Transition Q & A: Hillary Hutchinson

My newest blog post for University Affairs is an interview with career coach Hillary Hutchinson:

What do you do now?

I am a career coach specializing in helping people in academia either get their writing done in order to advance through the tenure process, or help them find an alternative career to academia if they decide to leave. I love helping career changers. Many people need help telling their new story in a positive way, showing that the current direction is built on past experiences.

Read the full post here.

Transition Q & A: Jo VanEvery

Jo VanEvery earned her PhD in sociology from the University of Essex. She’s now an independent academic coach and research facilitator. Find her online at and follow her @JoVanEvery.

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.

What was your first post-PhD job?

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.

What do you do now?

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.

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

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.

What most surprises you about your job?

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.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

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.

What would you change about it if you could?

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.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

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.

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

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.


When I hired my career coach, Hillary Hutchinson, back in the fall, I had no idea what a coach did. I’d heard—and laughed about—life coaches but had never heard of a career coach. I’d reached a impasse, though, and was determined to move forward. Since what I’d been doing thus far hadn’t been working, it was time to get out of my comfort zone.

I took to the coaching process right away. Honestly, it’s been a revelation. The old me is rolling her eyes but this shit really works. I’m convinced that my ongoing motivation is a direct result of the help I’m getting. Knowing that Hillary’s got my back, as it were, is invaluable. The direction and focus she provided at the beginning through assessments and asking hard questions have been crucial to my progress through this difficult transition. Her feedback and support now gives me strength and confidence. Graduate school is too often a disempowering experience; a job hunt almost always is, and making a career transition compounds the stress and emotional turmoil. I’ve come to realize the importance of seeking help and being open to self-help. I hope this marks a lifelong change in attitude on my part. Doing a humanities PhD is a solitary endeavour; life can’t be.

I’ve taken to coaching so much that last week I joined a separate coaching community for women entrepreneurs. I’m not sure the group will be right for me—I haven’t yet launched a business!—but I’ve already benefited after one group call. Jane Pollak led us through a visualization exercise. She asked us to picture a skier on top of a peak, unsure of what lay ahead. After taking three deep breaths, I imagined myself as the skier and was soon stretching out my arms. I started to fly off the mountain top, and when I looked down, nothing was clear. I realized that flying, looking around, and exploring are what I need to do right now. That is the next step for me.

This is an important insight and I know it’s the right one. Over the past few weeks I’ve been feeling frustrated, eager to get the business ball rolling but unsure what exactly I should be doing. Relax, me! I’m giving myself permission to continue my search and not rush the transition process. All the half-formed business ideas in my mind (and on bits of scrap paper) won’t go anywhere. The reason I’m unsure about which one is right, or even if I’ve come up with a right one yet, is because my brain’s got more pondering to do. And I’ve got more research to undertake, including informational interviews. Next up: getting in touch with consultants who offer coaching services! I can’t get the idea of becoming a coach out of my head. (And, yes, I know that not that long ago I was thinking I’d be a freelance writer . . . clearly, I’m still exploring!)

“I’m a loser”

A lot has changed since the fall. Back then, my dissertation defence was several months old and the final version was long handed in. But I felt I’d barely progressed. My post-PhD job prospects seemed poor, and I felt pretty low. When friends and acquaintances asked me what I was up to, I would tell them, only half joking, that I was freelancing etc. but that basically, “I’m a loser.” They’d laugh and disagree, but the facts of the matter suggested otherwise.

Not long thereafter I decided to make changes. Toward the end of October, I first spoke to my career coach over the phone. Hillary Hutchinson and I had connected over email, because she’d posted on Versatile PhD that she had a handout on informational interviews and would happily send it to anyone who asked for it. I did and when she sent the file my way she invited me to do a free 30 minute call to get a feel for what she does. It was excellent timing on my part. So, even though I’d never heard of a career coach, I figured there was nothing to lose.

During that first chat I gave her my post-PhD narrative, which included the “I’m a loser” bit. She stopped me and argued that it takes a while for people to make career transitions. Instead of being slow on the uptake, I was, she said, “right on schedule!” She specializes in academic transitions, so I believed her. Right away, I felt much better about my situation. No, I didn’t know how to land a job I wanted (or what I even wanted), but at least I could stop being so hard on myself.

This narrative reframing is crucial. In my case, it enabled me to have a more positive attitude toward myself, my prospects, and the time that’s passing. I’m not a loser; I’m in transition. And, I’m contemplating my future for the first time ever. That’s big. A few months is nothing at all when I look at it that way.