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FROM PHD TO LIFE

Transition Q & A: Daveena Tauber

Jennifer Polk explores how Dr. Tauber went from full-time professor to helping graduate programs increase retention and diversity.

By JENNIFER POLK | March 18, 2015

Dr. Daveena Tauber earned her PhD in English from Rutgers University. She consults with graduate programs and graduate writers in the U.S. and internationally on issues related to scholarly writing. You can find her at Scholar-Studio.com.

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

I had every intention of being a professor, although I was somewhat flexible about what such a career could look like. I would have been happy in literature, composition, or the kind of interdisciplinary program I was initially hired into. Yet as research shows, women on the academic job market tend to be less mobile than men, in part because they tend to earn less than their male partners. That was the case in my situation. It made no sense to move for a job that could not support a family when my partner already had such a job, so my career prospects were extremely limited.

To its credit Rutgers did an amazing job of preparing students for the job market. They pushed me hard to do a national search and I did, but it was painful to interview for jobs I knew I couldn’t take. On the one hand, I understand this pushing — a graduate program needs to place students in tenure track jobs to show that it is successful. On the other hand, I could have used a more nuanced sense of what success looks like. I came away from my initial job search year feeling, “well, I’m a loser with messed up priorities who wants to stay with my baby.” If those were the only categories available, I was willing to accept failure. Finding research that talks about the deeply gendered and structurally inequitable way that men and women face the job market helped me re-write that failure narrative. At this point, I don’t feel like a failure at all. I feel like someone who has created an amazing and deeply meaningful way to engage in academic work and be a parent.

What was your first post-PhD job?

As luck would have it, I was hired into a full-time job at a local university just before I defended my dissertation. This was a one-year “fixed term” position, but it carried full state benefits and I was told that it would renew indefinitely. At the interview, I told the committee that I would have to miss the first day of work because I would be defending my dissertation and they burst into applause. Though the pay was low, the medical benefits were amazing and, for the first time, I felt that I was contributing something of economic value to my family. I could not have been prouder. Two years later the program was re-organized and, after being pitted against several of my colleagues for a tenure-track position, I was laid off. I went through a divorce the same year, which increased the need to find a way to support myself without moving to a different city.

What do you do now? 

At this point, I am an established writing consultant who specializes in working with graduate programs and graduate students. The first part of my mission is to help graduate programs increase retention and diversity by supporting the full range of skills required to produce successful academic work. The second part is to support graduate students through direct consulting services. You might say that I facilitate excellent working relationships between universities and their students.

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

My work is incredibly varied, which is part of what I love about it. On any given day I have scheduled phone and Skype meetings with clients nationally and internationally. I also have meetings with local clients at a cafe. In some cases I attend clients’ thesis committee meetings or meetings with their advisors. Each week I also have “reading hours” that are set aside to read and give feedback. I give workshops frequently, so I spend time gathering input from the workshop stakeholders, creating materials, and preparing. Most excitingly, I have just purchased a property that will eventually turn the now-virtual ScholarStudio in to a physical space.

What most surprises you about your job? 

I never imagined myself as an entrepreneur. Both of my parents were self-employed and my rebellion took the form of wanting to work for the man. The man, as it turns out, isn’t hiring many PhDs these days. In the end, though, I am the best boss I have ever had. I enjoy working for myself and for my clients.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

I have always loved having a balance in my work between one-to-one work and leading groups. That need was met when I was teaching and I am trying to achieve that balance in my individual work as well. I have both a performative, extroverted side that likes the teaching role and a more reflective, intuitive side that deeply loves facilitating people’s learning process in a one-to-one context. In many ways, one-to-one learning is the most powerful tool we have, but it’s also tough to scale up. Ideally, the college and graduate student experience includes one-to-one mentoring. Sadly, in practice, that is not always the case.

