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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

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.​

Feeling rooted in the midst of uncertainty

Posted on June 25, 2014 by

I’m in the midst of packing up my apartment in anticipation of a move on Monday. “In the midst” is how I often feel these days in terms of my business building. I’m learning and gathering and thinking. It feels like I’m preparing for something, but I haven’t quite figured out what it is.

Much is uncertain. I don’t think I can make a living solely from individual coaching. It’s intense work: incredibly rewarding and fun but I only have so much of this kind of energy. That being the case, I need to figure out other ways of earning money. I have vague plans to create a course or structured coaching group. If I ran enough of these with enough people enrolled, I might be able to succeed in this business. This is one idea, of many.

Another option — one that may become a necessity — is to get a job. I say this with only a very small sigh. I would like to make it on my own, but that’s my ego talking. I know that if in a year or two I decided to look for more certain employment I’d be in a much better position to do so than I was a year ago, before launching my coaching business. Let me tell you why.

First, I know myself much better. This is crucial. I can list without hesitation values that are important to me (including inclusivity, honesty, curiosity, empathy, independence), and I know my own strengths (community building, listening and asking questions, telling stories, facilitating self-awareness in others, connecting). I also know what’s important to me in terms of my desired lifestyle. As long as I can do work (and have a life) that uses my strengths, honours my values, and provides me with the lifestyle I want, then I’ll be living the good-for-me life. The details — self-employment, working with academics, even coaching — are surface-level considerations.

Second, I know more about places and spaces that might be a good fit for me. There’s lots more exploring to do here, and I can focus more on this as I need to in future.

Third, I have a much larger network than I did before. I continue to do informational interviews and have conversations with colleagues (broadly-defined) and similarly-minded folk. If I decide to launch a job search down the road, I can step up these efforts even more. Knowing people is nearly a requirement to securing employment. I hear and read this again and again, and I know it’s usually been true for me in the past.

When it comes to core issues, much is certain. Knowing this roots me when it starts to feel like everything is up in the air (and in boxes in the living room).

Twitter chats as public outreach and engagement

Posted on June 18, 2014 by

Every couple of weeks I host a Twitter chat using the hashtag #withaPhD. I pick a topic in advance (or have a guest co-host choose one) and come the appointed hour we see who’s online and take it from there.

These Twitter chats are fun, engaging, and meaningful for me. I connect with graduate students, professors, and other working professionals with PhDs from around the world. We ask questions, provide answers, suggest and advise; we share insights and resources; we crowd-source information; we commiserate and celebrate. Anyone can join in or read our tweets, and I archive each chat using Storify.

There must be thousands of graduate students, professors, and higher ed professionals who participate in Twitter chats of various kinds. In addition to my own #withaPhD chat (Mondays, noon-1 p.m. EST), I’ve participated in Jeffrey Keefer’s #AdjunctChat (Tuesdays, 4-5 p.m. EST) and #Femlead (on hiatus). The team behind hosts #Acwri (“academic writing”) twice every fortnight (to capture tweeters at opposite sides of the globe). On Tuesdays at 8-9 p.m. EST, Alice Keeler hosts #profchat. This week’s edition brought together higher ed teachers to discuss rubrics. Postdocs and newer professors will want to check out #ECRchat (“early career researcher”) every two weeks. #PhDchat began as a structured chat at a specific time; now the hashtag is widely used to share information and discuss issues relevant to PhD students. Let me stop here; just know that there are many other potentially relevant-to-you chats.

Tweeting with other users is enjoyable for me: the hour goes by fast! These chats are also good marketing and market research tools. They put me in contact with potential clients who might otherwise not come across my website or get a sense of what I do. These chats also put me in touch with colleagues and others with whom I might later connect with one-on-one. Twitter is a key component of my public outreach, helping me build my brand, showcase my expertise, and begin to make meaningful connections. Twitter chats are invitations to engagement with me and my business.

What about you? Have you participated in or hosted Twitter chats? What’s been your experience? Add your favourite chats to the comments!

