I've recently come to realise where my anxieties about my career path comes from - my PhD. As readers will know, I work in 'alternative academia' - having held various roles from student welfare, estates, library services, and academic standards. All of which support the endeavors of teaching and research within Higher Education.
I made the choice not to pursue an academic career but wanted to actively work in universities. I entered a fast-track graduate management scheme in university management and worked my way up a few grades in a short period of time. But I was always striving for more, always thinking 5, 10, 15 years down the line and where I wanted to be. Which is completely normal.
What wasn't normal, and was certainly unexpected, would be how I found myself comparing myself to others. I did a four year undergraduate, a one year master, took a year off, and then a 4 year PhD. By the time I was done, my school friends had a 6-7 year career headstart on me. Whereas, had I pursued academia, many of my colleagues would have been starting around the same age as me, now I suddenly felt left behind from my "non-academic" friends and colleagues (yes, I hate that phrase). I saw people the same age as me 2-3 grades above me, earning significantly more than me, with solid career paths and plenty of experience.
I wouldn't change my PhD for the world. It made me who I am, opened doors, and I still remain research active. But I wish someone had told me that it would be hard leaving academia and starting towards the bottom, feeling the rush to catch up and make up for the lost time.
I know that I shouldn't compare myself to others. I know that I am still young and there is plenty of time to develop a career. But there are days when that is hard, when you don't feel valued or opportunities pass you by, when you will wonder about the choices you made. And you will wonder if your potential is being squandered?
I think we need to be open about this when we encourage PhD students to consider careers outside the academy. Yes, these careers can be amazing but there will be challenges transitioning out of academia. As long as we acknowledge the highs and the lows, then we will be setting students up to succeed in whatever career they choose.