At the start of this year I made the tough decision to phase out my dissertation coaching services. While I really enjoyed the one-on-one interaction with clients—and I worked with and learned from some awesome people—it wasn’t sustainable for my business in the long-term, especially as my editing services have become more focused on projects that require longer periods of my attention. Although I will no longer be coaching, I still care about helping people finish their degrees so I want to share this useful planning exercise for any PhD student who is ABD: a Dissertation Audit.
Many of the requests I received for dissertation coaching came from PhD students who had been away from their program or project for several months or more due to illness, family, or work related issues. The majority of my clients found restarting the thesis process overwhelming and just weren’t sure how to get back into their work. Across the board, most PhD students severely underestimate the time it takes to write a thesis, which makes it stressful and disheartening when they miss their original anticipated deadline. Since everyone has different demands on their attention, energy and available work hours, I developed a series of questions (below) to assess the state of the existing project and identify all the resources they had available (and the ones they still needed) in order to create a reasonable and achievable timeline for completion.
The first and most important question to ask is: “Do I want to complete my dissertation (and why)?” If your answer is yes, then go through this list of questions to reaffirm your decision to proceed and figure out the kind of time and resource committment that will be required to meet your goal of completion. Keep in mind that these categories overlap (e.g., the time you have available to complete your dissertation may be dependent on when your funding runs out).
- How much of the thesis have you already drafted?
- How much of the existing writing can be kept?
- How much still needs to be written?
- Do you have feedback for revisions from your supervisor and committee? How long will it take to revise your existing chapters based on the feedback?
- Do you have a detailed outline for the entire thesis? If yes, is the outline still relevant and achievable? If no, then take the time to create an outline, start by listing (by paragraph or by subtopic) all the elements in each chapter of your current draft(s).
- Which texts have you read? Are they still relevant to your project?
- What texts still need to be read/consulted?
- If you still need to continue researching, make a list of all the books and articles you need from library. How long will it take for you to read the books? Are there materials that must be requested from another institution (and require additional time to process)?
- Is there a firm institutional deadline that you must meet (before funding ends or before you need to re-enroll and pay additional tuition)?
- How much time do you have available to research and write (by the day, by the week)? Be honest with your limits and add extra time for unexpected delays and life stuff (e.g., if you think it will take 10 days to update your research resources, give yourself 13 or more days when you make your timeline).
- Have you discussed a timeline for completion with your supervisor and committee? Are there dates when they will be unavailable (at a conference or on sabbatical)?
- How long does it take for your supervisor and/or committee members to read and give feedback on drafts? Make sure you set clear expectations with them. You need to have your supervisor and committee on board with your timeline!
Supervisor and Committee
- What kind of support and time is available from your supervisor? Set up an in-person meeting with them to discuss expectations and your proposed timeline for completion. Request (at minimum) monthly progress check-ins in person or over phone/email.
- What kind of support and time is available from your committee members? Discuss with your supervisor about when to contact your committee members for feedback on drafts. How long will committee members have to respond?
- What are the institutional deadlines for funding and tuition costs (per semester)? Figure out the cost to remain in your program for at least one year past your ideal date of completion.
- How much personal savings are available to you? What are your financial supports outside of PhD funding?
- How much are supplemental materials and services necessary for the completion of the dissertation (e.g., childcare, copyediting, coaching, cost of paper for printing of thesis, interlibrary loan charges, etc.)?
Other Supports and Commitments
- Do you have familial commitments that require accommodation while working on the thesis (childcare, eldercare, spousal support, etc.)? What are your arrangements for dealing with these commitments?
- Does your family support your thesis efforts? Do they give you the necessary time to focus on your project? Discuss boundaries and expectations for a quiet work space with the members of your household.
- Are you working part- or full-time as you complete your dissertation? Is your employer supportive of your efforts? Can they allow you time away (if requested) to focus on the completion of your project?
- Do you require academic coaching or editing services? Have you discussed these options with your supervisor? Determine the cost of those supplementary services and set aside the necessary time to accommodate them.
- Are there any other resources that you require to finish your dissertation? Remember that making time for self-care (physical and mental) is important!
