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I entered academia despite my suboptimal "stats" (GPA, research experience, etc.) because I was allured by the idea of focusing on a research project. Even my Master's advisor noted how I jumped into the literature head-on (despite other metrics in my Master's program as questionable — GRE scores, GPA - by both him and the program director). I got into a PhD program at an R2 in Experimental Psychology despite this (they took 10 people out of 88 from 2015-2016 to 2020-2021 so not exactly competitive).

My first advisor at this Ph.D. program was someone whose research interests overlapped with mine. She was also the founder of a program at my high school that trained teachers on how to instruct neurodivergent individuals. Since I graduated from a high school class of eight students, an advisor-advisee match like this was unheard of and blew my mind at the time I applied to the program. I had to bite my tongue each time I recalled what we had in common, so there was no conflict of interest prior to admission to the program. In the end, she dumped me as an advisee due to a misunderstanding, and her exit from the program.

I had challenges at the bachelor's and Master's levels, not with fulfilling the raw requirements, but everything else that was an unwritten expectation I had to fulfill and no one told me about until it became a problem. Even though I'm in a better position now (full-time instructor NTT for a year at a SLAC and I got a fellowship on top of that), I can't bring myself to do anything else other than data collection for my dissertation even though my new advisor has been fantastic and wants me to do more projects with him.

I do not have any publications or a lot of "hard skills" that would make me a shoe-in for a lot of places post PhD (not even a postdoc). Participating in a system that's more exclusive than inclusive has been painful. I did not even know what an R1 or R2 was at the time I applied to programs at all. I had one offer in the end with someone whose research interests overlapped with mine at the time before she left the program, but I now have to fight an uphill battle since my PhD is not exactly from a recognizable name like an R1. I was blissfully ignorant of how all of this worked and I wish someone could've gone back to me at the time I finished my Master's (2020) to convince me to extend to my program and do an internship or something else instead of this PhD. I need to finish this program and graduate, as per my fellowship obligations, but I am terrified of the post PhD world compared to if I just had my master's. I set myself up for misery.

Does anyone have any advice for my situation? What can I find that's less ambiguous work wise?

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I don't think "neurodivergent" is a particularly useful label for identifying suitable career directions, it's too much of an umbrella and does not speak to your specific skills and abilities, while perhaps making too much of an assumption that there is some other "neurotypical" group that has little difficulty with the problem you describe.

The general difficulty you describe, of feeling a mismatch between your PhD training and potential careers post-PhD, is very common, perhaps near ubiquitous. For most people, their PhD is training for research in a very narrow field under direction of a supervisor who themselves has fairly narrow experience. Some PhD programs are now recognizing how few graduates will actually continue in academia and are providing more direct help in identifying skills applicable to other careers, but most graduates are left to figure it out on their own.

If you're struggling with the open-ended and self-directed parts of academic research, I think you will find almost every job outside of academia is more directed/less ambiguous. But, still, that does not help you identify a career path that will work for you. Like was suggested in the comments, I would recommend looking at whatever career resources are available at your institution. Even resources that are intended more for undergraduate students may be useful to you. At a minimum, hopefully you can meet with a career counsellor who can help you identify job skills that you have (even if you are not recognizing these) and how to convert these to phrases that will work on a resume. They will also be able to help you take some of your general preferences in working style to help narrow the sorts of jobs that you should apply for.

Other resources may include past graduates of your program, who now have jobs outside of academia. What jobs are those? Even if you aren't interested in their specific jobs, might they be willing to speak to you about other opportunities where they work or in their general area? How did they communicate skills they learned during their PhD? You could do the same falling back on your masters degree and looking at where people from that degree ended up.

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I feel what you are saying. I went through my PhD feeling like I was nothing exceptional and I come from a very small university. I think I am the second student attempting a PhD from my master program. I had a difficult experience during my PhD: learning rough skills, dealing with covid, struggling to build soft skills in a world that was basically shut down are only some of the troubles I had to face. Let's just say that all this has left me exahusted and with the desire to leave the academia. I don't know if applying for all the job offers that can "potentially" match my profile and my interests is a good idea, but... By looking around I discovered that I am not alone. There is a huge amount of PhDs who are willing to leave the academia and to transition to industry. Of course, often we are not supported by the university and we might encounter the skepticism of our advisors and coauthors (mine tried to convince me to stay, they were very polite but I feel uncomfortable every time they bring up the issue). I doubt I can be very helpful, but it could be useful to build a community of PhDs in our situation or at least to build contacts with other people who are attemping going to industry. By looking around I have discovered that we are a big group😊so you might be in an uncomfortable position but you are not alone.

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Ok.

First, the bad news: you are in a deep hole.

Second, the good news: if -- IF -- you can "tread water" professionally for 2 years, you will be in much better shape than the average job seeker.

Regarding the hole... There is no such thing as a 'shoe-in'. America produces dozens of PhDs per open position, both in academia and in wider industry positions. You are competing against candidates who do have soft and hard skills, publications, and... a lot of stuff you won't have. Today, in September 2023, you are competing against A LOT of them (roughly 500 applicants per industry data scientist opening, and they have skills).

The suggestion is to stop the bleeding today and focus on two years down the road. Once you have some job experience, your PhD will actually be worth something. Today, as you sit, your PhD is worth zero.

Make a choice. Are you staying in academia? Then your best bet will be nepotism. You must know someone somewhere who can place you anywhere. The nice part about academia is that they are somewhat insulated from the wider economy. If you are entering industry or government, do what everyone else does and get in line. You'll probably be at the back of that line, but once you enter that line, your PhD will start to pay dividends in advancing. Those dividends should compound like interest.

Alternatively, if you are unable to maintain some level of professional appointment, your PhD will be a loss, and everything will be for nothing.

Ask yourself where you want to be in 4 years, with your PhD in mind. That process starts today. Work backward from that vision of success and log professional experience. You'll just have to start at the bottom, like everyone else.

And learn to code Python and SQL. It's not hard.

Good luck, friend. God bless.

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  • I definitely don't want to stay in academia because this full-time instructor position is already super stressful for me. I'm most likely going to get a diagnosis of PTSD from my graduate school experience too based on a psychological evaluation. I'm going to see if vocational rehabilitation can help me but I truly dislike the position I'm in right now. I really wish I didn't get a Ph.D at all since I had no idea how self directed it really was and that's something I've not done well with at all.
    – zzmondo1
    Sep 11, 2023 at 7:58
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    Please use proper capitalisation and grammar in your answer.
    – user438383
    Sep 11, 2023 at 8:51
  • @zzmondo1 if it makes you feel any better youre not the only person to feel this way when finishing.
    – user156207
    Sep 11, 2023 at 12:40
  • @user156207 Regretting the path I took? I'm certain that's normal. Sadly though, I only have the baseline for a lot of jobs. I'm seriously hoping I get approved for vocational rehabilitation services sometime in the future since this is beyond burnout sadly.
    – zzmondo1
    Sep 11, 2023 at 13:50
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    @jdods I don't want a teaching job given the market right now but I do want to succeed for sure. I'm exhausted right now since this is my first time doing full time teaching (I was an adjunct previously) but I was told that being exhausted was going to be standard so that doesn't feel out of place to me at all. Fact I even got this gig at a SLAC is a miracle and I want to be as grateful as possible.
    – zzmondo1
    Sep 14, 2023 at 12:15

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