Transition Q & A: Carolyn Harris

Posted on June 11, 2014 by

Carolyn Harris earned her PhD in history from Queen’s University in 2012. She is now an instructor in history at the University of Toronto, School of Continuing Studies, a freelance history writer, and royal commentator. Read her writing and interviews online at and follow her @royalhistorian.

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

In 2011, the year before I completed my PhD, Prince William married Kate Middleton. The media were looking for experts who could discuss the history of the monarchy, particularly the history of royal weddings. My dissertation compares Queen Henrietta Maria during the English Civil Wars to Queen Marie Antoinette during the French Revolution so I had done a lot of research concerning 17th and 18th century court culture. I also had a strong interest in the monarchy and royal history more generally and read a lot about these topics in my spare time.

One of the professors in the history department at Queen’s University recommended me for some print media interviews at the beginning of April, 2011. When these interviews went well, Queen’s media and communications began pitching my expertise to media outlets. The day before the royal wedding, I had my first live TV interview, as a panelist on TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin.

As I completed my PhD, I was aware of the shortage of tenure-track history professor job openings, particularly in Canada. Opportunities to provide royal commentary, however, continued to come my way. I really enjoy my media work and writing and decided to pursue a career as a freelance historian. I set up my website and Twitter feed in February 2012, a couple months before my PhD defense.

What was your first post-PhD job?

The Queen celebrated her Diamond Jubilee in 2012 and there was a lot of Canadian popular interest in her six decades on the throne and role in Canada’s history. I proposed and wrote a four part series of articles on the Queen in Canada for the Kingston Whig-Standard newspaper. I also provided commentary regarding the Diamond Jubilee celebrations for CBC radio. The Diamond Jubilee celebrations including a royal visit to Canada by the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall took place in the weeks between my PhD defense, in early May 2012 and my wedding, in mid-June 2012. It was a busy time!

What do you do now? 

I teach history at the University of Toronto’s school of continuing studies. I also provide freelance royal commentary for a number of media outlets including the CBC and CTV. I write extensively on the historical context for current events. My work has been published in the Globe and Mail, Ottawa Citizen, BBC History Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, Military History Monthly, and numerous other newspapers and magazines. I am currently contributing articles to the Canadian Encyclopedia and Magna Carta 2015 Canada. I guest lecture extensively on royal history in various venues including museums and libraries. Every year, I give a lecture series on a cruise ship. In 2012, I lectured my way across the Atlantic from Barcelona to Miami via the Caribbean. In 2013, I spoke on a Scandinavia and St. Petersburg cruise. This August, I will be spending a month at sea, giving talks as the ship sails from Copenhagen to Lisbon via the U.K., Ireland, France, Spain and Portugal.

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

The first thing I do each day is review current events, particularly royal news, looking for stories that would benefit from added historical context. I spend a lot of time reading, researching and writing. When there is a royal visit to Canada or another big event where I provide royal commentary, I spend time discussing interview content with TV and radio producers before going to the studio. I also spend time on social media. I tweet daily about articles I have read or written and post history facts of the day. I update my blog regularly with new content and updates about my work. There are also a lot of entrepreneurial tasks: writing article proposals, following up on article proposals, maintaining spreadsheets of freelance income targets and accruals, sending invoices and following up on them.

What most surprises you about your job?

The tremendous revival of interest in the monarchy in Canada during the time I have been a royal historian and commentator. I have always read books about royalty for fun but there was very little discussion and public awareness of the role and history of the Canadian monarchy when I was in the high school. With the 2010 royal visit by the Queen and Prince Philip, the 2011 wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton and subsequent tour of Canada, the 2012 Diamond Jubilee and 2013 arrival of Prince George, Canadian popular interest in the monarchy has increased after decades of comparative indifference.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

The obvious answer to that question is cruise ship lecturing! In the fall of 2012, I had a job interview that began with a question about whether or not I was prone to seasickness and a couple months later, I was sailing out of Barcelona. You never know where a PhD will take you! I did a lot of traveling during my PhD including research trips to England, Wales, and France and attending a conference in Ireland. I applied to do cruise ship lecturing because I wanted to continue to travel widely after my PhD.