It’s been far too long since I last updated the blog with a personal post (so long, in fact, that I’m not even going to look up the date of the last one I wrote). The motivation to write today has come from PhDisabled posting my piece, “A Reflection on Chronic Illness and Graduate School.” Although I wrote it years ago, seeing it on the PhDisabled blog, and knowing that people are reading it, has dredged up a lot of the sadness and anger from that time. Not that those feelings were buried too far down; I’ve been wallowing in self-doubt and social anxiety for the past several weeks, unable to engage with anything beyond my immediate client work. Seeing my post published, despite the feelings it stirred up, was exactly the push I needed to start writing again. I’d like to thank @zaranosaur, of PhDisabled, for being unequivocally supportive and for understanding that rage can move us to great action. While I may often feel stuck in a never-ending cycle of exhaustion, I am able to move through/beyond it. Sometimes it is anger that pushes me, but, more frequently now, it is the support and encouraging words of like-minded people that impel me to speak.
Lots of really cool and amazing things happened, and are happening, this year. As the Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction fellow, I researched the feminist SF archives at the University of Oregon for two weeks this spring! My head is still spinning from that experience--I have so much work ahead of me with that project, which is both overwhelming in scope and inspiring in content. I’ve made steady progress with my independent scholarship: a successful paper on disability in Rise of the Planet of the Apes at ICFA; a published article on disability studies and SF in the SFRA’s SF 101: Guide to Teaching and Studying Science Fiction; and, acceptance of a chapter on disability in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle (in a forthcoming edited collection on anomalous embodiment in YA SF). And there is, of course, the project taking up most of my extra attention these past few months, my collaboration with Djibril al-Ayad of The Future Fire in co-editing a disability-themed, intersectional anthology of SF short stories, Accessing the Future.
My intent in listing my accomplishments is two-fold: one, to share with the people who are interested in my work (because, apparently, they are such people out there!); and two, as a reminder to myself that I am doing okay. It is easy to forget that I’m not merely lying about the house, feeling unwell, bothering the cat, and wishing for things to happen. Though at a slower pace than I’d prefer, I am making progress in realizing my ambitious goals. I need to tell myself this. I need to see the evidence of my intent in front of me, on the screen. I need this effort and hope to be shared in order to feel real to me. Because it is so damn easy to succumb to anxiety and depression and self-doubt, and then forget about everything I have done and, perhaps more importantly, everything that I can do.
I’ve a whole folder of half-finished blog posts and essays. I think it’s time that I revisit them and finish the ones that still feel relevant and pressing. Even if, after finishing my PhD 4 years ago, it may seem inappropriate or “too long,” I’m still upset about my experiences in graduate school. How can I not be? I spent 5 years pursuing my PhD, and most of that time sucked. I refuse to put on rose coloured glasses and write a revisionist history of my grad school years. A forced nostalgia would be easier, and would make many of the conversations I have with academics more pleasant, but that would only contribute to the silence that persists around the poor engagement with chronic illness and disability in higher education. The fact that a site like PhDisabled exists speaks to the necessity of anger and of fostering a community of acknowledgment and support.
There are so many issues and experiences that I still need to write about. Three years ago, in “A Reflection on Chronic Illness and Graduate School,” I wrote: “as I move farther into my independent research, the scars I have from my time spent in grad school demand exploration and healing.” I’m still very much involved in this process. Despite everything I have accomplished in the years since then, I continue to hurt. Dealing with chronic illness is an every day challenge, which is certainly one kind of hurt, but I’m also talking about the hurt that comes with losing community, with necessary transitions and self-transformations. My independent scholarship is deeply rooted in my experience of illness, of being angry and having no outlet for it while I was in graduate school.
But I made it through and I’m no longer hemmed in by academic expectations of job performance. I plan on using every moment of that hard earned freedom (because having a PhD does afford me certain socio-economic privileges) to do what I love doing. I love freelance editing and coaching graduate students. I love science fiction and disability studies. I love thinking through the connections between all of these passions and figuring out ways to make all of this effort and excitement tangible. Because if I make my own life better, then I’ll have more tools to help other people. This is what my anger does now: it builds.
As is common at the turn of a new year, I have found myself reflecting on all of the changes that have happened in my life since I completed my PhD in 2010. Last year, in particular, was an amazing year for me professionally: in addition to presenting at three conferences (ICFA, SFRA/Eaton, McMaster), I published my edited collection, Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, and won the inaugural Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction fellowship. As well, my editing and coaching business grew and stabilized into sustainable employment, and I ended out 2013 with the first two months of 2014 already booked with client work.
