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Recognizing your own good work is hard!

Posted on October 21, 2014 by

“How’s business?” I was asked this by a fellow panelist at an event I recently participated in. “Good!” I responded, and then added my usual caveat: “I’m not yet covering my expenses but I’m getting there.” Reflecting on this now, I want to go back in time and change my answer. Why? TBU. This acronym (thanks Ian) stands for “true but useless.” I let one of my inner critics speak for me.

My gremlins also made an appearance a couple days later. A colleague sent over a bio of me that she’d prepared, to attach to a conference panel application. Reading the one-paragraph bio — seeing what she’d chosen to include — was an interesting experience. At first, an inner critic popped up, questioning whether what she claimed of me was in fact true. Somehow, the bio seemed a stretch; yet I couldn’t pick out anything disingenuous or outright faulty. I recognized myself in her description . . . but it still felt weird! Yes, I’d done those things and yes, this was an honest way of describing my work. But? Well, there is no “but.” My inner critic clearly wasn’t keeping up with my accomplishments of late.

The following day I hosted a #withaPhD Twitter chat about celebrating. I invited participants to reflect on their achievements and savour good feelings. They tweeted about signing book contracts; having happy, healthy families; writing honest, courageous blog posts; moving forward in their careers despite failures and stresses; clicking “send” on significant emails. It was fun and rewarding for me to acknowledge their accomplishments. I asked follow-up questions such as, “What was important to you about doing this?” and “Which of your character strengths did you draw on to help you get it done?”

In a world of “How’s your dissertation coming?,” “What’s your next research project?,” and “So, you got a job yet?” all the many necessary steps along the way are obscured. But those are the steps that get us where we’re going. Those are the steps we need to acknowledge, celebrate, and feel motivated by in order to keep moving forward. It may be that the only good dissertation is a done dissertation (for example) but it won’t get done unless you work hard, focus your efforts, take risks and stay healthy.

“How’s business?” Next time I hope I answer positively, noting a few of the steps I’ve taken toward my goal. My life and work aligns with my values, builds on my strengths, and includes lots of fun and engaging activities. These things are most important to me, and they are what I should emphasize.

Transition Q & A: Kelly J. Baker

Posted on October 6, 2014 by

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.

My priority is learning

Posted on September 29, 2014 by

Earlier this month I completed the coaching supervision course. It started in the spring, and consisted of biweekly 90-minute classes and six 1-on-1 sessions with the supervising coach. The individual sessions involved listening to one of my own coaching calls, followed by me receiving feedback on my coaching, with an eye toward passing the Professional Certified Coach exam and receiving this credential from the International Coach Federation. Earning this credential is still a ways away for me. Completing supervision has given me more confidence in and understanding about coaching, and I’m moving forward knowing there are a few areas I need to work on, and others that I’m much more comfortable in than I was earlier in the year.

My larger point here — that I’m still learning how to coach as a higher level — is something I do well to remember when I worry about all the other things I’m trying to do. It’s like, “Hold up, brain!” There’s only so much a person can focus on at one time. Yes, I can work on multiple projects during the course of a day, but I do need to prioritize my energy. And right now my priority is learning.

In the summer I finished a career coaching course (also from MentorCoach, my training provider), and am now enrolled in a course about self-control, taught by one of the biggest names in research psychology, Roy Baumeister. I’m learning on the side, too. Earlier this week I watched the second in a series of webinars jointly presented by the Wholebeing Institute and the VIA Institute on Character. These have been useful to me because they’re about using character strengths in my work as a coach, something I already do but want to do much better.

When I finished my PhD after 7+ years of ups and downs, I had no desire to take a course ever again. (I’ve written about this before.) Now that I’m launched into a new career, I’m excited to learn information relevant to my profession and pick up useful new skills.

An aside: I wonder if the old Jen would be rolling her eyes at me right now. Who is this business woman?! Profession, skills, career? I used to think — implicitly if not explicitly — that academics / “intellectuals” didn’t have to worry about such things. This is an exaggeration, but not an enormous one. I’ll have to think more on this. All I know right now is that I’m enjoying this brave new world of mine.

Making big changes: Start small, be kind to yourself

Posted on September 12, 2014 by

When it comes to making changes in your life, start small. It’s all well and good to decide to exercise regularly, take up a vegan diet, or write for two hours every day. But if doing so means a significant departure from your current routine, you’re unlikely to succeed unless you take things one step at a time.