In addition to travel, I love reading, writing, and talking about history and my job provides me with plenty of opportunities to do all these things. I look forward to Mondays because I am passionate about the work I do.

What would you change about it if you could?

Freelancing is inherently unpredictable. That can be exciting but it also means that while I am working on one project, I am pursuing the next one. There are times when I would prefer to concentrate all my attention on my writing and lecturing but I always have to keep an eye on the business and marketing side of things to ensure steady work and a steady freelance income in addition to my teaching.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

I am in the process of getting a book published based on my dissertation, comparing perceptions of Henrietta Maria and Marie Antoinette as wives and mothers during the English Civil Wars and French Revolution, respectively. In the past year, I contributed a book chapter, “Royalty at Rideau Hall: Lord Lorne, Princess Louise and the Emergence of the Canadian Crown” to Canada and the Crown: Essays on Constitutional Monarchy, edited by D. Michael Jackson and Philippe Lagassé. I would like to expand this research eventually into a full biography of Princess Louise, focusing on her years living in Canada and influence on Canadian history.

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

Be prepared to walk off the beaten path and be open to new experiences. The focus of a PhD is usually training for a traditional academic position but there are many other careers that make use of the writing and critical thinking skills honed in graduate school. Talk to as many fellow PhDs as possible about their experiences and read all the other Q&As on this blog. Engage in lifelong learning and professional development. In addition to teaching at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies, I have also taken courses there including “The Business of Freelance Writing” and “Breaking Into the Periodical Market” where I have learned a lot of useful skills for expanding my freelance work. The PhD should be the beginning of a lifetime of learning, not the end.

Transition Q & A: Patrick Vitalone

Posted on June 4, 2014 by

Patrick Vitalone earned his MA in modern European history from the University of York. He is a start-up technology professional from Boston currently living in San Francisco. Patrick focuses on company growth on the U.S. East Coast, and in Europe and the Middle East. He mainly writes on nationalism, business and economics, and his research has been featured on the BBC in the United Kingdom, as well as the History Channel in the U.S. and Europe. Patrick has studied politics and nationalism since he was a young teenager, finding an early fascination in the rise of such French figures as Maximilien Robespierre and Napoleon Bonaparte. He is also very keen on the early American political disputes between the Federalists of his homeland and the Anti-Federalists of the Mid-Atlantic and South. He has a particular fondness for Alexander Hamilton.

You can contact Patrick on Twitter at @patrickvitalone, or by email at You may also find additional writing on his personal website at

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

My original plan was to go on to a history PhD in either the UK or Italy, which would have taken me three additional years. I did my MA in the UK, which took one year. I like the U.S. university system, but, given my MA studies, it didn’t make sense to do an American PhD as the program is, on average, about five to seven years with an MA built in.

The reports of an abysmal academic job market and conditions for newly minted PhDs scared me off.

What was your first post-MA job, and how did you get it?

Aside from bartending at upscale establishments, which I had been doing off and on for five years prior, my first research job was for the BBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” I was living in Salem, Massachusetts, and a fellow grad from York had moved to London to work in television. One of the show’s guests had an ancestor with alleged ties to the Salem witch trials, so it just made sense to recruit me. I had the archival research skills, and was living on location. I used that to my advantage when negotiating pay. It was a lot of fun. I travelled not only to the archives, but also historic sights around Essex County, Massachusetts. It really gave me a new appreciation for the area where I grew up.

What do you do now?

I work for a technology start-up in San Francisco focusing on growth into the East Coast of the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East. A far cry from history at first glance, but strangely enough my historical and political interests around nationalism segue quite nicely into developing company messaging and marketing.

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

I research prospective companies who would benefit from our product, and expose them to the technology. It’s full-cycle sales, which requires sourcing companies, potential buyers, and the negotiating contracts and price. On the marketing side, we set up events and conferences, attend, and “evangelize” our product, and use social media to acquire customers in a less targeted manner. I head up East Coast and EMEA growth for the company. Europeans in particular really appreciate working with someone who is passionate about their history and culture. I think it’s rare that they run into an American who can place Lichtenstein on a map.