When I was still in grad school, there was no way that I could have imagined a year like 2013. I was sick, poor, and justifiably angry. I'm a lot healthier and more financially stable these days, but honestly, I'm still angry. I don't dwell on my disappointment with my graduate school experience anymore, but it occasionally informs my decisions to take on certain projects and it certainly comes out whenever I talk with graduate students and faculty. I don't feel like it is necessary for me to lie about my struggles with academia. After all, I left the university for many reasons. When I attend conferences, I identify as an "independent scholar" and many people are curious as to what that label means, what motivated me to leave, and how I go about my work life now.
I thought I would start the new year by revisiting some of the first posts I shared here on Bleeding Chrome. These are the entries that hurt to write and were terrifying to share. Even reading them now makes me tremor. I wish it wasn't true, but I suffered through graduate school. I made many choices to stay within a system of work that I knew didn't accommodate my sick body or respect me as an individual.
We can never go back and change the things that injure us physically or emotionally. But we can acknowledge that we suffered and that we are still here, giving voice to our experiences so that others may help us bear the weight. Maybe we don't always immediately emerge stronger or wiser, but I do believe that with enough time we can come to a point of understanding with our past struggles. Here are some of mine:
Post/Academic Shame (my first ever blog post):
After completing my graduate studies and earning a doctorate in English Literature, I anticipated that I would feel a mix of exhaustion, relief, and accomplishment. I was completely unprepared for the overwhelming sense of shame that I would feel – and still feel in part today – that plunged me into a severe depression for several long winter months. Not following tradition, I did not have a celebratory meal and drinks with my supervisory committee after my defense. I was ill at the time and had called off the lunch that was planned. As the days and weeks passed from my defense date, I couldn’t bring myself to reschedule another time to get together. How could I celebrate my failure as an academic? ... [Read the whole post]
In all visible and general day-to-day aspects, I am able-bodied. Such a demarcation between able and disabled was not always there for me. At the height of my health problems, I felt distinctly apart from everyone I knew. I was ill enough at one point in my doctoral education that I missed a year. Not literally “missed a year” of course – I am not a time traveler – but certainly I lost out on a year’s worth of socialization and professional development. While the inability to participate in academe was difficult enough to deal with, the blow that came to my ego was worse. You see, nobody seemed to notice my absence. ... [Read the whole post]
Through such small social and institutionalized codes of conduct, I was always aware of my class status. I sought out others who didn’t see my mispronunciations and gaps in cultural knowledge as signs of my unsuitability for academia (and yes – there were definitely a few individuals who gave me little intellectual credit due to these slippages). I found the silence around matters of money infuriating. In my experience, people who have money are always the ones the least comfortable talking about it – and academia is quiet as a tomb. ... [Read the whole post]
Two weeks ago, long time tweep, historian, and fellow Canadian Merle Massie (@merlemassie) asked me: “Do you recommend your editing/writing life to others? Twitter provides a mix of positive and draining notes.” My first response, in all honesty, was “no.” But that was because I’m feeling overworked, tired, and not at my best. I hesitated. There are so many different kinds of life situations and career paths, and, as a rule, I do not give blank statements on what people should do with their lives. For the most part, I really love what I do day to day. I thoroughly enjoy editing other people’s writing and independent scholarship is pretty darn fun. The truest answer I can give is “it depends.” A wholly unsatisfying response, I know. Instead of tweeting Merle all day long with my work/life reflections, I decided to write this blog post.
The biggest con of a freelancing editing/writing life is uncertainty. Of all the challenges involved in a freelancing life, uncertainty is at the top of my list. I would prefer to have a set amount of hours to work each week and know that those hours will remain in place for the foreseeable future. This is often not the case with freelancing. Some weeks I might only have 5 hours of paid work, while other weeks I put in over 30 hours. In terms of money then, that means my monthly earnings can vary greatly. There are many strategies to avoid long gaps between client work, but when you are just starting out, you will need to plan for inevitable lean periods. You can definitely make a good living doing freelance editing and writing, but you must be willing to accept a certain amount of uncertainty in work hours and income. The longer you are freelancing, the better you will become, hopefully, at networking and advertising, but it really isn’t a job you can just pick up and be immediately successful.
Being a Canadian makes a freelancing editing/writing life a lot easier (since we have government funded health care), but you are still entering a marketplace flooded with other people trying to grab the same customers as you. To be a successful freelancer, you will need to spend time developing a business plan, have a professional internet profile (i.e., personal website, etc.), and learn the art of networking. I actually think of myself as more of an entrepreneur than as a freelancer editor. When I can, I go to local business networking events and do what I can to positively get my name—and services—out there (in the community, on the internet).
