Sonia Jaeger is German-French psychologist, psychotherapist, and PhD.
She has been living a location independent life as a digital nomad for the past four years while working as an online therapist, providing online counselling to expats and other globally mobile clients in German, French, and English.
After finishing her PhD she decided to take a break and travel the world. However, instead of returning home afterwards she decided to start an online private counseling practice and has been traveling the world ever since.
In 2018 alone she went to (and worked from) 12 different countries, from Australia to Europe all the way to Latin America. Currently, she has not only started to mentor other psychotherapists who want to work online but also facilitates workshops that broach the issues of mental health while living globally.
Hi my name is Nika and I would like to welcome you to episode 85 of PhD Career stories. Our podcasts presents diverse career paths of PhD students. Speaking of careers outside of academia still isn’t common practice. And this is where we come in! We believe that through stories we can teach practical skills but also provide encouragement for those looking for their ideal career.
In today’s episode you can listen to Sonja Jaeger – a German psychologist and psychotherapist, who completed what she called “an accidental PhD”. You can learn about her PhD work and her transition into living as a digital nomad. Currently, she travels the world while working as an online therapist. In 2018, she went to and worked from 12 different countries – ranging from Australia to Europe all the way to Latin America. We hope you get inspired by her story to explore the world!
HI, my name is Sonia I’m a French and German psychologist and psychotherapist.
My PhD story is kind of an accidental PhD story which probably sounds a bit weird, so let me start a bit earlier.
I grew up in Germany and I studied psychology there. In Uni I really liked research, I worked in some research project as a student and I was really interested in it and consider it as a career path, did consider continuing in academia but I was also really interested in becoming a psychotherapist and working as a clinical psychologist.
So I decided to first do the psychotherapy training. That is something that in Germany takes at least three to five years.
It is quite intensive and cost a bit of money and takes time, obviously and so I felt like if I don’t do it now, I’m not sure I would do it later.
So that’s what I did I started working in a psychiatry and then in a child psychiatry I did my psychotherapy training for adults and CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) and really enjoy that and was really happy with that career choice but I wasn’t as happy with the city I was living in.
At the time I was living in a small city in East Germany and one day I decided to move to the city that I liked more where I really wanted to live in which was Leipzig.
After considering that for a while and thinking well maybe I should just start looking for jobs and see what’s available in Leipzig maybe actually move instead of just always talking about it.
So I started looking at things and the first one that came out seemed like I could be a good fit that could be interesting was a PhD position as a research assistant in a big research project at the university of Leipzig and I applied and a few weeks later I got the job.
That’s how I became an accidental PhD student almost because I wanted to live in that city so that was really the priority back then and the job and the career is what followed. So I still had a year to go in my psychotherapy training so I still needed to commute to my old home and to another city where I was doing the training so it was a bit of a mess the first few years but I really enjoyed working in research, I really enjoy working in a big team.
We were part of a huge study that basically study thousands of families in Leipzig in lots of different topics and our project was looking at depression and other symptoms and issues that children have.
It’s a longitudinal study that is still ongoing at the moment but I’ve left a few years ago.
To go back to my story I started working there I really enjoyed it, I really loved working with my colleagues.
I was happy to research it was really nice to be working on a computer to do more of the thinking and researching and less of the emotional therapy work that I had been doing before that.
I also missed the therapy work especially once I was done with my training and didn’t have my Friday patients anymore.
So after a while I wasn’t sure what the future would be like if I would go back to therapy if I would stay in research in academia.
But I decided well, my hope was that I could combine it somehow that I could maybe work part time in therapy as a counselor, part time do research to find some other way to combine those things but.
First I need to to obviously finish my PhD because once you started and you’re halfway there it’s like you should really, you know even if that was my plan originally I really wanted to get that done.
In the meantime I had been promoted to a more leading position in the research projects I was working full time and trying to do my PhD work on the side so it was a lot of work, like for most PhD students and maybe even a bit more.
I did manage to finish it obviously I have a PhD now, so I did manage to get it done.
So what I decided to do is that, I would take a break after I was done with my PhD and then probably open a private practice in Germany.
At least that’s what I was thinking back then.
So in 2014 I finished my PhD I submitted it and I started traveling for ten months. Ten months that’s what that was my goal. I had some travel plan, some plane tickets, some friends that I would meet up with in different parts of the world. I started in Chicago, I met up with a friend and we did a road trip from Chicago’s through Detroit and we went up to Canada and then back down to Boston.
I went on to New York and then to Mexico where I met another friend then back to Europe where I met family over Christmas then I went to Asia, I met other people there.
After about six months of traveling so it’s getting a bit tired of just being a tourist and just traveling.
At the same time I met another tourist on a beach who asked me why I don’t work online and to be honest I had never considered that I had not really heard about the fact that online counseling is really a thing at least something that really works.
But the person told me that they talk to a therapist while they are traveling and so I got curious and I started looking into it because I was enjoying the traveling and I was enjoying the freedom of being in different places, getting to know other cultures and countries and people.
