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: Andrew Miller

This summer I met Andrew Miller and talked to him about his transition from history PhD and sessional instructor (read: adjunct) to public servant and soon-to-be Strategic Leader for the City of Mississauga, Canada’s sixth most populous municipality (thank you, Wikipedia). He’s thrilled about his move and proud of the work he’s done over the past 8 years with the Ontario government. Andrew knows that PhDs have what it takes to succeed in the non-academic world, and gives some great tips in this Q & A post.

Here’s a bit of what he wrote:

What was your first post-PhD job?

If we exclude the sessional work, my first post-PhD job was working as a junior policy analyst for the Ontario Ministry of Infrastructure. It might be worth explaining how I got that job: following my epiphany that this was a line of work I wanted to get into, I consulted with an old friend from undergrad days who was a civil servant. He in turn set me up with an informational interview with another civil servant who also held a PhD. He introduced me to what the life would be like. At his suggestion, I applied for an entry-level job that was advertised in the newspaper. It took two interviews and a lengthy test, but I got the position.

Read the full Q & A over at University Affairs!

Transition Q & A: Sarah Kendzior

Sarah Kendzior earned her PhD in anthropology from Washington University in St. Louis. She is
now a columnist for Al Jazeera English, a public speaker, a researcher and a consultant. Find her online at and follow her on Twitter @sarahkendzior.

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

I started my PhD in 2006. In 2008 the economy collapsed, and the academic job market collapsed with it. I used to be a journalist—my first job out of college was for the New York Daily News—so I had been through this before when the media industry collapsed in the early 2000s.

When you continually board sinking ships, you stop having hope. In a collapsed economy, this is an advantage. The most unnerving thing I see in the job market nowadays—academic or otherwise—is people working in terrible conditions in the hope of a future that never comes. Hope is something you should have for other people, not for yourself. Hope holds you down and blinds you to possibilities.

As a PhD student, I had one goal—to do the best work I could on topics that I felt were important. In my case this was how the internet is used in authoritarian states—a subject that anthropologists thought was bizarre when I started my degree in 2006, but was of great interest to the public by the time I graduated in 2012. While in graduate school, I published widely. I wrote six peer-reviewed articles, including in two flagship journals in two disciplines (anthropology and communication). I became well-known as an expert in my field.

This made no difference when I went on the anthropology job market, which contrary to popular belief does not value prestigious or prodigious publication. But my publications, as well as interest in my research from people in a variety of fields—media and policy as well as academia—left me in a relatively good position when I graduated.

What was your first post-PhD job?

Toward the end of graduate school, I started to do some blogging for a Central Asian news and analysis website called Registan. This was a fantastic experience—I only wrote a few articles, but I got an engaged response from a broad audience.

In October 2011, I defended my dissertation, but I had a national fellowship that provided a stipend through May 2012, so I ended up with more time on my hands than usual. I started writing for Registan regularly, working out a lot of ideas that I had had during my dissertation research. Other media outlets read my articles and began recruiting me. One of those places was Al Jazeera English, who asked me to contribute pieces on digital media and politics in Central Asia.

By the summer of 2012, I was in an unusual position in terms of employment. I had become well-known enough that I was frequently being asked to give guest talks at universities. I had interest from corporations and think tanks—I spoke at Google’s “Internet at Liberty” conference, at the New America Foundation, and other venues. I was starting to get interview requests from the media. I was publishing constantly and winning awards and recognition, but none of this made any difference in terms of finding an academic job. Because the only thing that really matters in academia is whether you have money.

No amount of achievement could compensate for my lack of financial resources. If I wanted to stay in academia, I had one option—to adjunct, living on poverty wages, until someone would hire me for a tenure-track position. I would have to quit my writing and consulting jobs, which paid me, in order to devote my time to poorly paid teaching and unpaid academic writing. I knew I would have to shell out for the AAA conference to even be able to interview for jobs, and I could not afford to go. It amazed me how much academia relied on personal wealth as a means to entry.

In August 2012, I reflected on this in an article called “The Closing of American Academia.” The article went viral and while it was controversial, the response was largely positive. I received hundreds of emails from people thanking me for speaking out. Al Jazeera English asked me to write for them on a regular basis, and I’m still doing that a year later.

What do you do now?

I am a writer, researcher and public speaker. I write regularly for Al Jazeera and, in the last year, have also written for Foreign Policy, the Atlantic, Slate, Radio Free Europe, and other publications. I’ve started writing more about social injustice in America—particularly in higher education, and particularly regarding the exploitation of America’s youth. I also write a lot about politics in authoritarian states, and about the politics of the internet.

There is not really a commonality to the topics I cover, but there is in the response I get—I get a lot of emails from people saying, “Thank you for speaking for me when I don’t have a voice.” I am fortunate to have a platform with Al Jazeera so I am trying to use it to draw attention to issues of injustice that are often ignored. These are the kinds of topics that I find interesting anyway.

In addition to writing, I do consulting, mostly for organizations that cover Central Asia or groups concerned with human rights. I continue to do independent academic research, and I am working on projects about digital media in Central Asia and Azerbaijan.

