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From PhD to Life

Transition Q & A: Tom Westerman


Tom Westerman earned his PhD in history from the University of Connecticut in 2014. He is now an upper school history teacher at Porter-Gaud School in Charleston, SC. He teaches a variety of courses in World History and United States History and also assists with the school’s Model United Nations Club.

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

As completed my Ph.D. I was hoping for a teaching-centric college job. I wanted to be the typical liberal arts college history professor: small classes, idyllic campus, working closely with students and doing some interesting research and writing, but not so much that I was never around. As time went on, though, and after conversations with family, friends, and my advisor, I came to realize that teaching at the secondary school level might actually be more suitable and more closely fit what I saw as my future. So I switched gears the summer before I finished.

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

My first (and current) post-Ph.D. job is teaching history at an independent (private) high school. I got it by working with a placement agency. It was great! Working with a placement advisor meant that I only had to compile one application file. Once I worked on it with my advisor, he sent it to schools with openings. I was able to say, “yes, keep my file there” or “no, I have no interest in that school.” It took a lot of the constant pressure of writing letters or tracking down recommendations. It was all very humane.

What do you do now?

Right now it’s summer and I’m prepping for next year’s classes. At a high school you need to be flexible in what you teach. So, while I spent about a decade teaching US foreign relations and researching and writing about humanitarianism during World War I, I spent my first year teaching ancient world history. It was tough, but I learned a lot. So, this summer I’m working on my courses for next year: Modern World History and the United States survey. I am also going to present some of my dissertation research at a conference, so I’m keeping my hand in the research game a little bit.

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

Teaching is my primary job, so I’m on campus five days a week and in my classroom all day. I teach five out of seven periods a day. I have two preps. In all, I teach about 75 students. I have eleven advisees as well. I don’t teach all of them, but I check in with them each morning, help them with scheduling, and just generally make sure I keep them on track with their coursework. There are, of course, the usual meetings during the day, too.

What most surprises you about your job?

The kids will do the work! (For the most part, of course.) And they want to be challenged. I can (and do) give them difficult things to read or interpret and they will work to rise to the challenge. Yes, since they are 14, 15, 16 years old, they need a little more hand holding or smaller doses of work, but they will engage the material in serious ways — sometimes more seriously than college-aged kids I’ve taught!

What are your favourite parts of your job?

I love when the kids discover something new. They have this sense of wonder unlike many college-aged kids. It’s nice to teach someone something they’ve never known about or to see them come to a realization for the first time. I’m really trying to help my students develop knowledge and not just regurgitate information.

What would you change about it if you could?

More time! Each day is jam-packed and I wish I had some more time during the day or the week to sit with colleagues and talk about teaching or topics. I’d love for there to be more cross-curricular engagement by the kids and faculty. These are on going issues in all facets of education in the United States, so I’ll just do my best to be part of the conversation.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

Well, I hope to be at Porter-Gaud for a while. I still have a lot to learn about teaching high school, so I’ll focus on that. I do plan on being involved with student affairs, advising, and the like through committee work. We’ll see where it all leads, but for now I’m happy where I am and with what I’m doing.

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

Identify what it is you really like doing and see where and how you can do it. I loved the teaching, so I shifted into a role where I’m doing something teaching related 90 percent of the time. If you really love the research, think about where you can employ that skill. Higher education is one avenue, but it’s not the only place for teachers/researchers/writers/communicators.

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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