When your career doesn't go as planned

When your career doesn’t go as planned

For as long as I can remember I knew I would go to graduate school. I didn’t know what for, but I knew I would go, it was like a basic life assumption. In my 3rd year of university, I decided I wanted to become a psychology professor. I don’t remember making a conscious choice, it just evolved. I had professors saying they would write me letters for grad school applications and encouraging me, it seemed like an easy and obvious path.

I got into a bunch of grad schools, picked the best one and loved it. I excelled there. I felt challenged and exited. I met amazing friends who saw the world like I did. I started grad school before the recession, at a time when a PhD, especially from a Tier 1 US school meant that you were expecting and expected to be a professor. But the world changed while I finished my PhD. The recession hit. Professors weren’t retiring. Universities weren’t hiring. Grad students were finishing PhDs only to spend years doing post-docs (essentially professor-level work for little pay with no job stability), so they could amass enough publications to get an academic job. I didn’t know what to do.

I knew I wanted to move closer to my family, so I started reaching out to anyone doing similar-ish work. This was the first time I understood the value in networking – although I didn’t even realize it at the time. I cast a wide net. I asked in favors for introductions, but I also sent cold emails. I was so surprised at how many really senior people responded and agreed to meet with me.

So many of us women question our value and hesitate to even reach out – what a HUGE missed opportunity.

I met a total of 32 people over about 7 months as I pursued my options. I was pursing non-academic options because I knew I might need to in the economic climate, but I also really wanted and thought I would get an academic position.

The most important meeting was with a research chair at a university. Our 30 minute meeting turned into 3 hours, during which time I learned that they had just hired a new professor. The person they hired had spent 7 years doing post-doctoral work (essentially he spent 7 years in a low-paying job doing sophisticated intellectual work, like being a grad student, but primarily focusing on writing papers). The successful applicant he had 70, yes, 70 publications! That’s INSANE.

I got in my car and cried.

I was not prepared to do that, and I was sad.

This had been my dream for a long time.

Creating a new dream job

The next day, I started to create a new dream. I wrote down all of my skills and I grouped them into things I liked and things that didn’t make me as excited. I kept working on my list until I figured out the one thing I was not prepared to let go of.

I wanted to help put research evidence into practice to improve lives and have an impact.

It didn’t matter to me which group of people would benefit (I was trained to do this work in education and mental health with children, but could apply my skills in other areas). I dropped lots of things I had training or expertise in (statistics, child development, program evaluation), but I kept the one thing that mattered most to me – helping people use evidence to improve lives and have an impact.

Over the next few months I met with lots of people to learn about what they were doing and I was offered 4 jobs in the span of 3 weeks.

EVERY job offer was from someone I met with informally that I didn’t know before I started this process – I didn’t get a single job offer from a job I applied for. Networking was the key to success.

I picked the one that best fit my vision and goals. The topic was different - working in healthcare, but that was also exciting since I learned something completely new. It’s been 7 years since I got my PhD and I don’t for a second regret my career choice.

I’m now at my next career crossroads. I’ve discovered I’m underpaid and undervalued for the work I do. I’m afraid, because I like control and predictability, but I also know that changing directions creates amazing opportunities.


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    Can you use the same approach to email networking?

    I had a 50% response rate from cold emails and 92% of people who responded agreed to meet with me. (I’m a numbers person – can you tell?) I think the secret to my success was how I wrote the emails, and I think it’s so easily adapted. I was going to try to explain, but instead, let me just share my email template with you. Obviously you will need to adapt it, but it’s a starting place.

    Dear …,

    My name is Julia Egan. I was born and raised in [insert State or town] and moved to Pennsylvania to complete by PhD at Penn State. I’ve been working on how to support organizations to implement evidence-based programs through the [description of the research center I worked at and the kinds of projects I was working on, tailored to focus on their interests].

    I’m very interested in the work you have been doing around [insert VERY specific details, 1-3 sentences]. I’m planning to return to [insert State] and really trying to understand the landscape related to the implementation of evidence-based programs. I would love to learn more about the work you are doing and how you think the field will evolve.

    All the best,


    In retrospect, I realize there are a few key things that made this successful.

    • I was not actively looking for a job. This is key. People will turn you down or not even respond if they think you are directly looking for a job.

    • I was appealing to people’s egos by asking them to talk about the work they love. Over the years, I’ve received a lot of these emails from PhD students asking to meet with me and I realize the ones I’m most interested in appeal to my ego. I wish it weren’t true, but we are human, and that’s pretty normal.

    • I researched lots of information about them before I emailed so that it was clear that I really understood what they were interested in and find something that was similar to my interests. For my example, I always picked something that wasn’t super obvious, showing that I had done my research and was genuinely interested.

    • I found ways to relate to them (in my case I was returning to the same geographic area as them, but I also highlighted other commonalities when I found them).

    Networking is the key to making your next career move. We often don’t think of networking while we have a job or are happy in a job, but this is actually the BEST time to network. People are far more likely to meet with you when you have a job than when you don’t.

    So get started…

    1. Create a list of 5-20 people you would like to meet with.

    2. Draft your email

    3. Start doing research on those people

    4. Send out 1-2 emails a week (unless you are unemployed, it can be time-consuming to meet with people, so I would limit it to 2 emails a week, otherwise it can get overwhelming.

    5. Remember, you are amazing and have awesome value to contribute to an organization and the world. How will they know if you don’t reach out!

    Good luck!


    How to network to change career directions