The biggest pro of my portfolio career (academic editing, coaching, and scholarship) is that my schedule is flexible. Since I have some chronic pain issues that need managing to avoid debilitating flare ups, being in control of how much I work and when I work is essential to being as happy and productive as I can be. Take this month for example: at the beginning of October, I had several client projects on the go and was putting in full days of editing and coaching. And then I was glutened badly. I was out sick for a week…and then I came down with the flu. It totally sucked being unwell for two weeks but I didn’t “miss” any work because I was able to reschedule and reorganize my client commitments. The weeks I was ill, I made a point not to look for immediate work. I still checked email but simply scheduled any incoming work for the following weeks when I knew that I would (most likely) be well enough to work again. Having that kind of flexibility and ownership over my time is worth any uncertainty around workload and income.
So, to Merle and anyone else interested in pursuing a similar editing/writing life, I recommend spending time figuring out your top work priorities. How do you feel about uncertainty in income? How much money a month do you need to make to support yourself (and your family)? Do you have health issues that need managing? Do you like working by yourself? I have a partner who works full time, we have no dependents (just a spoiled cat), and we’re in a city that is quite affordable to live in. I chose my current career path because it made sense to me. I often tell people that my PhD has enabled me to make an excellent “part-time” career for myself. And for now, the writing/coaching/scholar life is the best fit for me.
In a recent thread on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Forum, someone asked about using the label “independent scholar.” A little digging showed that it wasn’t the first time the topic has been raised there, and there is clearly a lot of anxiety associated with the alternative identification. I read through the threads and took note of some of the stereotypes associated with the independent scholar title (my favourite descriptors are: “goofy,” “crackpot,” and “unhireable”). There is a pervasive sense that identifying as an independent scholar is risky and should be avoided (in favour of other labels, such as “visiting scholar”) if at all possible. From what my cursory research shows, this hand-wringing and name calling comes mostly from those still firmly entrenched within academia. For scholars on the outside, like myself, there is significantly more confidence and feelings of quality attending the label of independent scholar.
Let’s first establish some sort of working definition of what actually constitutes an independent scholar. The National Coalition of Independent Scholars outlines the following criteria for inclusion in their membership: “NCIS welcomes people who are pursuing knowledge in or across any fields whose credentials demonstrate an active involvement in independent scholarship in any field, as evidenced by advanced degrees or presentations/publications. Further qualification is that the scholar not be employed on a full-time basis by an academic institution or other organization in the field to which their independent scholarly activity pertains. Graduate students intent on pursuing independent scholarship, adjunct faculty, and others tangentially associated with academic institutions who do not receive financial support for their scholarly activities are eligible.”
Okay – so an independent scholar is actively pursuing knowledge (and presenting/publishing it), tangentially or not associated with a university, and does not have funding/financial support for their scholarly work. Nothing shameful or embarrassing there, right? Nope. Despite evidence to the contrary*, there nevertheless persists a good deal of myths, mostly unfavourable, about independent scholars. Here are the most popular ones:
Myth #1: “Independent Scholar” is a placeholder title for unemployed PhDs
Two points: First, As the NCIS definition indicates, an independent scholar has an active track-record of scholarly research and publishing. “Active” is the key word that distinguishes an independent scholar from an unemployed PhD. “Independent scholar” shouldn’t be used as a placeholder title. If you are not an active scholar but want to identify yourself to prospective employers as a PhD holder, then use the honorific of “Dr.” or put “PhD” after your name.
Second, it is entirely possible to have a PhD, be employed in a non-academic position, and carry out independent scholarship. Most of the independent scholars that I have met work full-time jobs of some sort, and they integrate their scholarly work into their daily life.
Myth #2: Independent scholars are crackpots
I’m sure that some independent scholars are indeed “crackpots,” but so are some “real” academics and professors. A label does not determine quality of work. Peer review processes are in place, in both Humanities and STEM fields, which ensure a certain level of intellectual engagement and worthiness of the contribution within academic publications. Publishing or presenting outside of traditional academic locations is also a legitimate direction for independent scholars – if you are interested in sharing your knowledge/passion with an appreciative audience, then the opportunities to do so are everywhere, from blogs to community library talks to international conventions.
Myth #3: Independent scholars are really retired professors
Yes, there are definitely retired professors who now identify as independent scholars. They are known to frequent their favourite conferences and still publish a book review or article every now and then. But there are also independent scholars, like myself, who have never been employed by the university past their graduate education. There are even independent scholars who don’t hold advanced degrees because they are self-educated and have pursued their passion to academic levels of intensity.
