The Intersection Between Luck and Hard Work with Dr. Sharon Belden Castonguay

Sharon Belden Castonguay, Ed.D. is an adult developmental psychologist and the Executive Director of the Gordon Career Center at Wesleyan University, where she is also the instructor for Career Decisions: From Insight to Impact on Coursera and the host of the podcasts Careers by Design: The Interviews and First Year Out.

She currently serves as President of the Liberal Arts Career Network, a consortium of top liberal arts colleges and universities across the United States. Her TEDxWesleyanU talk, The Psychology of Career Decisions, considers themes of identity, culture, and decision making. Her career advice has been featured on, and Apple News.

She received her doctorate in Human Development & Psychology from Harvard, where her research focused on how businesspeople make career decisions. She also holds an MA in Education from the University of Michigan and a BA in Government from Smith College.


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Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn:

  • Every doctoral journey is unique
  • Advising doctoral students who don’t want to be academics
  • Finding the right advisor, and then firing him
  • Why Dr. Castonguay married the food delivery guy
  • The Year of Change
  • The psychology of career planning

In this episode…

Most doctoral students identify as doctors in their hearts long before holding the diploma in their hands.

In this episode of An Unconventional Life, Dr. Sharon Belden Castonguay and Dr. Russell Strickland discuss the importance of identity when it comes to choosing your doctoral program, your doctoral advisors, and your postdoctoral career. Dr. Castonguay began advising doctoral students who choose not to pursue academia on career options while still pursuing her own doctoral degree. She shares an amazing technique for setting your career direction using comparative professional-identity introspective exercises. In our careers, and our lives, serendipity and intentionality both contribute to outcomes. Carefully reflecting on your own identity prepares you to pursue the right opportunities when they present themselves.

Dr. Castonguay advises that career success is found at “the intersection of luck and hard work.” You can do it!

Resources Mentioned in this episode

Sponsor for this episode…

This episode is brought to you by Dissertation Done, America’s #1 authority in dissertation completion for working professionals.

Founded by Dr. Russell Strickland, Dissertation Done serves people in two ways:

  1. If you’re struggling with your dissertation, getting ready to start your dissertation, or just plain wanting to get your dissertation done as soon as possible, go to and Let’s Get Your Dissertation Done
  2. If you’re busy living your Unconventional Life and have a message that you want to share, maybe you should join our Expand Your Authority Program to become a published author. Go to and let me know that you’d like to talk about Expanding Your Authority.

Visit to learn more about our other services and leave a message or call them at 888-80-DR-NOW (888-803-7669) to schedule your free 30 to 45-minute phone consultation.

Episode Transcript

Disclaimer: This transcript is here for your reading convenience. It was created by machines and may (a-hem) contain some errors. If you email us about these errors, the machines will undoubtedly find out. I hope they won’t get angry.


Intro [00:00:03] Welcome to An Unconventional Life, a podcast where we share stories about the crazy one percent out there who earned their doctoral degrees and then went on to use them in crazy, cool, unique, and unconventional ways. Here’s your host, astrophysicist turned teacher, author, dissertation coach, and more, Dr. Russell Strickland.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:00:28] Hello and welcome to an Unconventional Life podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Russell Strickland, the founder and CEO of Dissertation Done. And I have with me today Dr. Sharon Belden Castonguay. She is an adult developmental psychologist with Wesleyan University, interested in an adult developmental psychologist is we’re going to talk about that a little bit and how adults continue to develop through their career choices. So excited to have Dr. Castonguay with me today. Welcome.


Dr. Sharon Belden Castonguay [00:00:57] Thank you. Thank you for having me.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:00:59] You’re quite welcome. Want to let everyone know that today’s episode is brought to you by Dissertation done. At Dissertation Done, we help adult doctoral students and guide them through the dissertation process. So whether you are very proactive and just getting ready to start your dissertation and looking for some guidance and support, or you feel a little bit slowed, stalled or just plain stuck on the dissertation, and you need someone to help you through to graduation, reach out to us at And we’ll see if you’re a good fit, if you’re a good fit for our Fast-Track Your Dissertation coaching program. And if by chance you may have already graduated and you’re working in the expert space, perhaps you are a coach or consultant or counselor and you would like to get your authority out there and elevate your credibility. The best way to do that is by becoming a published author. And through our Expand Your Authority Expert Author Program, we help you go from the blank page to published author faster than you think you might be able to. You can find out more by getting in touch with us at Again, Dr. Castonguay, thank you so much for being here today. I always ask our students or rather our guests on the podcast to tell us a little bit about what motivated you to pursue your doctoral degree in the first place. Tell me a little bit about that. What kind of a crazy decision to most people out there in the world to join that one percent who earned their doctoral degree? What motivated you?


Dr. Sharon Belden Castonguay [00:02:26] Yeah, it’s a great question, so I entered the field of career development after receiving a masters degree in my 20s, and I ended up working at a business school, coaching MBA students and teaching a course on career development. And I was there during the dotcom rise and crash.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:02:45] Yeah, it happened kind of quickly, didn’t it?


Dr. Sharon Belden Castonguay [00:02:46] It really did. And it was a very interesting time to be working in career development, particularly with early to mid career and even some quite late career clients, because part of my job was working with alumni of the MBA program that I was working with as well. So I had people in their 20s who would have their job offers pulled as well as people in their 50s and early 60s who are getting laid off from their jobs. And I got really interested in the aspects of resilience that was coming from that and how people made sense of those experiences and how they were processing what was going on in the economy and how it was affecting them. And I ended up deciding that I really wanted to study this further and in a more formal way. And I’d always had it in the back of my head that I might get a doctorate when I did my master’s degree. That was actually in secondary education, that had a lot of adolescent focus. I’d had this idea where eventually I’ll go back and get a Ph.D. in education policy, this kind of thing. And that that wasn’t where I landed, obviously. But when I decided to get a doctorate, I actually had a really hard time thinking through programs because what I wanted to do was very specific and very interdisciplinary. And I probably would have been a good fit for an organizational behavior department and a business school, but I had kind of burned out of that culture and experience and wanted something different. So I started looking at psychology programs and sociology programs and ended up in a human development and psychology program, largely because they were going to allow me to be far more interdisciplinary than most straight psych or social programs were going to allow me to do.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:04:49] So having them that broad, that broad exposure was something that was very important to you?


Dr. Sharon Belden Castonguay [00:04:56] Yeah, absolutely. I mean, career development is by definition an interdisciplinary field. I wasn’t interested in taking a very narrow lens of just reading career development theory. Like, I really wanted to think very broadly about how American culture and aspects of identity and time and place all affect this type of decision making.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:05:17] And obviously, this is going to lead into part of our later discussion. But what was the why for moving into this field? You mentioned you were interested in studying, but what did you want to be when you grow up to speak with your doctoral degree?


Dr. Sharon Belden Castonguay [00:05:31] Yeah, you know, it’s an interesting question because by that point, I had been working in higher ed. By the time I went back, I’d been working in higher ed for about five years, I think. And I knew a little too much about it to want to go into the professoriate. You know, I knew what all the pitfalls were of the publish or perish environment, how long I’d have to start over career wise, you know, and I wanted to stay within the field of career development and I wasn’t ruling out. Going the traditional route and becoming a professor. And I was getting a research degree for all that I have an Ed.D. at my institution at that time, that was a research degree. And I knew, though, that as my program, when I knew what I would have had to have done to have managed my educational experience and my research in my program in order to align myself up to get a faculty position when I graduated and I didn’t do those things and I didn’t do those things consciously because they just weren’t that important to me. The other thing that I was doing was even though I was on paper a full time doctoral student the entire time I was in the program, I never really stopped working. I know I was a few hours a week, but basically my former employer had kept me on one day a week to kind of mop up a lot of that. Alumni advising after the crash. When I started my doctorate in 2002, but by 2004, when I finished all of my coursework, I was working half hour, upwards of three quarter time as a career counselor or teaching or doing other things. And I was really keeping my options open. I think while I was in the program, I was continuing to build my contacts and my reputation in the field of career development while at the same time thinking, OK, well, do I want to do this to the private sector? Am I going to completely roll out the traditional academic route? Are there still things I might consider within that realm? So I really kind of kept all options on the table right up until the year I graduated.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:07:45] And that’s the thing that some some students who are in the doctoral program lose sight of. They have a particular vision or particular set of goals and they focus on that, which is good. That’s how you get to where you want to be, is by being intentional. But keep in mind that there are so many options available to you once. Once you get to the other side of that stage, it just amazes me how many times our former students and other people I’ve talked to have said when I was completing my doctoral degree, I never thought I would be doing this thing that I’m doing right now. And I can count myself as one of those people. I didn’t know that this was a thing, quite honestly, when I was getting started on my doctoral degree. So that that’s really good as you’re going through your your doctoral process. What what was what how did you find that process? You mentioned that you were working varying amounts of time while still going through a traditional research program. How did you juggle things and did you find there were any particular challenges unique to being an adult going through this process rather than a sort of twenty seven year old kid?


Dr. Sharon Belden Castonguay [00:08:54] Yeah, I know. It’s an interesting question, I. I was lucky, I think, relative to a lot of adult learners in the adult being a relative term, I was 30 when I started, but I was still single. So I didn’t have, unlike some of my classmates know I wasn’t taking care of kids. I wasn’t I didn’t have a lot of these other things going on on the side that were taking up time and energy. And I it’s funny because part of the reason I went back when I did as well was thinking about, well, you know, I’m turning 30 and it was almost like a turning 30 crisis kind of thing, too, because it’s like, well, all right, I’m turning 30. I’m single. By the time I met somebody, dated them, got married, I could have a doctorate, which is more or less what happened, actually. So I you know, I was an absolute just full time coursework. Those full two years working just just a little bit on the side, as I mentioned. But then in that third year, what ended up happening was a former colleague of mine had started working in the career office at my university, and he called me up and said, hey, we have a half time position available for someone to be a career counselor for PhDs who don’t want to be academics.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:10:15] Oh, that’s interesting.


Dr. Sharon Belden Castonguay [00:10:17] And I said, oh, that sounds like fun. And I was very, very up for that.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:10:28] I need to talk to myself about what I should do if I don’t want to be an academic.


Dr. Sharon Belden Castonguay [00:10:32] It was it was a really interesting job. And I was very lucky that the funding that I had in my program was not tied to doing research or teaching. Not very good. But I mean, I had a free and clear stipend so I can pick and choose what kind of work I wanted to be doing on the side. So actually, by my third year, my income was about what it was before I started the program because I had a half time job and I was getting a graduate stipend. Yeah, you know, all from the same university. So, I mean, from an income standpoint and I was back to where I started two years in, which was good because I was in Boston, which is an extremely expensive place to live and a very difficult place to be a graduate student. So it’s not like I was living large. I just I could, like, own a car and buy groceries it relative to most.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:11:19] I was a graduate student in Chicago.


Dr. Sharon Belden Castonguay [00:11:22] It’s hard. And those big cities. Right. As you know, to try to support yourself on a stipend.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:11:26] But they got a few more schools in Boston. You tend to think they would be some sort of culture somewhere there that would help the student out. Right. Because there there’s a couple of schools in Boston.


Dr. Sharon Belden Castonguay [00:11:36] There’s over 60 schools in Boston. And but it’s also a lot of people live in Boston. It’s it’s a very, very expensive place to live. But, you know, I was able because it was a half time position, I was able to juggle both. But then what started to happen is other things started creeping in. So another local business school called me up and said, hey, would you like to do one day a week with our students? And then I had the opportunity to be a teaching fellow for a couple of different classes and topics that I genuinely love. So I wasn’t teaching because I had to for the money, like a lot of full time doctoral students and research programs do. But, you know, teaching, adult development, teaching, cross-cultural counseling, things that were very near and dear to my heart. And that did extend my graduation. You know, when I started, I said, even though I’m doing a qualitative dissertation, which, as you know, takes longer. Right. Than doing something that the statistics focus on, I said I would be out in five years, like I was holding myself accountable for being out in five years and it took seven. And it’s because I was working three quarter time by year three and was really only a full time doctoral student on paper.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:12:49] And that’s again, something where as adults, we all get to decide what’s important to us and what our priorities are. And so you can always change your mind. You say, I want to be on five. No, actually, I want to do these other cool things that I’m doing, because if you’re doing the math, I’m like, OK, you have time to hear a couple of teaching gigs there. Another day, a week there. I mean, you have like eight or nine days a week.


Dr. Sharon Belden Castonguay [00:13:09] Oh, yeah. Well, and the other thing I was doing at the same time was I was very involved in the rowing community in Boston, OK? I was I was involved with the local boat club before I started the program. And part of the reason I stayed in Boston because I wanted to keep rowing. Yeah. So I mean, I was getting up very early in the morning to practice during the season. I was training at night in the off season on, you know, not doing anything super competitive. But it was it’s a hobby that meant a lot to me that I took seriously and spent a lot of time. And so but I also think it’s healthy for doctoral students to be able to do something that has nothing to do with their work because you got to have an outlet for some people that’s family. And that wasn’t that wasn’t my thing at that time. I have a family now, but. At that point in time, rowing was kind of my thing, yeah.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:14:02] Now what is getting up early in the morning, practicing the enemy out on the Charles, or is this in a gym. You’re out?


Dr. Sharon Belden Castonguay [00:14:08] No, I was I mean, during the season, I was up at four thirty. Yes. For a six. We would be out on the water by six, OK.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:14:19] And literally on the water, on the river.


Dr. Sharon Belden Castonguay [00:14:22] On the river.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:14:25] So when is the season, because, you know, I know, like I said, I went to graduate school in Chicago where it gets yeah, I’m out in the snow and all.


Dr. Sharon Belden Castonguay [00:14:36] I mean, in October, it starts to get April to October was our season at the club I belong to. But there were definitely and October is actually not bad. But there were times in April where it would be snowing in the boat. Yeah, yeah.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:14:49] There were, I remember in Chicago, snow on the ground in October and snow on the ground. April’s pushing a button, but possibly. Yeah. So which is not a new experience for me. Growing up in North Carolina to to see any snow with that much was really something new.


Dr. Sharon Belden Castonguay [00:15:08] I’m from Rhode Island, so I was used to it.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:15:09] Yeah, that makes it a little bit easier. But yeah, those days when when we had in Chicago, the high was in the single digits or I think there were a couple of times where the high was negative, but that’s, that’s, that’s really something. And then leaning into the wind as you’re going to class, I can’t imagine in addition to that actually being on the water. But but in the summer, I imagine it was it was absolutely gorgeous to do that. So you mentioned earlier that you had a story about a famous adviser and it sounds like maybe things didn’t go so well, maybe?


Dr. Sharon Belden Castonguay [00:15:51] Not as badly as I like to joke. I like to joke that I fired my famous adviser, which isn’t, strictly speaking, true, but I like to joke about it. So one of the things that was tricky about finding a doctoral program was finding who would my advisor be? You know what I’m advising undergraduates now who are thinking about going back and doing graduate work. I say, you know, when you’re looking at finding this type of program, what you’re really shopping for is an adviser. You have to think about what it is that I want to do research on. What is the burning research question that is keeping me up at night and who in these programs can advise me on that. And that’s a large part of the admission process as well, because these committees want to know that they can pair you up with an advisor. So in any program I looked at, there wasn’t a lot of options for people who did specifically the type of work that I wanted to do or even peripherally, the type of work that I wanted to do. But my program did have a couple of people who were more focused on adults within the developmental psychology space. And that was really what I wanted. And I took a class with one of them in my first semester and it was amazing. But I knew he was really oversubscribed. He was also one of the very few people I’ve ever met who could truly intimidate me, which really famous and really intimidating. And the other guy was really famous, but like it just less somehow less intimidating, just personality. And I took his class as well. So I ended up asking him to be my advisor and he was my advisor through the qualifying stage. So my program had a bit of a different timeline than most four programs. I think they’ve changed it now. But back when I was doing it, what you did was two years of full time coursework and then you took time to either do a pilot project or a qualifying paper. And this was a precursor to the dissertation stage. And I did because I had done a pilot study as part of my coursework, I had chosen to do my qualifying paper as a literature review, looking specifically at how what is like the interplay of aspects of masculinity with career decision making, particularly within the business world. And as a result, I got a very interdisciplinary I needed to draw heavily from organizational behavior. And I had started going across the river to the business school to ask a professor there for advice on what I should be reading in the org behavior space to help inform what I was doing in the more psychology sociology space as well. And I was discovering that my advisor was just so oversubscribed that every time I met with him, he was having a hard time remembering what I was doing right. And that was getting a little frustrating. And then at pretty much the moment that I was getting to the point of doing my dissertation proposal. So after the qualifying, your qualifying paper gets accepted, you then do a dissertation proposal that professor that I had working with at the business school ended up coming over to the Graduate School of Education. And I said, OK, this is going to be something I need to change advisers. So I went in and talked to my original one. He was very understanding and I pretty sure I was her first advisee dissertation advisor is a she’s now been there for over well over a decade.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:19:13] So your your eventual adviser, you’re saying you think you are her first.


Dr. Sharon Belden Castonguay [00:19:17] Yeah. Student. OK, yeah. At least on that part of campus. I’m not sure about the business school because I had a doctoral candidate there as well.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:19:24] But yeah. Well the the personality thing, particularly a big name institutions. It does, it does rear its head. Absolutely. Yeah. Because I also I work with a really big name adviser when I was at University of Chicago and a couple of the other folks in the group were arguably not as successful. They were very, very well-known. So this is all splitting hairs on the top of the mountain. But but you could tell just a difference in his confidence and self-assurance. He never felt like he had to prove himself. And he was an awesome guy. He was an awesome guy. And unfortunately, he he died before I was able to graduate. He was involved in a plane crash. And the and that kind of fomented some of the decisions that I made later on, because your adviser, like you said, is so important in your in your graduate program. But I’m glad you were able to find the right person to get you through, because that is so critical. Tell me a little bit more about defending your dissertation proposal.

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Dr. Russell W. Strickland

RUSSELL STRICKLAND, Ph.D., has been referred to as a “rocket scientist turned management consultant.” In truth, he applies an eclectic body of work from astronomy and nuclear physics to dynamic inventory management to market research to each of his student engagements.