Coaching techniques for when you come to a fork in the road on your career journey (opinion) | Inside Higher Ed

One-on-one career coaching, peer coaching and career development workshops are all methods that use a coaching philosophy to enhance your career exploration and preparation. But what if you don’t have access to a career coach at your fingertips? Gaining perspective can be a powerful tool to deepen your learning and drive forward your self-knowledge on your career journey.

Here are a few examples of how a choice-based exercise can help you gain perspective — consider trying this live with a coach, a peer coach, a trusted colleague or a friend. Ideally, having another person to interact with as you try one or more of these activities can inspire you in the moment, but you can also consider trying any of these as a writing exercise, as well, if you don’t have someone to try them with.

The Three Doors Exercise

Are you feeling stuck? The three doors exercise reminds us that we always have more doors (or options) than we may initially imagine. I have long loved the quote from The Sound of Music that Maria attributes to the Mother Abbess: “When the Lord closes a door, somewhere he opens a window.” This visual image always encourages me to look beyond what I think the door looks like, reminding me to look for a window instead.

In that same vein, the three doors exercise is best used when there are two perhaps seemingly diametrically opposed options. Usually, neither of those choices feels like the clear right answer — or, in some cases, they both feel like the right answer. While you can certainly employ as many doors as needed to imagine other options, for most people, doors one and two are easy to imagine. They may be, for instance, whether to begin postdoctoral training or instead apply to full-time permanent positions, choosing between two job offers, or moving to a new city versus staying put.

Most of the time, such choices appear to be unsolvable dilemmas or forced-choice options, where one must pick one or the other choice. However, often they are actually false dichotomies, or if they are truly dichotomous choices, at least one or more other choices aren’t being actively considered.

When I use this exercise with trainees, I know I have hit the mark if their initial response to “What does the third door look like?” is something like, “Huh … I don’t know,” a pause or a “Hmm …” while the wheels in their heads continue turning. Forcing ourselves to consider what the third door (or window!) looks like reminds us of what assumptions we are making in imagining those doors.

I wish I had known this technique during my own postdoctoral training, when I was considering academia or not. In retrospect, I now know that was a false dichotomy, as there are many career options in the academy. There are also many jobs that share aspects of the roles I liked in academia that are available in other sectors such as business, government and nonprofit organizations. But in the moment, I only saw two doors: tenure-track academia or not academia. Had I taken the time early on to do this self-reflective activity and imagine more doors than the two obvious ones I perceived immediately in front of me, I could have saved much time in my own exploration to discover higher ed roles that I loved but did not even know about at that time. While I was able to stumble my way to this reality eventually, I realize now that a little forethought and reflection can provide clarity on career steps if you give yourself the time, space and permission to think on them.

Example: To Postdoc or Not to Postdoc …

How do you choose whether to do postdoctoral training or not? While you may have many considerations, some aspects of this choice may be more important to you than others. For instance, if what it really comes down to for you in choosing a postdoc or transitioning directly into industry is getting job experience, what are ways of gaining on-the-job experience during a postdoc? Some options might include choosing an industry postdoctoral position instead of an academic one; pushing one’s comfort zone by doing a postdoc at a medical institute, for a nonprofit organization, or for a government lab to experience a new sector or industry; or choosing an academic institution that offers industry internships to trainees. Those each are “third door” ideas that may not come to mind if focusing solely on the false dichotomy of “to postdoc or not to postdoc.”

Example: Competing Job Offers

If two job offers are on the table — Choice A (academic research) versus Choice B (industry research and development) — the situation might seem clear cut. However, gaining some perspective about why you are drawn to each possible choice can help illuminate possible Choice C third-door options as well.

For example:

  • Do a higher pay bracket and better benefits draw you to Choice B over Choice A? If so, could you negotiate with Choice A to match or exceed the offer from Choice B?
  • Or perhaps you prefer the academic intellectual independence from Choice A but the translational impact of creating on-the-market products that improve the lives of patients in Choice B. Could you go with Choice A but propose a translational study and collaborate with clinicians at the institution?
  • Or maybe if you go with Choice A, you might create a spinoff start-up company with the potential for major health impacts.
  • Or Choice C could be a  combination of the two jobs for which you choose Choice A or Choice B as your primary role, but work as a contractor or consultant part-time on the translational projects you’re interested in as a secondary role (e.g., academic researcher while collaborating with industry or industry researcher while teaching a course).

The third door here might also be an entirely different job that combines aspects of Choice A and Choice B in another combination — like working with cutting-edge impactful science, research and development at a nonprofit biotechnology center or a university intellectual property office, or as a government patent officer.

Example: Geographic Locations of Choice

Another example of binary-choice setup may include the choice between moving to a new area of the country versus staying in your current location. Again, this may feel like a clear either-or choice — but what is it about each region, city or locale that attracts you to live or work there? For instance, if the two locations are geographically disparate and the economic opportunities in the two areas differ, could you live in one place but look for remote work options based in the other?

Alternatively, if access to family and ease of visiting frequently or easily is actually the nonnegotiable for you, perhaps direct flights or being within driving distance is actually the priority and may provide acceptable alternatives to living in the same city as family members. Or a third door might involve considering a different location entirely that’s halfway between the primary two under consideration. In any case, further examination of why you are attracted to doors one and two can help elucidate what a door three might look like, and more important, help uncover what about this location would help it to make the cut.

Be Outrageous

A variation on this technique is to challenge yourself to make up an outrageous third-door option and then try to defend or modify it accordingly. For instance, instead of choosing between living in New York City or Philadelphia, you decide to explore the moon as a third option because you feel that nowhere but New York or Philly would do. That may sound ridiculous, but if you can dance in the moment with your coach or partner, you can explore what that door would look like.

You might say something like, “Well, at least I wouldn’t have to worry about the commute!” and that might get you thinking that, in fact, the traffic in big cities like New York or Philly is really of concern in your imagined future way of life, and you realize you would actually be really excited about taking a job in a small city instead of a major metropolitan area. Techniques like this one can be quite helpful in providing perspective and distance if you feel caught between two ends of an insurmountable spectrum. Don’t forget that you can always add more doors if it’s helpful to explore a few other options as well.

In sum, these examples demonstrate how — on your own, with a partner or with a trained coach — you can use activities like the three doors exercise to provide insight and direction. When in doubt, immerse yourself in imagining your future. Explore the possibilities ahead and gain some understanding of what each future would be like. Take the time to envision yourself going through each door (or window). Invest time in your own career development: you are worth it.

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