I also serve as an expert witness in Central Asian political asylum cases. I don’t get paid for it, but I’m pointing it out because it is by far the most valuable thing I have done with my PhD. Sometimes I think my degree was meaningless—of all the things I’ve done, it’s the thing that means the least to me—but then I’m reminded that it has value, just not in the way I anticipated.

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

My schedule is unorthodox because I have two young children. I’m almost reluctant to mention this because it tends to change how people see me. I kept my parental status out of the public eye until December 2012, when it arose in conjunction with an article I wrote, and then I was called a “mommy blogger” by USA Today and others. This was a really degrading experience, because I write about foreign policy and social issues in established media outlets—I do not blog about kids. No man in my position would ever be called a “daddy blogger.”

However, I think the first step in erasing the stigma of motherhood is to be open about being a mother, and not act like it’s something about which we should be ashamed. I want other academic parents—or graduate students thinking about having kids—to know that it is possible to balance work and parenthood, and not reject one or the other purely out of social expectation or self-doubt.

In terms of my schedule, my days are a mix of parenting and work responsibilities—occasionally at the same time. I have been interviewed on the BBC from a Gymboree, I have researched the plight of Uzbek political prisoners during naptime, I have pushed mounds of toys to the side so my apartment looks clean(ish) when I’m on TV. I work most on weekends and nights, when my husband is home with the kids. I have little “time to myself,” but that’s OK because I love what I do—both writing and taking care of my children.

What most surprises you about your job?

I was surprised by how easy it was to transition from academia into professional life—albeit unnerved that the path to doing it was so unpredictable. I am pleasantly surprised that I write so many critical things about powerful institutions but still have positive relationships with individuals within those institutions. There is a culture of fear in academia that makes people reluctant to speak their mind. But I have found that a lot of people share my views, and while there is always a risk in being outspoken, the reward in meeting others who share common cause outweighs it.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

I love to write, I’m happiest when I’m writing. I appreciate the international audience that Al Jazeera and other publications provide. I enjoy having the freedom to research and discuss topics that are important to me. (That was my favorite thing about graduate school too.) I love that occasionally I’m in a position to make a concrete difference in someone’s life for the better.

What would you change about it if you could?

I am a writer so of course I would change how writers are paid. There are a lot of publications that believe people should publish purely for “exposure,” but exposure does not pay the bills. (This is akin to the adjunct situation in academia.) So I tend to avoid those publications, even when they recruit me, and I’m sad that I have to do this because I always like engaging with a new audience.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

To my great surprise, last fall I was recruited for a couple of tenure-track jobs, even though I wrote that notorious Al Jazeera article. That was the moment when I realized I was happier doing what I’m doing now than I would be in academia. I didn’t apply for the jobs, and that felt strange, because as I’m sure readers know, most people would love to be in that position—including me a year before.

What I realized during my year on the job market is that having a traditional academic career is not as important to me as participating meaningfully in public life—and that the former actually precludes the latter. If I had an academic job, all my work would be behind a paywall. I would lose my audience and my integrity—because I would be working only for myself, only to meet tenure requirements, and I like to engage with the world. I speak to the public.

We live in precarious times. I have no idea what is coming next. What that means is that I can’t waste my life living for the future. I only know what opportunities I have now, so I work as hard as I can.

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

Realize that nowadays, everyone is in transition—even if they think they are secure. Ignore people who say that things will “work out eventually,” especially baby boomers who have no idea of the grim prospects for people in their 20s and 30s. Things often do not work out and there is no reason for you to suffer on false promises.

I see so many graduate students and recent PhDs sacrificing things they want—having a family, pursuing outside interests, expressing their beliefs—in order to meet other people’s expectations. They base personal decisions on others’ empty assurances. This is a terrible way to live.

In more practical terms, I recommend all graduate students and recent PhDs maintain a public online profile. Show the world who you are, what you know and what you can do. Academic culture encourages a level of insularity that is harmful if you are to ever leave the fold. There is a great article, “Advice to Future PhDs from 2 Unusual Graduating PhDs,” that gives tips on how to maximize your time in graduate school. I especially recommend blogging and using Twitter to make contacts with people outside academia.

Realize that people in academia have a warped and limited view of what constitutes “success.” Academia has been described as a cult, and when you leave a cult, you have to shake off its values and judgments. Only in academia is working four adjunct jobs for less than 10K a year “success” while working a non-academic job that provides personal satisfaction or a living wage “failure.” A profession that exploits people’s fear to staff its positions is not one to which you owe loyalty.

Above all, stand up for yourself and stand up for others. When someone else is hurt, be their ally. Never accept exploitation as normal. You are worth more than they tell you.

Transition Q & A: Chris Humphrey

Chris Humphrey earned his PhD in medieval studies from the University of York. He’s currently a project manager at Triodos Bank. Find him online at Jobs on Toast, his website of “positive & practical support for PhD careers outside academia,” and follow him on Twitter @ChrisHumphrey.

