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From PhD to Life

Transition Q & A: Sarah Culpeper, HR generalist

“I’m surprised, in a good way, by the extent to which some of my personal traits, which were not of particular help to me in academia, are very helpful to me at my current job,” says Sarah.


Sarah Culpeper earned her PhD at the University of Virginia in critical and comparative studies in music. She’s now an HR generalist, HR organizational services, at the Library of Parliament in Ottawa. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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

Fairly early on in my degree, I began to question whether I wanted to pursue an academic career. I didn’t really know what the options were – I guessed that I would either end up working within university administration, or in the arts in some capacity. There were not many online resources at the time, nor was there much at my school.

What was your first post-PhD job?

First job: a six-week temp job as an office assistant at an opera company. Second job: sessional instructor of music history.

What do you do now?

My title, HR generalist, organizational services, is not terribly descriptive!

I’m part of the four-person team within HR (human resources) at the Library of Parliament that responds to learning and training needs within the organization, and that leads the implementation of new organization-wide HR initiatives – i.e. new programs, policies and procedures.

How did you get this job?

After graduating in 2014, I made use of any job search and career development resources I could get my hands on for free or for cheap. I worked through the exercises in What Color Is Your Parachute; I worked with a career counsellor at the YMCA (for free); and I made use of all the “alt-ac” community resources I could find online. I attended the Beyond the Professoriate online conference in 2016, which was also very helpful, and I carried out a total of 32 information interviews. (I just counted!)

It was three years and nine months between my graduation, and starting my current job. It felt like I was going in circles sometimes: I alternated between part-time employment; volunteer work; and full-time job-seeking. My paid jobs were: sessional university teaching; teaching an adult-ed course; working as a part-time communications coordinator for a non-profit; proposal writing and grant writing. I volunteered in a communications capacity with three music festivals and a community-building organization.

I now see that I was always moving forward, I just didn’t always know what I was moving toward.

The short answer to this question is that I started as a temp. In fall 2017, I accepted a six-week placement through a staffing agency to work with what is now my team. I enjoyed the experience, so I accepted an extension of my temp contract to six months. When a full-time (internal) position became available, my manager encouraged me to apply, and so I did. I was offered a full-time contract in May 2018, and I was made permanent a year later.

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

On a typical day, I will have one or two meetings – mostly with colleagues in HR, and sometimes with our clients. (My “clients” are all internal.) The meetings might be routine updates, project status updates; sometimes I have working meetings, or networking meetings – for example with my HR counterparts in House of Commons administration or the Senate administration. For the rest of the day I will work on the projects or programs I am responsible for. In practice, this can involve research, project management, drafting or revising internal communications, or drafting changes to HR policies among other activities. There are more mundane administrative tasks as well, but the more my role has become defined, the less I have to do those, which is absolutely amazing.

What most surprises you about your job?

I’m surprised, in a good way, by the extent to which some of my personal traits, which were not of particular help to me in academia, are very helpful to me at my current job. I am collaborative by nature, and a collaborative spirit helps me every day to get things done. Nothing I’m responsible for is done in a vacuum. Sooner or later, I need some kind of input, advice, approval, assistance, or recommendation from one or several colleagues to move forward with what I’m doing. Of course, this can be challenging at times. But for the most part, I feel energized by working with others toward a common goal. My time in academia gave me very few opportunities to work collaboratively.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

Anytime I feel like I’m helping to solve a problem – especially if it’s by stepping back to provide some perspective or a new approach – I feel really rewarded. I also feel satisfied when my writing skills are perceived as valuable and helpful.

What would you change about it if you could?

It’s been almost two years, and I still struggle with the Monday-Friday, 9-5 lifestyle. And this is despite the fact that my workplace is a very healthy and accepting environment that encourages you to be yourself. The dress code is not strict and there’s a marked emphasis on workplace wellness and work-life balance. But it’s still an adjustment from the more self-directed weekly routine of being a freelancer or an academic.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

Two months ago, my job became permanent. For the first time in my life, I have full-time, well-remunerated, satisfying work in a healthy workplace, working for an organization I believe in. What’s next is learning how to do my job better: specifically, augmenting the skills that help me work in an organization – skills that I simply did NOT acquire in years of graduate school and sessional teaching. Mainly these are skills related to communication, understanding organizational culture, and learning how to “make things happen” within the parameters of organizational culture.

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

I found that networking and informational interviews were really helpful, but not always in a direct or obvious way. The reality is, some of the people I most wanted to meet were hard to get in touch with or impossible to schedule time with. I ended up informational interviewing a bunch of people who were not originally on my “must-speak-to” list, but thank goodness I did speak to them. They were smart, kind, accomplished people, they were generous with their time and energy, and they were all helpful to me in one way or another.

If you’re finding you’re not able to talk to the people you most want to talk to, take the help where you can get it, at least to start. Some advice is field specific, but some career advice is useful across fields, and as long as the person you are talking to has some decent experience under their belt, they’re bound to have useful tips and advice.

Informational interviews are also something of a soft launch to help you get ready for real job interviews. They often have a friendly and casual tone, but I feel it’s still important to take them seriously: dress well, show up early, and come prepared to be at least slightly on. It’s a low-stakes situation in which to practice parts of your script. Then, when you have a job interview, you’ve already had recent practice at meeting strangers and talking about yourself. It’s a big help!

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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  1. Craig Jones / August 11, 2019 at 08:04

    When starting a PhD you should question the marketability of your degree…. other than academia. Yes I too have a PhD from UVa… Wahoo Wah.