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!).

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