Christine Slocum earned her MA in sociology at the University at Buffalo in 2010. She spent two years pursuing a doctorate in sociology at the University of Washington before leaving that to begin a career working to alleviate homelessness. She is employed as one of the data nerds at the Homeless Alliance of Western New York. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChristineLSloc and read her reflections on social justice and faith at ChristineSlocum.net.
You left your PhD program before finishing. Why?
I left because, in retrospect, I was burned out. It was beginning to feel like I was in some weird life purgatory where the PhD was an obstacle to complete before I lived the rest of my life. I realized that was silly. After some soul searching, I remembered that the reason I was pursuing sociology in the first place was to better understand the mechanisms of social stratification because I wanted to better understand how to undo it. Four years of graduate study (two for my MA at the University at Buffalo, two towards a PhD at the University of Washington) and I felt like I had enough that the next five years would be better spent working for an NGO, nonprofit, or government position getting practical experience in the field.
I left because I was participating in vibrant intellectual communities elsewhere: the Internet, my church group, friends. I did not feel that I needed academia to fulfill that part of my life.
I also left because it did not feel right. I stopped loving what I was doing. I did not fit in with the culture of the department, and I found that the amount of workaholism I needed to do in order to be academically successful came at the detriment of other facets of life. I am married, I have a lot of other interests, and I had a lot of friends who were living fulfilling lives outside of academia. My husband has been nothing but a fountain of support — and he really pushed me to be sure that I was leaving for the right reasons. He also was my sanity when I was in graduate school, keeping me from getting swallowed by that world. He was a graduate student once too, so he got it. I was finding that I related to my non-academic friends far more than I did to any of the graduate students.
The last reason I left was because I wanted to have children sooner rather than later, and supporting them on $12K (UW sociology’s yearly graduate stipend after university fees were deducted) plus my husband’s salary seemed crazy. I wanted kids and financial stability more than a PhD. I was done.
What did you hope for in terms of employment?
Well, initially I pursued my job search as an adventure and an opportunity to have a new experience. I’ve had a lot of jobs, most for brief periods of time. I figured it worse came to worst, if I hated the job it would be material for my writing. I wanted something new, something in nonprofits, and a stable paycheck.
What was your first post-graduate school job?
I was a certification coordinator for the Shelter Plus Care program administered by Plymouth Housing Group in Seattle, Washington. Shelter Plus Care is a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (known as HUD) program designed to house homeless individuals (and their families) who are disabled by mental illness, chronic chemical dependency, or HIV/AIDS. It is a voucher that pays the remaining rent on a unit after they pay 30 percent of their income. Plymouth Housing Group is a nonprofit that otherwise operates 13 buildings that provide permanent housing for nearly 1,000 now-formerly homeless individuals. It’s a really neat organization, and they make a huge difference in the lives of those who live there.
What do you do now?
After my daughter was born, my husband and I decided we wanted to live closer to our families. Circumstances made a move sensible: Seattle’s childcare exceeded my salary, so I quit. The start-up that my husband worked for restructured, and he was laid off with a generous severance package. We moved to Syracuse, New York, and lived with my family for seven months unsuccessfully seeking full-time work. We then moved to Buffalo where we found work after only three months. In the interim, I freelanced as a copyeditor, tutored math and worked part-time for a soup kitchen until finding my current position at the Homeless Alliance of Western New York.
I have been working at the Homeless Alliance since May. I do a bit of everything that I find interesting: assisting the administration of the Continuum of Care grants (another HUD program), helping to administer a database used by all HUD grant recipients in Western New York, helping to analyze that data, and I am researching best practices in creating some HUD-required assessment tools. There is a lot of variability, which is fantastic. For instance, I have sat in on decision-making committees, created a mapping tool to assist outreach workers in my community, and I administer the website. My agency, with others in the community, are implementing a system-wide change in how homelessness services are distributed. The big-picture, structural thinking that comes naturally to sociologists is proving to be crucial in my work as part of this process.
It was a year and three days between my last day at Plymouth and my first day at the Homeless Alliance. Transitions can take a lot of time.
What most surprises you about your job?
I am astonished that it exists. I am drawing from all of my experiences in this work, whereas every other position that I’ve had was not as challenging or as interesting as this one has been so far.
What are your favourite parts of your job?
I love that, at the end of the day, my work is exclusively oriented towards providing the best possible homelessness alleviation services in Buffalo, and that the skills I acquired in graduate school and life help me to do this.
What would you change about it if you could?
This will sound very silly . . . but the size of the women’s restroom in the office! It’s a small organization that rents offices from a larger nonprofit. I bicycle to work, and changing into professional clothes in the very tiny restroom is a bit tricky.
I consider the above complaint to be a sign that I am very lucky.
What’s next for you, career-wise?
I am planning to stay at this organization for the foreseeable future. I am very weary of short job stints and want to be at a place for years. My goal right now is to become as much of a subject matter expert in homelessness in Western New York, and become really good at my job. I get a lot of satisfaction from the pursuit of perfection. I hope to concurrently get involved in other parts of the Buffalo community.
What advice or thoughts do you have for MAs, ABDs, and PhDs in transition now?
Regarding a job search:
- Be very open-minded. I think some facets of graduate school socialize you into seeing the world in a more narrow way. This is true of career possibilities. Seems like folks discuss the available career options are either research or retail, if you fail. The world is full of things that need to be done. Perhaps you have the skills needed to do it.
- Do a lot of things. Having a lot of experiences to draw from expands your potential.
- Have a compelling narrative of why you left graduate school and make sure it is as positive as possible. You are making a positive career pivot because of passion, opportunity, or some other realization. Even if you are experiencing the reasons you left graduate school as negative, there is always a way to reframe it. A terrible experience showed you the ways something could be better.
- Don’t wait for external validation before offering your services for something. I taught myself copyediting. I taught myself how to administer websites. I started telling other people that I would do these things and found work that way. These were decent sources of income while I was on my maternity leave.
Regarding the life switch:
- Do not view yourself as a failure. I view my nonexistent PhD as a consequence of living life fully and passionately . . . and having enough sense to realize when I need to re-evaluate my priorities. That was a victory of growth for me. The years are not wasted, they were experienced.
- Remember you’re a human being first. Be human for a while. Experience delicious food, free time, and cuddles from your significant other. Practise being present in the moment. Don’t worry about success or failure.
- Take the long view. This too will pass.
Goodness though, my life right now is so wonderful. I feel really lucky, and I am glad I made the choices that I did.