#alt-ac · altac · flexible academic · grad school · jobs · PhD

Oh, The Things You Can Do (with a PhD)!

Can you believe it’s already the middle of January? As we race full speed ahead to the end of another academic year, lots of soon-to-be finished graduate students are thinking about what comes next. My latest article for Chronicle Vitae shares some strategies for identifying the skills you develop during graduate school and translating them into the language of job postings, which can help you identify the kinds of jobs you can and might want to do:

Employers might not be looking for experts on 19th-Century French literature or CRISPR-Cas9. But they are looking for people who can speak and write effectively, process and communicate high volumes of complex information, create project plans and see them through, work with (and for) a wide variety of people, identify gaps (in knowledge, processes, understanding) and propose how to fix them. Ph.D.s learn how to do all of those things, and much more. 

Check out the full article over at Chronicle Vitae!

Original image: Oh, the Thinks You Can Think!, by Dr. Seuss
#post-ac · administration · change · dissertation · flexible academic · grad school · PhD · possibility · research · research planning · September · writing

Firsts and Lasts

This post marks a big last and a significant first for me. While I’ve been Hook & Eye’s de-facto alt-ac voice for the last few years, I’ve also continued, along with Boyda and Jana, to write about the trials and tribulations of grad school. My last trial–the big one, the defense–is happening tomorrow, and so this is my last post as a graduate student.

It’s been a long road since my “I quit” post back in the fall of 2013, when I took my first full-time academic administrative job. I’m in a different job now, one that has given me the time and mental space I needed to finish my dissertation. After a long period of uncertainty about the value of finishing my PhD, I’m still having a hard time believing that I’ve done it. I’m nervous about tomorrow, despite the many reassurances of friends and committee members. I spend most of my time developing professional skills curriculum, administering research funding, and writing policy, not reading theory or publishing articles. In doing my job, I’ve learned how to explain my research to people far outside my field. I’ve learned to feel confident walking into a room and sharing what I know regardless of who is in it. I’ve learned to identify what my research can tell us about the persistent gendered inequalities of Canadian academic and literary communities and how we might address them. But I’m nervous about being questioned by a room full of people who are full-time academics, who swim in those intellectual currents in a way that I no longer do. I’m also looking forward to spending time talking about a project that I care deeply about with smart people who care about my work, and about me. Now that the day is almost here, that alone seems like a pretty great reason to have committed to finishing my dissertation. The added credibility I’ll have at work is a nice bonus.

My defense tomorrow also means that this fall is a first for me.  It’s the first fall since I was four years old that I’m not going back to school. If I wasn’t already three years down a career path that I anticipate staying on, I might find facing this new beginning scary. But I went through the difficult transition that many PhDs who move into alt-ac and post-ac careers face back when I took my first administrative job. I’m instead looking forward to this first fall, and the year that follows, as a time to experiment with what life as a scholar-administrator could look like now that I can shape my research trajectory however I please.

I’m not really a new breed of researcher, although it sometimes feels like I am. Ever since the academy began producing more PhDs than it could employ–since always, basically–there have been those of us who have moved outside of the professoriate and yet continued to pursue research. The increasing casualization of the professoriate means that there are fewer and fewer people whose job it is to research, and more and more people like me who pursue research but make our money in other ways. We have the desire, the expertise, and the time to remain active researchers while we work in other careers. There’s great freedom in that, for the quest for tenure and grant funding as often blights research creativity and experimentation as it enhances it. I’m going to be using the blog this year to write through the process of crafting a research practice outside of the professoriate. At the same time, I’ll be writing through the process of crafting a life that makes space for multiple identities as administrator, researcher, creative writer, consultant, editor, cook, partner, and more.

Later this month I’ll be starting a new series of posts on transforming my dissertation into a book and live-blogging the process of getting it published. I’ll be continuing the alt-ac 101 series for people who are looking to move into non-professorial jobs or who advise people who are. I’ll also be writing about equity issues in and out of the academy, especially those relating to graduate studies and postdoctoral work. I’m also going to practice what I preach to my students about working to share our research beyond the bounds of the academy by blogging about my dissertation, especially the parts that look at gender bias and rape culture in Canadian literary and academic communities in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.