What most surprises you about your job?

I would say the technology industry as a whole. Living in San Francisco/Silicon Valley, I’m on the front lines of the latest technologies and which of those receive venture capital funding. What’s most surprising is that there’s no one formula or silver bullet for success, aside from the obvious hard work. Even then, apps can fail. Sometimes the most obscure ideas become the most successful, and the ones that seem like a no-brainer fail completely. It’s wild. There is no place like San Francisco on earth.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

I love messaging, both verbal and written. There’s something about a young technology that is so pristine and uncorrupted by extensive corporatization. When a product or company goes public, the focus shifts from the technology’s original value to immediate quarterly results. In a start-up, nothing is developed or figured out. The founders know why it works, but crafting that message isn’t there yet. I’m a thinker and communicator at heart, half right brained, half left, and my career helps me to utilize those skills in the most robust way possible.

What would you change about it if you could?

In business and life as a whole, probably politics. I am fortunate in that it doesn’t really exist at my company, although that could change once the company becomes much larger.

I think organizations need to focus on results, and that’s it. Forget formalizing process, forget schmoozing, or making people feel important because you might need them later. Call me crass, but I don’t care much for people’s feelings in the workplace. I’m respectful, but my main concern is about making a product or company succeed. I am not the most savvy when it comes to internal politics. In fact, I usually don’t like the people who are experts at politics. They seem a bit slimey to me.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

I’m always busying myself with both work and side-projects, so lots actually!

I think I’ll stay in technology for a while. There could be a potential MBA on the horizon. I really enjoy marketing and the EMEA territory, so I may move back to Europe to purse that at some point. I like SDA Bocconi’s Global Executive MBA program (in Italy), and the London School of Business as well.

None of this is guaranteed, though. I really, truly enjoy living in San Francisco. I also really enjoy working in very young, early stage start-ups. In these environments, an MBA doesn’t make sense. The MBA degree in the start-up community is a bit stodgy, and has a reputation of being counterproductive as far as innovation is concerned.

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

Think about the industry or company you seek to join, and how the degree you have benefits that industry or company. Everything is a sell. In order to sell successfully, you have to understand who you are speaking with. I succeeded in technology sales and marketing because I understood the connection with my MA. I studied people, and their behaviour. Surely, tech founders want their growth teams to understand the behaviour of people!

Why job hunting is like an election campaign

Posted on May 21, 2014 by

It’s election season here in Ontario. Where I live, the lawn signs went up a few days ago, and the campaign offices are up and running, their outsides and insides plastered with oange (NDP) and red (Liberal). On my walk home from the library just now, I noticed one home sporting two election signs, one for each of the top two contenders. I was struck by the duelling loyalties expressed on this neighbour’s lawn, and my thoughts turned to my own work.

When finishing PhD candidates and new grads think about what comes next, they often do so in terms of a binary: academic or non-academic employment. Choosing to focus your energies on one seems to preclude paying much attention to the other. But of course, like an election campaign, you need not decide until it comes time to cast your vote / sign your employment contract. And even then, election results, like most jobs, are only good until the next campaign / opportunity.

People who find themselves in transition can engage in the job search process without limiting their options. Why? Figuring out what to do and then setting out to do it requires a significant amount of inner work, often before you get networking and applying for jobs in earnest. Knowing what’s important to you and where your greatest potential lies will help ground you and show the way forward, both for your own benefit and that of a potential employer.

Any job seeker is better off knowing who she is in the world. Knowing your values and strengths, favourite skills, top priorities, and main interests helps no matter where you wind up being employed. Let’s use me as an example. I consider myself to be a community builder. What that means is that I’m happiest — I experience high well-being — when I can be part of and help create a positive, supportive, collaborative community. If I were going on the academic job market in the fall I’d know to prioritize opportunities where that value would be honoured and embraced. If I were searching out other sorts of work, I’d do the same. No matter the other details of the job, I know that an absence of community would seriously undermine my well-being.