Myth #4: Academic publications aren’t open to independent scholars
The idea that you must have a university affiliation for any academic publication to take your work seriously is a particularly pervasive myth. Definitely untrue. While it may be easier to get published in certain journals over others (and this is true even for those with university affiliation), if your work is solid, then the independent scholar label will not limit your opportunities. If you present yourself professionally, then you will be taken seriously. Make inquiries if you are uncertain about the suitability of your paper for a specific journal. Follow all submission guidelines to the letter and meet deadlines.
Using myself as an example here, I left grad school with zero peer-reviewed publications, but now I have (in the works), one edited collection of essays, one journal article, and one chapter in a book. (I’ve also presented three academic papers at conferences in the last year, and have written an afterword for this amazing anthology of SF short stories, Outlaw Bodies).
Myth #5: An independent scholar is a wannabe professor/failed academic.
There are many reasons why someone chooses to pursue scholarship outside of university employment. Given the dreary state of the academic job market, an ever-growing number of advanced degree holders find themselves unwilling or unable to chase tenure-track jobs around the world. Choosing independent scholarship can be a political decision, a way of taking some authority away from the university. Or it can be a lifestyle choice – independent scholars are free to pursue multiple career and research avenues that are not possible for a tenure-tracked academic.
Whatever the reason behind someone’s decision to identify as an independent scholar, assuming that they lack the academic chops for a tenure track position just makes you look like a total snob and/or clueless jerk. Scholarship is possible beyond the university, and academia does not hold the rights to original thought or innovation.
I’ve written about the benefits of being an independent scholar before, and there is certainly more to say about the topic. Feel free to add your own thoughts about the myths of independent scholarship in the comments.
*I haven’t included any specific examples of independent scholars (other than myself) here because, well, they really aren’t that hard to find. Also, I’m going to write a post on notable independent scholars and I don’t want to give away all of my fascinating research now. Stay tuned!
Earlier this week, I lost all of the confidence I had been carefully encouraging and maintaining for the last year. Up against several deadlines – of my own making no less – I began to crumble. Physically and mentally, I felt terrible. Knowing that it was an avoidable situation just made me feel worse.
The evidence of my “doing okay” is everywhere around me. I run my own business, set my own hours and rates, and am doing exactly what I want to be doing in terms of scholarship. A few weeks ago, at the height of my new found life satisfaction it suddenly hit me: I do not know how to deal with success. When it comes to rejection and failure? No problem. I am expecting rejection and failure. And academia provided me more than ample opportunities to play out that expectation.
As a graduate student who wasn’t ever able to secure external funding (i.e. the kind of funding that counts), I went through the five years of my doctoral studies too often feeling like a poor loser. The majority of my peers managed to land SSHRC or OGS awards for at least one of the years of their programs. I never experienced that day of excitement when the acceptance letter arrived, or had the validation and comfort in knowing that, at least for one year, there would be enough money in the bank to live on. I became used to the idea that I wasn’t at the top of my department/university/field. I was just another graduate student, earning the university two more units of governmental funding. Such a position does not inspire confidence.
When I left academia, I had to do a lot of hard work reorienting my ideas of success and happiness to life outside of the university community. Even though I was already existing on its margins in the last year or so of my doctorate (as I prepared for my departure), it was a difficult transition. I didn’t just have to find a new career path for myself, I had to rebuild my destroyed confidence, a task far more difficult than networking and developing an entrepreneurial plan.
Having finally achieved happiness in my work life, it was startling to see myself falling back into old destructive habits these past weeks. What changed? For one, I prioritized my independent scholarship over paid client work for a bit, which meant my incoming earnings dropped off as a result (an echo of my underpaid grad life). I also received feedback on one of the papers I have out in the peer-review process right now. While the feedback was fair, it was far from glowing, inscrutably listing everything my first draft paper lacked. Suddenly, I was back in grad school and I wasn’t good enough anymore. I had to forcefully remind myself that I don’t need to publish this paper (or any papers for that matter). Nevertheless, already stressed by unrealistic deadlines, the all-to-familiar sounding criticism was the last straw. I crumbled.
So this week I have needed to repeat my mantra of “independent scholarship means freedom!” I have the freedom to write about whatever I want (and I am). I also have the freedom of not caring about how successful I am within the realm of academic publishing. It would be nice to publish an article in a top-tier journal since I want to share my research, but the success of my current work life, which I love, does not depend on it. I have many options available to me, and it is foolish and unproductive to hang my hopes on the same unrealistic standards of academic performance that I found oppressive just a few years ago.
Being an independent scholar, as I am discovering, is not as easy as I would like it to be. And it isn’t because of any institutional barriers; it has everything to do with the way I approach success and failure. Thankfully, this latest bout of self-doubt has been brief. Surrounded by the positive community I’ve found in SF fandom, the happy clients for whom I work, and an ever increasing list of cool independent scholarly projects, I am already coming back with a renewed sense of confidence and purpose. Now all I really need to do is reschedule those ridiculous deadlines ...
Back in March, I wrote a guest blog entry over at PhD2Published for their series on the pros and cons of publishing your thesis online (read those posts here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). For myself, the central issue in the discussion was accessibility. If you fancy yourself a "public intellectual," (a phrase that irks me - but that's a rant for another time), I think that you should be doing your best to make your work publicly accessible - with no strings (i.e. paid firewall, university membership) attached. My post follows:
When I finished my PhD in English Literature in 2010, I also said good-bye to the ivory tower. Frustrated with the current funding and work environment of academia (in North America), I set out on my own – and I took my dissertation with me. While my committee members encouraged me to consider publishing my thesis the old-fashioned way, I felt like it wasn’t the right option for me. Instead, I decided to publish my dissertation in pdf format and make it freely available on my professional blog to anyone interested in reading it.
At first, I was slightly worried that someone might plagiarize my work, but after a minute of thought, I remembered that nothing stops students who want to plagiarize from doing so, regardless of the medium of the text. With confidence, I made my thesis available on my blog. It shows up in relevant Google searches and I have repeatedly shared the link over email and Twitter with people who share my research and reading interests.
I share my thesis online because: (1) I believe that publicly funded work (like my Canadian graduate education) should be publicly accessible; and, (2) as an independent scholar who studies feminist and cyberpunk science fiction, I want to easily share my work with the science fiction fan community.
When I state that I believe academic work should be accessible, I mean it in all aspects of the word. I put in a good deal of effort into writing my thesis in language that can be followed by non-academic readers, so putting my thesis online is a natural extension of my dedication to open research and communication.
My PhD thesis is available on ProQuest through the university where I studied, but access to that database is still limited to people with university library access or who are willing and able to pay. Since I don’t believe that anyone should have to pay to read my thesis, simply having it available on academic marketed sites like ProQuest is not a good enough solution to accessibility.
My thesis was a labour of love and passion for the subject matter. I want to share the knowledge I gained with as many interested individuals as I can. Admittedly, I also enjoy operating outside of the formal academic system. Science fiction, particularly the feminist science fiction of my interest, has generally been a marginalized field of study, so it felt right to pursue a more marginal and independent approach to publishing my dissertation.
One of my goals as an independent scholar is to connect with fans in the vibrant and diverse science fiction community. If my thesis was only available through one university and a pay-to-read internet platform, then most fans are not going to read it (or even know that it exists). While I could have arguably sought out a publisher to reach this fan audience, I am also aware that “free” and “online” appeal to far more readers. And it has.
It’s All Good
It has almost been a year since I made my thesis available online and the response I have received has been overwhelmingly positive. Many people – some are academics, some are science fiction fans – have emailed or tweeted me about my thesis. Most of the comments I get are “thanks for sharing” or specific nerdy questions about something I’ve written. To date, I can’t think of one drawback from having my thesis online. Not a single one. I don’t intend on applying for an academic position, nor am I pursuing independent scholarship for financial gain. For me, there is simply is no downside to having my thesis online.
A dear friend of mine – who also has a PhD – has begun thinking through her next career transition. Towards the end of her degree, she did what many people do: started a family. While she has been working in a research support position at a university for the past few years, she confided to me recently that she is interested in finding other employment. Naturally, her first thoughts have turned to applying for professorships as she is still very much interested in researching and teaching in some capacity. Of course, give the difficulties of the academic job market, this has created a certain amount of stress.
I proposed to her that she might satisfy her desire to engage with those academic job skills in other forums. Her response, like so many other Humanities PhDs coming out of the broken system, was: “But I don’t know what else is out there.” I told her that I would put together some advice, so she can start exploring the many career options – as a sole proprietor or as a member of an already established business – that are available to smart, creative, and hardworking people like ourselves. I realized while composing the email to her that this would make a useful blog post for those PhDs, who, like my friend, have been out of grad school for a few years, are raising children, working unsatisfying jobs, and are now wondering where their degrees can take them.
