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: Maren Wood

My post-academic friend and colleague Maren Wood—who also happened to be in my MA history class at Carleton University way back when—is the latest contributor to the Q & A series! After years of being an “alternative academic” and an adjunct, she started her own business.

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

I had always imagined I’d be a professor. It never occurred to me that I would do anything other than teach history. But, I graduated in 2009, one of the worst years to enter the academic job market. After three years applying for tenure track jobs and post-docs, I decided to end my quest for academic employment and find other ways to contribute to society.

To read the full post, head over to my University Affairs blog!

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.

Talking about Twitter, learning about myself

I recently had a couple teleconferences with women entrepreneurs. The topic was Twitter. I offered to talk to them because I had a flash of insight: Twitter has been invaluable to me this year, and these women, who are part of a coaching group I’m in, might not yet know of its awesomeness. I’ve used Twitter and other forms of social media in a personal, semi-professional, and professional way for a few years, and I figured that my knowledge and experience could be useful to others. Part of me realized that having these conversations would be like market research, that is, a way for me to test whether I might want to do social media tutoring for money one day.

It turned out that over a dozen women expressed interest, and we arranged a couple group calls. I used to host the calls, and that was a learning experience in itself. The first session had a handful of participants. I did some talking, some question answering, and hosted a bit of a discussion. One of the women on the call already uses Twitter for her business and she was generous about sharing her thoughts on the medium. The second session ended up being a two-person conversation, and that was a fun, rewarding experience, too. I will probably offer a third call, to anyone who wasn’t able to make the first two.

So, where does this leave me, business-thinking-wise? I enjoyed the conference call format, and liked speaking about how Twitter helps me find community and enables access to an incredible number of resources I would probably not otherwise find. I learned that I want to get some sort of Bluetooth device so I don’t have to actually hold my phone in my hand. I liked the interaction and hearing about different viewpoints and allowing those to guide the conversation. This probably means that I’d prefer to give workshops—in person, online, over the phone—rather than do more structured lecturing. And that makes sense: I thought the tutorials I lead as a teaching assistant were great fun. I never prepared formal presentations, believing that my classes were among the few opportunities students had to discuss their ideas and receive feedback. Interesting discussions about ideas that involve openness and sharing of information and opinions are among my very favourite things! (Shout out to my 12th grade and OAC English classes, the master’s-level historiography seminar I took at Carleton University, and all the brilliant talks I’ve had with family, friends, and colleagues over the years.)

Can I get paid to have conversations? Better question: What specific kinds of conversations do I want to get paid to have? After the Twitter teleconferences, I think social media isn’t my passion, but that it excites me because it enables things I’m passionate about. Those things are . . .  personal empowerment, community building, sharing, and learning. Anything else? I’ll have to let you know.

PhDs and entrepreneurialism

During my doctorate I worked occasionally as a freelance researcher and administrative assistant for a few small consultancies. After I defended, my plan was to continue doing this but on a more consistent basis, in the hopes of growing my client base or workload, and thus make more money. Well, that didn’t work out and over time I figured out a few things about myself and what kind of environment I thrive in. When I first talked to Hillary, my career coach, in October, she gave me a little homework assignment: fill out a short quiz about entrepreneurialism. If I answered “yes” to most of the questions, it meant entrepreneurship suited me. You’re probably not surprised to know that, yes, there were lots of yesses.

That quiz helped me clarify my goals, and over time I realized that running my own business really was what I wanted. No wonder I’d never applied for any jobs, in any formal way: I intuitively knew what I wanted long before my intellect caught up. Since then I’ve worked to narrow my focus to determine what kind of work I’d like to do.

My grad school experiences scream “future business owner,” even though I didn’t realize it at the time. And I think the entrepreneurial bent is common among PhDs, certainly in the humanities and social sciences. Like running a business, doing a PhD isn’t the norm. Working solo on a project for years at a time isn’t the norm. Organizing and carrying out all aspects of that project, from brainstorming to research to final editing, isn’t normal. And doing it without, in many cases, strong supervision, oversight, or financial success, is certainly out of the ordinary. Doctoral students are incredibly self-motivated and driven: to plan, research, write, present, teach, apply, report, submit, budget, edit, navigate bureaucracy, and manage their own time and their supervisors’ expectations. The ability to do all this is a pretty strong indicator to me that they’d be successful later in life as entrepreneurs. I loved setting my own schedule (mostly) and doing my project my own way (also mostly).

It’s not just fierce independence, determination, all-round competence, and high level organization skills that tell me many of us could be successful entrepreneurs. It’s also that we’re smart, creative, and excellent communicators. Sure, there’s much to learn about the world beyond the academy—but hey: learning’s what we do best!

Have you thought about running your own business, setting up as a freelancer, or joining a small start-up firm? Or maybe you already have! I’d love to know more about what you’re doing or what you’re thinking about.