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

I had a text-book path through academia, studying English as an undergraduate, cultural studies as a masters, and interdisciplinary medieval studies for my PhD. After that I held a 3 year postdoc position at the University of York. During those 3 years I applied for many academic lecturing posts in the UK and had many interviews, without receiving a job offer. My postdoc was due to end in September 2000 and after a paid postdoc I was unwilling to take a salary cut and just do hourly-paid teaching whilst continuing an academic job search. I had a young daughter at that point too. Basically I was unwilling to become underemployed just to stay in the academic job game.

So I put together a Plan B, which involved searching for work in what was then the emerging field of e-learning and web-based training. I’d been interested in technology for a long time and the internet was really beginning to open up. I thought that some experience of e-learning could help me to keep my academic options open too. When I got my 5th academic interview rejection phone call I knew there would be no more posts that year, so I put my plan B into action! Within a matter of months I was offered a post at a startup e-learning company, on a good salary and with lots of opportunities to develop my skills. As soon as I started working in business I knew that there was no way back.

What was your first post-PhD job?

My first post-PhD job was working as a content analyst for an e-learning startup. With hindsight it was a good role for making the transition out of academia. At my interview I presented myself as a professional educator with an interest in technology, and as someone who was entrepreneurial, having funded my own research by winning several research grants. I gave examples of how I thought e-learning could be used in the future, for instance to show people how to do common household tasks such as changing the spark plugs on your car (this was back in 2000—this has actually come true with YouTube!). My interviewers saw the continuities in my CV and my story, were interested in someone who was looking for a new challenge, and gave me the job.

The main part of the job involved developing content for e-learning programmes for corporate customers like Vodafone and Hewlett Packard. I had to quickly learn about telecoms billing systems and the capabilities of LaserJet printers! At the company we always tried to make our e-learning programmes fun, for instance, by creating an interactive online town which learners could explore, rather than just dry multi-choice questions. Unfortunately in 2002 the company went into liquidation and I was made redundant. But I had acquired a lot of new skills and experience in technology and training, and found that I enjoyed working as part of a creative team to develop new products and services for customers.

What do you do now?

Today I work for a fantastic ethical and sustainable bank called Triodos Bank. I was made redundant in July 2011 and about a fortnight later I saw that Triodos was advertising for a temporary project manager. So I applied for the role and got the job, and within a few months I was taken on permanently. Working for an ethical and sustainable bank really fits with my personal values of doing whatever I can to make the world a better place—the bank only lends the savers’ money to companies and charities which have a positive environmental, social and cultural impact on the world. Triodos doesn’t offer accounts or loans to any companies involved in fossil fuel extraction, gambling, tobacco, or pornography. Especially in the light of the 2008 banking crisis and the continuing problems in the financial sector in the UK, it’s really great to feel that I’m helping to push forward an alternative and more sustainable model of banking.

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

As a project manager I’m responsible for planning and delivering projects for the bank, making sure everything goes smoothly and within time and budget. These projects can range from online web-forms to enable customers to apply for new accounts online, through to running a share offer or managing the installation of new equipment and software. I have 3-6 projects on the go at any one time.

I use a project management methodology called PRINCE2, which helps you to divide a big set of tasks into separate stages, so that you can focus on completing each stage, whether that is start-up, delivery or closedown. I use Microsoft Project too, but at the end of the day a lot of my work involves talking face-to-face with my project teams and the Heads of Departments who I work for. Good written and oral communication, and good people skills, are at the heart of good project management!

So in a typical day I’ll chair several project meetings to make sure that the work is on track for live projects. I will also be working on business cases for new projects that haven’t yet started, as well as writing closedown reports for projects that have finished!

What most surprises you about your job?

As a good project manager there are absolutely no surprises! No seriously it is such a great feeling to hear about all the good work the bank is doing, whether that is raising funds to help 700 homeless people get off the streets in London, or to help unemployed people and ex-offenders to learn new skills in Bristol. The work I do as a project manager indirectly supports all that, and it’s so thrilling to hear testimonies from customers or people who have benefitted from interventions supported by the bank. In these difficult financial times it can be easy to overlook the really positive things that are happening in the world, and so it’s a nice surprise to be reminded of them.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

It’s always fun starting up a project—you can’t beat the excitement and energy of getting started with something new that will fix a problem or create a new opportunity! That is really exciting. I also like working one-to-one with people, giving them support and encouragement and then seeing them go on to excel at something—that is really rewarding.

What would you change about it if you could?

I can’t really think of anything to change about my job. If I could change one thing it would be to raise public awareness of the power of their money and its role in shaping a greener future. I’ve come to appreciate that as consumers we all have the power to make a positive difference—for instance by consciously choosing to buy local, sustainable goods and services, such as organic food and green energy. This purchasing power also applies to financial services such as savings and pensions—does that higher rate of interest you’re enjoying on your savings come at the expense of people or the planet? I would encourage everyone to think carefully about where their money is invested, as it’s just as important as other ways of greening one’s lifestyle. To find out more about sustainable financial institutions in the country where you live, you can check out Global Alliance.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

As the bank grows it will take more effort to coordinate all the work that’s going on, and I’m looking forward to working with my colleagues in branches in other countries to deliver group-wide projects.

