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From PhD to Life

“I’m a coach”


A few weeks ago I flew to the U.S. for a vacation with my parents. The customs agent I spoke with at the Toronto airport asked me what I did for a living. For nearly a decade, I would have said, “I’m a PhD student.” This time, I said without hesitation, “I’m a coach!” When he inquired further, I told him I worked with graduate students and PhDs changing careers. Doing a doctorate could be crushing, I said while squeezing my hands together. As a coach I help these incredibly smart, creative, motivated people get un-crushed so they can do better for themselves and for the wider world. I opened my hands and spread my lower arms. He seemed convinced, wished me a nice trip, and sent me on my way.

That may have been the first time I’ve told someone that I’m a coach – and really meant it. A year ago, when I started working with my own coach, I had a hard time knowing what to say. My identity was up in the air. I had a PhD but wasn’t an academic, a researcher but not a scholar. I was self-employed but wasn’t making enough to cover my expenses. I was frustrated with my paid work and felt little connection with the worlds I’d come to know best: my research field, my graduate department, and the Toronto music scene.

And now . . . wow. It’s early days in my business — I’ve only been at this since July — and much remains to be seen. But I feel great about where I am, and thrilled about where I’m headed. I haven’t felt this way in years.

When I get distracted or find myself off-course, it’s this feeling that brings me back, reminds me why I’m determined to make this new phase of my life a lasting success. Every client call firms up my commitment: I do important work.

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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  1. Rochelle / July 10, 2014 at 11:30

    What an inspirational post! Thanks for sharing. I’ll be sharing with the postgraduate researchers I work with.

    • Jennifer Polk / July 14, 2014 at 12:43

      Thanks Rochelle! Glad you like it.

  2. Mallie Rydzik / August 9, 2014 at 07:19

    Ah I love it. As a PhD dropout turned coach, the last time I had to tell customs what I did was while traveling to an international conference with my advisor. I remember being jet lagged and explaining who I was traveling with: no, that’s not my dad, that’s my PhD advisor, and we study tornadoes. I think I’d have gotten less of a look if I’d been a coach at the time! Congrats on feeling comfortable “coming out.”

    • Jennifer Polk / August 11, 2014 at 00:16

      Thank you, Mallie! Nice to virtually connect with a fellow coach with PhD experience!

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