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From PhD to Life

Transition Q & A: Alison Norman


Alison Norman earned her PhD in history from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. She’s currently a Research Advisor in the Ontario Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs. She’s also a Research Associate in the Frost Centre for Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies at the School for the Study of Canada, Trent University. Find her online at and follow her on Twitter @alisonenorman.

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What did you hope for in terms of employment as you completed your PhD?

I worked as a grievance officer for CUPE 3902 (the union representing TAs and adjuncts) at the University of Toronto for two years when I was finishing my PhD, and also taught at the university as a sessional instructor. I was pregnant when I defended my dissertation, and knew I needed to find enough work so that I could qualify for Employment Insurance once I gave birth. I taught courses at Ryerson University and Seneca College that summer and at the University of Toronto and Trent University that fall, while also working for the union. I had 5 ROEs (records of employment) to submit to qualify for EI — and accumulated enough hours so that I could get maternity benefits! Obviously, this was crazy.

From my experience as a union grievance officer, and my own experience as contract faculty, I knew that secure, fulltime work was my priority. And I knew it was very unlikely that I would find it at a university or college in or around the city of Toronto, where I wanted to stay. While I applied for a few academic jobs, I was also looking at museums, heritage and educational organizations, and government.

What was your first post-PhD job?

I spent some time during my mat leave with my first daughter working on a SSHRC post-doctoral fellowship application, which I was lucky enough to get for the following year. Before I started the postdoc, though, I got in touch with a woman my supervisor knew, who was working as a senior historian at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I told her about my proposed postdoc project – a history of Indigenous teachers in southern Ontario – and she hired me to do some contract work on residential school staff for the TRC. It was just a six month contract, but it was work outside of the university, and a connection to government, which was helpful.

What do you do now? How did you get this job?

Today I have two positions. One is my fulltime job which pays me, and one is my academic affiliation. Before I got my fulltime job, I talked to the Frost Centre at Trent University about affiliating with them as a research associate. I was already connected to Trent as I had done my SSHRC postdoc there, and I continued to teach there as well. The Frost Centre has a number of research associates in Canadian studies, and a colleague of mine at Trent suggested it might be a good fit for me. It is a two year position, and it allows me to have a university affiliation and connection to the academic world. I recently gave a career talk and will give a research talk next semester, and will attend other lectures on campus over the coming years.

My fulltime job is as a research advisor in the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs. It is a contract position that I have for a year. I am hoping to be able to find a permanent position (or at least more contracts!).

Getting this job was not easy. I read a lot of blogs and articles online, as well as a few books on transitioning out of academia, re-crafting your CV as a resume and networking. And then for probably 18 months (the second year of my postdoc, and afterward) I did a lot of informational interviews. I knew that the three areas that made the most sense for me were in Indigenous issues, in education and in heritage/history. Those were what my experience was in, and it was those areas where I thought people might be most interested in me. And while I do think PhDs have a lot of transferable skills, I thought it was easiest to sell myself as a researcher, because that was primarily what I’d been doing, between my PhD, the postdoc and working for the TRC.

I met with every person I knew in the Ontario Public Service (OPS) and I always asked if they knew anyone else I could meet with. I kept my eyes open, and applied for numerous jobs, in government and elsewhere. I did not send out hundreds of resumes. I tried to target places and people who I thought would see value in my resume, and I always specifically targeted my letter and resume to the job. I also talked to people working in administrative positions in universities and educational organizations. I applied to a few university jobs, and had a full academic interview for a two year fellowship that would have been lovely. I had a few other interviews before I got the job I’m in today. And I only found out about the job posting because I did a string of informational interviews. I would never have known to apply without having done an informational interview with the deputy director of the division.

What kind of tasks do you do on a daily and weekly basis?

As a research advisor, my job is to research and evaluate land claim submissions, to provide historical research and support for land claim negotiations, and to provide historical research advice for my division, legal counsel and our communications department. I respond to requests to provide a historian’s perspective on a claim or a proposed historical plaque or monument, for example. I also get asked to write briefing materials for the minister.

I work on both short term projects and larger, long term ones. I am working on two large scale research projects at the moment, as well as several land claims and some smaller projects.

What most surprises you about your job?

There is a whole world of historical research happening beyond universities. It is critical to the land claims process in Canada, and to litigation involving Indigenous lands. There is an entire research industry of historians working on very important historical research that’s unrelated to universities or publishing. The work is mostly in Ottawa but also takes place in government offices and companies across Canada. Those companies do research for First Nations, governments, law firms and corporations. There is work there!

What are your favourite parts of your job?  

I feel very respected and valued as a historian. My knowledge is appreciated, along with my historical research skills. I think this is pretty amazing! I thought that when I transitioned to a job beyond the academy, my new employer likely wouldn’t see much value in my knowledge and skills, but the reverse has been true for me in this position. I know it is not always, or even likely, the case. I get to be a historian on a daily basis, and put my knowledge and skills to good use. I get to look at historical treaties, documents and maps on a regular basis, which I love.

I also am able to continue to work on my own publications (in my own time), and I work as the book review editor for Ontario History, which helps keep me in the academic loop. My dissertation supervisor emailed my last article out to people in the ministry that work on related issues, which felt great! While at my current job, I’ve been given time to go to conferences, and I’ll be teaching a course in Indigenous history this winter at the University of Toronto. I am very fortunate that my job allows all of this, and in fact, sees the benefits of my academic work.

What would you change about it if you could?

Nothing, aside from having a permanent position!

What’s next for you, career-wise?

My goal is a permanent position in the OPS, hopefully in Aboriginal Affairs, but maybe in another ministry that works on Indigenous issues. It’s a very positive place to be working, when it’s clear that it is a priority for the premier, and when working toward reconciliation is a concrete job that we are tasked with. I’m taking part in this history in a very real way. I think that resolving land claims more quickly than in the past is important work toward reconciliation, and I hope that I can continue to be a part of it.

What advice or thoughts do you have for post-PhDs in transition now?

Have some optimism. Our skills (and sometimes our knowledge!) are useful. But also, work hard and be persistent. Do your research about the industry or government or place that you want to work (likely multiple places). We are good at research, and there is a lot that we don’t know about how non-academic employment works. And always be professional.

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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