Transition Q & A: Dawn Nickel

Dawn Nickel earned her PhD in the history of health care policy from the University of Alberta. She’s currently working as an independent research consultant and also operates She Recovers, a business that organizes yoga retreats in Mexico for women in recovery from addictions, chronic disease, and other life challenges. Follow her @dawnsherecovers.

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

I hoped to get a tenure track position somewhere in North America. My plan was to finish the PhD and apply for a postdoc in the history of health care at Johns Hopkins. That plan was foiled when I landed in the hospital in June 2005 a week before my dissertation defence. I underwent emergency surgery where it was discovered that I had stage three colon cancer. I defended my dissertation a week post-surgery, in the Dean of Medicine’s private boardroom at the University of Alberta. Cancer changed everything for me. My husband and I moved to Victoria later that summer because I had been offered a sessional position. I started chemo and began rethinking my life’s plan and purpose at the same time that I began teaching.

What was your first post-PhD job?

Teaching history as a sessional instructor at the University of Victoria in September 2005. I only taught one course the first semester as I wasn’t sure how my cancer treatment would affect me but I was extremely fortunate and did well enough to be able to pick up another course in the second semester. During my first five years in Victoria, I always taught a minimum of one course per semester.

I also started an independent research consulting business as soon as I arrived in Victoria and was fortunate enough to land a few interesting and lucrative contracts over the first year. The research consulting brought me into contact with provincial government clients, one of whom eventually offered me a position as Director of Cross Government Research and Decision Support Services. It was a great job—for a while. I continued to teach part-time until 2011, when I found myself completely burned out from working a more-than-full time job as well as teaching. I gave up teaching in the summer of 2011. Late in 2011, the research unit I led was dissolved for budget and other organizational reasons and I found myself completely unemployed but with an extremely generous severance package.

What do you do now?

What don’t I do might be easier to answer! I have an independent research practice and work quite regularly with former female PhD colleagues who are also out on their own doing contract work. I do a lot of work with Alisa Harrison—another woman who has completed a Transition Q & A! Most of the work that I do is policy and program research in the health and social sector so I am definitely using my doctoral training. Creating and deploying surveys is a bit of a sideline for the practice and I quite enjoy that work, too.

In another area of my life, I am about to complete a life coach training program, something that I started two years ago. My life coach niche, should I decide to actually be a life coach, will be working with women who are in recovery from addictions (including alcoholism, co-addiction, workaholism, and the like) and other life challenges, including cancer and other chronic conditions. I’m not certain that I want to be a life coach . . . yet.

As part of my interest in the recovery field, I volunteer on a local committee as an advocate for recovery (we celebrate Recovery Day each September) and I was recently invited to be on an ad-hoc committee that is putting together a Faces and Voices of Recovery Canada organization, which is based on a national recovery advocacy organization in the United States. Finally, I operate a new company called She Recovers, which consists primarily of a Facebook page (with 20,000+ fans, to my extreme surprise), a web page with resources for recovering women, and a retreat business. My daughter, a dear friend and myself organize yoga and recovery retreats in Mexico for women in recovery from . . . just about anything. Don’t you think that we all deserve to recover from completing our PhDs? All are welcome!  Last year we spent a week in Tulum, this November we will be in Playa Secreto, Mexico and next April (2014) we will be in Akumal, Mexico. We are also looking to offer our retreats on and around Vancouver Island and elsewhere in North America. The great thing about having my own consulting practice is that I get to spend two months each winter in Mexico around one of our planned retreats. Have laptop—will travel.

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

Plenty of research and writing as well as all of the administrative work that goes along with having a research practice. I recently completed a comprehensive literature review for the Ministry of Children and Family Development (BC Government) and am working on a related project for that ministry and the Ministry of Health developing a Community Toolkit and Practice Guide for a change in practice initiative. Earlier this year I completed a big survey project for the Public Health Agency of Canada, working with one of my mentors in aging policy was a great experience. Currently, I am also about to close a human resources capacity survey and start analysis, that contract is for the Victoria Division of Family Practice. I’m deep into planning the details for our November retreat (we hire a chef so I am doing menu planning, which is a blast), and taking queries and registrations for an April 2014 retreat.

What most surprises you about your job?

I am surprised at how much I love working in relative isolation. I thought that after grad school I really wanted to get out in the world and I did—for a while. At one point I directed a 28-person research team, and I loved it. But I am really learning that I prefer to work on my own at least 75% of the time, at home, with my tea kettle close by and my slippers on. I credit cancer with helping me get over the whole “must get a tenure track position” idea, although I think I would have realized soon into one that it wouldn’t have been for me. I am also constantly surprised by how much I get to use my graduate training—not just the skills but the content.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

The variety! I usually work on three or four projects at a time—some are longer term (12–18 months) and others last only a few weeks. Working in the fields of health and social policy—I always feel like I am doing important work that will in some measure make a difference in people’s lives. I’m always learning and that’s a highlight. I also really enjoy working with other women who like me, earned a PhD and are grateful to be doing something quite unlike what we thought we would be doing when we were studying.

What would you change about it if you could?

I am not the best with document formatting and I despise not being able to stay on top of my email. I wouldn’t mind taking a bit of training to help with both challenges.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

More of the same for the next twenty years? Well, maybe thirty years given my late start (I’m 53). I’m perfectly content with my present career(s). Retirement may be far off on the horizon, if at all, but the fact that I now get to spend several months down south each year makes me feel like I’m living part of my retirement now. And it’s all good.

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

I would echo what Alisa Harrison had to say when she answered this question:think big. I would add, think far outside of the box. Figure out who you are and how you want to be in the world, and find the career that supports you in that. Life’s too short not to live in our own truth; I know that sounds all hokey but it works for me. I used to live to work, and I’ve flipped that right over. Now I work so that I can live the life I want to live. The fact that the work is so meaningful and fulfilling is definitely a bonus.