We are all creatures of habit. Doing something differently requires spending extra brain energy figuring out what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. The more you do something, the easier it becomes: your brain creates and strengthens neural pathways so that in time it will require a significant outlay of energy to not carry out this specific sequence of steps. The expression “fall into a routine” isn’t quite right but the sentiment is spot on. Once we’ve “fallen” we have to make an effort to get up, sort ourselves out, and move along.

Badgering yourself, or being pestered to make changes by others, is more harmful than helpful. Yes, acquiring knowledge about one’s situation — learning about the health benefits of going vegan, for example — can help move you into action but negativity doesn’t motivate or support you further. Instead, treat yourself (and others) with compassion. Understand that the process of change is challenging and individual. Counter negative self-talk with the truth: that you are trying, that these things take time, that patience is a virtue. Avoid naysayers and pessimists, especially when you’re feeling vulnerable. Remember what’s important to you about what you’re doing. Remember that you’re honouring yourself by making this change.

I write all this in hopes it might help some of you be kinder to yourself and more supportive of others, but also as a reminder to myself. I’ve got big personal and professional goals, a list of things I want to be doing, a vision of the person I want to be. Sometimes, knowing what I want — knowing how I should be living my life — is motivating; sometimes, obsessing about what I don’t yet have depletes my energy and dampens my spirit. Here’s to clear knowledge and purposeful action, as well as self-compassion and trust in myself! And here’s to you, too.

Dealing with inner critics

Posted on September 5, 2014 by

Noticing and coming up with a strategy to deal with inner critics is an important part of coaching. We all have these “gremlins” messing with our lives. They are there to protect us, but we rarely need this protection. We are all much stronger than our inner critics think we are. Here’s how inner critic work played out during one recent coaching session.

I had a client last week who, as we spoke, told me about how she kept coming up with things she needed to do before she could “get my damn website up!” She realized that fear was holding her back. I asked her about inner critics, and she came up with a wonderfully rich metaphor: a football game. She told me she was seeing in her mind a football team running out onto the field. Suddenly, the players were all tackling her, trying to get the ball that she held. That ball represented her doing what she wanted to do to move forward. She was her best self.

Who were her supporters, and where were they, I asked. Her champions from real life were there, she said, but they were cheering her on from the stands. And what about her teammates, where were they? They were on the field with her, blocking the opposing team members. When I asked her to tell me about those teammates, she told me that they were her character strengths: Love gave her self-compassion; perseverance never gave up; “the encourager” kept her motivated; zest, humour, and playfulness treated everything like a wonderful adventure; courage took risks without worry. These strengths gave her what she needed to win the game, that is, to get her website out into the world.

To remember this, my client decided to add to a vision board she’d already created. She told me that she had specific NFL players in mind for each strength, and that she would post a photo of each man on her board. And do the same for the people in the stands. Looking at this board would help her in moments when inner critics showed up. I’ll be curious to find out if it worked when we next coach!

Don’t shy away from informational interviews

Posted on August 28, 2014 by

Many academics, broadly defined, claim to dislike networking, think it is insincere, that it’s not something they’re good at anyway. Now, I have many thoughts about all this, but let me offer just one in this post.

I make a distinction between networking proper and informational interviews. The latter involves making contact with a person whose job or career interests you because it might help you figure out your own professional path. Informational interviews are primarily learning experiences, where you’ll ask questions like “What do you do when you’re at work?”, “How did you get to where you are now?”, “What advice do you have for someone looking to break into your field?” And so on. Generally, you won’t bring your resume or ask about job openings.

Conducting these interviews provide career explorers with wonderful, first-hand, up-to-date information about the world of work. When you ask someone for an informational interview, chances are that person knows what to expect: that you will ask questions about his or her professional life. The benefit you as the interviewer provides is being a curious, active listener. In my experience, professionals value the chance to give advice to someone outside their field or who are just starting their career, as well as reflect upon what they do. Your interviewees will likely expect you to be unsure of where you’re going, work-wise, which makes these meetings less stressful. Don’t let uncertainty keep you from reaching out.

With networking proper, as I define it, there will be more discussion and less interviewing. This is true even for me, someone who loves asking questions! When I’m in networking mode, I’m sharing ideas with people who are at least tangentially in my field. Yes, I may still ask about their day-to-day and how they got to their current position, but those questions don’t dominate the interaction.

If you’re thinking of changing careers or jobs at some point, or are trying to do so now, you’ve probably heard the advice to “get networking!” many times. If you’re reluctant for whatever reason, consider making the same distinction I do. It could be that conducting informational interviews is right for you; networking can come later, once you’re surer about your professional identity.

Now, who would you love to interview?

Transition Q & A: Andrew Miller

Posted on August 21, 2014 by

Andrew Miller earned a PhD in history from Johns Hopkins University in 2005. He currently manages a transit policy office for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation. Find him online at andrew-miller.me.

