By Loleen Berdahl

I am always fascinated by other people’s careers: how they make choices, create and respond to opportunities, and strive to achieve the mythical “work-life balance.” As my own career path has been highly atypical, with an unexpected midcareer transition to academic life after a highly satisfying decade working in non-academic research, I am curious to learn how others have navigated their own career journeys. My belief that there is much to be learned from lived experience motivated me to invite political scientists Ken Carty (University of British Columbia), Linda Trimble (University of Alberta), Byron Sheldrick (University of Guelph), and Heather Smith (University of Northern British Columbia) to share lessons from their careers for junior faculty at the 2017 Prairie Political Science Association conference. Here, with their permission, is my distillation of theIr insights, along with my own thoughts about how their advice extends to graduate students.

Create room for serendipity. The panelists all soundly rejected my panel title, “Planning Your Career for the Long Term”, with each stating that some of their most meaningful career moves were serendipitous: opportunities emerged, and the panelists moved into new, unanticipated directions. What was critical, they argued, was having the flexibility to be able to do so. Careers are full of opportunities, but the ability to say yes to things that will have positive, meaningful career impact requires first saying no to myriad other possibilities. As one panelist asserted, “Saying no opens up the space to say yes to something else later.”

How might this idea extend to graduate students? Saying no can be particularly challenging when one has less experience assessing time commitments and likelihood of impact. There can be an overwhelming sense that one always needs to do more just to keep up, but more just for the sake of more is highly unsatisfying. One practice that I have found effective in my own life is to never act or respond immediately, but instead to wait until I’ve had some time to talk to others and consider my gut feeling. Good opportunities remain good opportunities after careful reflection.

Cultivate a career sounding board. The panelists all spoke of the importance of people in their lives who provided key strategic advice about career directions and choices. They recommended that junior faculty ask trusted individuals for very specific feedback on publishing plans and progress towards tenure and promotion. They also identified the importance of “in-house allies” who can help explain how specific institutional processes work. The panelists stressed the need to develop a mix of individuals to consult inside and outside one’s institution, as no single person can cover all career mentoring needs and multiple perspectives are often better than one.

PhD students can adapt this idea by expanding their career mentor network beyond their supervisor and committee. This can include faculty within your department and in the discipline outside your university, political scientists working in other sectors, and students and recent graduates a few years ahead of you. And be sure to pay this forward by providing guidance to students behind you in your program.

Adopt a definition of success that fits you. The panelists spoke repeatedly about accepting who you are and the aspects of your career that both make you happy and in which you make the greatest contributions; one panelist stated, “Come to grips with who you are and what you are good at,” while another advised, “Be the leader, teacher, researcher that you want to be.” They all spoke of the need to define success in life (rather than just career) terms, and to take active steps to ensure that health, family, and personal wellbeing take priority in one’s schedule. They spoke to their own experiences on this front, demonstrating that work-life balance is both possible and attainable – and that it requires deliberate effort.

This final point might seem particularly challenging for graduate students; the dominant academic narratives for “success” (publish more, get a tenure track job, etc.) can seem narrowly defined, and there is always time for health, wellbeing, and family … later. But in my own experience, “later” never shows up naturally, as externally defined success criteria just continue to escalate. The question for all of us is how to balance those external criteria with what we personally value.

I left the panel inspired to continue discussions of career pathways, and to create venues for additional discussions that include reflections from PhDs working outside academia. And learning from experience, I will aim to have better panel titles in the future.

Loleen Berdahl is Professor and Head of Political Studies at the University of Saskatchewan. After completing her PhD, she worked for ten years in the nonprofit think tank world. Her research considers public attitudes, intergovernmental relations, and political science career development, and she is the recipient of three University of Saskatchewan teaching awards. Follow her on Twitter (@loleen_berdahl), where she tweets about political science, higher education, and opportunities for students, among other topics.