“What are you up to?”

Now that I’m done my PhD, friends and acquaintances often ask me what I’m up to. “What are you doing these days?” It’s a standard question, akin to “What do you do?” But for a long time I didn’t have a good answer. Unemployed wasn’t right and doesn’t seem appropriate now, even though I don’t have any cheques in the mail. “I’m freelancing” and “I’ve got a few different projects I’m working on” was accurate but vague. When I tried to explain what exactly my freelancing entailed, I often fell short and ended up confusing everybody, including myself. In part, I needed to seek out the appropriate language. Business-world job descriptions weren’t part of my PhD education! I know now that figuring out how to describe my work was something I should have tackled earlier.

Recently, I’ve been doing more online research about freelancers. I learned that there are people out there called “virtual assistants”—this is a thing. They can do a variety of tasks, but at heart they provide administrative and other help to small businesses on an as-needed basis. Most of my own freelance clients are very small businesses, and much of the research, administrative, and other services I provided made me a virtual assistant (even when I wasn’t doing it virtually). It was good to have a name for what I was doing, even if it was still a bit vague. But at least there was a name!

I’ve now started answering the question differently. Instead of trying to describe the various bits of work I do, it seems more genuine to simply say that “I’m in transition.” I can add, “and working here and there on a freelance basis while I figure out what to do next.” This figuring out part is important, and yet it wasn’t something I brought up first thing. Why not? I think we make the assumption that people are either employed or unemployed and actively looking. I haven’t been in either category for a while. At least when I was still getting paid (a bit) to go to school, “full-time student” was an acceptable answer… sort of. Now I’m spending my days soul searching—identifying my values, skills, and goals; reaching out to people for informational interviews; researching jobs and workplaces; etc. Significantly, I haven’t actually applied for any jobs.


So now maybe you’re thinking I really should be. “It’s good practice,” “How can you know what you like until you try it?,” “It takes a while to get a job: you should start applying.” I’ve heard them all. And I appreciate the sentiments and understand the thinking. I’m still not going to do it, not yet, not now.

How’s this for an answer? “I’m in transition, and I’m still early in the process, in the exploring stage.” It’s the best I can do at the moment, and I’m comfortable with it. What do you think?

4 Replies to ““What are you up to?””

  1. I like your “transition” answer! It actually describes what you’re doing and may allow other people to also admit to a transitional stage in their lives. With our recent move, I should answer more often that I’m still in a transition state and it’s early in the process. Things are going “well” or “okay” it’s just all in a transition and it’s not settled yet!

    1. Yes! I caught myself replying “happily unemployed” a couple times, but in the context I think the same message came across: I don’t know yet, but I’m getting closer. Still, “in transition” is much clearer and I should remember more often to answer that!

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