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From PhD to Life

Transition Q & A: Maren Wood


L. Maren Wood earned her PhD in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She runs her own consulting firm, Lilli Research Group, which provides research support to institutions and professional development services for PhD job seekers. Follow Maren @lilligroup.

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

I had always imagined I’d be a professor. It never occurred to me that I would do anything other than teach history. But, I graduated in 2009, one of the worst years to enter the academic job market. After three years applying for tenure track jobs and post-docs, I decided to end my quest for academic employment and find other ways to contribute to society.

What was your first post-PhD job?

My first post-PhD job was working for LEARN NC, a K-12 non-profit outreach program in the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I was part of a team that built a digital textbook on the history of North Carolina from Colonialism to the Present. I started working at LEARN the final year of graduate school and the first eight months post-PhD. I really loved this experience, the people I worked with, and earning a livable wage! In many ways, this experience showed me that I could be happy doing something other than being a professor. It was while I worked at LEARN that I was introduced to this magical thing called weekends.

But I wasn’t ready to give up on the dream of being a tenure professor, so in January of 2010, I started working as an adjunct. I taught at Chapel Hill until December of 2011, and then I followed my partner to Washington, DC.

When I landed in DC, I had no plans and no direction. I began tracking down UNC Chapel Hill alumni to learn where history PhDs ended up when they left academia. This project led me to begin my own consulting company: Lilli Research Group.

What do you do now?

I run my own company, Lilli Research Group. I provide two synergistic services: I work with graduate programs and professional organizations to track career outcomes of PhDs, and I provide professional development services to PhDs. The largest PhD placement project I have worked on to date was the American Historical Association, tracking careers of 2,500 history PhDs who graduated between 1998-2009. I found information for all but 3% of our sample. You can read the final report here.

I’m very excited about the professional development services for PhDs in transitions. I designed a four week course, Bootcamp for the Post-Academic Job Seeker. It’s an intensive course (it requires 10 hours a week), and includes six units: career exploration, transferable skills and interests; cover letters and resumes; developing an online professional image, networking tips, and business etiquette.

The course has been a great success. Clients come in worried about their future and leave having identified a career path of interest and the knowledge and skills to find their post-academic opportunity.

What most surprises you about your job?

I knew that a start-up business was going to be a lot of work, but it has exceeded my expectations. There is so much to learn, so much to do, and it can be an intense emotional roller-coaster. You get interest, and a project, and you’re feeling great, but that high is followed by a long lull where you’re working hard every day to land your next project or client. The standard line I hear from other entrepreneurs is that it takes 3-5 years to build a brand and get a business off the ground. I mention that only because people often asked about how I started my own business and the truthful answer is – I’m still starting it! Ask me in a few years and I’ll be able to offer sage advice.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

I love helping people. I enjoy teaching. This is why I started Bootcamp for the Post-Academic Job Seeker. It is so rewarding to take people from the stage of “ I have no idea what I’ll do next and I’m terrified” to “I see a path forward for me, and I know how to get there.” I also enjoy campus workshops. In addition to meeting amazing students, I get to speak with graduate deans who are passionate and committed to helping their students. The problem of employment for PhD alumni weighs heavy on the minds of many graduate deans. It is always encouraging to meet these leaders in graduate education and learn how they are trying to meet the challenges of graduate education in the 21st century.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

I’ll keep working with graduate programs to track their alumni, and provide professional development services to graduate students and recent PhDs. I’m working on webinars that clients can purchase on demand, and I’m exploring the possibility of bringing Bootcamp to campus. I’ll keep writing, speaking, blogging, presenting, and helping people in transition.

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

First, it’s o.k. to walk away. There is absolutely no reason to choose the life of gentile poverty and work as an adjunct. Some people decide to be contingent faculty because it provides them flexibility. But most of us can’t work as adjuncts for very long, nor should we. Say no to your own exploitation.

Second, there are other paths open to you where you can use your knowledge, talents, and skills, to make a difference in the world and make a living wage. The way to begin is by talking to people about their own transitions. Get on LinkedIn and find alumni from your graduate programs who have left, reach out to them, and learn about their careers.

Most jobs are never posted, and few people land a job by submitting a resume to an online job advertisement. You need to get out there and meet people, tell them what your skills and talents are, and how you can benefit their organization and institution. A majority of job seekers — 80% — find their job through their network. Put yourself out there!

Last, be patient. It can take months to find a good opportunity, regardless of educational background or work history. Don’t be discouraged, or at least, don’t let the long search convince you that you can’t find a good opportunity. Keep at it.

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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