Try on Someone Else’s Life

In a recent post on Chronicle Vitae, I talk about reframing how we think about informational interviews. Rather than as a transactional form of networking, what if we thought about them as a series of prototype conversations (an idea I borrow from the excellent book Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life) that let us iteratively imagine our way to the right post-PhD career? 

After a series of these life-design conversations, Evans and Burnett argue, you will eventually have prototyped your way to a career (and a life) that feels right to you. You'll sit down with someone, and find that imagining doing what they do — living how they live — feels … right. You'll have landed on the career path you want to pursue in earnest.

Even better, all of this life-design interviewing will have given you what you need to make that life real:

1. The skills to build a network and enter the hidden job market.

2. Information about how people moved into the field that you can use to craft your own entrance.

3. And an understanding of how the industry works that you can deploy when applying and interviewing for jobs

Catch the rest of the article, and my advice on how and why set up as many prototype conversations as you can, over at Chronicle Vitae

Going Back to Pen and Paper

It's not so long ago that I finished the revisions to my dissertation and submitted the final version--not even six months. And I developed a very structured and consistent writing practice during the years I was finishing it, one that relied entirely on technology. Because I wrote in short bursts in multiple locations--at home before work, on my lunch at work, in transit--I relied heavily on the ability of my Macbook, iPad, and iPhone to sync seamlessly so that I could write on anything, from anywhere, and (because I keep all of my research backed up to Google Drive) access my research at the same time.

But after I submitted my dissertation and tried to apply the writing practice I'd developed to other projects, and even to old ones--I'm writing fiction, working on the book proposal for my dissertation monograph, publishing articles with Chronicle Vitae and Inside Higher Ed, putting together three separate book chapters, and of course writing here--I failed. I'd sit down at the computer and come up empty. The white vastness of a blank Word document was paralyzing. My old strategy--sit at computer, write things--no longer worked.

But I had a thought. About halfway through 2016, I decided to abandon my 100% digital task- and time-management system (Todoist + Google/Outlook calendars) and go back using a physical planner/journal. I'd been pseudo bullet journalling for a long time before I decided to move digital, and so I went back to it in a slightly different form, using the awesome Hobonichi Techo Cousin planner, plus a Rhodia notebook for longer notes, lists, and my cooking and reading journals. (Yes, I'm a planner geek. But if you're into "bujo," as the kids call it these days, or into fountain pens and good paper, you know that Hobonichis and Rhodias are awesome.) I'd also been gifted a couple of gorgeous entry-level fountain pens (a lime green Twsbi Diamond 780 and a gold Pilot Metropolitan, for those of you who like pens) as graduation presents. And I found that I really loved the tactility of planning and recording my days on paper. The feeling of a super smooth fountain pen nib on Rhodia paper is really nice, and writing on paper is physically and visually pleasurable in a way that makes me want to find something to write just for the fun of seeing the bold black lines of my handwriting against the white sheet. Too, I loved the way that handwriting slowed and controlled my thoughts, narrowed my focus only to the words I was thinking and placing on the page before me.

The Galen leather cover + Hobonichi Techo + Twsbi combo that I use for my day-to-day planning and journalling.. Image credit: Galen Leather. 

The Galen leather cover + Hobonichi Techo + Twsbi combo that I use for my day-to-day planning and journalling.. Image credit: Galen Leather. 

So I picked up a big Rhodia notebook and began working out my ideas for those bigger writing projects on paper. Articles for IHE and Chronicle Vitae that I'd been stuck on streamed out. I didn't even need to write out the whole piece for the move to paper to be effective--handwriting got me over the hurdle of getting started and drafting the first few tricky paragraphs, and I could then outline the rest and type it up fast. Same goes for my book proposal--I was stuck until I put pen to paper--and all of my recent Hook & Eye posts, which I've entirely handwritten. I'm working toward drafting longer book chapters on paper, and to making this writing practice as sustainable as the old one was for me--I had to take a bit of a break after finishing my dissertation, but I'm ready to get back to the levels of writing productivity and consistency I had then, and indeed I'm nearly there.

Writing this post by hand on Rhodia gridded paper with one of my Pilot Metropolitan pens and Noodler's Ink in X-Feather. (I told you I was a geek.) 

