Displaying items by tag: career

I am writing again after a back-injury kept me away from my desk for over 2 weeks. During my recovery period, I had a lot of time to do some reflection on the past few years. As part of that process, my thoughts naturally turned to my time in graduate school and to the decisions that I made about leaving. I have no regrets, except I do wish that I had been able to evoke more change to the PhD process while I was there. Even now, over a year out, I still find myself composing talking points about ways to change the PhD system to make it easier for graduates to transition into non-academic jobs when they done with their degrees (because, once again, an academic job is a fading reality for the vast majority of PhDs these days).

Usually, I address both graduate students and faculty, but this time, I want to engage solely with the faculty members who supervise and teach graduate students. For the system to change, both students and faculty need to work together. Here are 5 simple ways that graduate faculty can help their MA and PhD students transition into the larger world of non-academic work:

1. Set up a LinkedIn profile. Networking is one of the most valuable tools for anyone looking for a new career. LinkedIn is free, easy to use and manage. After spending a decade or more in higher education earning their degrees, many PhDs do not have an extensive list of networking contacts. If faculty join – and connect with as many academic and non-academic professionals that they know – they can then provide valuable potential contacts for informational interviews, job offers, and career support.

2. Follow-up with the new MA/PhD grad at 6 months from degree completion. Reconnecting with a past graduate student only requires a quick email. Not only will the grad be reminded of the support that faculty might provide them (i.e. networking, letters of recommendation), it will provide faculty with a clearer picture of where their grads are ending up post-degree.

3. Announce graduate non-academic successes. I’ve said this before, but changing the discourse of what constitutes career success for PhDs is essential. In departmental meetings, faculty need to take the time to share with their colleagues the new jobs/career developments of their past students. If all the talk remains focused on only the academic placements of grads, then a closed environment will remain (which is damaging to graduate students, most who face a substantial period of unemployment at the end of their degrees).

4. Talk to current graduate students about their future plans. While this bit of advice might seem like a no-brainer, I have met many new PhDs who were completely unprepared to leave academia. Their supervisors never had a sustained conversation with them about what to expect upon completion of their degree. Many grad students are anxious about what awaits them after their defense, so faculty need to take the lead in starting the conversation of “what’s next.” Just by being open to talking about non-academic jobs will help ease some of the grad student’s anxiety – and if their supervisor is on a networking site like LinkedIn, they can at least start the process of networking for themselves.

5. Be familiar with the Career Services offered by the university. Obviously, faculty cannot be career counsellors themselves, but they should know exactly where to send their graduate students to find the advice and career support that they might need. If faculty are uncomfortable or feel unequipped to discuss non-academic careers with their students, then knowing the name of the career counsellor who specializes in working with MA and PhD students is the next responsible option. Faculty should openly encourage their students to make use of whatever career resources (seminars, networking events, etc.) the university has to offer.

I appreciate that graduate faculty are often overworked and overly stressed themselves, but I do believe that, just as they have a responsibility to support their graduate students in developing academic skills, they must also be conscientious of the dismal state of the current academic job market and help their MAs/PhDs transition into a non-academic job as required. Each of the 5 pieces of advice I offer above require little investment in terms of time and energy – and the potential rewards to students are substantial. If you have tenure and work with graduate students, you are in a privileged position – it is your professional responsibility to aide the next generation of MA/PhDs in finding their own paths to success.

Published in Kathryn Allan's Blog
Tuesday, 08 November 2011 19:48

Confidence in Transition

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 ...

Published in Kathryn Allan's Blog

I haven’t had a lot of time available for writing and scholarly projects this past month – other work commitments (aka. my job) kept me from pursuing all of my SF and academic interests. It has totally sucked. Like many other things during my transition from PhD student to self-employed independent scholar, the depth of that suckiness has caught me by surprise. I don’t think that there was ever a time in my entire graduate education that I lamented: “I want to write but I have no time!” Instead, I rued the fact that I had to write, when I wanted to be doing just about anything else. Yet, here I am, absolutely thrilled to be finally have the time to focus on writing.

