Change is inescapable in life. It follows us wherever we go, and at each stage of our lives. Some of us are better suited to manage change than others, and some even thrive in times of transition. But for others, change can be a source of anxiety, stress, and discomfort. Sometimes we see change coming, and can brace ourselves for the fall out, or prepare ourselves so things can transition more smoothly. Other times it is unexpected or thrust upon us with little to no warning, and can leave us completely lost and disoriented.
Students, no matter their level of study – whether they be undergraduates or post-docs – are under a great deal of stress and pressure. How can I as a career counsellor provide support and strategies to these students to help them manage the multitude of changes that will be thrown at them throughout their academic lives and beyond?
With the academic labour market such that it is right now, I am seeing an influx of clients who are transitioning out of careers quite unexpectedly. Many of the graduate students and post-doctoral fellows that arrive in my office, started out on their academic path with a certain goal in mind. They were going to be professors. They would contribute to an existing body of research and literature on their topic of specialization, and they would mentor, coach and teach junior academics to follow in their footsteps. The Canadian academic labour market has become increasingly saturated with PhD qualified academics, but vacancies for tenure track positions are becoming scarce. There are a slew of reasons as to why this is happening, and sometimes I will share these with the student, but that’s not really of importance at this stage. Providing an explanation as to why the labour market is how it is doesn’t do much to ameliorate the situation for the individual faced with abruptly changing the course of their career and life trajectory. Instead, I focus my energy on the individual in front of me, and the situation they are experiencing. How can I support this individual to cope with this transition, and develop skills that will hopefully allow them to navigate future transitions? Often I incorporate into my counselling practice the 4 S’s of Transition Theory as discussed by Goodman, Schlossberg and Anderson from their work titled “Counseling Adults in Transition (2006). I use this model to help guide the questions I ask and the direction that our conversation takes.
What are the 4 S’s? : Self – Situation – Support – Strategies
Discussing with the client’s previous experiences managing transition, personal attributes and personality type can help me gain a better understanding of where the client is coming from when they land in front of me. Gathering background intel is critical to providing a targeted service to the client. It is also imperative to get a clear understanding of the current situation. Depending on the situation and the individual, this portion of the discussion could elicit strong emotional reactions and may dominate the session. I often find clients respond quite positively to having an opportunity to talk freely about their experience. I allow the client the space and time they need to narrate their story. This provides insight into the situation, but also into the individual, and can inform the questions that I’ll pose moving forward. Support is a critical piece of this puzzle. Often individuals thrust into transition can feel isolated and alone. Posing questions to identify support structures in their life can be a source of great comfort for the individual and may be something that with the blinders of stress and shock, the individual over looked completely. I try to steer away from the obvious support resources such as intimate relationships, close friends and family. Where else can the individual seek out support? One area that is becoming increasingly popular among academics experiencing transition is social media. The twitter hashtags of “alt-ac” and “post-ac” (#alt-ac, #post-ac) are a window into an entire community of academics navigating a world outside of academia. Challenging myself to think broadly about where support can come from, and how the individual can tap into it helps me ensure that all angles are covered. The 4 S’s model breaks transition strategies into 3 categories – Action or Inaction; Reframing; Self-care. Exploring these through reflection and discussion can be eye opening and can help the individual create a plan to better manage what is currently happening in their life. Discussion points that I often use include:
- Action or Inaction: Are there steps that can be taken to help manage this situation? Would creating an action plan be useful? Does this situation lend itself to inaction? Sometimes ceasing an action can assist in moving forward. Do you think that could be the case here?
- Reframing: Can you look at the situation in a different light? Reframing can sometimes provide a new perspective to view the situation from. Are there positives to this transition? Might this help propel other aspects of your life forward? Were there aspects of academia that you found limiting or frustrating? Will this transition allow you to explore broader interests beyond your research topic?
- Self-care: What steps can you take to ensure you’re taking care of yourself during this uncomfortable time? Often transitions can trigger unhealthy coping strategies. Being aware of unhealthy or unproductive habits or coping strategies can help you focus on healthy and productive activities and actions.
Change is inescapable. Exploring the past, the present and future possibilities can help ground the individual experiencing change and transition, and will hopefully, allow them to navigate the process with increased confidence and ease. Change is a topic we can pretty much count on as a constant in our lives as counsellors. Keeping the 4 S’s front of mind can help us as counsellors feel well equipped to engage in productive discussion with our clients, and help them reach a point where managing change and transition may be a strength, rather than a source of anxiety.
By Stephanie Burley
*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA