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From PhD to Life

Transition Q & A: Carolyn Harris


Carolyn Harris earned her PhD in history from Queen’s University in 2012. She is now an instructor in history at the University of Toronto, School of Continuing Studies, a freelance history writer, and royal commentator. Read her writing and interviews online at and follow her @royalhistorian.

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

In 2011, the year before I completed my PhD, Prince William married Kate Middleton. The media were looking for experts who could discuss the history of the monarchy, particularly the history of royal weddings. My dissertation compares Queen Henrietta Maria during the English Civil Wars to Queen Marie Antoinette during the French Revolution so I had done a lot of research concerning 17th and 18th century court culture. I also had a strong interest in the monarchy and royal history more generally and read a lot about these topics in my spare time.

One of the professors in the history department at Queen’s University recommended me for some print media interviews at the beginning of April, 2011. When these interviews went well, Queen’s media and communications began pitching my expertise to media outlets. The day before the royal wedding, I had my first live TV interview, as a panelist on TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin.

As I completed my PhD, I was aware of the shortage of tenure-track history professor job openings, particularly in Canada. Opportunities to provide royal commentary, however, continued to come my way. I really enjoy my media work and writing and decided to pursue a career as a freelance historian. I set up my website and Twitter feed in February 2012, a couple months before my PhD defense.

What was your first post-PhD job?

The Queen celebrated her Diamond Jubilee in 2012 and there was a lot of Canadian popular interest in her six decades on the throne and role in Canada’s history. I proposed and wrote a four part series of articles on the Queen in Canada for the Kingston Whig-Standard newspaper. I also provided commentary regarding the Diamond Jubilee celebrations for CBC radio. The Diamond Jubilee celebrations including a royal visit to Canada by the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall took place in the weeks between my PhD defense, in early May 2012 and my wedding, in mid-June 2012. It was a busy time!

What do you do now? 

I teach history at the University of Toronto’s school of continuing studies. I also provide freelance royal commentary for a number of media outlets including the CBC and CTV. I write extensively on the historical context for current events. My work has been published in the Globe and Mail, Ottawa Citizen, BBC History Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, Military History Monthly, and numerous other newspapers and magazines. I am currently contributing articles to the Canadian Encyclopedia and Magna Carta 2015 Canada. I guest lecture extensively on royal history in various venues including museums and libraries. Every year, I give a lecture series on a cruise ship. In 2012, I lectured my way across the Atlantic from Barcelona to Miami via the Caribbean. In 2013, I spoke on a Scandinavia and St. Petersburg cruise. This August, I will be spending a month at sea, giving talks as the ship sails from Copenhagen to Lisbon via the U.K., Ireland, France, Spain and Portugal.

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

The first thing I do each day is review current events, particularly royal news, looking for stories that would benefit from added historical context. I spend a lot of time reading, researching and writing. When there is a royal visit to Canada or another big event where I provide royal commentary, I spend time discussing interview content with TV and radio producers before going to the studio. I also spend time on social media. I tweet daily about articles I have read or written and post history facts of the day. I update my blog regularly with new content and updates about my work. There are also a lot of entrepreneurial tasks: writing article proposals, following up on article proposals, maintaining spreadsheets of freelance income targets and accruals, sending invoices and following up on them.

What most surprises you about your job?

The tremendous revival of interest in the monarchy in Canada during the time I have been a royal historian and commentator. I have always read books about royalty for fun but there was very little discussion and public awareness of the role and history of the Canadian monarchy when I was in the high school. With the 2010 royal visit by the Queen and Prince Philip, the 2011 wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton and subsequent tour of Canada, the 2012 Diamond Jubilee and 2013 arrival of Prince George, Canadian popular interest in the monarchy has increased after decades of comparative indifference.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

The obvious answer to that question is cruise ship lecturing! In the fall of 2012, I had a job interview that began with a question about whether or not I was prone to seasickness and a couple months later, I was sailing out of Barcelona. You never know where a PhD will take you! I did a lot of traveling during my PhD including research trips to England, Wales, and France and attending a conference in Ireland. I applied to do cruise ship lecturing because I wanted to continue to travel widely after my PhD.

In addition to travel, I love reading, writing, and talking about history and my job provides me with plenty of opportunities to do all these things. I look forward to Mondays because I am passionate about the work I do.

What would you change about it if you could?

Freelancing is inherently unpredictable. That can be exciting but it also means that while I am working on one project, I am pursuing the next one. There are times when I would prefer to concentrate all my attention on my writing and lecturing but I always have to keep an eye on the business and marketing side of things to ensure steady work and a steady freelance income in addition to my teaching.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

I am in the process of getting a book published based on my dissertation, comparing perceptions of Henrietta Maria and Marie Antoinette as wives and mothers during the English Civil Wars and French Revolution, respectively. In the past year, I contributed a book chapter, “Royalty at Rideau Hall: Lord Lorne, Princess Louise and the Emergence of the Canadian Crown” to Canada and the Crown: Essays on Constitutional Monarchy, edited by D. Michael Jackson and Philippe Lagassé. I would like to expand this research eventually into a full biography of Princess Louise, focusing on her years living in Canada and influence on Canadian history.

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

Be prepared to walk off the beaten path and be open to new experiences. The focus of a PhD is usually training for a traditional academic position but there are many other careers that make use of the writing and critical thinking skills honed in graduate school. Talk to as many fellow PhDs as possible about their experiences and read all the other Q&As on this blog. Engage in lifelong learning and professional development. In addition to teaching at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies, I have also taken courses there including “The Business of Freelance Writing” and “Breaking Into the Periodical Market” where I have learned a lot of useful skills for expanding my freelance work. The PhD should be the beginning of a lifetime of learning, not the end.

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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