Yesterday, Julie Clarenbach (from Escape the Ivory Tower) interviewed me for a podcast she does for University Affairs magazine. I won’t give away any of the exciting details of our conversation – you’ll just have to wait for the podcast to air – but she did ask me about what it was like to be a scholar without a university affiliation. My answer was somewhere along the lines of “it’s awesome” and I started thinking about all the small (mis)steps and successes that I’ve experienced in the process of establishing myself as an independent academic. As I have yet to meet another person who also identifies her/himself as an independent scholar, I am totally making up it up as I go. I admit to feeling daunted, at first, by the “University Affiliation” field required for all academic article and conference submissions. Now, though, I have Independent SF Scholar proudly printed on my business card. Yeah! Here are some of my thoughts on how to turn into a successful “university of one:”

Identify the audience for your work. When you are in academia, the audience for your work is a given –the other 5 people in your field. Well, okay, maybe there are more than 5 interested readers (10?), but the relevant journals and conferences for your particular field of study are obvious. When you are an independent academic, however, you should be looking for audiences that exist outside of academe as well. For example, as an SF scholar, I have been integrating myself into the well established community of SF fandom. Large fan-driven conventions are excellent places to present your ideas and engage with other people interested in whatever obscure thing your dissertation was on. Trust me – far more people from SF fandom have read my thesis than people within academia. And, what’s even better, they tell me and give me compliments and ask questions (huge thanks!).

It is a great feeling to know that my years of research into feminist post-cyberpunk have not gone to waste. More than that, non-academic conferences are usually quite happy to have an academic speaker presenting a paper or included on a panel. Since a non-academic conference holds little weight on an academic CV, there are not a lot of academics willing to attend them. If you are going to be an independent scholar, engage with reading groups, cultural centres, and organizations that you think might be interested in talking with you and discussing your work.

Rethink what “being published” means. As a rule, the more prestigious the academic journal, the more impressed your department will be with your CV. Well, as an independent scholar, the name on the journal does not matter as much. In fact, I will even go so far as to suggest that you place academic journals lower on the scale of “good places to publish” if want to be a successful independent academic. Again, it goes back to the question of audience. For myself, I want as many people as possible to read my work and talk about my research. Getting a paper in an academic peer-reviewed journal is fine, but the potential number of people I can reach is limited. Plus, by the time my pithy article deconstructing race in the Smurfs* reboot comes to press, my attention – and that of my ideal audience – will have moved on.

While I have only been working at establishing my cred as an independent SF scholar for 6 months, I already have several publications on the go in various kinds of media (i.e. a freelance article for a well-known magazine, blog posts, an edited book collection, and a paper for 2011’s WorldCon). Considering that I was entirely unpublished as a graduate student, I am still impressed/surprised by the scope and success of my current output. I even recently received my first unsolicited invitation to an academic conference! Without the same pressures and stressors that attend the academic publishing process, I can be more creative and, as a result, I am finding lots of cool places to publish my work (and some of them even pay!).

Have exceptional self-motivation and self-discipline. If you are someone who needs your supervisor prodding at you to meet a deadline, being an independent scholar is probably not for you. When you are a university of one, you are only responsible to yourself. If you don’t care about the deadline for your article on zombies, who will? No one. Your great idea about how zombies are a modern day metaphor for the obesity epidemic will never make it public. If you are, however, a self-motivated learner who can stick to self-made deadlines, this is the ideal low-paying second job for you!

For myself, I do have excellent self-discipline in setting and making deadlines for my research and writing projects. Since I cannot devote all my working time to scholarly work, this means that I carefully set aside dedicated days for research/writing. Now, going to the library is a reward for having completed a client’s project (and not a procrastination technique). Being outside of academe means that you will probably feel isolated in your research at times. I say, turn that outsider mentality to your benefit. As an independent academic, you set the standards and pace for your work. You have the freedom to research, write, and publish whatever it is that interests you, without the worry of how it will impact tenure applications or the kinds of classes and grad students you have to take on.

- - -

While in grad school, I remember I used to laugh about the prospect of becoming an independent academic because it seemed like an existence as likely, and about as common, as a unicorn. I am still figuring out my niche in the world, but it is becoming clearer to me by the day that my heart still is an academic one. If I am not deeply engaged with critical work, I am miserable. Of course, like most people, I need a break from academic thinking and this is where I find balance with my “day job” (editing for academic and professional clients). For months now, I relish the breaks in between client projects – that is the time for me to indulge in the latest novel by my favourite feminist SF author, attend a conference (when scant finances permit), or write about the never-ending awesomeness that is cyberpunk. Being an independent scholar, for me, is about exercising my unique skill set and knowledge in order to become a contributing (and hopefully, one day, an influential) member in a larger public community of shared interest. As a university of one, my future looks bright and brainy.


*Have not actually seen the Smurfs movie nor written about. No money in the world would be enough to sit through that monstrosity of a "film." *Shudder*

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