If you’re considering your options, know that you don’t have to cast your vote just yet. In the meantime, do as much research / inner work as you can so that when the time comes, you’ll be in a good position to make an informed choice.

Transition Q & A: Daniel Mullin

Posted on May 7, 2014 by

Daniel Mullin earned his PhD in philosophy from the Free University in Amsterdam. He’s now a salesperson and consultant. Find him online at The Unemployed Philosopher’s Blog and follow him @dmullin81.

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

As I was working on my PhD, I still had hopes of becoming a tenured professor. I did quite a bit of adjunct teaching during my PhD and thought that if I was lucky, and got my foot in the door, I would get a tenure track job eventually. Of course, that didn’t happen. Instead, I learned that most adjuncts never make it to the tenure track and they work for very little money. Once I realized that the odds of landing a tenure track job were low, and that adjunct teaching couldn’t support me financially, I started to think seriously about non-academic employment. I actually started blogging on this subject before I officially finished my PhD. By the time I had the degree in hand, I was well on my way down another career path. Ironically, I haven’t taught since I earned my PhD.

What was your first post-PhD job?

My first full-time post-PhD job is the one I have now. I currently work for a company that sells advertising and promotional products to other businesses. My official title is Accounts Manager but it’s essentially a sales position. I enjoy it. The closest continuity between my sales job and academia is the importance of being an effective communicator. The communication skills I developed in grad school serve me well in my new role. Despite the negative connotations that being a salesperson has in some quarters of the academy, good teachers are good salespeople. They have to sell their students on the importance of some very abstract ideas, which is much more difficult than selling a physical product. Another area of continuity is that salespeople are educators in a sense. Although there’s a lot more information parity between buyers and sellers than there used to be, a salesperson still has to educate prospective customers about the product and the potential benefits of the product. The greatest discontinuity, I would say, is that salespeople make much stronger claims than academics do. As a salesperson, I don’t qualify my claims with phrases like ‘I think’ or ‘I believe’; I make much more declarative statements, so I’ve had to unlearn that peculiar academic way of speaking.

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

I’m responsible for managing active accounts, reselling and up-selling existing customers, and also bringing in new business. I spend most of my time on the phone calling customers and following up leads. I make my sales presentation and process the orders. I have to meet weekly quotas and I’m paid commission on sales. That’s another thing I like about the job. There is no ceiling on the amount of money I can make: it’s entirely based on performance. There are very clear criteria for success or failure in sales. But it isn’t a sink or swim environment. I’m fortunate to work for a company that provides ongoing training and support for its employees. Some days, I feel like I’m taking a business course, because some of our coaching sessions have a classroom feel to them. Since I spent so much time as a student, I’m very comfortable in such a setting.

What most surprises you about your job?

Probably the continuities between my job and my academic background. Also, I’m surprised at my success so far and how well my skill set has translated into this new environment. I’ve often said on my blog that PhDs are capable of anything because our background uniquely equips us for a variety of tasks; however, until I started working in the so-called real world, that knowledge was, well, academic. It’s nice to know that it works in practice.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

I enjoy making sales. I think closing deals has given me a lot of confidence that I didn’t have before. There’s a certain excitement in knowing that I can take a customer from “Hello, my name is Dan” to “will that be Visa, Mastercard, or American Express?” Knowing that I can do that makes me more confident in other areas of my life. Of course, I also like the money and the fact that the job is based on performance. I think most academics are turned off by what they perceive as the greedy, capitalist business world. However, business is exciting and, ironically, much more based on merit than the academy. It’s a place where really bright people — like PhDs — are actually rewarded in monetary terms. We shouldn’t apologize for wanting to make money and have our hard work rewarded.

What would you change about it if you could?

