What did you hope for in terms of employment as you completed your PhD?
When I completed my PhD, I did what seemed to be the next logical thing—applied for academic jobs. Although when I started my PhD I had intended to return to Canada when I finished, by the time I finished I was in a relationship. I had the appropriate immigration status to work in the UK so I applied there.
I secured a 9-month academic appointment at the same university where my partner worked. I managed to negotiate that into a full year contract when I was shortlisted for a research position in a different university part way through. At the end of that year I was interviewed for 2 open academic appointments and was offered a position at the University of Birmingham.
After returning from maternity leave a couple of years into that position, I started feeling dissatisfied. Spending time away from something can give you a different perspective. It took me a while to really articulate, even to myself, what the problem was. Fortunately I had very supportive colleagues who helped me see my strengths and find opportunities within the institution to develop my skills and try out different things. Although I continued to teach and do research, 5 years into that job I also took on the position of deputy head of the School of Social Sciences (equivalent to an assistant dean), and took several short professional development courses.
I also began to investigate other possibilities, got some career counselling, and applied for other positions in other public sector organizations including the NHS, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, and the Economic and Social Research Council. In 2002, my career decisions were somewhat forced by a restructuring of my department and a voluntary severance package. I decided to take the severance and leave academia. A few months later I decided that maybe this was also a good time to move back to Canada.
Leaving my family in the UK for the time being, I came back to Canada to look for work. We had decided that Ottawa would be a nice place to live so I came here and did a lot of informational interviews, networking, and applying for jobs. My focus was on public sector positions. I came in January and in May I was offered a 9 month position beginning in September at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). I decided that this would be a good transition job. It made good use of my previous experience as an academic and would give me more knowledge of the Canadian higher education sector and the research funding environment. At the end of that contract, I competed successfully for another 1 year position at SSHRC as a policy analyst.
I now run my own business coaching social science and humanities academics. Grant proposal development, specifically for SSHRC competitions, is still a major part of my business but I also help with writing, workload management, applying for academic jobs, and transitioning into an academic career. I also do some work helping people transition out of academic jobs and figure out what else they could do, mainly through an e-course I developed with Julie Clarenbach called Choosing Your Career Consciously.
I run a weekly virtual writing group. I also support some clients by email. They check in weekly and I respond to whatever is going on for them. I usually have a couple of telephone coaching appointments each week. I write blog posts both for my own blog and for Careers Cafe on the University Affairs website. And I engage with people on Twitter. I try to do some bookkeeping every week, too, so it doesn’t get out of hand. At some times of year, I have drafts of sections of grant proposals to read and comment on, too.
That the things that feel natural to me are real skills that can help other people. Sometimes my work doesn’t feel like work at all and I wonder why people pay me. And then they tell me what a difference it has made to them and I realize that I offer something valuable.
I love being able to help other people do their great work. My clients are all smart capable people who are frustrated by some of the demands of their job. That can make them discouraged. Some of them feel like they aren’t very good at what they do. Or, they feel overwhelmed and like they’ll never really have a handle on it. I love seeing how working on one thing can help them reconnect with what got them into academia in the first place. Seeing them excited about their research or their teaching and making progress on the work that they value is very rewarding to me.
I’m sure it will grow and change but right now I’m happy with where it is. I work for myself so I am changing small things all the time to keep the work relevant and interesting.
For the foreseeable future I’ll be doing what I’m doing now. I have recently hired a virtual assistant to handle some of the back-office things so I can focus more of my time on the things only I can do. I only work part-time but that is how I want it to be.
My biggest piece of advice is not to worry about what you will do with your life. Find something that makes a good next step. I got a lot out of taking on bigger administrative roles within my academic position. Find out what professional development your employer will offer and take advantage of that. Talk to people and ask them to recommend others you could talk to.
Back in 1999 when I was first recognizing that I wasn’t happy in academia I could never have imagined being where I am now. Heck, in 2005 when I left SSHRC, I couldn’t imagine being where I am now. If you have an opportunity to do something that you could see yourself doing for 2 years, and it would help you develop skills, knowledge, and networks, do that. Like that saying about writing, it is a bit like driving on a country road at night. You can only see as far as your headlights but you can make the whole journey that way.