I started looking into it and decided to try it out and so after my ten months I went back to Germany but only for the defense and I stayed for only three weeks and told everyone I’m gonna go for another six months and see if this online counseling thing could actually work and that’s kind of how I left academia and how I went back to counseling but in a very new format.
I’m coming up on my five years as a traveling person without a home without a home base. I’ve had a home base I kept my room in Leipzig for the first few years but I gave that up a while ago because I just wasn’t there enough so it didn’t really make sense. I still have an address I still pay my taxes in Germany but I don’t really have a home. Or maybe I have many homes maybe that’s more the reality.
I’ve been working as a therapist online providing online counseling in German, French and English to nomads, to expats, migrants and other people who for some reason cannot or don’t want to go see a therapist where they live.
Most of my clients don’t have access to a therapist in their language or from the country background where they live.
And that’s why they choose online counseling.
Also young mothers that have difficulties finding someone to babysit so they would talk to me when the child is asleep and if we’re lucky it would actually stay asleep.
I also did a lot of PhD students as clients actually because I think the fact that I went through the process myself is something where people feel like I would maybe understand them more and I would understand what it’s like to be in that very stressful environment and with those very high expectations but at the same time a really weird kind of freedom which is obviously something that is really amazing.
And definitely one of the things that I love most about working in research is especially after having been working in child psychiatry for a few years where I had to be there every day at 7:30 AM.
It was so amazing to just be able to sleep in and get to work later work from home if I felt like it or at some point I would work at home for one or two hours every morning on my PhD and then on my thesis and then I would just go into work after and a bit later on and stay later.
Having that kind of flexibility and freedom is something that I very much enjoyed and valued but I also know that it’s something that can make it really difficult because this never end there is always more to do and It’s really hard to prioritize weekend and time off when there are so many projects so much work so many things waiting for you.
And that’s definitely something that many of my clients who are PhD students are experiencing.
Another thing that they come to me about is really that question of do I want to keep doing this? Why and how is it possible? What can I do? Would I ever find a stable job? Would have to move to a city where I don’t want to live in? Or in a foreign country that maybe I don’t want to go to?
Yes I do get a lot of PhD students as clients and this may be a second part of my story. So I’m not in research anymore myself and I’m not doing anything in that area myself right now..
Through my work as a counselor working with a lot of PhD students I still feel very connected to that word and it’s something that I’m considering going back to at some point.
I’ve decided for myself to not start more than one new project every six months and I’m already starting two at the moment which I shouldn’t be doing but the timeline has changed so you know how it is.
So it’s not something that I’m going to do right now but it’s definitely something that I try to keep in touch with and I’m connected with lots of people who are still in academia.
This is pretty much my accidental PhD story I can tell you a bit more about what it was actually like for me but really what it comes down to is that it was a lot of work.
It was really interesting; it was at times really frustrating especially working in a big research project where a lot of different departments had to work together and that’s not always something that people are great at especially when they’re used to being in charge and making all the decisions on their own and suddenly all these big department heads had to work together to get this project going and that was definitely something where I learned personally a lot about how to manage people, how to resolve conflicts, how to handle office politics and things like that.
The research project we did it in itself was really interesting. My PhD looked at stress reaction of children and adolescents with anxiety and depression.
So we did a stress test with them, performance exercise where basically in front of judges children had to perform and we measured lots of different things later to look at their stress reaction in more detail we looked at physiological reactions like cortisol but also the emotional reaction the anxiety levels.
We also looked at facial reactions, analyzed those so we looked at a lot of different things and it was really interesting to do that.
We did some of the stress test myself as one of those jury members that would not be very responsive and interact with the children very much but also sometimes in the other role I would be the nice one playing with the children but most of the time I was really the one managing the office and the research project.
We had at best times I think we had thirty people working in just our small project.
Lots of students, lots of PhD students, Medical PhDs, psycho PhDs we had lots of different people in there so it was a lot of coordinating and project management and those kinds of things obviously.
I think that’s my story of how I wanted to move to a city and that’s why I did a PhD and I’m not in academia anymore but I’m actually finding that my PhD is really helpful and useful in terms of marketing.
At least when I’m looking at the German audience because they really like a PhD, it’s just really sounds good and it shows a level of expertise, obviously and it’s something that people trust enough that they look up to, which is very interesting because I also work in French and in France it actually doesn’t have the same connotation it doesn’t have the same value for my marketing now on my online counseling services which is really interesting to look at how PhDs are valued in different ways in different countries and different cultures and because I now travel the world full time and I work with international therapist on the online service, it’s been really interesting to learn more about different PhD stories.
I think that’s why it more your podcast obviously is a great resource for people too.
Thanks for inviting me.
I’m Sonia like I said maybe an accidental PhD but a very happy online counselor into just a nomad coming up on five years of having left academia and traveling the worlds.
I hope the story of Sonia has inspired you and motivated you to perhaps find ways to utilize your PhD skills while completing all the world travel you always dreamt about, To hear more stories, subscribe to our podcast on Spotify, Itunes or Soundcloud.
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Thank you for listening and see you back in two weeks!