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From PhD to Life

Transition Q & A: Maureen McCarthy


Maureen McCarthy earned her PhD in English in 2013 from Emory University in Atlanta, GA. She is now the assistant director of advancement and best practices at the Council of Graduate Schools. Find her on Twitter @maureentmcc.

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

I was looking for a position in Washington, D.C. for personal reasons. One of the main reasons I ultimately decided not to pursue the tenure track was because of a desire to be free to choose my geographic location. Specifically, I chose to live close(r) to the people I most love, most of whom are concentrated on the East Coast of the U.S.

I was open to many different types of career paths, but I was sure I wanted a position that:

  1. Contributed good to the world, not evil;
  2. Provided a decent salary and benefits, with opportunity for advancement;
  3. Offered challenging intellectual work and a stimulating, diverse environment. By that I meant somewhere I would be exposed to many different kinds of problems, and people who approached those problems differently than I would.

I knew that my skills as a humanist could transfer to a multiplicity of positions, so I cast a wide net and met as many people as I could for coffee or happy hour and learned about what they did.

What was your first post-PhD job?

I was very fortunate to be hired immediately upon graduation by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) in my current position as the assistant director of advancement and best practices. This job hit every item on my checklist and offers even more in terms of professional development (not to mention an office with a window!). CGS has given me the opportunity to shape some of the experience and training I have received during this first year of employment, so I’ve been able to gain experience writing grants, managing projects, writing for different audiences, and with the world of higher education more generally.

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

One of the positive aspects of my job is that it changes every day. I write a lot, in many different genres: communications with CGS members, articles for our newsletter, grant applications, panel proposals, policies. Right now I am researching for a white paper, so my everyday tasks are similar to my dissertating days — compiling an annotated bibliography and adding sources to Zotero — but I also have meetings to attend, calls with current and potential members to complete, and other assorted tasks associated with building our new advancement program. I also reserve some time each day to read the latest news stories in higher education and any reports out from governmental agencies or nonprofits that shed new light on graduate education issues.

What most surprises you about your job?

I was most surprised by just how much my PhD is valued by my employers. I suppose it should come as no great shock that the Council of Graduate Schools values a terminal graduate degree, but they truly understand the transferable nature of the skills I learned as a scholar of the humanities into my current work. It helps that many of my work colleagues also hold PhDs in a variety of fields.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

I enjoy the feeling that my work is having an impact on thousands of graduate students across the US and Canada. It is gratifying to be able to work on a project, particularly a best practice project and to really feel that my effort has the potential to measurably improve graduate education. The other best part of my job is the collaborative thinking and writing that happens at CGS. I enjoy being in a room full of intelligent people discussing ideas that we will communicate to a larger public — it is much more enjoyable to me than sitting in my library carrel writing my dissertation. A large percentage of the staff at CGS hold (post)graduate degrees, so many times we find ourselves “speaking PhD,” even though we come from a range of fields.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

I believe I still have plenty to learn from and contribute to CGS, so hopefully I will have the opportunity to stay there a bit longer. I would like to continue to increase my responsibilities as I cultivate my career.

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

My best advice is to meet as many people as you can and listen to what they have to say about their careers, the organizations they work for, the lessons they’ve learned. Take the time to prepare for these meetings, even when they’re informal, so that you can be an ambassador for the concept that PhDs have more to offer the world than an hyper-specialized anti-social outlook. Be ready with the spiel: make the case for why a marketing firm or nonprofit or corporation could use the skills that you have. Gain experience in a wide range of areas, preferably in situations where you are managing other employees or working on teams (e.g., volunteering for the board of a nonprofit organization, managing an on-campus lab or writing center, organizing a conference). These types of experiences are easy to translate to the business/government/nonprofit world — they make the case for you.

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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