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Transition Q & A: Emily Simmons

By JENNIFER POLK | April 17, 2014

Emily Simmons earned her PhD in English from the University of Toronto in 2011. She’s currently an education specialist at the Australian Film, Television & Radio School. Follow her at @SydneyPants22.

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

A few days after my defence I started to search for communications and writing jobs. I was still emotionally drained. I remember becoming immediately overwhelmed realizing that other people had been professionalizing themselves into this field for years. I had to go for a walk to clear my head, and then I promptly abandoned the idea. I didn’t realize it then, but academia was like a bad relationship, and that was my first attempt to break-up.

I had hoped for some luck in getting a tenure-track job, or even a teaching-stream job at a big university, as those seemed to be cropping up. When I was finishing, though, I was so exhausted that I could hardly think ahead about what was next; I was entirely focused on the step immediately in front of me (e.g. write my defence statement, do my defence, submit the final copy of the dissertation).

What was your first post-PhD job?

I was still in my relationship with academia, but I took on some tutoring, part-time, at a private psychology clinic in Toronto. There was a phone call during which I had to convince my future boss that I was very interested in the work despite being overqualified. This job put me entirely on the other side of my former students’ experience; these students were dealing with anxiety, and stressful situations that seriously affected their ability to study and work at their university courses.

For the next two years I did a combination of adjunct teaching (at universities in Ontario and Quebec), applying for academic jobs, and thinking that I should also give up and let go and get another kind of job. I was on the fence: I kept up my CV (minimally), and applied for academic things, but I wasn’t committed to it. This was not a comfortable existence to maintain, and perhaps it was somewhat unhealthy. Applying for academic gigs was what I knew best, and what I was best at.

During the first year I got a 2/2 load, at a different university each semester. The next year I got a full-time, 10-month gig at a third university, which was definitely a step up. I moved cities for this one, and prepped a 3/3 load. It was very busy, but I was grateful and optimistic and loved the teaching. I applied for more academic jobs that year, but only got nibbles from the market.

Here’s the thing: I’m not sure when or how I would have gotten out of this relationship, if it weren’t for other life circumstances. That last gig was renewed for another year, but I had decided to get married and move with my partner to another country, so I declined the offer. When we arrived in our new home (in Australia) I had already reached out to universities here about teaching opportunities. I was thinking that I would still pursue academic opportunities here, but also look for non-academic jobs.

Within a month of our arrival in Australia I had lined up some sessional teaching. I was happy to have found work almost right away. However, the set-up was different, and the work I was doing (marking and leading tutorial sections) was a step down from the work I had been doing in Canada (writing and teaching my own classes). It was continuity but also discontinuity. The pay was decent, and though I only had three tutorial sections the first semester, there was a clear path to 5 or 10 the next semester, which would have been a living.

However, I realized that I couldn’t do it anymore (the relationship had regressed, so to speak). I applied for all the other jobs, and fretted about my transferable skills (or lack thereof), and paid a hefty sum to meet with a career counselor. I learned how to write a resume that is not a CV. I applied for policy, grant-writing, and research-assistant jobs. This went on for three difficult months. My partner was very supportive, but it was still very challenging. Eventually I had one interview, at an alternative higher-education provider — a self-accrediting film school.

When I accepted the position I was still “in the relationship”: I had signed up to deliver a conference paper in three weeks’ time at a university here. After one week of a full-time job, I realized that there was no way I was going to write a new academic paper on the weekends, and I pulled out of the conference. With that, it felt like academia and I were truly, finally, breaking up.

What do you do now?

Now I work as an education specialist at a film school in Sydney. The school is launching a three-year bachelor’s degree out of what was a one-year diploma, and I assist with curriculum development. I think about educational standards, levels, and alignment between learning outcomes, teaching content, and assessment. The execution of this work means setting up committees and discussing these issues with a mixture of teachers and industry experts. In between meetings I advance the work of writing up a very detailed outline for each subject.

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

  1. A lot of reading and research. I read a mixture of subject content and educational theory, both of which are really interesting.
  2. I usually translate this reading into something tangible, such as an information paper for my colleagues or boss. So there’s a fair bit of writing, editing, and preparing documents. (Between tasks 1 & 2, it’s worth pointing out, there’s a lot of critical and analytical thinking of the sort I was trained for through the dissertation.)
  3. I go to meetings! This was very novel at first, but I have realized that in an office environment a lot of work is accomplished in meetings. At these meetings I’ll often participate in discussions about things such as subject content, educational strategy, or even institutional policy.

What most surprises you about your job?