If you’ve just found us, welcome! And if you’re an old friend, welcome back. It’s good to be back here with you.

careers · flexible academic · grad school · moving

Guest Post: On feeling lonely and homesick

I recently left my steady job in university administration, my lovely flat and my favourite people behind to move across Europe to become the impoverished full-time PhD candidate I had dreamed of becoming ever since I began my doctoral studies. As long as I can remember, I’ve felt content with being by myself. I used to love the weekends alone at home, travelling on my own and spending some quality time at the library with none other than moi. Loneliness wasn’t a concept that made any sense to me.

The last time I can recall that I felt properly overwhelmed by a feeling of homesickness was probably when I was eleven years old and begging my mum to take me back home with her instead of dropping me off at summer camp. And there I was sixteen years on. In a room barely furnished smelling of cat pee, a city I had never been to, and worst of all (and this would send anyone over the edge), the Wi-Fi wasn’t working properly.

During these first few days, I felt as if I was floating through space with no sense of time or direction. I saw my entire future laid out in front of me: I’d never have friends again, I’d spend all of my days alone, I’d be constantly freaked out, never finish my thesis and eventually move back home where I’d remain unhappily ever after because of the opportunities I missed out on. It also made scared of the time post PhD – the what-the-hell-have-I-done-I-think-I’m-having-a-heart-attack kind of scared.

This move was supposed to make my life easier and not create a completely new set of paralysing problems. It made me seriously question whether this was a lifestyle I could sustain in the long run and I pictured myself having to go through this process over and over again when all I wanted was to pull the duvet over my head and never face the world again.

Very dramatic, I know. Fast forward: it’s now a few months into my relocation and I don’t spend all of my time alone. While I still struggle occasionally, I feel that I’m going to be just fine.

Here’s a few things that have helped me, and continue to help me:

It’s ok

It’s ok to feel whatever you feel. It’s ok to feel overwhelmed, helpless, sad, frustrated, freaked out, scared, worried, angry and out of place. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It doesn’t mean you’re weak. Accept that your subconscious is complicated and while you think you’re ready, she might need extra time to adjust to the new environment. Be kind to yourself, have a nice meal, take a bubble bath, binge watch Netflix, buy lots of nail polish (guilty!), re-read your favourite book, call your friends and family – whatever floats your boat.

Be relatively organised

If you’re anything like me, you like to plan ahead and organise your life. While this is generally a good idea, because it might give you a sense of agency and security (it did for me), you might also run the risk of feeling completely overwhelmed by the eternity that is your future. Step by step. I tried to come up with a rough plan for the year (dates for chapter submissions, conferences and trips home) but apart from that I’m taking it week by week.

Be active

Force yourself to go outside, to do and see things. Explore your new surroundings, check out art galleries, museums and cafés. Do some exercise; endorphins are not to be underestimated.

Also show an active interest in your colleagues at work. You’re new (which sucks at times), so it’s very much up to to you to take initiative to form new alliances and remind people that you exist. Everyone is busy, so don’t let an apparent lack of interest in your person discourage you from approaching fellow students/staff members. I can’t stress enough how important real life contacts are.

Be realistic

You’re not going to be able to re-create your own life immediately and neither should you feel you have to. Pace yourself and accept that it might take a little while to find people you like hanging out with. In the meantime, cherish these precious first weeks of novelty and find a way to turn them into a generative and productive force for your own work – it might just be the fresh perspective you’ve been waiting for!

Be the light for someone else

I cannot help but think that this is the most important of all of my points. Do your best to move on from your initial feeling of complete and utter instability but don’t forget what it felt like. Let it humble you and make you more understanding of and kind to others who find themselves in similar situations. If you see someone who is new and struggling, offer your help, have a cup of coffee together and you in turn will also be one step closer to building a new social network.

You’ve got this!

Veronika Schuchter is a Visiting Scholar at Nottingham Trent University (UK) where her doctoral research on contemporary women’s writing is supported by the Austrian Ministry of Science. When she’s not busy being a feminist killjoy, she enjoys painting her nails, writing postcards and jumping into puddles.