Writing this post by hand on Rhodia gridded paper with one of my Pilot Metropolitan pens and Noodler's Ink in X-Feather. (I told you I was a geek.) 

If you know me, you know I'm all for new technology where it makes my life better or easier. I love my Chromecast and my iPhone and my wifi-enabled lightbulbs. But in this case, old technologies--the smooth glide of ink, the delicious curves of cursive, the stark contrast of soot-black ink on snowy white paper--serve me better and give me more pleasure. I'm on the lookout for other places in my life where that might also be the case: I still do a fair bit of digital reading, but I'm trying to spend more time with actual books. I'm all for a newfangled loaf of Jim Lahey's no knead bread, but I'm also baking sourdough with my own starter.

Just don't make me give up my Instant Pot.

We're Asking the Wrong Questions About PhDs - or Rather, We Aren't Asking Them Any Questions at All

When I interviewed for my current job, running graduate and postdoctoral career and professional development programming in a hospital-based research institute, we got onto the topic of alumni data tracking. My program had an exit survey on their website, one that suggested they were collecting contact information and checking in with PhDs in the years after they'd left our institution to see how and what they were doing. (It turns out that no one knew the form was there, and it hadn't been used in many years.) We then got to talking about program evaluation, one of my favourite subjects, and about how we could start assessing if the professional and career development work we were doing--if they hired me--was having any effect on the post-PhD lives of our graduate students and postdocs. 

"What we don't need to do," I argued in the interview, "is worry about the percentage of our alumni who get jobs after they leave us. In Canada, PhDs have the highest employment rates of any educational level. We know that PhDs get jobs after they graduate. What we don't know is how hard it is to find those jobs, how long it takes, if those jobs are fulfilling and pay well and use the skills we've worked to help them acquire. We don't know if the work we do teaching people how to develop their careers and transition into new fields works. The success of our programs can only be measured by our success in helping with all of those other things, because we can't take credit for PhD employment rates. They're great without us." 

That employment data wasn't what we needed, that we had it already and it told us something promising but frustratingly incomplete, was a bit of a revelation to the people who would become my new team, just as it is to the conference panels and PhDs and graduate chairs with whom I often share this bit of information. It shouldn't be a surprise--this is Statistics Canada data, after all, there for anyone to find and analyze (and, with the reinstatement of the long form census, being collected once again). But my organization is clearly not the only one to still think that employment data is the place we need to start in understanding the lives of our PhD alumni and the value of our programs, academic and otherwise. As Gary McDowell writes in Science this week, higher ed is still furiously mining for what he calls the fool's gold of PhD employment data. And what they find is fool's gold not only because it doesn't have much value, but also because it looks shiny but is tarnished at heart. In the US, the Survey of Earned Doctorates and Survey of Doctorate Recipients stands in for the StatsCan data that we tend to use up here, and like the StatsCan data, it tells us only so much. It tells us that PhDs are employed, and roughly where. But it doesn't tell us anything about the quality or nature of employment that PhDs are finding, and that is ultimately what we really need to know. 

As an alternative to census data, the other popular approach at the moment is the old "let's Google it," and that's the approach taken by HEQCO,* the Chronicle Vitae Academic Job Tracker project, and the American Historical Association. It's not a bad approach when done carefully and well, as it at least does allow us to see what specific jobs people in different disciplines are ending up and, if we have things like CV data, the path they took to get there. The better studies, like the AHA and Chronicle Vitae projects (both, not coincidentally, run by Lilli Research Group), limit their Googling to sources that are arguably accurate and verifiable.** But people lie on the internet all the time, or job titles are misleading (is that Assistant Professorship a visiting or a tenure-track one? No way to know from your vague university bio, and no one has bothered to ask you), or people just can't be found (this is especially true for people who move into non-academic employment).

