and community service as a distraction from the “real work” of research. But often the activities you pursue in your free time can serve as inspiration for a new career, or a reminder that whatever career you pursue needs to allow space for those things that you find enjoyable, energizing, and meaningful.

To complete this exercise, print out two copies of the Energy-Engagement Activity Log. On the top of the first log write “Pre-COVID Life” and think back to the 8 or 10 activities that occupied the bulk of your days prior to March 2020. These can be professional activities (research activities, teaching activities, work for scholarly organizations) or personal activities (volunteer work, hobbies, leisure or fitness activities, or even everyday activities from which you derive enjoyment). For core professional activities that occupy much of your time and energy, try to break down large task into smaller ones. For example, “RESEARCH” might be broken down into laboratory experiments, literature review, data analysis, lab meetings, grant writing, etc.

On the top of your second log write “COVID Life” and write down the 8 to 10 activities that occupy your day at the moment. Some of the activities in this log will be the same as the first but with “Virtual” added to the beginning. But over the last several months you might have started new activities, returned to old hobbies, or engaged with aspects of your personal and professional life in new ways. Make note of them here.

Once you have your activities listed, fill out the gauges for each activity based on how engaged you are in each and how much energy each activity provides you (relative to how much it consumes). For example, teaching students at a local elementary school may have energized you for the rest of the week back in your pre-COVID life, while sitting at your computer to write your dissertation might be a real struggle.

Once you have identified 2 or 3 activities that are energizing and engaging, select one that seems the most delightful, the most promising, or the most intriguing. That activity will serve as the inspiration for the next activity.

Getting to the “Why?”

Now that you have identified a few activities that you find particularly engaging or energizing, you can now explore WHY these activities make you feel this way. Perhaps the most straightforward way at getting at these questions is an activity titled “The Five Whys”. My colleague, Smiti Nathan has written extensively on the Five Whys Activity for Life Design on her blog, Life Design Log and I encourage you to check out her site for more information on this deceptively simply exercise.

The basic idea is that you will first ask yourself “Why do I find X activity energizing and engaging?” And then ask “Why?” four more times to each subsequent answer as a way to get at the underlying motivations, interests, and values that make this particular activity especially energizing or engaging.

For example, one activity that I have been doing more of during COVID is painting the interior of my Baltimore row house. I find the process particularly satisfying, and it stands out in my Good Times Journal as one of my more engaging and energizing activities. i’m probably not going to quit my job in academic administration to become a professional house painter, but I can explore this activity further to better understand how it might inform my career and life path.

Why #1: Why do I find painting my house to be energizing and engaging?

A: I enjoy working with my hands.

Why #2: Why do I enjoy working with my hands?

A: Although my work keeps me at a computer all day, I feel most “alive” when I’m working in a creative and physical manner.

Why #3: Why do I feel more ‘alive’ when I am working in a physical and creative manner?

A: Before starting graduate school, I spent my summers working as a painter in the UC Berkeley dorms and I enjoyed seeing the fruits of my labor at the end of the day.

Why #4: Why did I enjoy seeing the fruits of my labor at the end of the day?

A: Painting gave me a sense of accomplishment that is different than traditional markers of success.

Why #5: Why did painting give me that sense of accomplishment?

Because I was using my creative and physical abilities in collaboration with others to create something that directly benefited a community of people.

Now we are talking. By going through the “Five Whys” exercise I’ve moved beyond a specific activity – painting a house – to uncover a number of things about the activity and my previous experiences that I find fulfilling and valuable: creativity, collaboration, community. Any number of jobs and careers (including, not incidentally, the one I am in now) can include these traits. By doing the “Five Whys” activity yourself, you can also explore how activities that you enjoy but that seem far removed from professional development can still inform potential career paths.

Asking the Right Questions

Just as in research, asking the right questions is as – if not more – important that finding the right answers. Doing the “Five Whys” exercise helps ensure that the questions you ask about your life and career path are less procedural (“What steps do I need to take to get a job as X?”) and more rooted in your own values and interests, and that the ideas you generate are more likely to lead you in the right direction. (See my post The Importance of Defining the Problem for why this is key.)

The easiest way to do this is to add the phrase “How Might I…?” to the beginning of the answer to Why #5. For the example above, that might be something like:

How might I explore careers that allow my to use my creative and physical abilities in collaboration with others to create something that directly benefits my community?

Other examples of “How Might I?” statements include:

How might I use my skills as a writer and teacher to build a sense of community among fellow international scholars?

How might I use my training as an educational historian to shape public understanding of poverty in order to impact policy?

If you find yourself getting stuck on this step, or want to learn more about constructing an effective “How Might I?” statement, Smiti Nathan has an excellent post on this as well: 3 Activities to Help You Ask the Right Questions About Yourself.

Making Use of Your “How Might I?” Statements

Now that you’ve framed the right question, you can start asking these questions in order to generate ideas and possible solutions. How you go about this can vary. These are useful questions to ask at your next meeting with a career coach or a (supportive) dissertation adviser. But if you really want to generate a greater volume and range of ideas, consider broadening the number of people that you ask. In an earlier post I recommended that undergraduate form a Virtual Ideation Team consisting of faculty, family, peers and career coaches – a similar team might work for you. Or you might post your questions on Twitter (#withaPhd can be a helpful hashtag) or Facebook. Or, once it becomes possible to return to campus, write your “How Might I?” Statement on a large piece of paper and post it to your office door or to a wall in the grad lounge and invite people to share their thoughts.

The goal is to generate many ideas – including out of the box, wild, and even unfeasible ideas – as you will use these ideas to help you explore possible career options. In Part II, I will cover how to use these ideas to imagine and then prototype the possible careers and lives that emerge from the ideas generated by this activity.

Life Design Images Copyright Bill Burnett, Dave Evans, and Stanford University

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