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.

Dealing with inner critics

One of the most important jobs I have as a coach is to recognize, point out, and help my clients deal with their inner critics.

Noticing and coming up with a strategy to deal with inner critics is an important part of coaching. We all have these “gremlins” messing with our lives. They are there to protect us, but we rarely need this protection. We are all much stronger than our inner critics think we are. Here’s how inner critic work played out during one recent coaching session.

Head over to University Affairs to read the rest of this post!

Coaching graduate students

Today’s blog post over at my University Affairs blog includes my thoughts on key themes when working with graduate students.

Here’s the first (of six) points I make:

1. Taking control. Graduate students often don’t feel in control of their lives. Part of my work as a coach is to help clients take and feel they are in charge by making changes to habits, mindset, and embracing who they really are. This isn’t something that comes from me, but follows from the client taking steps in the right direction.

Read the full post here. Let me know what you think!

Professional development

This week’s post over at University Affairs is all about professional development. Here’s the first paragraph:

On Monday I finish a coaching class. This will be the second professional development course I’ve done since getting my PhD in 2012. Back then, I’d never thought I’d see another classroom ever again! And, it’s true, I haven’t: My coaching courses are all over the phone! But still; you understand.

Read the rest of “Why you should continue your professional development.” And then let me know what you think!

Taking stock and measuring well-being

Happy 1-year blogging anniversary to me! Wow, that went quick. But I completely forgot about this birthday when I wrote the title of my latest post for University Affairs, so taking stock has nothing to do with my blog. Instead, I write about a couple coaching exercises, Marty Seligmans’s theory of well-being, and the importance of gratitude. Check it out here.

Supporting dissertators

My most recent blog post over at University Affairs is about how coaching has really been helping me now, my “what if” thoughts about my PhD years, and my new offering: a discussion and support group for dissertators! An excerpt:

I’m launching a virtual discussion and support group, open to dissertators and graduate students in general. . . . Here are the group details:

What: Discussion and Support Group for Dissertators
When: 6 Tuesdays, 5:30-6:30 p.m. ET / 12, 19, and 26 November, and 3, 10, and 17 December 2013
Where: Over the phone (you’ll be calling a US [long-distance] number, but let me know if you’re outside North America)
What else: A private Facebook group for discussion between calls
Who: Open to 5 or 6 group members
Total cost: $60 CDN (+ tax for Canadians, as applicable) for all six 1-hour calls

You can read the full post here. Yay!

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.


Several weeks (months?) ago, Brandy Schillace asked me to contribute to her Rogue Scholar Salon. I haven’t yet. I started but then got stuck. Where? At the word “scholar.”

Brandy herself, a former tenure-track professor, is very much continuing as a medical humanities scholar despite going rogue—quitting her academic job! But me? Well, I never considered myself to be a scholar. And now that I’m actively working in a new area, the word seems even less fitting.

Here are things I tend to tell people when I explain my lack of academic career ambitions: “I never published,” “I presented but didn’t otherwise participate much in conferences,” “I never taught my own course.” My academic story is about how I wasn’t a good academic. But here’s another story: My master’s thesis was praised by an expert in the field as being nearly worthy of a doctorate! I presented my research at several international academic conferences, mostly on panels made up of tenured professors. As a graduate student, I took on many high-level service responsibilities within my departments and the larger university communities. I helped organize a two-day conference and put together a lecture series. I won a Canada Graduate Scholarship for my doctoral work, a prestigious award that provided me with more than $100,000 in funding. Before that, I held an Ontario Graduate Scholarship for three years running (and would have had it for a fourth if not for the CGS). My dissertation is a fine piece of scholarship that significantly advances knowledge and makes an important contribution to more than one field of research.

And yet, I hesitate to call myself a scholar.

As I type this I’m shaking my head and marvelling at this insight: I never realized I’d created this “I’m not a scholar” story! Could this be why I worked for a while on revising my manuscript but haven’t touched it in months? Could this be what’s getting in the way of me finalizing and sending off my book proposal? I’m pretty sure the answer to both those questions is “yes.”


In the coaching world we use words like “gremlin” and “saboteur” to explain resistance, including writer’s block. Just the other day I was reading about writing saboteurs and thinking to myself, “Yeah, I don’t have that problem. Blogging comes so naturally to me.” Meanwhile, my manuscript is sitting less than 6 feet away from me, covered in dust and cat hair.

This now seems so obvious to me. lol *shakes head*

What do your gremlins tell you? (Hopefully it won’t take you years and years to discover what they are!)

