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From PhD to Life

The next (scary!) step for me: building a formal community


How is it that I am more than three years into this job and I still feel like a n00b? Well, I know why – there are so many good, reasonable reasons. But one of the answers is that my role is adaptable, because I am self-employed and it is entirely up to me to make it work.

In some ways, that adaptability is not dissimilar from what many academics experience, at least some of the time. As I navigate the possibilities of my career, I have to maintain the work that I know pays my bills – one-on-one coaching, the Beyond the Professoriate conference, and speaking engagements. But when I have the time, I need to grow my business, because how I do things now isn’t sustainable in the long-term. By way of comparison, you might say that while I need to teach my classes (and improve my pedagogical skills), I also need to attend to publication and service to the university if I want to earn tenure.

Earning tenure (metaphorically in my case) is important, but continued professional growth feeds my soul, too. I find my work meaningful and rewarding, and want it to continue to be so in future. I value the clients and community I serve, but know that there are so many more people out there I can help. So I carry on, I learn, I grow. I must.

A few weeks ago my coach asked me a question that sparked a realization in me: I enjoy coaching, but it’s not the be all and end all of the work I want to do. It is a wonderful tool; there are others. I hadn’t thought that through before. And it was a little scary to say it, because it felt like a bit of a betrayal of my clients, who I deeply value. It isn’t, inner critic. It’s a realization that how I structure my work now might change significantly over time. That is exciting.

What won’t change, I don’t think, is my desire to build a community. That’s something I’ve always gravitated toward – bringing people together, supporting others, encouraging and championing their projects, and believing we’re stronger in concert than in isolation. I think that is what I do when I’m at my best.

The particular ways that I’ve built a community have varied over time and context. When I was in high school, I spent my happiest after school hours working on the yearbook and cheering on the sports teams; in graduate school, I was active on committees, organized events, and founded a newsletter; for a few years during my PhD, I had a blog and podcast about Toronto’s local independent music scene; and now that I’m self-employed I love Twitter for engaging my community: it’s been a wonderful indirect marketing platform for my business.

All of this brings me to one of my current business- and life-building projects: a formal community as a paid product/service. When I think about it – as a fully-launched, up-and-running-successfully thing – I am energized. It feels like the right next move for me. But it also feels very big and very uncertain and very scary. And I’m a n00b all over again.

So wish me luck on my thinking and planning (and let me know your thoughts!). And here’s wishing you luck and courage for your own big, scary projects, whatever they are. May they let you manifest your core mission in new, exciting, and worthwhile ways.

Jennifer Polk
Jennifer Polk is a career coach and entrepreneur. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 2012. For more information and resources, check out her website:
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