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

My top piece of advice is to treat the non-academic job search as if you are a professional who is simply changing sectors and looking for a new job and a new challenge. Many PhDs or others who quit grad school feel that they have hit a wall, and the discontinuity between higher education and business seems stark and daunting. While I appreciate that people feel this way, it’s absolutely not the way to start off with a job search outside academia! Rather, you should be looking for as much continuity as you can to drive forward your job search. I don’t mean academic subject continuities, but rather continuities in terms of skills, your personal story, commonality of purpose with your target employers, and your wider interests.

So my advice is: market yourself as a professional X—fill in the X yourself—whether it be a writer, educator, project manager, people manager, analyst, technologist—and you will find that there are lots of opportunities out there for these roles. You want to be talking to employers and interviewers about how you can help them in the future, and not dwelling on your own past.

Transition Q & As from around the web

Here are a couple interesting Q & As from Life After the PhD and Inside Higher Ed.

Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Jessa Chupik, who transitioned from history PhD student to executive recruiter:

Many students might be loath to leave the academy because they enjoy certain aspects of the job. How have you managed to integrate your favourite parts of the academic experience into your current job?

Gathering stories is what I loved about being a historian. Trying to piece together someone’s life from documents is what I did on a daily basis during my PhD. Now, I spend a lot of time doing the same thing, but I actually get to meet the individuals that I’m interacting with. I also get to do research and write a lot.

You know that rush you get when you find a document or uncover a pattern when you are doing research? I get that rush/excitement every day as an executive recruiter in the public and not-for-profit sectors.

Jessa is now a senior executive recruiter at the University of Waterloo. Follow her on Twitter @humanehr.

And over at IHE, there’s a Q & A with Ann Daly, a former women’s studies professor who left her tenured job and became a life coach. She writes, in part:

Q. After 17 successful years as a women’s studies professor, why did you decide to leave your tenured position in the academy?

A: I was dissatisfied and bored for a long, long time before I made my escape. My reasons were several. First, academia wasn’t a good fit for me. I’m a high-autonomy person, and my university had become increasingly bureaucratic and committee-obsessed over the years. Second, my foundational intellectual questions about women and culture were leading me outside into the “real world.” Third, I got bored in such a static environment. Seventeen years is a long time to be teaching the same thing in the same classroom and discussing the same problems in the same faculty meeting room. Fourth, I wanted to develop new capacities. The supreme irony is that my core desire, to constantly learn and grow, was thwarted within the very cultural institution that is supposed to advance learning.

Q. Now you run your own life/career coaching business, focusing specifically on helping women achieve their ambitions. What’s involved in that?

A: I work with smart, successful women who want to take it to the next level. I help them get clear about what they want, and how to get it. My clients are professionals and executives. I also coach several professors, as well! I bring a special level of insight to their career challenges.

Ann’s coaching website is here. Follow her on Twitter @anndaly.

I should have another interview of my own to post in a few days! Have you seen others on the ‘net I should know about?

Transition Q & A: Heather Steel

Heather Steel earned her MA in history from the University of New Brunswick and spent six years in the PhD program in history at York University. She is now a researcher in the non-profit sector.

You left your history PhD program before finishing. Why?

In the end, my dissertation and I were not a good fit. I think I went into the PhD program because I had no idea what else I could do, and everyone kept encouraging me to do it. I loved taking classes, had a good experience with my MA thesis, and managed to get funding. When you are in your early 20s, you aren’t necessarily thinking all that deeply about the future ramifications of your decision, so off I went. There were parts of my program that I enjoyed very much (classes, having the chance to read and think, teaching, and my colleagues), but in the end, sitting for hours in front of a microfilm reader to write something that few people would actually read was not fulfilling. I learned through this process that I like research in small doses, not projects that take years to see results. Given the job prospects, I decided to get out before I put myself even further behind in the job market.

What did you hope for in terms of employment?

At the start, I honestly wasn’t sure where I could land. I had very little confidence that I had any skills or experience that employers would take seriously. Like most graduate students, I thought immediately about the public sector, but soon realized talking to my public servant friends, that I needed to broaden my scope, as those jobs are very hard to come by. One of the most valuable things I did was take workshops at York’s career centre and talked to a former PhD from York who operated a website on leaving academia. The advice I got gave me confidence and the tools I got helped kick start my job search. The big thing I realized was that the next few years would likely be a series of contracts as I tried to figure out where I belonged. And there is nothing wrong with that!

What was your first post-grad school job?

I started volunteering at my current workplace (a non-profit organization in citizenship and immigration) and happened to be there at a time of big organizational change. One staff member went on maternity leave and I ended up getting her contract. I managed a national volunteer program, which gave me a lot of valuable experience. I met amazing people, got to travel across Canada, and it gave me a taste of what I liked to do. I realized that I liked having a varied “to do” list – a variety of discrete tasks with concrete results (rather than one thing to do, such as read microfilms of 1887 newspapers all day every day for the rest of the week!).

