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From PhD to Life

Transition Q & A: Nicholas Dion


Nicholas Dion earned his PhD in religious studies from the University of Toronto. He is currently senior coordinator, research and programs at the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO), an independent research and advisory body of the government of Ontario that conducts and commissions research on various topics related to the province’s postsecondary landscape. Find him on LinkedIn and read more about his transition here.

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

By the time my PhD was coming to an end, I had narrowed in on four areas of employment that I would look into further: public policy, university administration, management consulting, and editing/publishing. I gave up on management consulting pretty quickly – it would have been a great way to make lots of money, which can be a very appealing option after 10 years as a grad student, but I quickly learned after speaking to a few people that I wouldn’t be happy in the business world – and went ahead with the other three.

Editing and publishing dovetailed nicely with my experience as the founder and editor of a peer-reviewed journal in grad school, but the industry seemed relatively impenetrable for someone who didn’t have formal training in publishing or marketing/communications. I looked into it, but somewhat half-heartedly and without expectations. University administration was a real option, as was public policy.

Public policy seemed the most promising. I saw it as a grounded way to put my research and critical thinking skills to work to effect change in the world. My interest in the academic discipline in which I had completed my doctorate was almost completely exhausted, but my course of study had at least given me the opportunity to gain some exposure to policy issues related to immigration, multiculturalism and religious pluralism, so I thought I might start there. I checked out immigration policy and foreign affairs, mainly at the federal level. While I was in grad school, I had also had the chance to sit on a number of administrative committees. These experiences allowed me to see some of the inner working of the university, so I investigated education policy as well, both at the K-12 and postsecondary levels.

What was your first post-PhD job and how did you get it?

My first job was as a research intern at HEQCO. I came upon it almost completely by accident. I had spent a few months doing information interviews with various representatives from groups involved in Ontario’s postsecondary policy world and I was starting to narrow in on what was a fairly tight-knit group of research organizations and lobby groups that operated in that area. My colleagues in grad school knew about my non-academic job search and we talked frequently about our plans after grad school. One day, a friend sent me the research intern posting which her mother had received by email from a contact at HEQCO. I had never heard of HEQCO but the position looked interesting. I had some reservations about the fact that it was an internship – I had heard plenty of stories of dead-end, exploitative, unpaid arrangements marketed as internships to unsuspecting youth – but I did some research and figured that I had nothing to lose in applying (the HEQCO internship was and is paid). I took the time to put together what I hope was a coherent and enthusiastic case for hiring me and was fortunate enough to get an interview.

Before the interview, I prepared as best I could. I milked my contacts for anything they knew about HEQCO. I spoke to my friend’s mom – the one who sent me the ad – to see what she knew about them. I reflected on my grad school experience and did some research into Ontario’s postsecondary challenges and policy priorities. When I got to the interview, I learned that, unbeknownst to me and unannounced in the ad, they had been thinking about hiring two interns – the traditional research intern and another intern who could move into an editor role. They had never had an editor before but had been increasing their rate of publication recently and wanted someone who could create and manage a consistent process. My work on the journal, together with my research experience and my experience working with academics made me a strong candidate. So I’m fond of saying that my first job was technically one for which I hadn’t even applied.

What do you do now? 

I am senior coordinator, research and programs at HEQCO. The discussion at the interview left me with a pretty good feeling that the internship was essentially a trial period for what would become a more permanent editor role. Sure enough, after four months as an intern, I spent another four months as a contract research analyst before being offered a permanent position as research editor. During this time, my editing responsibilities slowly shrank and my research responsibilities grew, such that I became senior coordinator in recognition of these shifting priorities.

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

My tasks can basically be split into three categories: editing, research and communications. When editing, I work with our external contractors, most of whom are college or university faculty, to provide constructive feedback on the work they submit to HEQCO for publication. I coordinate our review process, which involves managing timelines, passing the report on to various parties for their critique, and combining all of the comments to send to the authors. This involves a lot of email work and a lot of writing.

When researching, I consult the literature and other data sources to find information on policy priorities that HEQCO is investigating, then synthesize this information into short (c. 20-page) research reports that are accessible to a broad audience. This involves a lot of reading and writing, as well as the ability to sort through information, decide what is important and present it without jargon in a way that the average person could understand. Because I lack the specialized quantitative training that some of my colleagues who come from statistics, economics, or psychology backgrounds have, I play to my strengths by researching topics that are less quantitative and perhaps more complex on the writing side or more theoretical.

On the communications side, I work closely with our communications team to help coordinate the release of publications on our website. This is certainly the dimension of my job where I have learned the most, whether it’s how to write an executive summary or how to speak to media about research.

What most surprises you about your job? 

I’m always surprised by just how many individuals with graduate degrees who aren’t working in academia I run into in my work life. Whether it’s in government, university administration, lobby groups, politics, or private-sector research, the labour market is filled with master’s and doctorates who have chosen the non-academic track… which is why I’m also surprised by the stigma that still surrounds leaving academia.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

I enjoy how much I get to learn every day –about new policy issues, about new ways to do research. The variety is endless. I often compare working at HEQCO to being thrown into a swimming pool blindfolded. When you’re given a new research project, you need to be able to find your bearings quickly in uncharted waters. I very much enjoy the feeling that comes with exploring the literature in a new field and seeing how its work can apply to postsecondary education.

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

First, take the time to actually think about what you want to do. What do you like to do? What do you see yourself doing as a job? Too often we graduate feeling like we’ve just wasted a decade of our lives and need to move quickly to whatever comes next. Sometimes financial pressures or dependents mean that we don’t have much time to think it through, but take whatever time you have. The first job you get after graduation will play a big role in determining what you’ll be doing career-wise for the next five to 10 years, so give it the consideration it’s due.

Second, think in terms of skills. While academics think in terms of subject matter and knowledge, employers think in terms of skills. Very few employers will care what you have studied or at what level. Instead, they will want to know what you can do for them and that have you have already demonstrated the skills they are looking for in other contexts. I like to view grad school as my first career, one in which I developed many skills that can be transferred to other careers. So give some thought to what skills you have developed and where those might be in demand outside the university.

Third, network and meet people. Informational interviews – awkward as they can be – should become your new best friend. They are great ways to learn more about an area in which you think you might want to work, even if that involves deciding that the area isn’t as interesting as you had originally thought. It’s also a great way to make contacts who might be able to tip you off about new opportunities. Many jobs are never advertised but are filled through recommendations and word of mouth instead, so you want your name and resume to be circulating. Keep in mind that networking never ends. The people you meet for informational interviews may one day become your colleagues.

Finally, when you do find a job, pay it forward. Remember where you once were and help others out in any way that you can. Respond to informational interview requests. Find out how you can get involved with your alma mater’s alumni association or career centre to help out recent graduates. Help others in their job search however you can.

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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