To be honest, its very existence. The fact that I get to work, full-time, at helping a post-secondary school develop a whole bachelor’s degree feels pretty unique. Most schools wouldn’t do this very often, if ever. It’s a great opportunity to be a part of this process! When I used to teach regularly I always particularly enjoyed syllabus planning, as it’s the stage where everything is in potential, and your course can be a little bit idealized. This is like that, but on a macro-level.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

  1. Learning: I really enjoy learning about educational theory, especially since I always really enjoyed teaching and felt like there were so many ways I could do it better, but I never found the time to sit down and research the how and what of “better teaching.” Now I that I’ve done some of that, I hope to eventually take it back to the classroom. Second, it’s really interesting to learn about film. The subjects themselves are really fun, and I’m realizing how separate and successful the Australian film industry has been, and how independent and vibrant its history is. So, yeah, I’m still a nerd at heart, and a lifelong learner.
  2. Feeling productive, and competent, is a great part of this job. I really like walking out and the end of the day knowing that I’ve accomplished a sufficient amount of work, and I love getting paid. After about nine years as a hand-to-mouth grad student and/or adjunct professor, making a decent income is great. I’m not trying to boast, because I do think it relates to an important aspect of the way in which institutionalized sessional teaching perpetuates a feeling of low morale. There’s an internalized feeling that you have not earned the right to a decent living, because you have not yet earned the holy grail of a TT job. Without blaming the institutions, I think this is part of the complicated process by which we humanities people tend to internalize a) our work, and b) feelings of inadequacy.
  3. Finally, the best thing about this work is the lack of imposter syndrome. I haven’t had it once in the full five months that I’ve been working — and this is in a new field, and a new role. I found imposter syndrome to be one of the most insidious and difficult things about graduate school and academia — even though I was aware of it, it still got to me regularly. Not having it feels great.

What would you change about it if you could?

Well, since it’s such an exciting environment and project, it necessarily can’t go on forever (we’re planning to roll out the bachelor’s degree in 2015), but I would like it if I could keep doing this kind of work for a longer period of time.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

Since I’ve taken this post-academic job, I’ve treated the end of my relationship with academia as a literal break-up. I have moved department emails into my promotions folder, unsubscribed from listserves, and stopped checking for new job postings. Some days it’s easier than others, but I’m trying to be patient with myself and recognize that this was a 10-year, very committed relationship, and that it will take some time to get over it.

I think that I would like to stay in an educational field. I hope to be able to use this experience to transition into a different type of role (learning and teaching, perhaps, or some kind of higher education policy work). I see a real issue, yet to be addressed, among universities: the disparity between research and teaching is huge, and the way good researchers are not expected to be good teachers, and almost no one is provided with a significant amount of teacher training, is problematic. Most of us figure out something decent, because we’re smart and capable, but even that “something decent” often perpetuates the styles of teaching that worked for us: the smart, capable keeners. I feel strongly that there are a majority of students out there who also deserve to be taught well, and who are not well-served by this succession of self-selecting professors. So, long-term, I think I have aspirations to work in that area, somehow. (Right now, I can’t quite imagine the how).

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

Be open to new opportunities, and be patient. I wish I had acquired another skill while I was still also working on my dissertation and gaining teaching experience. I remember the last two years of my dissertation, feeling overwhelmed and like I couldn’t do anything else in addition to just finishing the thesis. If I had been planning for the future more assertively, I would have taken on some kind of editing or administrative work, part time or unpaid, so that I would have had those actual skills on my resume at the end of graduate school. Having said that, I recognize that it’s very hard for graduate students to do this when they are being continually socialized into a system where any and all so-called spare time must go towards building a publication record; so, I’m not sure how I would have done it.

I think what I would have wanted was to know which side of the fence to be on: academic or non-academic. However, I also think I had to go through this two-year process of being on the fence (and in the bad relationship) in order to figure it out. It’s a hard process, but you can at least be pro-active about maintaining a few options, while at the same time recognizing that it takes time to sort itself out, and that you can’t really control it as much as you’d like to. Likely, you’ll look back and think that most of the steps you took were necessary to get to where you are now.

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:
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  1. Jennifer Polk / April 17, 2014 at 2:52 pm

    Love this post! Very inspiring and useful for anyone thinking how to leverage their grad school/academic interests in a different line of work.

  2. Nene / April 26, 2014 at 6:10 pm

    I am very glad I crossed this post tonight. I left my country to follow a research position and now i feel completely lost. It is the first time I am seriously considering qui trying because I cannot handle any further sacrifice for such little reward. After many years spent in this field it is hard for me figurine out what kind of other job i could apply for. Reading about your experiences gives me confort. Thanks

  3. Desiree Bernard / April 28, 2014 at 8:18 am

    In trying to figure out what to do at this stage in my academic career, I stumbled upon this site Inside Higher Ed. and this interview. I have just migrated to the United States (August 2013) and after more than a year of exhaustive applications to numerous positions at universities, community colleges, etc, I am about as discouraged, disillusioned as anybody can be. With an Ed. D., many years of teaching at the higher ed level and, a record of success, I have all but lost faith in myself. Just reading about the difficulties of landing a TT job or even an adjunct job in academia, has at least provided me with some reassurance that I am not alone in this and that my qualifications, abilities and talents are not worthless. This site and the interview have shown me that there may be some light at the end of the tunnel after all.

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