From there I moved on to a short contract with the government, working in communications. It was a short contract (which I knew from the start), but was a great opportunity to work in the public sector and in a new field.  I worked with a great team and learned a lot that I have taken with me to my current position.

What do you do now?

In a way I have returned to my roots as a researcher. I’m back at my first place of employment, building a research program for them.

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

I do all sorts of things! Including…

  • Strategic and operational planning for the program (with the help of my colleagues, of course).
  • In-house research, mostly in program evaluation (design and implement surveys, organize and run focus groups).
  • Strike and manage research partnerships with external organizations/researchers.
  • Work with my colleagues to get our results and key messages out into the wider world.

What most surprises you about your job?

That people actually get things done in timely manner. Not academia’s strong suit.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

I like that I get to keep a foot in the academic world, but in a totally different way. Rather than actually doing academic research (which I learned in my PhD was not my passion), I get to help academics do their research.

We are also a young organization that has grown substantially in the last two years. I was there before all the serious growth and change started, so it’s been really fun seeing the transformation. And we are just beginning!

I also really enjoy my working environment. We are a small, but awesome team! We have a great mix of collaboration and independence.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

I have no idea! Really. I like where I’m at now, but I’ve learned over the past couple years that there is a lot out there that I could do well and haven’t tried. My dad once gave me the best piece of advice: stay open to all opportunities. You never know where the next one might come from and you might just love it, even if it seems to be a big departure. The days of linear career trajectories are long gone (as difficult as it is for our parents to believe it!).

What advice or thoughts do you have for post-MAs and -PhDs (and -ABDs!) in transition now?

My most important piece of advice is to start thinking about your future before you are finished. I know when you start the PhD, the end seems so far away, but there are so many things you can be doing during your PhD to make the transition easier—upgrade your skills by auditing classes, learn how to do proper resumes and cover letters (there are campus career centres for a reason – use them!), do informational interviews, and volunteer. You have a relatively flexible schedule and university resources at your fingertips, so use them.

For those in the transition, keep slogging away. Something will come through.  The most important thing is to get yourself out there as much as possible—it really is all about who you know (or rather, who knows how awesome you are!).

Transition Q & A: Jamie Pratt

Jamie Pratt received his PhD in philosophy from York University, specializing in ethics. He is now the research officer in York’s Faculty of Fine Arts.

A tenure-track job at a research institution is often seen as the goal of a post-PhD job search. What was your experience? What did you hope for in terms of employment as you completed your PhD?

I was a little over a year away from receiving my PhD when I came to the realization that an academic career was not for me, for at least three reasons. First, after several years of intense scholarly work in my field, I had fallen out of love with my area of study. Quite simply, I was bored. Once I received my PhD I remember suddenly feeling extremely relieved that now, finally, I could read whatever books I wanted without feeling guilty. Second, I came to the conclusion that I had nothing left to say about my area of study that was new. Not being clever enough to add anything of worth to it, I thought I should probably make way for other, better, philosophers. Third, I had watched the struggles of friends and acquaintances in my cohort to find academic positions in their fields while slogging it out for years as underpaid sessionals with no job security. Being slightly older than my cohort (I went back to school after having dropped out for many years), and being married to someone who had a career outside academia, the peripatetic life of the wandering scholar wasn’t really an option. And being the analytical sort, I crunched the numbers in my head and quickly concluded that a tenure-track position in philosophy was a lottery prize I would never win, and certainly not in Toronto. The problem was, I had no idea what my next step was going to be, and the mentorship in my department was non-existent for those who weren’t looking to “go on the market.”

What was your first post-PhD job?

My first post-PhD job did not go smoothly or last very long. I was as an assistant in the government relations department of a large teacher’s union (which shall remain nameless). I got the job through an employment agency, and I got it surprisingly quickly. My employers seemed pleased with themselves on snagging someone with a PhD, and at what they considered to be a bargain (even though the salary was much more than I had ever earned as a sessional lecturer). However, one of the interviewers seemed worried that I would find the job boring and would move on to something better. She was probably right to worry.

Now, “government relations” is just a fancy word for “lobbying,” and that’s what our department did. Although I was pretty much at the entry level and much of my job was administrative, it did allow for a certain amount of writing, policy research, and hanging out with politicians, if only as my boss’s nameless sidekick. However, being an ethicist by training, I was uncomfortable with some of the tasks I was given, some of which involved creative ways to get around Ontario’s election finance legislation. I also made the mistake of asking too many questions about what we were up to. And I had basic philosophical objections to lobbying and to the aims of our organization more generally. My boss grew to dislike me intensely. In short, they decided not to keep me on after my probationary period was up. In retrospect, I understand why, but it was a blow to my ego at the time.

What do you do now? How did you get your current job?

