How to make major life transitions less stressful

When I finished grad school, I had no idea what I was doing with my life. The last few months of completing my PhD were a frenzied, hectic, emotional mess. What pulled me through those months was the idea that once I was finished with my degree everything would be fine: I would be happy; I would relax; and I was fairly confident that the next step in my life would just come to me.

But when I finished my degree, the next step didn’t come to me, I wasn’t relaxed and I wasn’t happy. I sat in my new house while my husband was at work each day, frozen by the idea that should be doing things but not really knowing what to do. I had been a student nearly my entire life, and I’d always imagined that I’d find an academic job and spend the rest of my life living to the rhythm of the academic schedule. It made me realize that there was a certain level of comfort to the academic rhythm, in which your next step is usually pretty clear. Being pulled from that rhythm, even if by choice, was scary.

In retrospect, a lot of this distress could have been avoided — or at least minimized — if I had known myself a little better. I had spent so many years focused on the steps in front of me — getting to the end of the semester, applying for grants, completing dissertation chapters, and so on — that I had lost any sense of connection between myself and these steps.

Most of us reach a point in our lives where what worked for us before stops working, and we end up feeling profoundly stuck. It’s a common feeling after a life shift—like graduation, losing a job, or having a baby—but can also come from a growing recognition that your life is not what you thought it would be. At these junctures we often realize that we’d been on autopilot in our lives for a long time.

If, during grad school, however, I had paid more attention to the things that suited me (and didn’t) about being an academic, my transition to life after grad school could have been dramatically easier. Instead of wondering who I was without my research, or how good I am without feedback from colleagues and committee members, I would have had a more strongly rooted sense of who I am and what I’m good at.

Over the following months, I began to realize that what I really loved about being an academic was learning new things and being able to share that information with other people. I’m good at that. I also truly hated the never-ending to-do list and the constant feeling that I needed to do more that I had as a grad student. What I began to realize was that my core values were learning, communication, and rest. Any future life and career choices that I made should be shaped around those values.

I began to research careers that fit these parameters: I wanted to learn things, explain them to people, and then go home at the end of the day, free from lingering responsibilities. Ultimately, I ended up with a job in software training and instructional design, which suits me because it allows me to prioritize my core values.

My core values are changing throughout my life and I’ll face different major transitions in my life — these types of changes in life are inevitable. But having created a habit of actively reflecting on myself, I’m aware of my core values and how they change over time. When I face another life transition, I won’t have to spend months wondering who I am and what I should be doing with my life. I’ll be able to focus on deciding which steps will allow me to put my core values first.

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