And these data-collection exercises for the most part still don't tell us what we really need to know (or at least what I really want to know): What kind--in qualitative terms--of employment are PhDs finding? What was it like finding a job? How long did it take? How much did you make in that first job? Did it use the skills you gained in your PhD? How long did it take you to get your first raise? To get promoted? Did you do any career development workshops in your PhD? Did they make you feel more confident in embarking on your post-degree job search? What is your employer's perspective on hiring PhDs? And for those of us who work in graduate careers, professional development, support, graduate program reform: is our work doing anything? Are we helping people minimize the transition time between PhD and enjoyable, valuable employment that makes use of their skills? Are we reducing the emotional whiplash of being thrust out of the academy and into the non-academic working world? Do people feel confident in their ability to identify and deploy the skills they've learned in the classroom and the lab, in our seminars and in their own work to broaden and deepen their skill-sets? Are we doing anything at all? The TRaCE project running out of McGill University is taking steps in this direction, but major issues have already been raised with the validity of its approach and the data that comes out of it.*** 

The problem with seeking answers to these questions is the difficulty of reaching those who can answer them, and then making sense of those answers. Googling someone is easy. Reaching them by email or phone to ask those questions we want answered is far harder. It takes person-power and time and more money than any of us as individual organizations have. It also takes the buy-in of our PhDs, sometimes long after they've left our organizations, and that's the place where these exercises often fail. Figuring out a baseline against which to measure our efforts is perhaps just as difficult--how hard was it to find a good post-PhD job before we started offering graduate career development programs? Did our PhDs find good jobs faster after we launched that internship program? How do we qualify or quantify what "easier" or "better" or "better aligned to my skills" looks like? How do we adjust for the fact that PhDs and postdocs, who are underpaid and undervalued during their training, might think a first job a godsend that years later seems like ill-fitting, underpaid grunt-work? 

We don't need more employment data. Quantitative data is not what we need. Perhaps my humanist is showing, despite the fact that I now work almost exclusively with STEM researchers, but this is a qualitative research problem. What we do need is contact information and to talk to our PhD holders--actually talk to them, systematically and en masse so that our data is comprehensive and valid and comparable against that useful but incomplete quantitative data--and ask them those questions I noted above. I wish someone had called me up and asked me these a couple of years after I took my first post-PhD job. I could have told them a lot. Instead, I use my experience--and that of the PhDs I talk to, every day, at work and online--to try to do more, and do better. Still, that's anecdote, not data. We're never going to be able to do our best in helping PhDs to find well-paying, engaging places to put their knowledge and skills to work in the world if we don't start asking a whole lot of people the right questions. And start figuring out how to do that in a way that's sustainable. 

I'm in the midst of scoping out just this kind of project to be undertaken by the centre in which I work, and we're hopeful that, if we're smart and careful, we can come up with a model for PhD data collection that goes beyond the quantitative, and that uses qualitative data and its analysis not just to inform the work we do locally, but also to inform real change in how we go about the business of graduate and postdoctoral training more broadly. It's early days yet, but stay tuned.  

* For a useful take on the major issues with the HEQCO report, see Melonie Fullick's Speculative Diction post. Her post on the Conference Board of Canada report, which contains the most comprehensive analysis of PhD employment data collected via the Canadian census, is also interesting and illuminating. 

** Researchers at the University of Ottawa are also doing some interesting work with alumni records and tax data that looks promising in terms of answering the money part of these questions, but that again only gives us part of the picture. 

*** For a thorough critique of the TRaCE project, I direct you once again to Melonie Fullick

Ladies, Let's Negotiate

In a recent post on Chronicle Vitae, I talk about recent research on unconscious gender bias in negotiation, and what that means for how women might approach workplace negotiations. The research suggests that unconscious bias tends to make people give women who aggressively negotiate what they want, but with significant social penalties that may make working with the people they negotiated with more difficult. 


Negotiation is fraught for women in ways that it is not for men. And that has consequences for how much women are willing to negotiate — if at all. Many women don’t negotiate because they recognize, consciously or subconsciously, that negotiating is dangerous and can easily backfire. 
We’re right to sense and act on that danger. Hannah Riley Bowles, a senior lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, has conducted research that demonstrates that this is exactly what happens. A 2014 essay in The New Yorker, “Lean Out: The Dangers for Women Who Negotiate,” described Bowles’s findings: “In four studies, Bowles and collaborators from Carnegie Mellon found that people penalized women who initiated negotiations for higher compensation more than they did men. The effect held whether they saw the negotiation on video or read about it on paper, whether they viewed it from a disinterested third-party perspective or imagined themselves as senior managers in a corporation evaluating an internal candidate.” 