#alt-ac · #alt-ac 101 · #post-ac · careers · flexible academic · jobs

The #Alt-Ac Job Search 101: Identifying and Describing Transferable Skills

While you’re starting to get a sense of what you might want to be doing as a job, whether it’s through self-assessment or informational interviews, you’re also going to want to start getting a sense of the places where your skills match up well with the ones required by positions or fields that you’re interested in. Doing that seems like an easy task–just compare the skills you developed in all the various aspects of your PhD to the ones listed in the job description.

Except that it’s not easy, at least not at first.

We don’t tend to talk about skills in the PhD, unless you’re an administrator like me, and then sometimes that’s all we seem to talk about. The course outcomes for graduate courses tend to be knowledge based, not skill based–learn a new field or subfield, not a new set of skills. And unless we have really extraordinary course directors, or a supportive teaching centre offering training, the vast majority of us aren’t being taught how to identify the skills we develop in the classroom either. This reluctance to teach PhDs to identify the skills they’re developing while they develop them is compounded by the often myopic perspective on what the skills developed in graduate school are for–often, they’re only imagined as being good for use on the tenure-track. So even if we are able to identify some of the skills we’re developing, we often have trouble seeing the places where those skills could be put to use in other careers.

The good news is that these problems are very solvable, and quickly, too. All it tends to take, for a lot of people, is having someone translate the things they do regularly as a graduate student into the language of skills and competencies. This is an exercise I do often with PhDs in the context of professional development workshops or career transition coaching: I have them list the things they do all the time to me, and then I repeat back those same things, but in the language of skills, the language that shows up on job postings and in resumes. I’ll give some examples below, using the job description for my current role as an example of the language in which skills might be translated.

Things I did in the PhD
Job Skills
Teaching tutorials and giving conference papers
superior oral … communication skills,” “tact and diplomacy,” “public speaking skills”
Founding and managing a peer-reviewed online journal; co-coordinating my department’s annual colloquium; taking a lead role on my program’s steering and social committees
excellent organizational, planning and coordination skills,” “demonstrated ability to exercise initiative,” “strong leadership and team building skills”
Writing articles and papers
superior … written communication skills”
Leading tutorials and sitting on department tenure and promotion committees
effective interpersonal and public relations skills,” “tact and diplomacy,” “discretion and [ability to] maintain confidentiality”
Researching and writing a dissertation
strong research and analytical skills,” “articulating and assimilating complex information,” “computer proficiency”
Writing scholarship applications and project reports
excellent report and proposal preparation skills”

All of the language in the right-hand column is taken directly from the position posting for my current job. And I didn’t skip any–the skills the posting asked for were all skills that I’d developed during my graduate training. I just needed to learn how to think about what I did in the PhD in terms of skills and expertise. Admittedly, my job is in academic administration, which might make you think that the skill set needed is skewed more closely toward what we develop in the PhD. That is true, a little, but I’ve recently done this same exercise with people looking for jobs in wholly different fields from academia, and it still works. Employers might not looking for people who are experts in 19th century French literature. But they are looking for people with communication skills, with the ability to process and communicate to others high volumes of complex information, with the ability to create project plans and see them through, with the ability to work with and for a wide variety of people. PhDs learn how to do all of those things, and often much more.

If you’re having a hard time figuring out or describing your transferable skills, here’s what I suggest: if you’ve already done a couple of informational interviews, go back to your notes and see what kinds of skills your interviewees identified as most important. Write them out, then look to your experiences in the PhD and see in what part of your graduate training you developed those skills. If you don’t have a sense yet of what skills might be important to a field you’re interested in, or you’re still exploring fields and positions to see what might be a good fit, you can do this in reverse: identify the skills you developed during your graduate training, and then look at lists like this one find positions or fields that are looking for those skills.

Finally, I’d like to say one thing to anyone reading this who is starting to think about non-professorial careers but still believes, deep down, that being a professor is all that they’re cut out to do: it’s not true, not even a little, despite the fact that the culture of academia leads you to believe it is. For some people, that belief–along with a genuine love of the job–is what keeps them in precarious employment situations like those that have precipitated the ongoing strikes at York, University of Toronto, and UNBC. But being a flexible academic is far less about acquiring new skills than it is about identifying the ones you already have. So get to it!