Life after the thesis

May 15, 2015 Jennifer Polk


I own a website and blog called From PhD to Life. I started the site nearly a year after my PhD defense. It has chronicled my journey since then, as well as provided a platform for sharing the stories of others who’ve transitioned from graduate school to something other than a tenure-track position. Readers of my blog will know that I’m now working as an independent academic and career coach for graduate students and PhDs. Business isn’t yet booming, but signs are promising.

While I’m in the midst of a current journey from fledgling freelancer to . . . well, we’ll see, I’d like to reflect back to what got me from the end of my PhD to the beginning of my blog and later business.

I submitted the final draft of my dissertation to my committee in November 2011, and had my defense in February. In between, I got in touch with the few freelance clients I’d worked with over the past couple of years. My clients were senior consultants who ran their own businesses and who needed extra assistance on occasion to carry out projects. I’d done administrative tasks, as well as some more creative work, from interviewing stakeholders to brainstorming branding ideas. The consultants were happy to give me work as they were able. By the time I defended my dissertation I had a plan for my post-PhD future: I’d expand my freelancing work, picking up new clients and new expertise. I thought I knew what I was doing.78714839_235235113_235235128_256224451.jpg

This plan did not pan out.

Fast-forward to the summer. I was increasingly frustrated with where I was and I began exploring other options. I continued to freelance, and was working part-time for a concert-listings website. My work was sometimes exciting, engaging, and fulfilling; other times it was not. I’d experienced too much of the latter during my doctoral degree, and wasn’t thrilled about my seeming inability to figure out what I should do next and how I should do it. The academic job market was barely enticing, though I continued to read job ads and ponder my options for the next several months.

Looking back, I know that I took some important baby steps during that time: I learned about what I did and did not want to do; I read What Color Is Your Parachute?; I conducted a couple of very informal informational interviews with friends of friends; I printed non-academic job ads, filing them away for future reference. At the time, I felt pressure to move forward: get a job, buy a house, become an adult. In the absence of clear signs of progress, I felt increasingly like a loser with a PhD.

It was about this time that I took advantage of two resources I already knew were out there: the forums on Versatile PhD and the free workshops offered by Mitacs, a Canadian non-profit organization operating in the space between academia and the “real world.” I scheduled informational interviews and hired a career coach, a job I never knew existed! Working with my coach was immensely gratifying and kept me pushing forward. Soon, I launched my new blog, intending it to be a resource to other people going through the post-PhD transition.

A few months later, I took what turned out to be a good risk: I signed up for a coaching class. After a few weeks, the trainer encouraged us to get practicing, and not just with our classmates. I took her up on the challenge, using social media to let friends and other contacts know that I was learning a new skill and needed people to practice on. To my delight, several people took me up on my offer right away. Those first few coaching calls were wonderful! Challenging, but in the best way possible. I sent my first invoice to my first coaching client in July 2013. Since then, my business has grown and I’ve diversified my income streams. Much remains uncertain, but I’m thrilled with the direction my career has taken.

My coaching clients are almost exclusively PhDs and doctoral students. I’ve learned from interacting with them and many others from around the world that my challenges were not unique. Common issues for PhDs seeking non-academic work include:

  • Lack of knowledge about jobs and careers other than faculty positions at universities, sometimes combined with negative misperceptions about these “alternative” jobs
  • Ignorance of how hiring actually works outside academia and what employers are looking for
  • Undervaluing transferable skills
  • Misjudging preparation for professional positions
  • Unhelpful self-conceptions such as “I’m bad at networking” and “I’m a failed academic”
  • Academic culture and expectations crowding out true values, strengths, priorities, and goals
  • Lack of support (broadly defined)

The transition from academia to something else meaningful and rewarding can take a long time – sometimes several years. Changing careers is no small feat. The good news is that there is help out there! Since launching my website I’ve discovered an amazing community of like-minded graduate students and PhDs who are kind, empathetic, honest, and brilliant. If your own journey takes you on the post-PhD path (seemingly) less travelled, know that you’re not alone. Welcome to my world. Best wishes to us all!

Image Credit/Source Fuse/Getty Images

About the Author

Jennifer Polk

Career Coach // Jennifer Polk is an academic, life, and career coach for graduate students and PhDs. Jen earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto in June 2012, and began coaching clients in July 2013. Jen works with grad students to empower, inspire, and help them achieve their goals; celebrate their successes; and promote their value to the world. Follow Jen on twitter @FromPhDtoLife.

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