Transition Q & A: Alisa Harrison

Alisa Harrison earned her PhD in history from Duke University. She’s principal at A. Harrison Research & Consulting and the executive director of the Victoria (British Columbia) Division of Family Practice.

What did you hope for in terms of employment as you completed your PhD?

I wanted work that would be intellectually as well as socially/politically engaging; I felt like the combination of research and teaching would give me that, and my research focus did lend itself quite strongly to political/social activism. At the same time, I struggled with the idea of working so hard to publish in places where the audience would be small, so I was always thinking about ways I could bridge the academia/non-academia gap, at least in terms of publishing. But I really wasn’t considering working outside of a traditional university/college setting at that point, at least not in any significant way.

What was your first post-PhD job?

I started working as a sessional instructor at the University of Victoria in 2005 while I was finishing my dissertation—I started with a 2:3:1 load, which is pretty hefty, particularly for a brand new instructor, and I maintained a regular teaching schedule there for almost 5 years, mostly in the history department, but also in women’s studies. I finished my PhD at the end of 2008, so there was a good period of time that I was working as a sessional post-PhD. But I also started working part-time for the BC government right after finishing my degree. Another sessional instructor in my department was also the director of a cross-ministry policy research unit, and she asked me to join their team in 2008. So I split my time from 2008-10 between government and UVic. My government work eventually morphed into private consulting (a long story in itself!), which led me to give up teaching completely in 2010 to focus on research, writing and project management, mainly in the health sector.

What do you do now?

I’m still trying to perfect my “elevator pitch” on this one, and my kids have given up ever trying to answer it accurately when asked (my older daughter used to lie and tell people I’m a nurse because it was easier!). Essentially, I do two main things, both of which fall under the category of strategic health leadership: I am executive director at the Victoria Division of Family Practice. The VDFP is an initiative of the BC Medical Association and the provincial Ministry of Health. It’s one of 32 divisions across the province, each of which is an independent non-profit society that works collaboratively with general practitioners in the community, the Ministry of Health, and the regional health authority (in our case, VIHA). We strive to enhance primary care for both patients and providers and increase system efficiency and sustainability by advocating for family physicians’ role in health policy development, and service design and delivery. I am also principal and founder of A. Harrison Research & Consulting (AHRC), where I work independently and with associates on a variety of research and policy development projects, mainly in the public and nonprofit sectors. At present, we’re working on a couple of long-term projects with the Ministry of Health’s Mental Health & Substance Use Branch, which support system redesign in different areas of mental health service delivery, as well as a project for the Ministry of Children & Family Development and BC Foster Parents Services Society. Needless to say, I work a lot! But I love the variety and the challenge of working across different environments and with different bodies of knowledge. (I’ve also worked as a fitness instructor since 1997, though I only teach one class per week at this point in time.)

What kind of tasks do you do on a daily and weekly basis?

So much variety here. Lots of typical office work—including communications with clients and stakeholders, members of the VDFP (we have 271 physician members), and partners; financial management of both the VDFP and AHRC; staff supervision and direction. I do a lot of research and writing, everything from meeting reports to literature/evidence reviews to provincial policy reports, and many things in between. I do a great deal of negotiating and managing relationships between people and organizations, which comes down to daily tele/videoconferencing, as well as commuting for in-person meetings (I live about 45 min. north of Victoria). I organize/oversee large and small-scale events and meetings. There is so much more—it’s a hard question to answer because there are really so many, many components to the work I do, and every day is different.

What most surprises you about your job?

I think what surprised me most early on was the degree of intellectual challenge and engagement I could get without being in the academy. I really hadn’t realized that was possible. I feel like I still do the work of an academic on most days, even though that is not my position and I’m not even working in the same field as my PhD. But that also leads to another surprise, which is the high degree to which my PhD applies in a completely different setting. I trained as an historian of the 20th-century US, with a focus on African American and women’s history. I’ve learned to re-think what I studied to recognize the breadth of knowledge I gathered over time. So now, instead of thinking of myself as an historian (although I still am), I think of myself as someone with deep scholarly engagement with the notion of power relations and the theory and practice of social movements and change. This has been a really amazing foundation for my work in mental health and primary care policy, in ways I could/would not have predicted going in, even though now, looking back, they seem so obvious. I’m also surprised by how much I enjoy the “business” side of things—I had no idea when I was in school that this was an interest of mine; in fact, if you’d asked me, I’d have told you I hated and wanted nothing to do with business, and yet here I am.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