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

Unsurprisingly, I hoped for a tenure-track job, although I must admit those hopes weren’t fervent. I’d felt a creeping dissatisfaction with academia throughout the last few years of my stint in grad school. Partly this was because it seemed to me that my views on my particular subfield — Native American history — were distinctly unfashionable and as a consequence I suspected my work would never be taken seriously. But mostly this was because the part of the work that I really enjoyed, teaching undergraduates, seemed to me to be regarded, by academia at large, as epiphenomenal to the work of the tenured professor. Certainly a year of stringing together sessional jobs did nothing to change my views on the latter.

I distinctly remember one morning, shortly before I had to commute up the highway to teach a class, looking over the day’s mail. One of the items was a public notice from the municipality informing citizens of a local public-transit infrastructure project that was underway. I read it with absorption, and thought to myself that if I could have another life, I’d want to spend it working on urban planning and public-transit advocacy.

Then, of course, I realized that I would only have one life, and I’d better spend it working on the things I enjoyed.

What was your first post-PhD job?

If we exclude the sessional work, my first post-PhD job was working as a junior policy analyst for the Ontario Ministry of Infrastructure. It might be worth explaining how I got that job: following my epiphany that this was a line of work I wanted to get into, I consulted with an old friend from undergrad days who was a civil servant. He in turn set me up with an informational interview with another civil servant who also held a PhD. He introduced me to what the life would be like. At his suggestion, I applied for an entry-level job that was advertised in the newspaper. It took two interviews and a lengthy test, but I got the position.

As a policy analyst, the meat of my work was receiving requests from other parts of the government for funding to build new public infrastructure, and making recommendations to Cabinet on which requests should receive funding and which should be rejected.

The “Government World” is a very different place from “Academic World”, and it took me some time to figure out the new norms. “Academic World” wanted you to get it right, no matter how much time it took; “Government World” wanted you to get it right quickly, such that a good answer today was better than a perfect answer tomorrow. “Academic World” valued originality; “Government World” valued consistency. In “Academic World”, using someone else’s words without attribution is the serious crime of “plagiarism”; in “Government World”, it’s the best practice of “using approved language.” “Academic World” had little use for teamwork; “Government World” required it. And so on. Learning how to flourish in this new environment took some effort, but it paid off in the end.

What do you do now?

I’ve just finished my eighth year as a civil servant, during which time I’ve risen through the ranks from junior policy analyst, to senior policy analyst, to policy team lead. I recently broke through to senior management, having just finished a year-long contract as manager of a transit-policy office for the Ministry of Transportation. For the past seven years, I’ve worked exclusively on public transit.

It’s been an exciting ride; though I always found transit issues to be inherently interesting. Since 2007 I’ve seen public transit rise to be one of the overriding issues of the day, to the point where it was a key issue in the most recent provincial election and looks to be the most important issue in the Toronto mayoral election that will be held this fall. It’s an exciting time to be working on the transit file in Ontario!

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

As an analyst, my job was to research issues, develop proposals, and make recommendations that senior management would mull over. As a manager, my work is now very different: helping my staff get the information and resources they need to do their jobs, reviewing the proposals that my staff develop, and connecting with other parts of government to ensure that elected officials are getting accurate, up-to-date, and consistent information.

As a manager especially, but also as a policy analyst, this has meant I do far less reading and contemplating, and far more e-mailing and making phone calls, than I did as an academic.

What most surprises you about your job?

Let me tell you instead about something that doesn’t surprise me anymore, but did when I came on board: how much success in government requires securing cooperation from people in other offices or ministries. The provincial government is huge and each office here has its own mission and purpose. Often, to do your job, you’ll need cooperation from some other office, but that office can’t be compelled to assist; they’ve got their own work to do, and putting it aside to assist you puts you ahead but them behind. So doing your job right requires you to persuade other people to help you even when it may not be in their best interests. This requires well-developed people skills! It also requires you to work hard to help other people when they come to you, so that they’ll be willing to pick up the phone when you need them.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

I love public transit policy. This is the realm where government meets citizen in the most visible, regular way. Sure, health policy and law enforcement can affect people profoundly, but most citizens encounter these instances of government rarely. But each commuter is affected by government policy on transit and highway matters every day, and the decisions government takes can vastly increase or decrease their quality of life. Helping the government to get these matters right is immensely satisfying to me.

What would you change about it if you could?

I find the pace of policy work frustrating. In 1861, the city of Toronto decided to implement streetcar service in the city; two lines entered into operation that year. If any government in Canada made a similar decision today, the lag between decision and implementation would be more like a decade.

