Written by: Michele Marenus

Edited by: Mena Davidson, Olivia Pifer Alge, Christian Greenhill

Illustrated by: Jessica Li

My Ph.D. journey began in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Moving from the big, vibrant city of Boston on the East Coast to Ann Arbor, a small college town in the Midwest, was different from what I expected. Making friends in a new city is always hard, but COVID added an extra challenge that left me reeling. The loneliness that I felt taking classes, assisting undergraduates, and launching my own research in a 100% virtual environment was overwhelming at times. I strongly reconsidered my decision to pursue a doctorate. Why am I living far away from my loved ones for a career that I’m not sure I want? I strongly considered leaving the Ph.D., but I first wanted to evaluate all other options before deciding which would be the right move. I actively explored more options for my career, leading me on a quest to learn about research opportunities outside of academia.

My first Google search on “industry routes for Ph.D. students” led me to websites and blogs from Cheeky Scientist and Ph.D. I did strength and weakness assessments, Meyer-Briggs personality tests, and career-matching quizzes with free career counseling services offered to University of Michigan students. I followed Adam Grant’s Think Again, which reminded me of the benefits of “thinking like a scientist,” which I knew a Ph.D. program would help me do. This reaffirmed my passion for research, and I recommitted to my program. I searched for part-time industry opportunities for early-stage Ph.D. students, leveraging my connections on LinkedIn and Handshake. I searched for months with no luck in finding the right fit. 

It was a conversation with my graduate coordinator opened a door. I was interested in a workplace well-being course she told me was no longer offered. However, she connected me with a recent graduate who is a Senior Scientist for a digital worksite health and well-being company. Data scientist and research careers appealed to me: I set up an informal chat with her. The conversation led to a unique opportunity – she needed an intern, but the pandemic had delayed the process. She re-connected with me a month later with approval to hire an intern and asked if I’d be interested. I jumped at the opportunity to gain hands-on industry experience!

One my main challenges was figuring out how to balance the responsibilities of the internship and the Ph.D. program. No one else in my program was doing such a thing, so there was no path for me to follow. As a part of the company’s analytics team, I worked on a project that addressed the questions: How do employers support the health and well-being of their employees, and how can they influence employees to choose healthy behaviors? We specifically assessed company work culture and the way it influences employers’ attitudes and behaviors related to the health and well-being of their employees. Learnings from this project contributed to my own research hypothesis that culture may be the singular most crucial determinant in the success of any employer-provided well-being program. Furthermore, culture can influence even the “hardest-to-reach” populations into choosing healthier behaviors.

The internship turned out to be a career-changing experience! On top of gaining an incredible mentor and wonderful coworkers, I can now use knowledge and data directly for my own research and dissertation projects.  It really has been the best of both worlds – having the freedom to ask interesting research questions and find systematic, evidence-based answers.  The structure and stability of an industry job with client reports, presentations, and deadlines appealed to me. The ability to integrate my research into industry and my dissertation has been both overwhelming and completely satisfying. I’m passionate about the research, and I love that I get to use it both with clients and my research. In addition, it also has been incredibly informative to see other Ph.Ds. with successful industry careers. Seeing firsthand what my future may look like is invigorating, affirming my commitment to continue down the path I am on.

Learning time and project management, setting boundaries at work and school, and maintaining motivation during challenging moments are lifelong developmental processes. At times, balancing an internship and a Ph.D. program simultaneously felt like too much to handle. Still, I knew that I would regret not pursuing both opportunities. This experience gave me a new outlook on my future as a Ph.D., exposing me to different career possibilities and a new motivation to preserve my doctoral program, despite the uncertain beginning when I first moved to Ann Arbor. The experience was also a service to my emotional well-being and self-confidence because I went after something that I wanted, even if it wasn’t the path well-traveled. Reflecting on when I started this journey two years ago, I can easily see how right the decision was for me. But in those moments of getting started, I did not feel I would be taken seriously in either industry or academia. Over time, I developed the confidence in myself and my ability as a researcher and employee to know that I am on the right track and belong in both places.

An internship may not work for many doctoral students who are already overwhelmed with their current responsibilities. But the idea of seeking the experiences that you want and overcoming fear to walk new paths can translate to many aspects of life. Choose the things that you want — the things that bring happiness. School, work, and life are not separate entities. They each make up a part of who we are, and who we will be. My advice is to take risks, explore opportunities, and find things that excite you. It will likely be good for your career, but more importantly—you’ll be taking an active role in creating the life you want for yourself. 

umsocial, Nikki Sunstrum
Michele is a Ph.D. Candidate in the School of Kinesiology at the University of Michigan. She works in the Physical Activity and Health Lab (PAHL) and her research is focused on workplace health culture and employee wellbeing. When Michele is not working on her dissertation, you can most likely find her playing pickleball!

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