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Career Advice

Why it’s worth considering a PhD co-op

Where non-academic work can help you cross the bridge back to the professoriate.

BY SHARON ENGBRECHT | JUN 01 2022

As our universities are changing, so too are the skills we need as researchers, writers, and mentors. If being successful as a tenure-track faculty member ever simply meant being a great researcher, then that world is now gone. To be competitive in the current academic job market, we need to be excellent at all aspects of our work. A PhD co-op is just one way to make the work that we do better.

If a co-op is to be imagined as building a bridge to working beyond the professoriate, then we as academics must also consider how those bridges enable two-way flows of movement. For myself, a PhD co-op provided me with experience and knowledge that has made me a better academic. I came away from my first placement armed to be a better researcher, writer, and teacher. I came away more resolute that my place could be in academia and that my experience had given me important skills in marketing and communication that would make the classroom a better space for learning.

It took a while for me to find my first placement. I wasn’t overly ambitious in my job hunting, and I had internalized an adviser’s skepticism about co-op placements at the PhD level. (“Do you need the money?” they’d asked.) Work terms would distract from the real work I was meant to do as a doctoral student: researching and writing. I told myself I signed up to keep my options open, yet deep down, I was telling myself the same story many would-be PhD candidates tell themselves: I would be the exception and get a tenured research position after graduation.

Now, my dedication to the story that I belonged in academia might seem strange. I know I’m not an ideal candidate: I’m a single mother, with dyslexia, doing a PhD in English literature; I’m older and a first-generation student. In signing up for the co-op program at the University of British Columbia, I intended to take advantage of the training they offered for translating my academic skills beyond the university setting. Just in case.

But after sitting down and discussing my goals with my co-op co-ordinator, I soon had an interview with the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF). VIFF had worked with undergraduate co-op students before but had struggled with their schedule constraints (the festival takes place in the middle of the fall semester). A PhD co-op was the answer. They hired me for a fulltime, four-month role.

I soon learned that the “inside” of academia and the “outside” of the arts and culture sector are a lot alike. The skills I’d learned teaching and TAing as well as researching and writing translated into skills in short supply outside of my discipline and the university setting. Doing a PhD co-op at VIFF taught me about skills I could bring back to the classroom: crowd management, marketing, and engagement. Since the position  at VIFF was also remote, I learned a lot about facilitating online spaces. In the last two months of my co-op, I was also teaching two online classes.

Learning from VIFF, I discovered it’s not only important to have lecture notes and well-produced slide presentations. But in digital spaces, it also helps to have go-to scripts on hand to engage your audience, whether that’s prompts to clap, questions for discussion, or a heads-up about timing. I was captured by the possibility of using the chat function to foster informal, accessible spaces in which students feel comfortable openly sharing their questions and responses.

Working with VIFF, I learned about highproduction value, audience management, and strategic marketing, keeping in mind complex stakeholders – all things that applied to both my scholarship and teaching. Rather than simply being a bridge out of academia, work-integrated learning experiences like co-op can make PhD candidates better mentors and researchers. It’s a way to build a connection that makes that bridge not only one that leads out, but one that leads back – giving us skills that many departments in the arts and humanities don’t feel qualified to offer or have little interest in teaching.

After my first co-op placement, I had a renewed sense of my desire to pursue a career in the professoriate, knowing full well that I’m not an ideal candidate – yet. But, we need faculty, advisers, administrators, and deans to stress the importance of graduate students gaining diverse learning experiences, as we are pushed toward ever-narrower areas of expertise, in order to become better candidates for the future professoriate.

Sharon Engbrecht is a PhD candidate in the University of British Columbia’s department of English language and literatures. Their work focuses on narratives written by women that challenge the scripts of romantic love.

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  1. Derek Northwood / July 28, 2022 at 10:26

    Is this not essentially the same as doing a PhD part-time and holding down s full-time job?