Currently, I am the Research Officer in the Faculty of Fine Arts at York University. How I got here is a bit of a long story, and I’m not sure how helpful it is as a model career trajectory. I was out of work for awhile several years ago, and I needed money, so I temped. York University has its own temp agency and they took me on. My first placement was in the bookstore, but coincidentally, my next assignment was in the very philosophy department where I had done my graduate work. I was an administrative assistant. On one hand it was extremely humbling to wind up back there as a temp, and this was aggravated by a couple of faculty members who, in a roundabout way, asked me how I had fallen so low. Ironically, I was still earning more than I had as a sessional and had no less job security, so although it seemed step down career-wise, in another sense it wasn’t.

However, the work was not very exciting, and frankly, at times there wasn’t much of it for me to do. Since I have a pretty deeply ingrained work ethic, I felt guilty about getting paid to do nothing, so I told my manager that I could do more. This seemed to impress her, and more challenging work and more responsibility came my way.

When that assignment ended, I was immediately given a new one, this time in the Dean’s Office, working for the Associate Dean of Faculty Relations. This position came with a raise and was a sensitive one, involving things like labour grievances and tenure and promotion among faculty members. From there I was asked to cover the research officer’s maternity leave (that in itself is a long story). After that a permanent research officer position opened up in the Faculty of Fine Arts, and that’s where I am now.

To summarize, there was a progressive succession of temporary placements until I came to where I am now, on a permanent basis. No placement was wasted, because in each one I acquired more and deeper knowledge of how my complex institution works, from many different angles. This acquired knowledge ended up mattering tremendously. Although it may seem like a meandering career path, I don’t think I could have done it by simply applying off the street. And in the greater scheme of things, it wasn’t that long a journey. In all, this journey “up the ladder” at York took about two years.

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

I suppose my main task is to help faculty members find the money they need to do their research (in an environment of increasing scarcity). Ancillary to this is helping them find funding opportunities and helping them understand the funding requirements and restrictions of various funding agencies —and of our own institution. I help them work up proposals and create research budgets. I also help them spend the money once they get it.

In addition to this, there is a certain amount of committee work (e.g. to adjudicate our internal research funding competitions), and policy work. I also negotiate and mediate between faculty members and our institution for the use of our resources for research purposes, since the Faculty of Fine Arts has an extensive array of performance spaces, studios, and equipment (e.g. 3D printers, film cameras, lighting, digital media labs, etc.).

What most surprised you about your job?

I think what most surprised me about my job is what I learned about interacting with faculty members from my side of the desk. There’s a certain extent to which my position involves a kind of role-reversal in my relationship with faculty members. Before, I was the lowly grad student and they were the authority figures. Now in many cases I’m put in the position of enforcing rules and denying things to very high-performing and very entitled people. It takes some getting used to. And yet, there’s a sense in which I now also see them as people needing my help. Again, they aren’t the authoritative figures they once were for me. Some of them are surprisingly insecure, disorganized, and frankly not all that different from their own students.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

I feel fortunate in that my position allows me to be involved in what our researchers are up to. I learn a lot, and my mind never feels like it’s turning mushy. This is important to me, because even though I’m not an academic, I still have my intellectual pursuits. I still write, I still present at the odd conference (I just do it for my own benefit now). My job allows me to feel connected with that world, but on my own terms.

What would you change about it if you could?

I’m always trying to find ways to lessen the red tape in what is a very bureaucratic environment. Less bureaucracy would make my job easier as well as allowing researchers more time to do what they do best. Procedure is understandable when there’s a rationale for it, but there’s too much process for the sake of process that comes from a “we’ve always done it that way” mentality. These are institutional constraints over which I unfortunately don’t have a lot of power.

Where do you see yourself down the road?

I see myself in a position that is more policy-oriented. Policy analyst comes to mind. My first step towards this is to go back to school (!). I plan to enroll in a Master of Public Policy, Administration, and Law program next year. It’s a professional program that I can do in the evenings. It’s sort of an MBA for public sector types. Also, research ethics is an area I could see myself in.

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

I don’t feel I have any expertise in the job search itself. Most of what I have to say is relevant once you land that first job and parlaying it into something better. My advice is:

Be humble—there is not usually a quick and direct way up the ladder, so be prepared to spend some time in positions with little prestige or glamour. For every crappy task you’re assigned, think of how to describe it to future job interviewers as a piece of valuable experience you’ve acquired. I’ve been in many job interviews now, and interviewers have tended to be just as interested in my retail experience as my PhD experience.  Be patient—there’s a certain amount of time that must be spent paying your dues and proving yourself. You have to be prepared to start from the bottom. Be uncomplaining—bosses don’t like or trust complainers, but they do come to appreciate the quiet, steady person who simply gets the job done. These are the people they like to help advance. Be discreet—understand what you can say to whom, and what you can’t. And when in doubt, remain silent.

And finally, be clever—this is where the PhD comes in handy. Be quicker than others to come up with a solution when it’s needed, be able to fit small incidents into a bigger picture (in my experience few people seem able to do this), be able to offer your boss circumspect advice in highly political environments (and remember that every workplace is a political environment to one degree or another).

