Transition Q & A: Pamela MacIsaac

UPDATE, Nov 2014: Pam MacIsaac now works as an academic coach and tutor with Think Academic Enrichment & Support.

Pamela MacIsaac earned her PhD in history from McMaster University in 1997. She later completed a Master of Teaching at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) of the University of Toronto in 2008 and is currently the vice principal at Voice Intermediate School in Toronto.

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

I’m not sure I really had much hope of any kind of employment as I finished my PhD, to be honest. I was at grad school in the 90s, which was, quite possibly, the worst time ever to be an academic in terms of solid career prospects. The only way to find a job at the time seemed to be to wait for someone to die or retire, which was very depressing.

I realized as I was finishing my doctorate that I really didn’t love what I was doing; I was doing it because I was good at it and it was fun and I enjoyed the prestige and the social life of academia. But I didn’t really feel that I was making a contribution of any kind to the world; instead, I was just doing what I was doing to prove I could do it, so someone would give me money to keep doing it. Given the amount of work and commitment it takes to have a satisfying career as a professor, I knew I didn’t have the drive. I had the skills and the chops, probably, but I just didn’t care enough to do it as my life’s work.

What was your first post-PhD job?

I got a joe job doing research and administration for an executive search consultant who specialized in the not-for-profit sector. It turned out to be a somewhat interesting and very flexible job that served us well after we had our daughter, who was born a year or so after I defended my thesis. It wasn’t a job I felt committed to or loved, especially, but I was able to work at home, half-time – my focus at that point was on my family and being a mom, so a not so absorbing half-time job was exactly the right fit for me.

What do you do now?

About 7 years ago, I decided that what I really wanted to do and always had wanted to do was teach. I had begun to volunteer (probably excessively) at my daughter’s alternative school and spent so much time there that I figured I should get paid to do it. I went back to OISE and did a Master of Teaching (two years, with a research component, which I loved) and I found my calling. I was lucky enough to get a job teaching in a fantastically creative and innovative private school with a global education mandate, and am now the vice principal there. I love my work and am privileged to be one of those people who don’t feel like they’re working because what they do is so stimulating and plain fun.

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

I’m second-in-command to the founding principal; she’s the face and the vision of the school and I take care of the nuts and bolts day-to-day operation. I also teach English and philosophy to Grade 8s, which is incredibly rewarding. I plan curriculum, come up with solutions to administrative problems, talk to kids who are having problems (or just want to talk) and interact with my hilarious and inspired colleagues.

What most surprises you about your job?

How much I love it. When I worked in recruiting, I would always scoff when people said that they loved their jobs, because I was always the person who couldn’t wait to go home at night and do other things, especially after I had a baby. But now I know what they meant, and that it is possible to love what you do every day.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

Hmmm – probably the creative potential. Every day is a little bit different at school, and I have the opportunity to change and grow all the time. I learn something new every day and am able to implement that learning immediately.

What would you change about it if you could?

The commute! I live a bit far away from the school and have to take public transit for an hour each way. It’s somewhat exhausting. I suppose I could move, but we’re very settled and happy in our neighbourhood.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

I actually think I might just stay in my job until I retire. I’d like to write and publish more and start participating in the education field outside the school more, but it can be hard to find the space and time to do that.

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

Be prepared to change and grow and don’t expect to be the same person at 40 that you are at 25. It took me until my mid-30s to figure myself out and find what I loved to do. As well, take risks while you’re young. It gets harder and harder to make a change and follow your heart as you get older and more settled. Don’t become old before your time! I see people who are so young permanently booked into a career and marriage and a house and a mortgage and it freaks me out. You have to be able to uproot yourself and follow chances for awhile before you settle into what you know will probably be the rest of your life.

3 Replies to “Transition Q & A: Pamela MacIsaac”

  1. Thank you for the great entry and being open about your feelings. Do you think that communicating to people today is not worse than studiyng how people communicated long ago (as you’ve been into History)? 🙂

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