As irritating as that lag is, it exists for good reason: governments today correctly weigh many more factors when making transit policy. What will be the impact on the environment? On affected residents? On users? How much will the project cost? How much benefit will be gained? What’s the opportunity cost of proceeding with this project? This more thoughtful approach, one that makes sure that affected parties are consulted, leads to better public policy . . . but it means making policy takes much longer than it once did. If I could keep all the benefits while speeding up the process, I would.

What’s next for you?

This fall, I’ll be leaving the Ontario public service and joining the team at the city of Mississauga, where I’ll be taking on the role of (ahem) strategic leader. I’ll be helping the city to deliver a comprehensive land use and transportation master plan for key corridors in Mississauga, a plan that will certainly consider the ways that high-order transit could contribute to city-building. It’s an exciting opportunity and I’m looking forward to it!

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

  1. If you’ve finished a PhD in the humanities or social sciences (and presumably in other fields as well), you are disciplined, detail-oriented, patient, capable of making and assessing evidence-based arguments, and a skilled project manager (what else is a dissertation, after all)? People with these skills are in demand; there is no manager who wouldn’t want more people like this on their team. You have the skills to succeed outside academia.
  2. Given the ratio of PhDs produced annually to the available tenure-track jobs, it’s not enough to be smart and hard-working to gain a career in academia; you must also be lucky, and no one can choose to be lucky. Leaving academia to pursue other careers does not constitute failure.
  3. There are plenty of smart and erudite people where I work, and plenty of demanding, interesting, and important problems to solve. Leaving academia does not mean giving up the “life of the mind,” whatever that is.
  4. There is a lot of practical advice I give to PhDs looking for work outside of academia, but the single most important piece of it is this: outside of academia, it’s not credentials that matter, but skills. Employers are more interested in what you can do than what laurels you’ve earned. So the first step in turning a CV into a resume is to focus not on what you’ve achieved, but what you know how to do. And as (1) above suggests, you know how to do more things than you think!

Transition Q & A: Bruce Harpham

Posted on August 6, 2014 by

Bruce Harpham earned his MA in history from Western University, as well as a master’s of information studies from the University of Toronto. He’s currently a senior financial analyst at the Bank of Montreal. Find him online at Project Management Hacks and follow him on Twitter @PMPhacks.

When you finished your MA, what did you plan to do next?

I immediately started my second Master’s degree in information studies at the University of Toronto. While there, I had a very ambitious study program. I completed the Book History and Print Culture program and wrote a Master’s thesis on net neutrality. I love books and the Internet and simply couldn’t choose between the two of them.

What did you want to do after earning your library degree?

I was interested in finding a role where I could do research and publishing such as a librarian role at a university. To that end, I had a job interview at the University of Saskatchewan in 2009. In the end I did not receive an offer, and that worked out for the best. I love living in Toronto and I have no plans to move at this point.

What was your first job after your library degree?

I landed a contract consultant role at University of Toronto Asset Management (UTAM) in the fall of 2009. That role was my first introduction to the financial industry. Lehman Brothers had collapsed a year earlier and the financial world was in serious turmoil.

I found the entire industry fascinating. Ironically, it was never an industry I considered during my university studies. Since then, I’ve taken the Canadian Securities Course and several other financial courses to advance my knowledge of the industry.

What do you do now?

My current role is senior financial analyst at the Bank of Montreal in downtown Toronto. I am based in a department called Supplier Relationship Management that manages suppliers that provide service to the bank.

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

Do you know Microsoft Excel? Every day, I spend hours in Excel organizing and analyzing financial data. Other tasks include identifying and correcting errors in invoices, financial reports and related materials. I also have responsibilities to manage invoice processing for some of the department’s largest suppliers such as Canada Post. My role – like everyone else at the bank – also includes risk management. In fact, the constant focus on risk management is one of the reasons that no Canadian banks failed during the 2008-2009 financial crisis.

About half of my responsibilities occur on a repeating schedule. For example, there are weekly and monthly invoices to be paid. The invoices are often quite complex (one monthly invoice is 75 pages long) so close reading is necessary to ensure they are in good order. In addition, there are some project meetings from time to time where I work with vendors or other departments of the bank on various initiatives.

What most surprises you about your job?

I’m constantly impressed by my colleagues’ depth of knowledge and expertise. Some of them have direct experience in managing statements, overseeing cheque processing and supervising mail operations. They have built excellent processes to manage risk and keep everything working smoothly.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

I enjoy implementing projects that have a clear, measurable result. For example, I implemented several cost reduction plans that have saved over $300,000 in 2013. It feels great to make a contribution to the organization’s bottom line. I also enjoy the creativity of identifying a problem and designing a project to improve the situation.