Catch the rest of the article, and my advice on negotiating while female (or female-presenting) here

Things I Wish Someone had Told Me During My PhD

I gave a talk at Queen's University to a mixed group of grad students, adjuncts, faculty and staff on hacking your graduate degree for maximum post-PhD flexibility. I also hosted a similar session for some students at my university. The point of the talk is that graduate students can make strategic choices about the opportunities they pursue during their degrees,and that these opportunities can help them develop a variety of skills, a strong professional network, and a compelling body of work which can make it easier for them to pursue a variety of career paths inside and outside of the academy. What I wanted to do was have an honest conversation about the things I wish I had known during grad school, things that would have made my time there even more enjoyable and productive, and that would have made my eventual transition onto the #alt-ac track (both mentally, and literally) more seamless and painless. 

And how does one hack one's graduate degree, you might ask? Here's my advice. 

1. Be Realistic, and Open, About What Comes After Grad School

In the recent America-wide survey by Duke University graduate student Gregory Brennen, the data showed that 83% of graduate students started their PhD expecting to become a tenure-track professor. This is in stark contrast with the current data on how many PhDs actually end up in tenure track jobs—most estimates suggest that fewer than 50% of PhDs end up in any kind of academic job (that includes contract teaching) and that only between 15% and 25% ever secure tenure track jobs. Given this reality, graduate students need to prepare for, and embrace, the multitude of possibilities open to them after they complete their degrees. And they need to remember that being an academic is just a job, and that the are tons of interesting, fulfilling jobs doing other things. Mine is a good example.

2. Make Strategic Decisions About What You Do During Your Degree

As a friend kindly reminded me after I kept claiming that I got lucky in ending up in my job, we make our own luck. What seems random is actually, when you look back, a series of strategic decisions that lead to a whole host of post-degree opportunities. In my case, that strategic decision was to take a research assistantship in lieu of teaching during the fourth year of my PhD. While many PhD students fund their studies by teaching, and that's a wonderful opportunity for people who are looking for careers in education, that may not be the best choice for people who are looking to do other things and need a different set of skills. These other opportunities are also extremely useful academically. Research or graduate assistantships are a big one to consider, as is doing an industry-partnered internship with Mitacs. So might be going on an international exchange, or selecting a graduate co-op program (which UBC now has in English, and Aimee tells me Waterloo is going to develop.) In my case, the research assistantship, researching graduate student professional development programs, let me develop the skills, knowledge, and experience that got me my job as a Research Officer.

3. Take Advantage of the Resources Available on Campus

As grad students, it’s easy to believe that most of the student support services available on campus are there for undergraduates, but that is emphatically not the case. There are a myriad of resources available on most campuses to help graduate students make the most of their degrees, to help them navigate the academic job market, or to help them transition out of academia or into an #alt-ac or #post-ac career. The Career Centre is a great place to start, and they can provide assistance with academic and non-academic job searches; Advancement can often connect grads with alumni in the fields they're interested in; most Canadian universities now have graduate student professional development programs that offer a whole host of workshops and seminars; Mitacs offers a full suite of free transferable skills workshops; and many faculty members can, sometimes surprisingly, provide guidance and support in the search for jobs in and outside of the academy. It can be scary talking to faculty about plans to abandon the tenure track--believe me, I know--but the culture of silence around #alt-ac and #post-ac transition isn't going to disappear until we all start talking about it. 

4. Consider Creating A Shadow C.V.

One of the most important things graduate students can do to demonstrate to people outside of the academy that they have the needed skills is to have evidence that you're capable of working outside of the academy. Especially for PhDs, the assumption that we're overeducated and lacking in practical skills can be hard to overcome without demonstrated outside experience, and having at least one example of non-academic work experience to put in a resume can go a long way toward helping graduate students mentally connect the skills they've honed as a graduate students with those that crop up on job postings, and to help overcome the feeling that there's nothing they're qualified to do but be a professor. People have started calling experience developed alongside academic work, but not included in academic documents, a “shadow C.V.” In my case, I took a year off between my Master’s and my PhD to work in publishing and continued tutoring and editing throughout my degree. Other people I know have done summer placements, taken part-time jobs, done industry-partnered internships, or created web-based consulting and writing firms that allow them to work on their own time. 