Needs inventory

Needs, necessities, non-negotiables. These have come up a few times in my coaching calls with others. One woman realized she needed to take a “vacation” from a big writing project, but could read novels, something she loves doing and doesn’t always make time for. Another, who recently relocated to South Asia, decided to hire a weekend driver so she’d be able to buy groceries, go out to meet friends, and otherwise take care of herself. I challenged a third to go back to basics for the next two weeks, after she’d come up with a list of weekly needs.

Although it would seem these are things we can’t and won’t live without, many items on our own lists end up being tossed away when stress and busyness takes over. To get back in control, try doing a needs inventory! Last week I was feeling slightly unmoored, and so on Monday I came up with a list of my own weekly non-negotiables. I was inspired by that third woman and realized I needed to challenge myself. Here’s what I wrote down earlier this week:


Yoga, 4x/week

Home cooking, most meals, fruit/veg every meal

Journaling, before bed

Meditation, daily, currently before bed

Reading, 1 hr/day

Adventure, 4 hr/week block, something fun

Other self-care, ? (incl. coaching, freewriting, acupuncture, socializing)

Cleaning, daily, at least something

And, unless I’m on vacation

Blogging, 1 hr/week, including organizing Q&As

Email, 1 hr/weekday

Coach class homework, 1 hr/week

Business development, a few hours/week, need to figure out what exactly this means, what’s included

Business busywork (invoicing, recordkeeping, followup emails), 2 hr/week

Paid work, ?

This list is a work in progress! But so far (two days in), so good. I’m still working out where best to keep this list, so that I remember to check in and keep on track. Any suggestions? What’s on your needs inventory?

Elevator pitch

My coaching class homework from last week was to come up with elevator pitches for possible coaching niches. It’s a great assignment, because it really forces us to zoom in on what exactly we’d like to do, and what we think we can do! I decided to focus on “career changers,” a niche that would certainly include post-PhDs in transition to non-academic careers.

That broadening out is prompted in part by the people who read this blog and who’ve reached out to me over the past few months. I’ve discovered, somewhat to my surprise, that I’m not just writing to other PhDs here on From PhD to Life. And of course: career change is career change is career change. Yes, details (which are important and relevant), but there are common concerns and challenges shared by many, many people.

Me and my coaching classmates were given the following phrases and asked to fill in the blanks: “You know how . . . ? Well, what I do is . . . .” We could then come up with some follow-up comments to use if and when appropriate. Here’s what I wrote:

You know how changing careers is a really daunting proposition? Especially for people who’ve worked for a good long while in a particular area?

Well, what I do is work with career changers to help them figure out their goals, identify how to achieve them, and take the necessary steps. Bottom line, my aim is for clients to find happiness and fulfillment. I’m convinced we all can have this!

More things I could say:

  • I have regular, on-going check-ins with my clients as they take on the brave, bold task of figuring out their place in the world.
  • My clients feel empowered, supported, and trusted, things too often missing from people’s lives, especially during difficult transitions.
  • I make the assumption that everyone can have a fun, fulfilling, fascinating, and financially feasible life.
  • At the heart of what I do is have powerful conversations. These usually happen over the phone, over the course of a few months. I love working with motivated, creative, smart people… and really, I think that’s all of us! Together, we talk about dreams and realities, obstacles and possibilities, and focus on the strengths my client already has.
  • I start with a free session, and go from there. I want all the people I talk with to leave our conversation feeling better about themselves and their options, and excited to move forward in their lives. If we get on and the client feels good about talking again, I offer a few paid options.
  • I do one-on-one coaching and host group sessions. The one-on-one sessions allow for a much deeper experience, completely focussed on the client’s own needs and wants. The group experience is for people who want a community of like-minded people to check in with on a regular basis. Really, both are wonderful! And I have clients who do both!
  • I like to end conversations on a positive note, and with my clients feeling good about taking the right next step, whatever that happens to be.
  • I provide accountability for people in transition, and that’s an important element. I’ll follow-up if I haven’t heard from someone in a while, just to make sure things are as they should be.
  • Because our imaginations can be limited, especially after spending years in one career, brainstorming and exploration are crucial. I love being part of this process and it’s so fun learning along with my clients what really gets them excited. I get to share in their discovery and exploration and I just love it.

How’s that? Now I just have to make it all true! If you were to write an elevator pitch for your dream job(s), what would it be? Use the prompts: “You know how [identify challenges]? Well, what I do is [identify how you help].”