What would you change about it if you could?

I would increase the number of projects and innovation – that’s what excites me. There are certain routine tasks in finance work – e.g. preparing monthly accounts – that are necessary but not quite exciting. It would be great to attend one or two professional conferences a year.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

I started the Project Management Hacks website recently. On the website, I provide productivity and project management articles based on my corporate experience and study. In the long term, I plan to offer digital courses for sale on the site.

What advice or thoughts do you have for MAs (or PhDs) in transition now?

I have plenty of suggestions but I’ll limit myself to three for now. These are based on my own study and experience.

  • Suggestion 1. Set aside time and $10-$20 each month to meet new people for coffee and expand your network. Harvey McKay has a great quote about networking – “Dig Your Well Before You’re Thirsty.” Specifically, I recommend looking at Meetup.com and joining at least one professional association (many have great membership rates for students).
  • Suggestion 2. Read these two books to develop your skills further. First read Getting Things Done by David Allen for the best productivity system I’ve ever encountered. Next, read Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time by Keith Ferrazzi and Tahl Raz for excellent guidance and tips on the art of networking.
  • Suggestion 3. Meet with alumni from your program and ask them about their careers. Most universities publish alumni magazines (here is the great University of Toronto magazine, for example) – these publications are a great resource for finding interesting alumni to meet.

Coaching graduate students

Posted on July 28, 2014 by

On my new LinkedIn group (called From PhD to Life, natch), Laura Graham asked me what I thought were “the greatest areas of need” when it came to working with graduate students. At first, I responded briefly: I am a coach, not an editor or mentor-for-hire, which means I take a non-directive approach, and that it was difficult to generalize. Well, yes, but what an unhelpful answer! So a few hours later I responded more fully, reflecting on my own experience coaching graduate students.

Here’s an edited version of what I wrote about the main issues that have come up in my coaching work:

  1. Taking control. Graduate students often don’t feel in control of their lives. Part of my work as a coach is to help clients take and feel they are in charge by making changes to habits, mindset, and embracing who they really are. This isn’t something that comes from me, but follows from the client taking steps in the right direction.
  2. Building good habits. Doing a thesis or dissertation is very difficult, but not for the reasons we tend to think. The biggest challenge is often the deceptively simple matter of establishing good basic habits. Getting a dissertation done isn’t intellectually insurmountable, but it takes commitment to ongoing work, at least some of which is tedious. Procrastination must be seen for what it is — aversive behaviour, usually — and tackled in appropriate ways.
  3. Goal setting. This is crucial, and often graduate students get overwhelmed by the work ahead of them. The key is to break tasks down into smaller and smaller bits until those bits take very little time and energy to complete. Coaching can help clients come up with those bits, and commit to doing them.
  4. Gremlins! Inner critics abound, and get in the way. “I’m not good at…,” “I could never…,” “I’m a procrastinator,” imposter syndrome. Noting when an inner critic is in the way and coming up with strategies for silencing it when needed is very important. Inner critics bedevil anyone taking risks and doing new things. The competitiveness and criticism that is a normal part of academic life feeds into negative self-talk and personal fears. Coaching can help clients notice when their gremlins are causing harm, and realize what they are saying isn’t true.
  5. Uncertainty about the future. This crops up more for my PhD-in-hand clients and ABDs on the job market. Not knowing where one will be living or what one will be doing causes stress and anxiety. Spending time during and in-between calls on what is certain can help. A client’s own values, strengths, and lifestyle priorities and goals frame a coaching relationship. My agenda as a coach is to help clients embrace who they are, and get them living in accordance with their values, strengths, and desires. When we feel more rooted, we feel better able to take the risks we need to.
  6. Being vs. doing. So much of our language, both inside and outside academia, equates what we do with who we are. “I’m a graduate student” or “I’m an unemployed PhD” or “I’m a failed academic.” When one’s identity is wrapped up in one’s job, the criticism and career uncertainty that comes with doing a PhD is more than professionally challenging — it’s personally damaging. One outcome of the coaching process is identity re-crafting. My clients may be doing PhDs but that’s not who they are. Who they are at a deeper level transcends what they do, and endures despite the ups and downs of life.

What do you think? What’s your experience working with graduate students, or doing a graduate degree yourself?

Transition Q & A: Christine Slocum

Posted on July 16, 2014 by

​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 i​n 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:

  1. 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.
  2. Do a lot of things. Having a lot of experiences to draw from expands your potential.
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.​