Identify Your Work Interests
First off, identify what is that you want to do. What is it that you miss about being in academia? Equally important, think through all of the things that frustrated you about being in academia too. Resist the temptation to nostalgize your experience of higher education. Be specific in your answers. For example, if you say that you miss teaching, do you mean that you miss lecturing or is it that you miss working one-on-one with a student? By clearly defining the elements of work that you are interested in pursuing further, the easier it will be to figure out what kind of job position will fulfill your aspirations.
Create Your Dream Job Title
Second, come up with your ideal job title. If you are stuck for ideas, I recommend joining a business networking site like LinkedIn and perusing the job titles that people use there. Many professionals allow anyone to view their page, so you can also get a good idea of their past work experience and education. Don’t worry if your own history differs – part of the transition process from academia to the wider-world of work is learning to how to translate your existing skills into language that the business community will understand. The point of this exercise is to expose you to the possibilities of work that exist for you. Dare to dream big – remember, you are more than researching and writing!
Networking is fairly key to landing yourself a new position or establishing yourself in the market (if you choose to go the sole proprietor route). Get on social media. Use LinkedIn (it’s free and easy). Twitter is particularly useful for making quick and painless contacts with people in the field you want to work in (and they often will post links to articles about their professional community). Set up “informational interviews” at businesses that you want to learn more about – sometimes an informational interview can even lead to a job, but its practical benefit is getting you out of the house and connecting with an established professional to whom you can ask questions. Also, learn what networking events are going on in your city and attend them. Most large communities have innovation centres that assist entrepreneurs get their businesses going – approach them for resources and contacts. Get some business cards - they don’t need to be fancy, just make sure your contact information is on them (and that job title your after, i.e. if you want to be an copy writer, put “copy writer” or “freelance copy writer” on your card).
Take Risks and Believe in Yourself
For most people, transitioning into a new job is scary. For those who have been in academia for most of their adult life, it can be difficult to picture yourself doing other kinds of work. But it is totally possible. Talk to people. Be straightforward about your career aspirations. Reach out to old contacts and ask for references and referrals. Speak positively about yourself and recognize the small successes (from making a new networking contact to landing your first client or interview). Remember that there is no one way to a career – many people take different paths to end up in the same place. If you can survive the PhD process, you can survive (and succeed in) the job search!
One of the greatest challenges that I face in my professional career today is finding and maintaining self-confidence. After years of struggling to meet the increasingly impossible standards of excellence in an institutionalized system of learning and work (also known as academia), my confidence is still, at times, shaky. Finishing my PhD while poor and chronically ill was an exercise in endurance (both mentally and physically). I emerged from academia feeling deeply disenfranchised with the university and doubting my ability to make the right decisions for myself. The years of failed grant applications, combined with my feelings of academic isolation, resulted in a level of self-confidence that wobbled at even a hint of perceived failure or unexpected difficulty. While I am secure in my abilities most days, there are still stretches of time where my confidence is merely a thin veneer on a sea of uncertainty and self-doubt.
I haven’t really been aware at how deeply my self-confidence had been shaken and misshaped by my time in academia. My self-doubt and uncertainty quietly crept into all aspects of my life. Last week, I was in the process of buying a membership to the SFRA and I had stopped myself, thinking “I should ask Andrew (my partner) first.” It suddenly struck me how ridiculous and unnecessary that was – I had been asking for permission for so many small things. I finally appreciated Andrew’s numerous pleas to stop asking him if I could put cereal/cookies/fruit/etc. in our cart at the grocery store. I had been embarrassing the man for months on end – it really doesn’t look good when an adult woman asks the man she’s with if she can get a loaf of bread.
I realized that I had unconsciously transferred the authority of the university system to my partner (and yes, the feminist-me is completely weirded out by that!). Without the comforting rules and procedures of higher education, I was searching for someone/something else to fill that role for me. Part of the reason why I am so happy now as an independent academic is because I don’t have to check with anybody else about what I’m doing – there are no proposals or meetings about my research and what I want to do with it. I like that freedom, but it is still sometimes scary to actually carry out. While I no longer have to organize committee meetings, I also don’t have a set group of mentors either.
Working for myself, then, has been a completely new challenge that has required me to reflect on not only how I work, but, more importantly, how I see myself as a worker. I always have thought of myself as strongly independent, but now that I am outside of an organized work community, I can see how much I have relied on other people to direct me (from simply meeting deadlines to figuring out a work schedule). Relearning to think of myself as an autonomous individual from the academy is a long and on-going process. For at least six months after my defense and submission, I thought of myself as a “new PhD.” When asked what I was doing now that I was done with my studies, I answered, “well, I just finished my PhD, so ….” Not much followed those initial words. In the sense that a good deal of my life revolved around the PhD process in work and social spheres, I was the PhD. I certainly am not unique in this case, but I haven’t found a lot of other people talking about this ego encompassing (eclipsing?) aspect of being in academia.
