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From PhD to Life

Transition Q & A: Sonja Streuber


UPDATED The original post included incorrect information. Streuber is an adjunct at Valparaiso’s Graduate School and Continuing Education division, not the College of Adult Scholars.

Sonja Streuber earned her MA in English from the University of California, Davis, where she also spent several years in the PhD program before leaving ABD. She later earned an MSc in engineering management and systems engineering from the George Washington University. Sonja is currently a metrics and risk manager at NiSource and teaches at Valparaiso University’s Graduate School and Continuing Education division. Find Sonja online at, LinkedIn, and follow her @SonjaStreuber.

You left your graduate program ABD, without earning a PhD. Why?

Multiple reasons:

1. The MLA report on the future of PhDs in the profession. When I read that, in my second year of grad school, I knew I wasn’t looking at employment anytime soon.

2. Personal experience. I had colleagues who had already graduated with their PhDs, who were financing their job searches with anything, from adjuncting to playing organ in a movie theater. One of my friends got a visiting assistant prof job at Puget Sound — when it wasn’t extended, she walked into the woods with a shotgun and returned feet first. I actively pulled another one off the window ledge in the office building.

3. Philosophical and social concerns. What difference in this world will another PhD thesis in the humanities make? Whom will it feed and how many wars will it end? Answer: None.

4. Money. I was the sole breadwinner in our family, cobbling together 3 adjunct jobs, an RA-ship, and a weekend stint working at a video store. No health insurance to speak of, no retirement plan. Something more had to happen.

What did you hope for in terms of employment?

That, as the official line was, 50 percent of tenured faculty in my discipline would retire in the 1990s and 2000s, and that a number of full-time tenure-track jobs would be readily available and waiting for sharp PhD graduates. Nobody foresaw the economic reengineering of instructional delivery towards disposable academic laborers — when they should have. But that’s what you get when you put faculty with no business training in charge of entire colleges.

What was your first post-PhD job?

I was a technical trainer at a telecom engineering company called OSI, which was later bought by Agilent. It was an awesome company and a fun job with health insurance, a 401k, and the opportunity to write training manuals, deliver training, and follow a steep technology learning curve.

What do you do now?

1. I manage IT projects for large companies, currently in the energy delivery/utilities market. BUT in order to do so, I had to completely retool myself with a MS degree in Systems Engineering, community college training in programming and database architecture, and professional certifications. I currently do not use anything from my former discipline.

2. I started adjuncting again (now as a hobby instead of for pay) for a small university here, in the area of my second degree and my current professional discipline. I’m also trying to set up some new programs for this university that will allow working professionals to add to their skills, so they can stay current and remain employed. This is where I’m seeing, first-hand, how financially strapped some departments are.

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

Database design, business intelligence (performance data analysis based on international standards), project management, some application design, people management, organizational reporting, financial/budget and schedule management (which is part of project and program management), lots of applied statistics. I teach what I do professionally.

What most surprises you about your job?

That I was able to leverage what I’ve always been good at (coordinating tasks and people and analyzing data) and make more money than I would have as tenure-track faculty. And that I’m seeing more of an immediate impact that my work is making (currently in terms of public safety, low-income financials, etc.) than I would have had writing books about Shakespeare and teaching unmotivated freshmen where to place their commas.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

Seeing results, coming home with a good paycheck and a benefits package, and having time for my family.

What would you change about it if you could?

I’d like to increase the percentage of project management tasks again and decrease the applied statistics / database engineering / business intelligence tasks.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

I don’t know, honestly. I like managing projects and am very happy doing so (and good at it). But I also have some childhood career aspirations that I haven’t yet fully explored, so I might just save up enough $$$, go back to grad school, and become a psychiatrist — one thing I’ve learned from my first academic experience is that disciplines and jobs are temporary and that, if you work your ass off to get your financial legs under you, and live mindfully instead of wastefully, you can empower yourself towards career flexibility.

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

In the humanities: Do the math. If you can afford to search for the job of your dreams for a few years, do that. But while you do that, get yourself a practical MS or MA degree that will eventually net you a paycheck, benefits, and savings. Get yourself a therapist because this transition from academic brainwash to the black hole of “what now?” is depressing and hard and messy and will make you question everything about yourself. And wipe the smarty pants chip off your shoulder.

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. Dr.Doinglittle / October 7, 2013 at 12:18

    I couldn’t have said it better myself.

    Great to hear this story of another survivor who left academe for a better place.

  2. Silvia / October 8, 2013 at 17:48

    I have read many of these post/alt–doc blogs and I keep hoping someone will facilitate a list of licensed therapists/psychologists/psychiatrists with an awareness, perhaps a specialty, in dealing with post–ac stuff. Many years ago I briefly consulted with one such practitioner, but she had an expertise on folks within the academy and, as such, I found her somewhat judgmental and, frankly, ignorant about darker industry issues.

    I’m sure I’m not the only one who wishes we could know of “shrinks” whom we could consult.


    • Jennifer Polk / October 23, 2013 at 15:21

      That’s a wonderful idea, Silvia! I don’t know of anyone… just coaches, which is a different thing. I’ll ask around social media and see if anyone has suggestions!

  3. Jonny Ramone / October 17, 2013 at 17:25

    Moral of the story, don’t do a humanities degree. Or at least couple it with an applied degree that you can use once graduated.

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