Graduate school consists of a series of races – from place to place, hour to hour. Today, I was a student, counselor, teacher, and technical assistant. Every day requires a series of hats, as I run from activity to activity. Sometimes my mind feels like it’s in a million different places at once. It’s hard to slow down.
Thankfully, I’m nearing the end of my tenure as a doctoral student, and ready to think about next steps. I’ve segued to future-oriented questions. The most important one has been: How can I make the greatest contribution to society, while continuing to be excited to work each day? This question propelled me in the first place to study counseling psychology and acquire a Ph.D. But next steps beget a reevaluation of how I can best make a difference. I can’t stay in graduate school forever!
As a counseling psychology student, I have the privilege of multiple career paths. Some go directly into private practice (seeing clients), hospitals, teaching at universities, researching psychological concerns, and/or informing public policy. Alone, any one would be nightmarish; I’d get itchy, looking for diversity in my daily routine. Doing a sole activity all the time scares me. I don’t want to become an automaton. Frankly, I’ve envisioned being most happy with a blend of research, teaching, and counseling.
Questions abound: Would I like to be a university professor? How about a counseling psychologist at a VA? Will I work at a community college or research institution? How much of the job will include teaching, practice, or research? Where will I find a new home – East, West, Central, another country?
Answers are nearly impossible to find, as the job market is constantly in flux and increasingly competitive. I won’t magically be handed a career because of my advanced degree. Surprising as it may be, having a Ph.D. only gets you into an interview – not in the door.
Future career prospects are also tempered by concerns of stress and overwork. In this field, I’d venture to say many academics put in 60 to 80-hour weeks. There are numerous employers that work people mercilessly. Too many treat their employees as replaceable “human capital.” These practices leave individuals prone to burnout and contribute to this country’s greatest killer: heart disease.
Where does that leave a soon-to-be Ph.D.? Like much in life, I’m seeking a balance between my wants and needs. The 30-hour workweek for an academic probably doesn’t exist unless you’re near the end of your career. But 80 hours per week for years frightens me to the core.
The secret for me is pursuing passions, which can often result in “flow.” This psychological concept centers on how “just-manageable challenges” tend to make employees feel purposeful and needed — in between anxiety and boredom. When this state occurs, people become hyper-focused, productive, and generally happy. It’s a mutually beneficial state for employers and their underlings, but not often made possible due to overscheduled weeks or monotonous responsibilities.
- “Intense and focused concentration on what one is doing in the present moment.”
- “Merging of action and awareness.”
- “Loss of reflective self-consciousness”
- “A sense that one can control one’s actions…”
- “Distortion of temporal experience.”
- “Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding…”
Essentially, people are focused, active, forget their struggles, feel autonomous, lose track of time, and are internally motivated. From artists to scholars to writers to mathematicians, flow is an incredible place for creativity and excellence.
The greatest moments of my life have been here, when I lose track of time and become engrossed in an activity. For instance, when I started an endowment, Frugaling.org, and wrote my dissertation proposal, each were madly written, advocated for, and created. Despite the time to establish each, the pleasure of feeling purposeful made the hours fly by. They didn’t feel like work. I lost “reflective self-consciousness” and became the activity at hand.
While constrained by a society that values money over health (again, look at our health costs associated with being overworked and underpaid), I have the opportunity and privilege to pursue my own route. As I envision my “perfect” career, I imagine a series of part-time style gigs. I want a sprinkle of supervising counselors’ work, seeing clients, conducting research, and teaching future generations. The hours might become irrelevant when I’m tested, pushed, and encouraged to focus on helping others.
Two Novembers from now, applications will be due. I have time to find the right home, but I’m eager to fulfill the values gained over 26 years of my life. Right now, it feels like a professorship, but I’m open to change. I need to find my flow; without it, any job would be unbearable long term. Additionally, I need to be able to shape ideas, work, and daily activities in a manner that helps others directly.
How will you find your flow? What activities make you lose track of time? When do you feel purposeful, action-oriented, and passionate? Could these activities ever become a part of your work?