My favourite part is working with a variety of people and helping shift systems to enable people to do their best work and get the results that are most needed. A key theme across my work is system transformation. This doesn’t happen in one fell swoop; it comes from lots of tiny actions in a million different places with many different people over time. I love to experiment with new ideas and try things without knowing what will happen; I love the calculated risks we get to take, and the role I play in my various teams in helping people learn to use evidence to make change. I also love the fact that the work I do—both at AHRC and VDFP—has a direct, positive impact on people’s lives. Patients are having better experiences of health services because of the work we’re doing. Physicians and other health professionals are also thanking us—again, in both organizations—for the work we’re doing, which is improving their quality of practice and quality of life. There is nothing more gratifying than knowing that people’s lives are better because of work you’ve done, particularly when it comes to health care, where the stakes are quite literally life-and-death.

What would you change about it if you could?

I would love to spend less time juggling e-mail! My inboxes are constantly overflowing. It sounds like a small thing, but it is a huge daily stressor; in fact, it makes vacations almost not even worth it because of the volume of correspondence that waits when I get back. But then it also speaks to the other thing I’d like to change, which I’m working on, and that is learning to delegate more effectively. I am still trying to move out of that grad student mentality of, “I must do it all myself and it all must be done yesterday.” I’m much better than I was, but I’ve still got a ways to go!

What’s next for you, career-wise?

I’m finding health leadership really fascinating and can see myself remaining in this field for a long time. I’m looking at becoming a certified health executive, and I think about doing an MBA and/or a masters of public health. Where I am now career-wise happened very quickly: I went from crying in front of my computer in 2009 about being underemployed in the midst of a global recession and non-existent academic job market (there was one job posting in my field in all of Canada the year I graduated), with tons of book learning but no ‘career’ to speak of, to more career than I ever bargained for only a couple of years later, in areas where I am having a direct impact at every level of the health system. So I’m trying to enjoy the current ride and see where it goes without engineering it too much. That said, I’m always on the lookout for new opportunities, and really hope to somehow circle back to academia again with an eye towards bridging the academia/non-academia gap. I don’t see myself in a traditional faculty role and certainly not limited to one department or set of intellectual tools, but I would love to develop partnerships with faculty researchers on community-based work and find opportunities to teach students from a multidisciplinary perspective. I would like to come in and show people how big the world is and how many possibilities there are for people who like to think. I feel like I live at the juncture of the academy/larger world, and I would love to increase the focus on that intersection, both within a university setting and elsewhere. Frankly, I think “elsewhere”—government, non-profits, even the private sector—has already embraced this intersection quite strongly, mining academia/academics as deeply as possible for what we have to offer. I would love to be a part of efforts to promote this in academia, which tends to be much more conservative in terms of defining legitimate knowledge and legitimate thinkers, and still shockingly behind the times in terms of how it conditions grad students to think about intellectual work and engagement, and valuable employment.

What advice or thoughts do you have for post-PhDs in transition now?

My main advice is to think big: there are no limits to what a PhD can prepare you to do, and what matters most is that you are doing work you find fulfilling, not whether or not your advisors approve or your school sees you as a “success.” Let go of the value of martyrdom; you don’t need to take a soul-sucking, barely-minimum-wage-paying contingent teaching job just so you can say you work in academia. Shaking off the chains of the academia-or-bust mentality is critical, and it can be a slow and painful process. It is worth it in the end, and it allows you to think about how to explain your background, skills, and interests to a variety of different audiences. Learn to tailor your explanation appropriately: the answer you give about your dissertation to a book editor is different to what you’d tell an executive director of a non-profit you’re interested in or a director of a government agency, or what have you. Learn to be strategic—not in a manipulative way, but in a way that uses the sharp thinking skills you’ve built and shows that you can make innovative connections between disparate ideas, topics, contexts, etc. And don’t forget how hard it is to complete a PhD, and how meaningful it is that you are in that tiny sliver of the population who has managed to earn that degree. It’s easy to downplay it when everyone around you has one; but outside of academia, it’s pretty unusual, and really sets you apart from the crowd as someone with drive, commitment, intelligence, and broad skills. (And who is also loveably nerdy.)

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