In episode 31 of PhD Career Stories, Jenny Zie tells us about her journey from marine research to career coaching and what she has learned along that path.
Jenny Zie finished her PhD at Stockholm University in 2014 and since then worked as a researcher in industry and with competence development at the Swedish Government Offices (Regeringskansliet). Now she is working as a career coach at Uppsala municipality (Uppsala kommun).
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My name is Jenny and I want to share what I have learned through my career development from PhD to my current position as a career coach.
I went to uni not knowing really what to study. I was interested in culture studies and fine arts but most grown-ups I met said there were enough unemployed people within those fields. And with my good grades, why didn’t I get a real degree instead? So, since biology was my favorite subject in secondary school, I got a master’s degree in ecology. I loved studying biology. It’s a never ending field to cultivate one’s curiosity in. To this day, the beauty of biology still fascinates me, and I can spend hours reading about new techniques used within molecular biology.
With this interest in molecular technology, I got to work as a lab assistant for two different research groups at the university. I loved those years where I was in the middle of the action, doing research, constantly trying out new methods and machines, and evaluating different protocols. My group leaders constantly challenged me and expected me to do better while supporting me when I needed it and giving me great feedback when I did something good.
Doing a PhD felt like the next step, or rather, it felt like it was what everyone else was expecting from me. A few opportunities passed by, but I didn’t really find any of those PhD projects interesting until finally, I chose a project within the field of climate change - or more specifically, global warming. I was given free range to set up a molecular lab and develop my own methods.
I have always been a curious person, wanting to make a difference, to contribute to society, so the PhD made sense. However, in hindsight I see one additional factor pushing me in to do a PhD without thinking it through properly. It was fear. My employment as a lab assistant was coming to an end and never having been unemployed, the thought of being so scared me.
Anyway, PhD studies turned out to be much different from being a lab assistant. I should have looked up whether the time it takes to set up a molecular lab was in addition to the time I was given for doing my PhD studies, which it wasn’t. There are also drawbacks to being the first one to try something new and to be the only one at the department doing something different from the rest. In my case, being the only one working with molecular methods.
I found others outside the department to exchange ideas with, but to do that was more energy-consuming than the type of spontaneous discussions that arise in the lunchroom. Also, a drawback with it being your own project is that you’re being solely responsible for it. When it’s too late to change the direction of the project and your machine breaks down with no funds to fix it, you’re the only one who suffers from not having results to show from the past four years.
Luckily, I got to borrow equipment in the end and I had an understanding partner who supported me through being at the lab for 14 hours a day, seven days a week, for seven months. (This was) followed by analyzing data, writing papers and my thesis ten hours a day, seven days a week for another four months.
I learned a lot about myself those years. I didn’t know that I had that level of capacity or tenacity. I also discovered that I wasn’t as without prestige as I thought, since it was my pride and fear of losing my face that stubbornly kept me going. I have since then worked on my fear of failure and issues of not being good enough as I am, or being judged by my achievements or lack thereof.
This leads me to my second calling -- coaching. In my opinion, the best thing about doing a PhD is that I discovered how much I love to work with people, to help them figure out what they want to do and help them become more confident in themselves, personally and professionally. During the time I supervised my master students in the field both in the lab and by giving them feedback on their writing, I saw how they grew their skills and confidence.
Through my own PhD studies I had the privilege to meet a coach through a separate research school which I enrolled in. After finishing my PhD, I met my second coach. These two coaches changed my life.
The first (coach) got me started on this process of facing my fears and working on my confidence. I’m not sure I would have finished my PhD without her support.
The second coach told me that when being between jobs, it’s okay to take one step back and to take the time to think. She also made me reflect on how me being ‘interested in everything’ had worked for me so far. She asked me what I really wanted to work with, about my dreams and my aspirations as a kid before I was told which things were impossible and less wise to do. She also made me realize that I don’t have to stay within one occupation just because it’s what I have been doing these past years. It may sound obvious and yet, I needed someone to point it out for me.
So in conclusion, what these coaches did for me is what I want to do for others. That’s what I want to pass on. I trained to become a coach and got a diploma in coaching.
I have learned that my greatest strengths are also my weaknesses. While being curious and open-minded to various things in life has taken me to where I am now and made me the person I am, it has also taken me on a long winding journey. I will continue being curious and open-minded, but from now on I will also be actively making choices instead of passively being swept along.
For example, two days after getting my diploma in coaching, I was offered a position at the government offices to work with skills and competence development. In contrast to before, where I would just have thought about how fun and interesting that sounded, and kind of being flattered by them offering me this position and quickly taken the offer, this time I carefully considered the pros and cons. “Okay, it sounds fun and interesting, but is it really what I want to do now? Is it one step closer to where I want to be later or is it one step in the opposite direction?” This of course requires that I do know what I want to do in the future.
Do you know what you want?
I knew that the employment was restricted to a few months and I thought about whether it did fit into my plans or inhibited further job searching.
So, my advice to you: are you doing things for the right reasons and by that I mean, are they right for you? Do you have the will and capacity to do this right now, at this time and stage of your life?
Surround yourself with people that support and believe in you. Choose carefully which advice to listen to. People mean well, but what they say isn’t always what’s best for you.
Learn new things by talking to strangers. Don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation with someone you don’t know. Who would have guessed that me talking to a guy outside a train station about possible roads for bikers and pedestrians would lead to an interview and my current position as a coach.
Do the things you want to do. Learn something new every day. And most importantly, remember to have fun.
Thank you for listening and good luck with whatever you choose to do!