6. Learn How to Talk About Your Skills and Research to People Outside of Academia

Academese and English can sometimes seem like two different languages, and this is a major barrier to people with graduate degrees trying to make their qualifications and research make sense in contexts outside of the academy. It’s only natural. Communicating highly specialized research to non-academics isn’t a skill that most academics at any level practice all that much, other than the inevitable attempts to explain your work to your mother, or to someone you meet at a party. This is certainly changing, though. But opportunities to practice do exist, and graduate students should take advantage of them: compete in the Three Minute Thesis; take workshops on clear language writing; practice translating research into non-specialist language. Doing this can seem very non-intuitive for grad students, especially for those who have been academe for a long time, but once they learn how to do it, the relationship between what they do as academics and what shows up in job postings often becomes painfully obvious, as does the potential impact of their work outside the academy. This is, as a side benefit, and increasingly strong focus for many granting agencies, a number of which also now require clear-language or lay research summaries.

7. Think About What You Really Want to Do

Many PhD students are committed to being professors without actually knowing what the life, and the job, of a professor is really like. Our archives here at Hook & Eye can be pretty illuminating. Parts of it match up closely with the starry-eyed dream, but others definitely don't. Meetings are endless and often frustrating. Grading is a slog. The pressure to publish and get stellar teaching evaluations can be debilitating. Students are disengaged. Service takes up far more time that people realize, and there's never enough time for research and reflection. Graduate students should be figuring out what it is they really love about academia, and thinking about other jobs that might let them do those things more. The book So What Are You Going to Do with That? includes some fantastic exercises, ones that helped me realize that the things I love to do and am good at doing--coordinating, facilitating other people's work and success, communications, writing, mentorship--are key components of all sorts of #alt-ac and #post-ac jobs, including my current one.

8. Think About What You Really Don’t Want to Do

As PhDs, we're indoctrinated to believe that we should be willing to give up everything for a tenure track job. At some point, I shrugged that indoctrination off and made a list of the things that were more important to me than tenure: I didn’t want to move, wait until I was 40 to have kids, spend most of my life grading papers, spend multiple years as a contract professor, or write things that no one would ever read. For me, those were pretty convincing reasons to give up on the idea of becoming a professor, which requires total mobility, limits reproductive choices, requires far more teaching than research for most people, and mostly values journal and book publications that most people won’t read. The most important thing I had to convince myself of--and that we must tell graduate students, over and over--is that choosing where to live, desiring to have a child without worrying about compromising doctoral work or chances at tenure, refusing precarious employment, are totally legitimate life choices that are okay to voice aloud, despite the tendency of academia to suggest that if you aren’t willing to sacrifice your whole life, even your whole identity, to being an academic, you’re a second-class citizen. It broke my heart, in a good way, to have a whole gaggle of female Queen's students come up to me after my talk and thank me for saying out loud that my desire to have kids before I was 35 was a factor in my decision making. It is for many people, and that's something that should be discussed openly.The other important part of this equation is to get graduate students talking to people they know in academia and outside, and find out from them what their jobs are really like. So long as we perpetuate the belief that academia is the only worthy place of employment, and that a professorship is the only truly fulfulling and engaging job, graduate students will ignore a whole host of career possibilities that might be a much better personal and professional fit.

9. Don’t Conflate Who You Are With What You Do

This is an obvious one, and a hard one to avoid--but if graduate students can avoid the trap of believing that they are academics, and that if they don't get to continue to be academics they'll be nothing, they'll save themselves a horrible and painful identity crisis if the time comes that the professoriate becomes an unobtainable dream. A professorship is just a job. It is not a vocation, or an identity, and graduate students are so much more than the single career option the academy tells them is worthy. 

10. Enjoy the Ride

Getting paid to read for comps. Taking classes totally outside of your area because you can. Auditing things purely for interest. Debating theory over far too much wine. Style-stalking your favourite professor. Choosing conferences based purely on location. These are some of the best parts of grad school, and they should be relished, and they often aren't because PhDs are too busy conferencing and publishing and professionalizing and shadow-CVing and comparing themselves to all of the other PhDs they know. Yes, those things need to get done (minus the last one) but statistically speaking, the chances of getting to stay in academia on a permanent basis are slim. Enjoy the ride while it lasts.