I have largely rebuilt my self-confidence and every week I get better at celebrating the small successes that indicate I am indeed on the right track. My partner is happier now that we can go grocery shopping without strangers giving him the side-eye and I am far more willing to venture into unfamiliar work territories. I think that the hardest part of transitioning away from academia has been having to reconceptualize what constitutes work and success – and, if the past few months are any indication, I’m doing just fine on my own. Now to work on patience ...
It is now a smidgen over a year since I defended my PhD thesis last September. I cannot believe how much change has happened (and most of it within the past three months). When I started writing for this blog, I was still dealing with my feelings of shame, fear, and failure. While it is certainly true that I still have moments of self-doubt, I no longer feel like I failed at academia. It has taken me a year to fully appreciate the depth of my unhappiness as a graduate student. I love the work of it (researching, teaching, and critical thinking), but I am not suited to the pressured environment of academe.
In retrospect, it is easy to understand how I believed that academia was the place for me. From the time I started kindergarten, school was a place of guaranteed attention and praise. The better I did at schoolwork, the nicer the teacher was to me. As I grew older, I figured out the most efficient ways to earn high grades and esteem. I was lucky that school skills came easily to me and I earnestly enjoyed learning. Moving on to university after high school was a natural progression. As an undergrad, it took me a couple of semesters to relearn the expectations and standards of work, but once I did, I again was in the sweet spot of “A’s and praise” that any high achiever knows and desires.
Approaching the end of my undergrad career, I really didn’t have any idea of where I was heading once I was finished. Then, in my final semester, the professor of an elective English course I was taking suggested that I apply for grad school. I can honestly say that I never considered pursuing an MA or PhD until then. In fact, I distinctly remember looking at the number of years involved in obtaining a PhD and thinking it absolutely ridiculous that anyone would stay in school for that long. I am practical person, but when I heard the words “you would make a great graduate student,” I forgot about all of my earlier reservations. With just that one phrase and resulting ego-boost, all my uncertainty about life after undergrad disappeared: I was going to grad school.
And in many ways, grad school was an amazing experience. I moved away from home and discovered that I adored living in Hamilton (which, I will admit, was a total surprise). I made friends who I now consider family. I fell in love. My mind was opened to new ways of thinking and being. I became a more patient, more open person. These experiences, however, were not dependent on my being in academia. Part of the problem, I realize now, is that I conflated being happy with my personal life with being in graduate school. Leaving academia, then, became an incredibly scary proposition: if I left, who and where would I be?
It turns out that I am actually far happier outside of the ivory tower than within it. This is still a shock. I always thought of myself as someone well-suited to institutions with their clear hierarchies and achievement levels. In hindsight, I simply did not have enough experience to know that I could excel elsewhere. The non-academic jobs I had while in undergrad were all office-work centered. I hated being in an office environment, doing the grunt work like data entry and cold calls. In my limited knowledge of the work world, I thought I had to choose between a cubicle and a classroom. Seeing that the classroom environment was far more engaging and rewarding than the cubicle, I could only imagine myself working for a university. Of course, once I was a grad student, the whole professionalization process took care of the rest of my career plans for me: MA, PhD, post-doc, sessional work, and finally, a tenure-track position. It was all laid out for me … and as I neared the end of the PhD, I began to feel trapped and resentful.
Leaving academia at the end of my PhD was difficult in a myriad of ways, but despite all the emotional turmoil, fall-out depression, and chronic pain caused by constant stress, I felt free. Free to pursue any job I wanted and free to reimagine myself as something other than “student.” I guess the point of this post is this: being in school from the ages of 5 to 30 stunted my ability to imagine myself in different work environments. I never had a guidance counselor in high school and I neglected to use the career services offered by my undergraduate university. It wasn’t until I finally left university that I began to do the hard work of asking myself: what do I want? If I had stayed in academia, I would be living a life that was familiar, but deeply unsatisfying. Outside of the academy, I no longer have a set career path ahead of me – and I actually like it this way. I feel like I am becoming something greater than what I was, than what I thought I could be. For the first time in my life, I have no clue what the next year will bring … and that is so damn exciting!