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FROM PHD TO LIFE

Transition Q & A: Kelly J. Baker

Jennifer Polk chats with Kelly J. Baker about juggling her writing career with family life.

By JENNIFER POLK | October 6, 2014

Kelly J. Baker earned her PhD in religion from Florida State University in 2008. Her scholarship has encompassed numerous topics in religion and popular culture, including religious hate groups, apocalypticism, religion and gender, and horror. Last year, she quit her job as a lecturer and moved back to Florida. She’s currently a freelance writer, who writes and reports on topics in higher education, gender and American religions, for the Chronicle for Higher Education’s Vitae project, the Washington Post’s Faith Street, the Atlantic, and numerous other online and print outlets. She is the author of the award-winning book The Gospel According to the Klan and the ebook The Zombies Are Coming!. When she’s not wrangling a five-year old and a one-year old, she’s writing a cultural history of zombies, tentatively titled “Between the Living and the Dead.” Find her online at In Progress and follow her @kelly_j_baker.

What did you hope for in terms of employment as you completed your PhD?
Like many graduate students, I assumed that I would go on the job market and secure a tenure-track position. Since my training focused heavily on research and the Religion department placed us in classrooms first as teaching assistants and then as solo instructors. I assumed that my dissertation and my teaching experience would help me get a tenure-track job. What I didn’t anticipate was the impact of the Great Recession on universities and colleges. I was unlucky enough to graduate in 2008 right before the job market bottomed out. There was only one job posting that I could apply for in 2009. My unwavering sense of optimism about my chances translated into six years on the academic job market. It didn’t help that mentors kept urging me to give it just one more year because they knew that I would get one of the coveted tenure-track positions. In a particular telling moment, my advisor wondered what it was about me that I couldn’t get a job. The irony was that I already had a job as a lecturer, but I realized that this job somehow didn’t count because it was off the tenure track. That was likely the beginning of the end of my traditional academic career.

What was your first post-PhD job?
My first post-PhD job was a continuation of my pre-PhD job as an adjunct lecturer. Before my daughter was born, I taught for both a community college and a state university juggling four to five classes. After her arrival, I taught a class on Saturdays at a big state university. During the week I stayed home with my infant daughter, and my partner watched her on Saturday while I taught. My week included childcare interspersed with class prep and grading. I worked frantically during naptime on my class and my manuscript. The course only paid $1800. This shifting between childcare, teaching, and writing became the pattern of my work life. When our family moved to Tennessee, I adjuncted part-time and watched my daughter part-time. When I was promoted to full-time lecturer, I finally made enough to put her in daycare full-time. Otherwise, I would have been only been working to pay for daycare, which I refused to do.

What do you do now?
Now, I’m building my career as a freelance writer while also wrangling a wise beyond her years five-year old and a laid back one-year old. I’m trying to shift my writing from part-time to full-time work, which is a slow process with a bit of a learning curve. Yet, I learn more about the business of writing every day. Writing is a business, and I hope more academics start to realize this too. Writing should be paid for, not given away for free.

What kind of tasks do you do on a daily and weekly basis?
I spend much time juggling writing with childcare. I research and write columns in the mornings while my son is at preschool and my daughter is at elementary school. This research requires that I stay on top of news about higher ed, particularly any news about gender. I use my research skills from my PhD to tackle my columns, which usually combine recent studies, scholarly articles, and reporting alongside my opinion about what this means for my readers. Unsurprisingly, my articles are research-heavy because I couldn’t imagine them being any other way.

After I pick my son up at lunch, I hang out with him until he’s ready for nap. Naptime is still work time for me as I answer emails, check the news, edit pieces, and spend a bit too much time on Twitter. Luckily, I do my best writing in the mornings, so I can do all the other work I have during naptime. When my daughter gets home for school, I put work away until the next day or at least I try to do. My schedule is still defined by my kids’ schedules, which took me a little while to get used to. This requires me to be much more flexible about how I write. I used to have the perfect writing space and a clean house before I could write. Now, I step over Legos on my way to my desk and ignore the toys strewn all over my house. I’ve written columns with a sleeping baby on my chest. I can’t separate my writing from my children. They define the the rhythm of work, which is better for me. Perfectionism is the enemy of writers and scholars. My kids refuse to allow me to even attempt to be perfect, which is good for everyone in my home.

What most surprises you about your job?
I’m surprised by how useful my academic training is for a different line of work. The ability to research, analyze, and write has opened doors for me, and I’m not sure that I could have plotted my career trajectory from PhD in search of a tenure track post to lecturer to freelance writer. This is partly a failure of my imagination. It makes sense now in hindsight, but it wasn’t what I was expecting when I walked away from my job as a lecturer.

When I started my grace period, I thought that I would end up adjuncting again even though I didn’t want to. I wasn’t sure what kinds of jobs outside of academia were available for Religious Studies PhDs. I feared that my year off would just be that, and I would go back to the university in search of the same job I left. Now, I realize that my training is valuable for many different types of jobs, but I needed time and distance from academia to see that clearly. I should also note that I’m able to take the time to figure things out because I have a very supportive partner, emotionally and financially. I wouldn’t be able to try freelance writing without his support.

What are your favourite parts of your job?
The best part of being an academic, for me, was research and writing, and I still get to do both. I get to be a scholar still, just for different audiences.

What’s next for you, career-wise?
I plan to keep writing about higher ed, gender, and religion, though I am now trying my hand at different genres of writing too. I’m not sure what type of writer I’ll become, but I am fascinated by the possibilities. Additionally, I wonder more and more about what other ways I can participate in higher ed that aren’t defined by track or off track, but I have no firm ideas about what kinds of jobs those would be yet.

What advice or thoughts do you have for post-PhDs in transition now?
In my early transition out of academia, I found myself still bounded by particular visions of academia and academic work. How could I do academic work if I wasn’t an academic? What job options did I have really? Once I moved beyond my own limiting conceptions of what an academic is, I realized that I have skills that are transferrable and that my training in analysis was an untapped resource. When I was asked to write for a couple of online venues, I almost talked myself out of it because I didn’t have the proper training. I doubted my ability, and my doubts about what I could do almost convinced me to turn down opportunities. I might not have the proper training, but I do have training and expertise that I can use. Sometimes, we need to start our transition by reimagining ourselves unbounded by previous expectations. This is hard, but necessary work, and it allowed me to imagine a writerly self that I hadn’t fully realized before. I took opportunities that I wouldn’t have before. I have a career I couldn’t quite imagine, but now, I am so glad that I do.

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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