Life beyond the PhD

As a recent history PhD, I’ve been asked many times variations of the same question: “Are you going to teach?” The version that prompted this piece was, “Why did you decide not to pursue a tenure-track position?” These questions assume PhDs, and perhaps humanities PhDs in particular, desire academic jobs above all else. It’s an assumption that reigns supreme both within and without academia, and makes it difficult to give a simple and honest answer of, “I don’t (know if I) want to be a professor.” Yet why else would I have done a doctorate, many people wonder? Let me explain.

Education is highly valued in my family. My parents met while they were young students at Carleton University in Ottawa. Decades later, I happily did my first two degrees there. My dad spent the majority of his working life teaching seventh grade. My mom returned to Carleton later in life to complete her honours degree and then earned an MA after retiring from the civil service. My sister has a university degree and a college diploma.

I started my master’s degree in history in the fall of 2002, right after finishing my undergraduate degree in European and Russian studies. On my first day, my supervisor handed me a stack of materials to get me started on my thesis. I shared an office with the other MA students, had good relationships with the instructors for whom I graded papers, and learned lots about all sorts of things, including the practice of history, how to think like an intellectual, and about my chosen field. I spent many hours at the library, the National Archives, and the Canadian Red Cross’ national office. For me, this was fun. Doing my master’s thesis over the course of 2003-04 was both the hardest and most rewarding thing I’d ever done. I was incredibly proud of the finished product. I still am!

It’s no wonder a PhD was my next step. I was accepted by the University of Toronto’s history department with funding (as are all doctoral students), the enthusiastic support of my family, and what felt like the entirety of Carleton’s history and Russian studies departments cheering me on. It was exciting to be moving to Toronto to keep working on a topic I loved alongside a new supervisor who was warm, friendly, and a brilliant writer. At the time, not beginning a PhD would have struck me as madness. And so off I went, thrilled to keep learning, researching, and writing.

Also important was the financial reality of beginning a PhD. Many people view grad school as a money-losing proposition. I took a different view. Enrolling at the University of Toronto in September 2004 was akin to signing a job contract with guaranteed pay and benefits for 5 years. I had no other job offers, or serious ideas about jobs I might apply to. What I might do after my doctorate was a non-issue for me. (At least, I can’t remember thinking about it.) I was 24 and moving out of my parents’ home for the first time.
I was doing what was right for me.

The PhD—all seven-and-a-half years of it—had points high and low.

In year one I ran tutorials for the first time and put out a newsletter for graduate students in my department. By year two I was elected president of the student society, prepared for comprehensive exams, and took in many free talks at the Munk Centre. In my third year I joined Massey College and delighted in archival research trips, which were great fun. The next year was highlighted by putting together a lecture series, co-organizing a graduate student conference, and writing my first dissertation chapter. In the meantime, I’d won prestigious external awards and presented at international conferences.

But by the start of my fifth year as a PhD student, I’d found a new passion not at all related to my dissertation or the university: Toronto’s independent music scene. Up to this point I could claim to have been a model graduate student, but the reality of dissertating was upon me, and suddenly school wasn’t as much fun anymore. Painstakingly reading and dealing with my sources, and putting everything together into a coherent, factually correct, and analytically respectable narrative—what a slog! It was second only to grading papers as the absolute worst part of graduate school. Shows were my solace, and late-night concerts became crucial to my well-being.

How did an almost literal poster person for higher education—a picture of me with a fellow graduate student actually appeared on widely-distributed cards advertising U of T student services—end up trading in committee work and academic events for $5 concerts in dingy, dank bars? The short answer is that I found a new community where I felt welcomed and valued. I knew nearly nothing about music, but soon my personal blog became one of the go-to sites for news and reviews of the local scene. An acquaintance from the indie scene cajoled me into co-hosting a podcast with him, and two years later we’d produced fifty of them, each one featuring songs by local bands, sometimes ones you couldn’t hear anywhere else. I didn’t abandon my dissertation, but I certainly didn’t tell my committee members when I was covering major, multi-day music festivals.

During my final years as a PhD student I wasn’t in love with academia anymore. I remember being particularly struck by a moment at one departmental meeting. The chair announced that 50 per cent of the department’s PhD graduates ended up in tenure-track jobs, a statistic that seemed to please the assembled professors; I, however, was shocked.

Half! Of course, I know now that 50 per cent really is a good number. But what about the other half, I wondered? What would they (we?) do?

Fast-forward to early 2010. I’d stopped investing so much time and energy in the music scene and was looking for a new hobby. A friend and fellow graduate student who knew of my growing disillusionment recommended me to a former colleague of hers, an independent consultant in need of occasional assistance. I became a virtual assistant, performing light administrative work, conducting internet research, carrying out stakeholder interviews, and helping out in other ways. It was good to receive pay for work performed, to feel appreciated, and to contribute to larger team projects.

