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From PhD to Life

Transition Q & A: Sunny Chan, co-op program specialist

Her biggest piece of advice? You absolutely must take the lead for yourself.


Sunny Chan earned her PhD in English literary studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is currently a co-op program specialist at Ryerson University’s Career and Co-op Centre, and also works as a creative writing instructor, artist, and freelance academic editor. You can contact her on LinkedIn.

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

Shortly after I reached ABD (“all but dissertation”), I noticed that signs I wasn’t fully invested in a traditional academic track for my career were beginning to add up. My main interest in being an academic was my writing, but everything that I published and enjoyed working to make publishable wasn’t in my field of specialization. I came to the realization that if it was the main reason holding me to this idea of academia, I could just . . . keep writing and publishing in the fields I like without being an academic, since they clearly wanted my work anyway.

At the same time, I took stock of what I actually liked doing on the teaching side of things, and found that I loved talking to students in one-on-one office hours and absolutely hated grading, wasn’t all that interested in giving large lectures, and wanted to become more involved in the behind the scenes of university administration. Once I forced myself to honestly think through what I actually wanted to do without an assumed premise that it had to be academic-track, I started to figure out ideas for careers where I could do more of what I liked and none of what I hated. For me, that led to wanting to try student affairs and freelancing.

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

I decided to try student affairs as an early dissertator, which in hindsight makes a lot of sense, timing-wise. It’s a time in your PhD when you’re left almost entirely on your own, which can be both very isolating and very liberating. You might feel like no one is supporting your career exploration, and even if you’re lucky enough to have committee members who are emotionally supportive, they don’t have the professional knowledge to practically support you. My most important piece of advice is that you absolutely must take the lead for yourself.

Once you’ve identified some things you want to try, be aggressive in applying for working fellowships outside of your department or even outside of academia if they’re of interest to you. If you see a need in your department, suggest that something be turned into a graduate assistantship role. The worst they can do is say “no.” Many departments now realize they need to be providing more “alternative-academic” opportunities for today’s world, and so are becoming less likely to say “no.”

My first foray into the industry I’m currently in was a 50 percent graduate assistantship as career advisor for undergraduates in the UW-Madison English department; I know many departments are also turning things like communications, technology administration, research coordination, etc. into grad assistantships. If yours isn’t, take the initiative to suggest it, and use your PhD skills to argue for it by providing research and evidence that it’s needed! It will give you the opportunity to explore an industry in a very safe way – if it turns out you don’t like it, you can always go back to TA-ing, and it will build your alt-ac résumé before you graduate.

For those who are past that stage, or even many years after finishing their PhDs, and looking to transition out of academia or out of their current industry, please don’t feel like it’s too late. You can apply the same mindset of figuring out what it is that you love and hate about what you have done before, and with more experience you will be able to know in more detail. Also apply the same mindset of taking the lead for yourself and try to let the feeling that no one is on your side be less a source of frustration (trust me, I know deeply and empathetically how frustrating it can be) and more of a source of freedom.

Explore liberally and aggressively, network with people who are in the industries you’re interested in, and find ways to bring that kind of work into your current role. Some fantastic advice I once got from a colleague in student affairs is that you don’t have to be actively seeking a new job right now to network and put your name out there for special projects. Not only are you building a base for future collaborations, doing something on the side right now that you enjoy enriches your life anyway.

What do you do now? How did you get this job? 

My current primary job is working with students, employers, and academic programs in building, administering, and constantly improving co-operative education at the Ryerson Career and Co-op Centre (RCCC).

I was a Canadian international student in the U.S. while finishing my PhD and managed to land a different role at my current institution. It was a very difficult time because I knew that my resume was up to par, if only I could convince somebody to not throw it away based on my location and seeing the word “PhD”! I reached out directly to someone who worked at the RCCC and went to the school where I did my Master’s. I didn’t know her but it was a starting point for a connection. I got my foot in the door that way, and internally manoeuvred to my current role, which is much more relevant to my interests than the job I began with.

I have also picked up work as a creative writing instructor, poetry reviewer, and freelance editor, all of which I do on the side of my main job. They’re more like monetized hobbies and I’m not currently planning to make them my main sources of income, but they’re ways to sustain my other professional interests that my main job doesn’t utilize.

Moving out of academia does not have to mean that you give up things you really love. You can still figure out ways to keep doing something as an independent scholar, hobbyist, consultant, freelancer, etc., if you really want to. The beauty is that, unlike trying to build a tenure dossier, you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

I love being self-directed and creatively collaborating with others in an environment where everyone is treated as equals. I don’t work well being micromanaged or following someone else’s directions to the letter. Working within higher education is a great fit for me both in terms of work culture and the content of my work. I love talking to students holistically, having a say in how university affairs are carried out, and finding spaces for interdisciplinary collaboration.

As a freelancer, many of the above things (besides administering students) also apply, so it goes back to what I said about figuring out what it is that you like and letting that direct you. Many completely different paths could have those aspects in common, so instead of making your choice based only on specific organizations or rigid roles, you should be led by your interest and aptitude.

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. Farah / September 11, 2020 at 12:56

    What an excellent interview and interviewee – thank you for this enlightening piece!

  2. Shahina Parvin / October 4, 2021 at 14:35

    Thank you for sharing your experiences.