Veronica Rubio Vega is a part-time PhD candidate in political economy at the Balsillie School of International Affairs at Wilfrid Laurier University. She works as a research analyst at RBC. Connect with her on Academia.edu, follow her @VERYVERO, or email her.
You’re currently enrolled in a PhD program, but recently switched to part-time studies. What happened?
I was very motivated when I began my PhD. I had a good internal funding and an amazing and supportive academic environment. I loved for example that I got paid for an entire summer to read in order to prepare for my comprehensive exams. But after I defended my dissertation proposal and actually started working on my dissertation, I started to think that I did not necessarily want to pursue an academic career. Even though my committee is extremely helpful and supportive (and I know that many students are not so lucky in this respect) I started looking around and saw a couple of friends (who were about to complete their PhDs) become very frustrated when trying to get tenure-track jobs. At one point, my Facebook news feed was filled with stories about sadness and despair in the post-PhD life.
Moreover, I was becoming mentally exhausted by spending all my time on one topic (the dissertation) and I really missed talking to non-academics. Since my partner is also pursuing his PhD—he may stay in academia after he is done his studies—I decided to explore non-academic options. I took an initial step which was updating my LinkedIn profile and sending out job applications (without success).
What was your first post-PhD/-ABD job?
Before I went to fieldwork for my PhD, I worked part-time as a research consultant for a human capital sourcing firm in Toronto. I worked from home (which was very convenient) and being exposed to the HR industry was extremely helpful on a personal level. I actually got this job through LinkedIn. I was contacted by the employer and after a test (Excel, research, ability to understand complex job requirements), I was hired. I learned a lot about diverse industries and high demand jobs in Canada. My boss was also really helpful and since he was aware of my PhD studies and knew I wanted to try other options, he helped me to rewrite my resume and cover letter in a way that could potentially be beneficial for non-academic jobs. His advice and editing skills were way more helpful than advice I received from university career services.
What do you do now?
After I came back from fieldwork, I decided to actively pursue a non-academic job while transcribing interviews and beginning to write the first chapter of my dissertation. I think I sent over one hundred resumes applying for diverse jobs in the Greater Toronto Area. I got four interviews for different positions. I finally landed a job as a research analyst for RBC.
What kind of tasks do you do on a daily and weekly basis?
I do research!!!! Specially, dynamic research on factors that impact financial institutions. (My PhD specialization is international political economy so it is somewhat related to my current job.) These factors include digital strategy, HR, wealth management, etc. I help internal business clients by assessing their information needs and provide value-added research to reduce information gaps and allow them to make better decisions faster.
What most surprises you about your job?
I am surprised that transitioning to a corporate environment has not been as hard as I thought it would be. There are a lot of activities that prompt a real sense of community in our department and that has facilitated the transition. For example, I am participating in a “Family Feud” fundraising event next week. I also love that our department is very diverse not only in terms of educational backgrounds (MBA, MLIS, MA, BA, BEng) but also in terms of the countries where people come from and their personal lives.
What are your favourite parts of your job?
I really enjoy the opportunity to be constantly learning and I like my research team a lot. I love that one week I could be learning and working on a project about user experience in mobile banking and the next one, I may be immersed in assessing enterprise social networks. My academic research skills have proven so useful when trying to absorb and present so much information in a short period of time! I also liked that since the bank is subscribed to different research providers, sometimes I get to set up a phone calls with experts in a certain areas. This is like listening to amazing professors for free!
What would you change about it if you could?
I would like to know a bit more about what happens to the research I conduct after I submit a project and how other departments at the bank actually implement (or not) our research findings.
What’s next for you, career-wise?
I’m on a one-year contract, so for now I am enjoying the job and the daily learning opportunities. After that, I hope to continue exploring and/or working on research and consulting related roles but if I cannot land another similar role I may go back full-time to try to finish my PhD as soon as possible while looking for other opportunities. But at this time, it is hard to know exactly what is next.
What advice or thoughts do you have for current graduate students and/or post-PhDs in transition now?
I have a bit of advice for those who have realized that they do not want to stay in academia for whatever reason. If you have your heart fully in academia, I think you should stay. Two of my best friends are fully immersed in the academic environment and they are very happy for now. If you are on your first, second, third, fourth year or you have already finished your PhD and do not want to pursue tenure-track jobs, you have to come up eventually with a strategy that works for you. And be patient! It took me more than a year to figure this out and I hope other people figure it out sooner that I did.
If you are still a graduate student, I think it is good to have a schedule for academic and non-academic activities. I used to work on my dissertation until 5pm (some days successfully; some days I got distracted) and then from 7pm to 10pm I would look for jobs and read blogs and websites (including Versatile PhD, the Thesis Whisperer, the Three Month Thesis, and this one). If you want to get a job outside academia, the first step could be to find something within the university. After my comprehensive exams I was a research assistant for a professor, and worked on subjects not at all related to my dissertation. I was able to frame this experience as “practical non-academic” work in my resume. My partner has spent the last two years as a communications officer at his school’s union. I think this will be helpful for him whether he stays in academia or not. I think graduate students can look at getting part-time jobs at their graduate students’ association, their union, or in their department as a way to get experience beyond the dissertation or the classroom.
I would also recommend students and PhDs have and update their LinkedIn profiles to show the diversity of skills you have. (Read this Jobs on Toast post for suggestions.) LinkedIn is also useful for contacting people for various things beyond networking. For example, it was very useful to get at least 4 important interviews for my dissertation. LinkedIn has also helped me to learn about different companies and roles that I did not even know existed and to better prepare for phone and in-person interviews. In the future, I would like to explore its networking benefits more.
The other thing that could be beneficial on this journey is creating job alerts on different sites. For me, the best site in Canada is indeed.ca. I had daily job alerts emailed to me for “Research Analyst,” “Researcher,” “Policy Analyst,” “Spanish,” “Research Assistant,” “Public Policy,” and “Political Science.”
I also found that I was getting very stressed and a bit depressed trying to find a job while working on my dissertation. I am not a very physically active person but I found hot yoga four months ago and I just fell in love. It has worked so well for clearing up my mind and stopping a lot of unhelpful worrying about life.
The last thing I can say is that as graduate students, PhDs, and post-docs in similar situations, we have to talk to each other and keep building a very supportive community. Last month, I presented a paper in Washington, D.C. and I met two female students who were also working on their PhDs part-time. They told me that in Europe (where they come from) doing so was not that uncommon. I think that in Canada there is still some sort of taboo/fear to publicly admit that you do not necessarily want to be a professor. I was lucky that my supervisors were totally supportive when I got the job at RBC but I know that may not be the case for many students. I hope that in the future Canadian schools become more involved in preparing PhD students (through seminars, workshops, even courses) for both the academic and the non-academic markets. I hope I am part of that movement in universities in some way.