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Crafting Experiments: Embracing Uncertainty in the PhD Journey

Student Success Graduate
February 16, 2024 Abby Wilfert Vic Massaglia

JCC Connexions, Vol. 10, No. 1, February 2024

The Scholar's Compass: A Voyage Through the PhD Experience – A Series of Articles in JCC Connexions

"Uncertainty is the only certainty there is, and knowing how to live with insecurity is the only security." — John Allen Paulos

To pursue a doctorate is to set sail on uncharted—and often turbulent—waters. As we journey together, each moment is a new discovery, a transformative experience, and, indeed, an experiment. With this article, we draw from John Krumboltz's landmark theory of Planned Happenstance and Herminia Ibarra's concept of ‘identity experiments’ to guide our fellow PhD students on an exciting voyage of skill building and identity development.

Faced with an expanse of career opportunities in academia, industry, or, for some, entrepreneurship, many doctoral students develop a sense of uncertainty. Such ambiguity might be seen as indecisiveness, a stigma that can loom ominously as our PhD journey unfolds (Stebleton, 2018). But let’s challenge this perception together. The theories Ibarra and Krumboltz propose pivot on the belief that uncertainty can actually be beneficial. When we embrace uncertainty, we foster resilience and adaptability, essential skills for navigating the complex terrain of academia and the professional world that lies beyond.

“Chance favors the prepared mind.”  Louis Pasteur

Preparing for the Unknown

Our experiences are no exceptions to this inevitable uncertainty. While we each arrived at our graduate programs with specific research interests, the precise questions guiding our studies have shifted to varying degrees in response to the insights of our scholarly communities or newly discovered literature.

According to Krumboltz’s popular Happenstance Learning Theory, unplanned events can transform into meaningful opportunities for learning and growth if approached with an open mindset (Krumboltz et al., 2013; Mitchell et al., 1999). By reframing, we can transform uncertainty about the future from a cause for anxiety into a source of opportunity. We, as PhD students, can apply this concept by treating every task, project, and interaction as an opportunity for skill building and identity development. This strategy goes beyond simply completing the requirements of our program. It involves actively engaging in activities that foster personal and professional growth.

Capitalizing on unplanned opportunities requires five core skills: curiosity, persistence, flexibility, optimism, and risk-taking (Mitchell et al., 1999). The cultivation of these skills transforms students into agile scholars. To illustrate these skills in action, consider the following hypothetical scenarios:

  •       A doctoral student in public health who initially focused on traditional healing practices. During a field study, however, she becomes fascinated by the intergenerational transfer of knowledge within these communities. With the guidance of her advisor, she expands her research to explore how knowledge of healing practices evolves over generations. Her curiosity and flexibility allowed her to uncover deeper layers within the research topic.
  •       A PhD candidate in physics working on a complex theoretical model that could contribute to understanding dark matter. Despite numerous setbacks and challenges, his persistence is evident in his continuous revision of the model, pursuit of feedback, and ability to learn from each failed attempt.
  •       A sociology candidate encounters significant data inconsistencies and methodological challenges in her research on urban planning. Rather than becoming disheartened, she adopts an optimistic perspective, viewing these challenges as an opportunity to innovate in her research methodology.
  •       A student in computer science who has a revolutionary idea for a new artificial intelligence algorithm. This idea deviates significantly from conventional approaches in his field. He decides to take the risk of inquiring further despite the possibility of criticism or failure.

During the PhD journey, obstacles are inevitable. Overcoming them requires a growth mindset that transforms them into learning experiences. This ongoing process offers the opportunity to redefine our academic and career trajectories.

Reflection: How comfortable are you with stepping outside your comfort zone or pursuing unconventional paths? What strategies have you adopted to successfully respond to unforeseen opportunities and changes throughout your PhD journey?

Crafting Identity Experiments

With the five Planned Happenstance skills close at hand, professor and author Herminia Ibarra from London Business School takes us a step further. Her newly updated book Working Identity proposes the concept of crafting identity experiments, which involves engaging in activities outside the confines of our established roles (Ibarra, 2023).

Ibarra writes, “Self-creation is a lifelong journey. Only by our actions do we learn who we want to become, how best to travel, and what else will need to change to ease the way” (Ibarra, 2004, p. 163). She encourages us to ask the pivotal question: Who are we becoming? By crafting identity experiments, we begin to entertain potential answers to this question without making a definitive commitment. Along the way, we continue to hone our skills as scholars in the making.

In our own PhD experiences, we have found identity experiments to take on various forms. Here are a few examples:

  •       Engage in unplanned conversations and impromptu brainstorming sessions with peers. They may lead to fresh insights, challenge existing ideas, and provide opportunities for collaborative projects in the future.
  •       Attend workshops and conferences outside of your research area to explore new topics, engage in networking opportunities, gain presentation skills, and disseminate your work to a broader academic community.
  •       Take on teaching roles or assist instructors in delivering courses to experiment with an array of teaching methods and develop your own pedagogical style.
  •       Collaborate with departments in other disciplines, participate in internships with a variety of organizational types, or even embark on entrepreneurial initiatives to better discern your long-term research and career aspirations.
  •       Actively participate in professional associations and organizations relevant to your field. This can include attending meetings, joining committees, or contributing to publications or newsletters. Engaging with these professional communities provides exposure to current trends, research opportunities, and potential mentors.
  •       Build a personal board of directors by connecting with peers, faculty, and professionals in your industry. An academic network can serve as a platform for ensuring feedback, inspiration, and support.

Reflection: In the past, how have you responded to unplanned events or unexpected opportunities? How can you reframe uncertainty in your PhD journey as a source of opportunity for learning and growth? What identity experiments have you already conducted? From those described above, which exploratory activities most intrigue you and why?

Setting Sail with Certainty…and Uncertainty!

As we set sail on this doctoral voyage, let our journey be marked by curiosity, resilience, and a profound sense of purpose. Uncertainty can be a wellspring for growth and self-discovery. Through crafting our identity and seizing unexpected opportunities, we step more confidently into the role of scholars and professionals. In an unexpected paradox, uncertainty can be transformed from a hindrance into a faithful companion.


Ibarra, H. (2004). Working identity. Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career Harvard Business School Press.

Ibarra, H. (2023). Working identity: Unconventional strategies for reinventing your career (Updated edition, with a new preface). Harvard Business Review Press.

Krumboltz, J. D., Foley, P. F., & Cotter, E. W. (2013). Applying the happenstance learning theory to involuntary career transitions. The Career Development Quarterly, 61(1),15-26. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2161-0045.2013.00032.x

Mitchell, K. E., Levin, A. S., & Krumboltz, J. D. (1999). Planned happenstance: Constructing unexpected career opportunities. Journal of Counseling & Development, 77(2), 115-124. https://doi.org/10.1093/pubmed/fdac082

Stebleton, M. J. (2018). In praise of indecision: Encouraging educators and students to embrace life’s uncertainty. JCC Connexions, 4(4), 6-7. https://www.naspa.org/files/dmfile/November_2018_connexions_newsletter1.pdf