The late dissertation period is prime time for seeking out instructor positions and venturing into the academic labour market for the first time. When most people in my cohort were applying for academic jobs, I wasn’t sending out CVs. Dissertating and freelance work—along with the occasional research or conference trip—took up most of my time, and thanks to good scholarships and cheap living, I didn’t feel financial pressure to seek full-time work after graduation. I could afford to put off job applications. I felt some shame about this, but I didn’t frequent my department and spent little time on campus, thus avoiding otherwise inevitable job market conversations. I figured I would start the hunt for tenure-track employment later.

Later never came. I handed in the final draft of my dissertation in the fall of 2011. The entire finishing process, before and after, was emotionally draining. My supervisors were supportive and my defense went well. But on the whole, the process was exhausting.

My saving grace, in addition to actual savings, was my freelance work.

My clients liked me, and continuing my work with them became the obvious next step for me. Really, it wasn’t a next step: I was already doing it, and carried on doing it past my defense, final submission, and graduation in the summer of 2012. Freelancing proved far from perfect (or financially lucrative), but I believed I could improve my situation.

By the fall it was clear that my hopes to take on more challenging work weren’t panning out. I felt I’d barely progressed. My post-PhD job prospects seemed poor and my self-esteem was suffering. When friends and acquaintances asked me what I was up to, I would tell them (only half-joking) that I was freelancing but that basically, “I’m a loser.”

They’d laugh and disagree, but the facts of the matter suggested otherwise.

Not long thereafter I decided to make changes. I attended job search workshops and got serious about setting up informational interviews.

Most importantly, I hired a career coach, a job I never knew existed. I just knew I needed help.

During our first conversation, I told my coach where I was at, giving her my standard post-PhD narrative, which included the “I’m a loser” bit. She stopped me and pointed out that it takes a while for people to make career transitions. Instead of being slow on the uptake, she said I was, “right on schedule!” (She specializes in academic transitions, so I believed her.) I immediately felt better about my situation.

With my coach’s support, I embraced my transition, got ever clearer about what I wanted, and focused my job search efforts. In December, wanting to help other PhDs on the non-academic track, I started a new blog, “From PhD to Life.” I also learned to love informational interviews, and one of them inspired me to begin a “transition Q & A” series on my website; there are now more than 25 of them up there. The blog was (and is) a sign of my new sense of purpose, and I found many similarly-minded folks online, especially on Twitter. My self-discovery and career exploration efforts continued, and little by little, I zeroed in on my strengths, values, and passions.

In time, I realized that having my own business really was ideal for me, just not as a virtual assistant or researcher-for-hire. I wanted more responsibility, more control over what projects I took on, and greater interaction with clients. After all, there’s a reason I spent so many years in graduate school working on my own projects and determining my own schedule! The longer I worked with my coach, the more I thought I would enjoy becoming one myself, and in late May I signed up for my first coaching class. Going back to school (sort of) was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

I’ve been coaching clients of my own for a few months now. I mainly work with graduate students who are working on theses and dissertations, and PhDs (and ABDs) seeking employment beyond the tenure track. It’s wonderful to talk with them, ask big questions, learn about their successes, investigate their frustrations, and help them set goals and move forward in their lives on their own terms. My services so far include one-on-one coaching and weekly group sessions, all over the phone or online. My clients, who are based in Canada, the United States, and beyond, inspire me to keep learning and exploring. They find me via my website, my blog—now hosted by University Affairs magazine—social media, and through referrals.

As I write this, many of my friends and former graduate school colleagues are on the academic job market, teaching a new crop of students, and applying for postdoc positions. Once again, I’m taking no part.

Instead, I’m opting in to a different track: to my goals, my career, and my life. It isn’t easy, but I’m passionate about supporting students through the challenges of dissertating, and helping PhDs find their way in the world beyond the Ivory Tower. It’s wonderfully rewarding, incredibly important work. And, if you know someone in need of a coach, send him or her my way.

Jennifer Polk is a writer and career coach based in Toronto. You can read her blog at fromphdtolife.com

4 Responses to “Life beyond the PhD”

  •  by S. Oake

    Jennifer,
    What a great reflective article, and a good motivator.! Your comment “…but the reality of dissertating was upon me, and suddenly school wasn’t as much fun anymore” really resonated for me, and for so many of my colleagues. Yes, the fun has waned, but this happens in many serious relationships. Thanks for reminding me that there is light at the end of the tunnel, regardless of how long it takes to get there!

    Reply

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