Like any job, there are aspects I would change. Making cold calls can be a frustrating process because I encounter more rejection than I do selling to active or dormant customers with whom I have a previous business relationship. Sometimes people can be rude, but I press on and play the numbers. Statistically, a certain number of people will say “yes.” I realize that cold calling is a necessary part of the job, and when successful, pays the highest commission, but it’s my least favorite task.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

I’m happy where I am now. My dream, however, is to go into business for myself at some point as a business coach and consultant. I need to build up some business experience first, however, and I’ve thought about working in management consulting as a means to that end. But I’m quite happy to work in sales for a while and see where it takes me.

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

Don’t be intimidated by the business world. If you’ve earned a PhD, you’re pretty smart and won’t have any trouble in a business context. You’re essentially a professional student, so anything you don’t know, you can learn. Read a few business books. Some of them are better than others, but the point is to learn the language your audiences is speaking. Learn how to communicate effectively to non-academic recruiters. Then deploy your post-academic narrative which should be positive and stress the continuity between your skill set and the job. Then start making money and don’t look back. Seriously, don’t worry about being labelled a sell-out by your former colleagues. There’s no shame is looking after yourself and making a comfortable living. Finally — you’ll like this, Jen — hire a career coach who understands the transition process and can help you figure it out. Be patient with yourself, because the process takes time. But so does earning a PhD and you’ve already done that. Everything else is relatively easy.

Resume writing tips for academics

Posted on April 28, 2014 by

I was recently chatting with a friend here in Toronto who’s ABD and looking for full-time employment. He told me that when he “buried his degree” on his resume — placed education last instead of closer to the top — that he’d received much better responses from potential employers. Previously, his applications hadn’t resulted in anything; now, he’d been on two interviews in the past month.

This is an anecdote, but talking with him got me thinking about my own relationship with my resume. So did a Twitter chat I hosted last week on the topic of non-academic resumes.

My friend’s decision to “bury” his PhD candidature makes sense to me, not because he should hide what he’s been up to over the past few years, but because his impending doctorate is not of prime importance in the eyes of the vast majority of would-be employers. When I was in the early stages of my career transition after my PhD, I had a hard time moving education from its prime location on my resume. I was focused on what I believed was most important about me. Understandably after nearly 10 years in graduate school, my identity was wrapped up in the three new letters after my name.

With the passage of time, I’ve come to see myself as much greater than the sum of my educational parts. Yes, I have a PhD, but that’s not what makes me who I am, nor does it define my place in the world. Having done a dissertation and all the many other varied tasks I carried out in conjunction with my time in academia makes me an experienced researcher, writer, educator, whatever. I can draw on that “job experience” — that’s what it is, after all — when crafting a resume. But I can’t stop at that. To convince a potential employer to give me a chance after spending six seconds glancing at my resume, I’d have to present a compelling argument for why I am the ideal candidate for their job. I have to address myself to their needs, not my own. The sentiment implied by the phrase “buried my degree” is telling: death, loss, grief. Removing education from above the fold of my resume doesn’t have to mean this; instead, it would be about embracing a new identity, one that includes (below the fold, on the second page) but isn’t dependent upon educational achievements.

Check out my profile for an example of what this means in practice. My self-description begins:

I’m a professional listener and question asker. I’m always on the search for what lies beneath and how that can point the way forward.

My core values include community, curiosity, honesty, and generosity. Independence, bravery, strategic risk-taking, and creativity are important to me, too. I’m dedicated to building and promoting positive, supportive communities, and empowering individuals by focusing on their strengths.

I only bring up my PhD in the fourth paragraph. What do you think?

Here are six few resume writing tips for PhDs, presented with thanks to the tweeters who participated in the chat last Wednesday:

1. Emphasize skills over (academic) content knowledge.

2. Translate your experiences into language meaningful to your audience.

3. Use specific action words to convey what you’ve done.

4. Don’t underestimate what you’ve accomplished and tackled, in and outside academia.

5. Focus on the solution you will provide to the problem your potential employer is seeking to solve.

6. Keep it short; only include information that’s helpful: necessary and relevant to position.

Transition Q & A: Emily Simmons

Posted on April 17, 2014 by

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.