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Overcoming limiting beliefs

Unhelpful beliefs can limit our progress when we are thinking about a career change. In this section we look at some common concerns and how to overcome them. 

Generally, people have a limited idea of their alternative options. We know about colleagues, friends and family's career experiences. 

Research shows that many academics see research as their vocation and struggle to think about alternative careers.

“Research is everything to me. Commitment and sacrifice are necessary just to stand a chance of continuing in academia.”

Connor, former postdoc, Biology

This can be because of a lack of appropriate guidance about career development, the perception that alternative careers are equivalent to failure, and societal or parental views about the pursuit of education or knowledge.  

Do any of these concerns sound familiar?

Quotes from postdocs "I have such a small specialist niche!", "I am scared to try", "How can I tell if a career will suit me?", "Can I find intellectual stimulation?", "I can't afford to take a step back", "I am too far along to change career", "I will feel like a failure", "I don't want to do unethical work", "What will my PI say?"

Take a moment to reflect on your own thoughts. Even if you haven’t started to think about alternative options – think about how you might feel when the time comes. 

Some of these concerns are rooted in myths and misunderstandings that circulate in academic/educational communities (and general culture – ‘education is a secure path to career success’) and tend to be about the way the world works. Some are legitimate concerns to do with time and workload. 

Some are beliefs about yourself and your abilities, that may have built up over time, in relation to difficult experiences. 

Finally, there are beliefs about how other people will behave or what they will think of you. 

Balancing your thinking

Balancing your thinking is a cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) technique that involves examining and challenging negative or unhelpful thoughts that contribute to negative emotions or behaviors. The goal of this technique is to replace negative or unhelpful thoughts with more balanced and realistic ones, leading to more positive emotions and behaviors. Here are the steps involved in balancing your thinking:

  1. Identify the negative thought: Start by identifying the negative thought that is causing you distress. This could be a thought related to a specific situation, event, or person.
  2. Evaluate the evidence: Evaluate the evidence for and against the negative thought. Ask yourself questions like: "Is there any evidence to support this thought?" "Is this thought realistic or is it an exaggeration?" "What are some alternative explanations for what happened?"
  3. Challenge the thought: Once you have evaluated the evidence, challenge the negative thought by finding evidence to the contrary. Ask yourself questions like: "What is the evidence that contradicts this negative thought?" "What are some alternative ways to interpret the situation?"
  4. Create a balanced thought: Finally, create a balanced thought that takes into account all of the evidence you have gathered. This could be a more realistic and balanced interpretation of the situation or a more positive thought that counteracts the negative thought.
UnhelpfulEvidence forEvidence againstBalanced thought
I have such a small specialist niche that no one else will employ me. They only employ people with broad skills sets! Maybe people with specialised skillsets also work in other careers? Maybe I have transferable skills that I am not aware of that are valuable to employers? Maybe my specialist niche is an asset and not a barrier? 
Maybe I can learn to identify and sell my transferable skills to employers? 
I'm too old to change careers, I'll never be able to compete with younger, more qualified candidatesIs there any evidence to support this thought? Have older individuals successfully transitioned to this career in the past? Are my skills and experience transferrable to this new career?"While it's true that some industries may favour younger candidates, there are many industries that value experience and maturity. In fact, some employers may prefer older candidates who have more experience and a stronger work ethic. Additionally, my transferable skills and experience could give me an advantage over other candidates.While changing careers may be challenging, I have valuable skills and experience that could be beneficial in this new career. I may need to work harder to prove myself, but my age and experience can also be an asset.

These kind of techniques can dilute the pattern and can tease out why some of these thoughts have such a strong grip on us. 

While cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can be a helpful tool for addressing negative thinking patterns, it may not always be the best approach for everyone or every situation.

CBT is based on the premise that negative thoughts and behaviors are learned and can be unlearned through structured and targeted interventions. While this approach has been shown to be effective for many people, it is important to recognise that everyone is unique and may respond differently.

Strategies to overcome limiting beliefs


Bimrose, J., Brown, A., & Barnes, S. A. (2012). Beyond employability: The importance of career identity development in the UK's changing graduate labour market. Higher Education Quarterly, 66(2), 163-180.

Duffy, R. D., Autin, K. L., & Bott, E. M. (2015). Work as meaning: Individual and organizational benefits of engaging in meaningful work. In M. Steger, R. F. Contrada, & J. O. Auerbach (Eds.), APA Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology, Volume 1: Attitudes and Social Cognition (pp. 699-719). American Psychological Association.

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