On Transitions: Q&A with Dr. Katie Kostohryz

Katie Kostohryz is an Unsettled alumni (Bali, August 2018), an assistant professor of counselor education, and a fascinating conversationalists on topics ranging from identity change to the pursuit of life’s most rewarding moments and experiences. We were fortunate to dive deep into one of the fascinating conversations with her and her wisdom is pertinent and timeless. We have already put this full Q&A on our personal vision boards…

Name: Katie Kostohryz, PhD, LPC

Next travel destination or life event you can share: I’ve always wanted to learn how to fly so two of my friends bought me one of the coolest presents ever: 3 hours of aircraft & pilot training. My first flight lesson is in mid-May!

Profession: Assistant Professor of Counselor Education & Supervision, Licensed Professional Counselor

A current word or intention showing up in your life at the moment: Alignment

Based on your profession and interests, what have you been thinking about recently regarding how frequently we seem to be going through professional transitions today?

As we change personally, it impacts us professionally. We are constantly growing and evolving as is the world around us. As a result, our needs shift and we often outgrow relationships, lifestyles, habits, ways of thinking and being, jobs, careers, etc. Research from the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2018 reports the median number of years that wage and salary workers had been with their current employer was 4.2 years. Who we are now is not who we were 4 years ago nor who we will be in 2023.

I think we need to constantly ask ourselves questions: What’s important to me?  What do I want to do? What do I want my day to look like?  Where am I spending my energy? Where and how do I want to live? Who do I want to be around? Our culture, values, relationships, and society impact how we answer these questions.  As we transition in our professional lives, other questions are important to ask. For example, how much of what I don’t like in my current job will be present in my next job?  I’ll never forget my program chair at Penn State saying to me: taking on too much responsibility will follow you wherever you go unless you decide to do something about it. He was right.

There are a variety of professional transitions we will experience over a lifetime and it’s personal to each and every one of us. I would never trade experiences I had working at a residential treatment facility in Colorado for three years with kids who had been severely abused, yet I wouldn’t be fulfilled working in that job 15 years later. I stumbled upon that position while waiting for my teaching license and that experience led me to earn my master’s degree in counseling, focusing on children and families. I worked as a counselor in different agencies as well as worked in a family business before deciding to begin a doctoral program to combine my love of teaching and counseling. I learned a lot about myself over the years – what I wanted and didn’t want in my personal and professional life. Some were more difficult lessons than others. Working with my boyfriend in a family business? Never again! Summer’s off? Sign me up!

Many people, myself included, want to see their future and know the path ahead, yet the impermanence of life doesn’t allow that. It’s a beautiful and frustrating fact: everything changes, nothing stays the same!

What would be your personal advice to someone who has just transitioned from a job or career by choice?

This question is close to my heart. Since there are no sabbaticals for clinical faculty at Penn State, I decided to take a belated “gap” year with support from colleagues, family, and friends this past year.

I began my adventures in Bali with the Unsettled crew. I immediately felt at home with twenty-one strangers who quickly became family. We were in similar yet different transitions in our lives.  We laughed, we cried, we danced, and we warmed up our chi in an experience I will never forget.

What has been an incredible year has also been a challenging one.

As the old saying goes, when we transition out of something old, we begin something else. There are many gains and gifts to be celebrated with a new opportunity, even if we don’t know exactly what awaits us. We often talk about these exciting aspects yet do not allow spaces for the other side.

There are losses and grief in any sort of change, even if it is a choice of our own doing. As a counselor, I work with individuals in a variety of life transitions filled with losses that are often unexpected and unacknowledged. Career and job transitions are no exceptions. Even I was unprepared for the losses I would experience this past year.

“What do you do?” Is often the first question we ask one another. We know we are more than our jobs yet it’s harder to talk about other, more intimate aspects of our lives. If we aren’t at work or talking about work, who are we? These are questions I pondered this year when I lost part of my identity. What would I talk about with others?

Depending on the type of transition and person, losses may vary. Here are a few I experienced this year:

  • Loss of meaning and purpose

I had gotten into the profession because of the death of my sister and now I wondered how I would honor her if I left.

  • Loss of social status

Reactions from others can be difficult for people in career or job changes. When I left the tenure track 5 years ago to a clinical track in higher education, I moved down in the ranks. People in my profession kept asking me, “Why would you do that?”  When I left a great clinical position at Penn State, people wondered what was wrong.