Transition Q & A: Alexandra Guerson

Alexandra Guerson earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto. She’s currently a part-time faculty member at New College, University of Toronto, and occasionally takes up sessional work at U of T’s history department and at York University. Find her online and follow her @aeguerson.

A tenure-track job at a research institution is often seen as the supposed goal of a post-PhD job search. What was your experience? What did you hope for in terms of employment as you completed your PhD?

I won’t lie. Teaching history at the university level was the reason I decided to do a PhD. I knew there was no guarantee of a job at the end, particularly if I wanted to stay in Canada. My undergraduate supervisor had told me she applied for more than forty jobs after finishing her PhD, only two of which were in Canada. I had also been involved in a couple hiring committees as an undergraduate student, which really opened my eyes in many ways. I was prepared psychologically to switch careers if I had to.

What was your first post-PhD job?

Before I finished my PhD, I got a contract to teach at the University of Toronto’s new International Foundation Program (IFP) as a sessional instructor. A month before I was supposed to start teaching, I won a two-year postdoc in France. It was right in my field of research and I would be part of an international team of researchers working on a EU-funded project that was quite high profile. Unfortunately, despite saying in their ad that the start date was negotiable, the institute that hosted the postdoc was unwilling to let me start after I finished the year with the IFP. It was important for me to find a positive work environment, and I did not like the way the institute changed what they had advertised and were inflexible. It gave me a bad vibe: there was no attempt to try to give me a reason why they wanted me there earlier than advertised.

Also, I was quite excited to be part of a brand new, innovative bridging program at New College, one that was attracting a lot of attention around the university and beyond. The coordinator of the program gave me carte blanche to design the course I wanted to teach and he was quite open to my ideas. Still, my supervisor advised me to take the postdoc since research is always more valued than teaching at universities. I disagreed and turned it down. Many felt I was crazy for turning down such a prestigious postdoc for a sessional job. I would have loved to go back to Europe, but I was also excited about the potential of the IFP. It was the first program of its kind in Canada. I listened to my instincts. In the end, it all worked out for the best since my sessional job became a faculty position the following year and I learned a lot in the process. (And my supervisor now agrees that I made the right decision.)

What do you do now?

I primarily teach a full-year introductory history course to international students who have English as a second language. I also help develop workshops for the Writing Centre at New College and teach upper year history courses at the history department at U of T and at York University.

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

I write and revise lectures, design assignments, meet with students, supervise teaching assistants, attend curricular development and planning meetings, prepare workshops, write handouts, and work on my own research projects. I also read a lot to prepare for classes.

This year, I’ve also began a collaborative research project with a colleague so we have spent some of the year reading documents we collected in the summer. We wrote a big grant application in the fall and will be presenting papers in February and April.

What most surprised you about your job?

I guess what most surprised me is how much I enjoy teaching history to non-historians. Only about 20% of my students at New College are in the humanities and probably fewer than 10% of those will get into history. I believe the study of history is crucial to the development of a critical citizen. I don’t try to convert my students to the study of history—there are enough historians already—but I get very happy when some of my science students tell me they want to continue taking arts and humanities courses during their degree. I get a lot of fulfillment from that.

The other big surprise was what an amazing place New College is. I had only ever been to the college once in my whole graduate career and knew nothing about it. Built in 1962 (the college just celebrated it’s 50th), it is a very inclusive environment, where everyone, from the cleaners to the principal, is treated with the same respect and appreciation. It really suits my personality.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

Interacting with my students and watching them mature through their first year of university. I also enjoy being able to teach outside my area of research. It is challenging but it keeps me learning all the time!

And I love the collaborative nature of my job. I teach a history class that is supported by three language classes taught by ESL instructors. For the program to be successful, there needs to be a lot of cooperation between myself, the language instructors, and the coordinator of the program. The great thing is that we all care about the students and their learning. I have learned much from my fellow instructors in the IFP and have made new friends in the program.

What would you change about it if you could?

I would get an office with a window! Just kidding… Perhaps the only thing I would change is the size of my class. Right now we are at 135 students. While that size is still manageable for me in terms of lecturing, it does make it more challenging to plan events outside the classroom, like going to see a film.

Also, I would not mind switching my status from part-time lecturer to professor. Not because I have any issues with being a lecturer per se, but mostly because that status does not fully acknowledge the amount of research I do. I’m not sure yet to what degree it will affect my attempts to get outside funding for my research projects.

Otherwise, I definitely foresee changes in the future, but don’t know exactly what they will be! Right now, my job is the ideal job for me. But I would not mind doing more adminstrative work or work related to incorporating more digital literacy across the university curriculum. Digital literacy is crucial in our internet and computer-mediated age and is not really taught at any level of our education system. I find it appalling and would like to do more work beyond my own courses and the occasional workshop for students and faculty.