When I am working with individual clients, I am extremely adept at assessing and responding to their needs, probably without their being aware that I am choosing from among a huge repertoire of content and communication styles. One of the dangers of working intuitively is that it can feel invisible or method-less to the person doing it. In fact, I think there are important methods embodied this work. This is one of the reasons that I keep a work journal and am doing a documentation project with my clients. I am interested in questions such as: “what kinds of issues and tasks do my clients bring to our sessions?” and “what do we do when we work together?” I think there are insights there that may be usable beyond my practice.

What are the larger implications of your work?

As a field, composition emerged in relation to the undergraduate writer and was institutionalized as part of the undergraduate curriculum, primarily in the first-year writing class. On the one hand, this institutionalization has been a boon to English and composition graduate students, but the field also pioneered and still relies heavily on adjunct labour. I think there is good reason for the field of composition to re-envision itself as one that studies and serves the entire lifecycle of the scholarly writer — from the “developing” writer to tenured professor.

Beyond helping the relatively small number of graduate students that I will ultimately work with myself, I see real opportunities to create change by giving faculty new tools for advising graduate writers and by rethinking the roles that compositionists can play in the life of the university.

Obviously there are challenges implicit in my aspiration to work with graduate faculty. One is the fact that university structures do not incent great advising, so there is little reason to improve at it. The other is that faculty are not fond of being told what to do or how to do it (who can blame them?). The problem is that there is a difference between having expertise in a subject area and being able to help students express ideas in ways that are rhetorically recognizable as academic writing. In fact, there are tools and techniques faculty can use to elicit better writing and to make their advising more efficient and effective. Because the thesis is an iterative process, faculty have the chance to “test” different approaches to giving feedback. In the end, the very real frustrations of advising writing projects may be incentive enough for some faculty to invest a bit of time in learning new skills.

My goal is to be the person graduate departments go to when they get serious about improving their time-to-degree and retention statistics — particularly in relation to under-represented students. Writing instruction and advising are significant levers toward these outcomes.

What would you change about it if you could? 

The things I would change are primarily structural. I believe that we need to teach the university new ways to use the skills of the graduates it produces. It is hardly befitting for an institution that promotes education as a path to upward mobility to use Walmart-like tactics to keep the majority of its educators below the benefits-eligible threshold. As degree-holders we need to reject the idea that our work is somehow illegitimate or our credentials worthless if we employ them outside the university. I would love to see universities change their representations of possible and desirable career paths and give students opportunities to try on different roles in addition to the professorial role.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

After five years of providing services to individual graduate students, I am ready to share the insights I have gathered from this practice with organizations, so I am developing the organizational side of my practice. I am a systems thinker and am very happy in an organizational consulting role. Occupying a space just slightly outside the system is a natural role for those of us trained in post-structuralism. I am currently doing a year-long consulting job with a masters program and I absolutely love it. It is very satisfying to get to know a program and work with it over time.

Under what circumstances would you take a university job?

I think it’s possible that at some point I would like to oversee a graduate writing centre or program. In many ways that would be a dream job for which I am certainly well qualified. At the same time, university commitment to writing can be fickle and even dream jobs can evaporate. I recently wrote to a woman who ran a nationally-recognized American graduate writing program and was heartbroken to learn that the entire program had just been summarily defunded.

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

It has taken a long time, but I have gone from being focused on the absence of security to the presence of possibilities. As one friend of mine said about his former job, “What I miss most is my false sense of security.”

A career transition can be gradual. I have gone from adjuncting full time and doing a little independent work on the side to working independently full time and doing a little adjuncting on the side. It is possible to start a business with virtually no capital if you are willing to teach yourself the tools you need. Nearly all the tools needed are available for free or at low cost online. There is an enormous amount of free and low-cost instruction on YouTube and Lynda.com. If you’re teaching, you may be eligible to take free classes at your university. I was able to access free business coaching through the local Small Business Development Center and I have bartered writing assistance for accounting instruction and other business services. My approach has been to start local and grow from there.

If I could teach any class right now it would be “Start-Ups for Humanities Scholars.” Who will be the first to offer it? Stay tuned.

ABOUT JENNIFER POLK
Jennifer Polk
Jennifer Polk is a career coach and writer. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 2012. For more information and resources, check out her website: FromPhDtoLife.com.
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