  • Loss of self or identity

I was used to providing crisis services and feeling my time was worthy and needed, but I no longer did that so what was my contribution to the world?  Teaching was an extension of who I am and what I believe in life. I didn’t think I had an ego attached to my title but I wasn’t being called “Dr. K” on a daily basis. Who was I now?  I didn’t have work to blame my stress on anymore so then it defaulted back to me.

  • Loss of daily routines

I missed drinking ginger tea with my work “neighbor” on cold days of winter. My flexible teaching schedule and meeting with students and clients kept me on my toes. I missed my morning hellos to colleagues as I passed by their offices as I started my day.

  • Loss of relationships

I missed playing on volleyball, basketball and softball leagues with colleagues and friends when I left. I missed laughing with coworkers about our shared need of more lavender lotion and eating candy together on days we all needed sugar.

  • Loss of connections and growth

I missed celebrating birthdays and milestone events at faculty meetings. I missed my office hours exploring ideas with students.

  • Loss of finances

Although I would be traveling for a year, I had to reexamine my budget and ultimately needed to use some of my savings.

  • Loss of hopes and dreams about what we expected our lives to be.

I imagined myself being happy and content with my career success yet here I was feeling restless and unsettled in life.

  • Loss of community and home

I moved and gave up my house in order to travel for a year. I miss my firepit and watching the sunsets from my back deck. I miss telling people that I live in “Historic Boalsburg” as I had pride in the tiny town I lived in for four years.

How we respond to these losses may be impacted by previous losses in our lives, death and non-death related.  Grief manifests differently for everyone in many different forms: emotions, thoughts, behaviors, and in our bodies. Our culture and society also impact how we grieve as do our spiritual and religious beliefs. My advice would be to allow time and space to honor and express your grief with others. I’m also working on having more compassion for myself in these transactions, even if by choice.  

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all been difficult. At a later date, I’ll share some of the creativity and freedom I’ve found along the way, including writing the book I’ve always wanted to write and traveling the world, learning about different cultures and meeting fascinating people. That part is typically easier to talk about so I wanted to invite others in this question to share some of the more challenging aspects of transitions.

What helps you maintain a sense of well-being when your professional responsibilities begin to feel more like struggles than rewards?

This is a great question! We need to ask ourselves this before our struggles outweigh the rewards. Is it healthy for you to stay or not? I have different thresholds with different jobs, depending on what spaces I am in in my life and what relationships I’m choosing to prioritize. What constitutes well-being for one person may not be for another, so it’s an experiment to find out what fuels you during the day and what drains you. For me, rewards are found: connecting to colleagues and students; sharing a laugh; getting outside and breathing fresh air in the middle of the day; listening to music when I’m responding to emails; setting reminders to get up and stretch or move; setting boundaries and saying “no” at work so I can catch that yoga class or meet up with friends for happy hour; talking to my colleagues who have been in the field longer than me and ask how they navigate their struggles; checking my thoughts as I can internalize situations at work but it is often not mine to carry. I’m better at listening to when I’m not as aligned. Our minds and bodies are constantly giving us feedback. We just may not understand the language they are speaking. I’m learning the language of my intuition and making decisions that best support me being healthy and successful in any job.

The workforce is obviously changing and so is our knowledge about how we navigate through it across our lives, and how that affects us. What do you share with students/young adults who are about to enter the workforce for the first time?

If you ask former students, they would tell you two main words of wisdom I’ve passed along. One, maintain your sense of humor and laugh more often because we don’t do it enough. Learning and growing personally and professionally is challenging and uncomfortable at times and it can also be fun and playful. Life is really hard and it’s really funny at times. I also over emphasize wellness into all my classes and assignments. We are people first and employees/students second. As it gets closer to graduation, we design plans on how they can maintain their wellness in the workforce. We include aspects of their emotional, physical, environmental, social, intellectual, creative, spiritual, and occupational health. I encourage them to ask employers about ways they can support these aspects of their well-being.  

Sometimes we learn from what we don’t like in an initial job or work situation. Although it doesn’t always feel good, there are important lessons in listening to what no longer serves us. Most people do not land their dream job out of college or grad school yet a lot of us have this expectation. We grow and change over time, so we need to be flexible and anticipate transitions every few years. This is often easier said than done.

I often tell students that your major and degree do not define who you are or what you will do. Many students feel obligated to go in these linear paths post-graduation. Be aware of the ‘shoulds’ not only in your job search but also in relationships with yourself and others. There are creative ways to use your skills and degree in a job that best suits you. Contacting career services at your university (even as an alumnus they often offer free services) and meet with a career counselor. They have resources and information about trends in the current workforce as well as tools to help assess your talents, passions, values, personality, and interests.

Best of luck in your journey!

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