Transition Q & A: Kimberley Yates

Kimberley Yates received her PhD in English from the University of Toronto in 1997 and completed a Masters of Information Studies in 2009.  She is currently associate director of the Jackman Humanities Institute at the University of Toronto.

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

I was a bit of a mess when I finished my doctorate: my marriage had ended and my mother had died in the previous year. I buckled down and wrote like mad, but I did not have any clear sense of what would happen next. My last year was unfunded, so I got by with a combination of post-separation support, editing gigs, and a research assistantship.  I assumed that there would be a tenure-track position for me in my field of medieval drama, and that I would probably be living somewhere far away and much smaller than Toronto, but I had not actually done the research to figure out where scholarship in my field was strong, or what was happening to my field.  It turned out that there were very few places where a tenure-track job in medieval drama was in any way likely to have materialized, and that the field was in a state of steep decline.

What was your first post-PhD job?

There was a gap after I defended and graduated, and before I got a contract at the University of Toronto as a sessional instructor.  My first post-PhD job was a temp assignment that I landed through an agency.  I spent six months at a land management company photocopying and cerlox-binding due diligence reports all day, every day.  I was roundly mocked for my useless doctorate in the humanities.  I was also freelance editing for a Russian translator.

After that, I taught for the Department of English, mostly effective writing and first-year survey courses. This was before the sessional instructors unionized, so after three years the department informed me that they had a “three years and you’re out” policy, and I got no more contracts.  There was another period of temp agency work:  this time I landed in the marketing department of an insurance company, where I had the opportunity to do some copy-editing and a bit of minor event management, but mostly I answered a 1-800 telephone line to provide product information to insurance agents.

By now, it was looking pretty clear that academia was not interested in any research that I might have to offer.  I was getting ready to settle in to the insurance field when a staff administrator position came up at the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies.  I worked with a job coach to sort out my various experiences in grad school and out, and landed the position of assistant director.  I think of this as my first *real* job post-PhD.  The CRRS is a small non-circulating research library dedicated to the 16th-17th century in Europe.  It hosts lots of events, and it publishes an astonishing number of books and several journals, and it provides fellowships and student jobs to quite a lot of grad students and recent PhDs. My job was to administer all of this, either by making it happen myself, or by supervising student assistants.  It was a tremendously busy job, and it grew larger and larger during the six years that I held it. I also went back to grad student life part-time for a library degree.  Initially, I thought I was going to become a rare books librarian, but the experience widened my interests, and I started to think a lot about digital humanities and how universities work.

What do you do now?

I have been associate director of the Jackman Humanities Institute since July 2008.

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

Much of my job is about communications:  I write and post all the content for the website, I design event flyers and promote events, I keep minutes and manage records for the institute, and (this is the part I like best) I research and write short reports on a wide range of topics to assist the director in making decisions.  I am also the primary point of contact for our twenty residential fellows, and I assist them with figuring out all sorts of questions (I think of my role there as the fellow-whisperer).  I often do very mundane tasks like unloading the dishwasher, but I also get to have a hand in designing policy and long term planning.

What most surprises you about your job?

That it exists at all.  It seems highly improbable,  but it happens that our patron took a deep interest in sustaining humanities research at Toronto, and rather generously funded my place of employment.  It’s a really lovely environment to work in—a famous architect designed it, there is a new art exhibit every year, and luxurious touches abound. I am totally lucky to be here and I try to live up to that good fortune by making the place useful, happy, humane, and productive for everyone it touches.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

The perspective; literally, intellectually, administratively.  I am on the tenth floor looking east at the ROM. Intellectually, I get the chance to learn about an incredibly wide range humanities research, across disciplines and historical periods and global cultures.  It has been an amazing education.  And I have the chance to see how the university works from the back side, to hear chairs griping about their faculty and deans griping about the chairs, to watch the big politics play out, and to see how the place makes its decisions and plans its future. I find this completely fascinating.

What would you change about it if you could?

I am still a part-time worker, at 80% most of the time, and 90% when it is busy.  I’d love to be full-time.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

I don’t know.  I am enjoying my current position enormously, and I can imagine being here for another 15 years.  The years do pass quickly.  But I can also imagine going further into the university’s administrative structure, perhaps in Advancement or Governing Council.  I do plan to stay at the University of Toronto.

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

  1. Depression is a real possibility.  It’s a very fragile transition to move from the intense close focus of a dissertation into the wide and undefined world.  Pay attention to your physical and mental health. Get as much support as you can, both medical and emotional. Get interested in the details around you; try as many possibilities as you can.  If you land in something unpleasant for a while, know that it is not forever and be ready to move on when the next opportunity comes.  Learn to bounce.  Learn to adapt.  You are strong and smart and you have the ability to learn.  If you survived grad school, you can survive anything.
  2. Think through your experiences in terms of the skills you developed: I got the CRRS job (in large part, I think) because I had done a lot of theatre as a grad student, and making a play happen is not very different from making a lecture or conference happen.  Theatre experience became event management skills.  Teaching became both management and communication.  Researching and writing a dissertation became both project management and communication.
  3. It’s easy to think in very polarized, hierarchical terms in a university context:  higher/lower, winner/loser, up/down.  But working relationships are complex, more like webs and networks. I would have thought of my work as an administrator as a “loser-secretarial” job when I was a grad student.  It took me a while to shake the sense that a staff job is a poor consolation prize for failed academics. But I want to say for the record that university hierarchies are structural arrangements, rather than Platonic realities. The reality is richer, more challenging, more complicated, and much more satisfying.

3 Replies to “Transition Q & A: Kimberley Yates”

  1. Thank you for this post. I’ve been experiencing an incredibly difficult time finding work post-grad school and the lack of meaningful employment (or ANY employment!) does take a serious toll on mental health. It was encouraging to read that it is possible to eventually get there.

  2. Many thanks for this blog Jennifer, I am inspired by this write and it give me courage and hope as to getting over the post PhD transition.

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