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

Be flexible. Network widely. Don’t be afraid to follow the less traditional path if it makes sense for you. Most of all, it is crucial that you do not feel like a failure if you do not get a tenure-track position. Look critically at what it takes to be a full-time professor. I feel a lot of us romanticize academic life and as a result there are a lot of unhappy people in academia. Many of my friends in graduate school confessed they enjoyed studying, doing research, and teaching but they could not stand the constant pressure and the way everything they did was evaluated and criticized. If all you want to do is do your own work and teach a few classes, the reality is that academia may not be for you. There is a lot more to a professor’s life than that. It might be more constructive (and fulfilling!) to find another job that may allow you to learn and teach.

Transition Q & A: Natalie Zina Walschots

Natalie Zina Walschots is a music writer, poet and editor based in Toronto. She earned an MA in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Calgary. Read more about Natalie at her website and find her @NatalieZed.

When you finished your MA, what did you plan to do next?

I initially intended to move directly from an MA into a PhD. However, for a whole variety of reasons, this didn’t happen. After applying to a PhD program and successfully getting in during the second year of my MA, I was forced to turn down the offer (and four years of funding) when I was unable to defend in time (due in part to my own struggles finishing the project, and also because my advisor was on sabbatical, living in another province, and actively attempting to leave the department at the time as well). The next year, when I applied to the same program, I did not get in. That was 2008, a terrible year for me in general; shortly after my rejection letter showed up, my marriage ended, a friend was seriously injured, and I ended up just packing up my books and leaving with my cats is despair.

How did you get your first post-MA job (and what was it)?

My first official post-MA job was a position teaching English literature and creative writing in a private high school here in Toronto. In the process of fleeing Calgary, I reached out to friends and colleagues in the city, asking for any leads on work, especially writing and teaching. A friend had taught at this particular private school in the past and was able to recommend me; I taught for them for a year, including travelling in the summer to teach a five-week screenwriting workshop in Los Angeles.

What do you do now?

I am now a full-time freelance writer. I specialize in music writing, arts and culture journalism, literary criticism, and feminism. I also write about combat sports, video games and S&M. In addition to that, I take on copywriting and content creation work from time to time. Aside from the writing, I also serve in two editorial positions: as the Managing Editor of Canada Arts Connect Magazine, an online arts and culture publication, as as the Reviews Editor for This Magazine.

What do you do on a daily and weekly basis?

Write. A lot. On any given day I have a mix of long form journalism, album reviews, book reviews, and blog posts. I also regularly conduct interviews (in person, over the phone and via email) and attend cultural events, from heavy metal concerts to arts and culture announcements.

Every day is also a constant juggling of my schedule, as new things come up, opportunities arise and some pieces take longer than I expected. I use the Evernote app extensively, both to organize my days in a fluid way and to keep track of my research for various pieces I am writing.

I also make it a personal rule to send out at least one pitch every single day, whether it is floating something by an editor that I have a relationship with or approaching an entirely new-to-me publication. A huge part of any freelance gig is hustling, finding new work, and keeping in touch with publications.

Also, as a freelancer it is absolutely crucial to promote your own work. I maintain an active social media presence across a variety of platforms, as well as a website that I treat as a constantly evolving online portfolio.

I drink way too many cups of Marks & Spencer extra strong back tea, play with my cats, take my new puppy out a million times a day, spend a lot of time interacting with friends and colleagues on Twitter, and go for long walks or runs along the boardwalk of the (now frozen) beach whenever my brain needs a kickstart.

What most surprises you about your job?

How exhausting it can be. I spend a lot of time sitting on the couch, poking away at my laptop and doing research, which seems like not a terribly strenuous activity, but it can be entirely draining.

I’m constantly surprised by the material I am writing about. Nothing gives me more joy than reading a spectacular book or listening to an excellent metal record and being able to share that excitement with a wider audience.

I am also consistently surprised that my job is even, well, a job. It is something that I invented, and yet somehow I am able to do it, to make it work and make a living this way.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

I get paid to to go heavy metal shows. If I could travel back in time and talk to my 15-year-old self for only a moment, I don’t think she would actually believe that it was a real job that someone could have.

Building an audience, connecting incredibly smart and talented people, and doing tangible work that I believe in is also a wonderful thing to be able to do.

What would you change about it if you could?

I would like to get paid more, and more regularly. Sometimes freelancing means being your own loan shark.

What do you hope to accomplish over the next few months and years?

The best way I can describe what I hope to accomplish is: exactly what I am doing now, but more. I want to write more, branch out into some new publications, continue to grow. I’d also like to get the format for my next book nailed down — I can see the vague shape of it, even coming more in focus.

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

Write as much as you can. Look at writing as training for a marathon: push yourself consistently and your endurance will increase. You absolutely have to have a website, somewhere that readers and potential publishers can read about you, find writing you’ve done, and where you can talk about all the excellent rockstar level stuff you are up to. Get active on social media, and be a part of the larger cultural conversation about the subjects you are interested in. Learn how to write more accessibly, and widen your audience. If you love what you are writing about, and are genuinely excited about it, that will translate. Anyone can become a better writer; you can’t teach someone to love something.