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From PhD to Life

Transition Q & A: Victoria M. Abboud, program manager


Victoria Abboud, PhD, holds a bachelor of science and honours bachelor of arts degrees from the University of Windsor. She earned MA and PhD degrees in English literary and cultural studies (minor in rhetoric and composition) at Wayne State University. While completing her doctorate, and after seven years of contract teaching, Victoria secured a full-time teaching position at a college in northern Alberta. She then became a college administrator in central British Columbia and Ontario, and is now a program manager at a social innovation hub in Toronto. She has launched a coaching practice for graduate students, the Spirited Academic, and is on her way to becoming a certified yoga instructor. You can follow her on Twitter @vmabboud or connect with her on LinkedIn.

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

I dreamed that I would be a tenured professor at a small liberal arts university. I’d be publishing books and articles, the community would come to hear me speak about my research and about teaching (or I’d be travelling to speak at conferences). And students would feel encouraged in my classes while also experiencing deep learning about themselves and the literary pieces, genres, and periods we studied. I wanted a “life of the mind” that included contribution to postsecondary education as a whole.

Tell us about your work experiences since graduating from your doctorate degree?

I started working full-time when I was ABD: I started with a nine-month teaching contract at a college in northern Alberta and was juggling a 4-4 load plus my dissertation. I had never been to the town (it was a phone interview), but I took a leap of faith. That teaching role stretched to four years due to a series of perceived “flukes” and I earned tenured status there. As an Ontarian, I knew that I would want to return to Ontario at some point so I started looking at other options, but full-time teaching was hard to come by. Although I had published a bit, I wasn’t as prolific as those who were landing assistant professor tenure-track positions. I started to realize that a professorship in nineteenth-century British literature might not be the way for me to progress through my career. Since I was naturally drawn to service and I was intrigued by the inner workings of postsecondary education writ large, I started fulfilling faculty coordinator duties at the college. That effort is what helped me secure a position as an associate dean in a college in British Columbia. From there, I applied for jobs closer to Ontario because moving nearer my family remained important to me for a number of reasons. It was seven years before I moved homeward.

What do you do now?

My title is “Manager, Programs” in talent development at a social innovation hub. My work includes designing and delivering programming for senior-level leaders across sectors (including postsecondary education) to help them guide themselves and their organizations through the innovation economy. Think of it as teaching, combined with administration, all topped off with the future of work and learning.

Last year, I became a certified professional coach and I launched a part-time coaching practice, the Spirited Academic. My intention is to support graduate students as they run the gauntlet of graduate studies. I’ve experienced burnout and the deep scars associated with an academic-focused identity; I want to help others navigate their experiences so that they remember their value as human beings, regardless of the work they pursue. I hope to help them gain insight into the separation of identity between themselves and their work — all to maintain their well-being while earning their degrees.

What made you leave your college position?

I started to realize that the work I had been doing for nearly five years (administration) was guiding me further and further away from my devotion to education. My specific roles necessitated focusing on business and operations more so than adult learning theories, engagement with students, and support of faculty as they navigated their teaching/learning experiences.  In short, I burned out. “Leaving academia” seemed like such a final, life-altering move; it was one of the most difficult decisions of my life.

I took a few months off to regroup, regain my health, and determine what my next steps would be. One of the challenges of shifting away from academia (now, I would never call it “leaving” academia because I no longer believe in the in-out binary of the system) was that I had to break through my underlying beliefs about who I was if I wasn’t a full-time academic employee. My identity and my role were intertwined, and I had ranked my successes against an improbable trajectory, which was based solely on the expectations placed on academics these days. When I graduated in 2010, I learned that only about 10 percent of English PhDs in the United States secured jobs in their fields. I hadn’t known that during my program, and I know now that the stats aren’t much better today. Those kinds of odds are devastating when we think about how much the process of acquiring a PhD affects those who attempt it.

Of the skills you developed as a graduate student, which have been most useful to your professional positions?

Analytical skills have been key. Whether I’m weighing decisions related to people, ideas, or trends in the education sector, the ability to question, to dig deep, and to weigh possible outcomes has been vital. The other capacity is empathy. Through literary and cultural studies, I learned to be empathic with characters, genres, and time periods. Sensitivity to others’ experiences, journeys, and stories — and honouring those—is what has helped me be a better administrator, manager, professor, and human being.

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

Much of my time is spent creating learning opportunities for our audiences, and designing facilitation plans and lessons for workshops. I attend and participate in a lot of meetings related to operations, research, and discussions about education and learning. I also spend time connecting with people to determine their needs based on topics ranging from training goals, to styles of facilitation, to learning support.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

Aside from working with a stellar group of people, my role encourages my creativity and learning. I think about how adults learn, how to facilitate effectively, and how to build programming that is impactful. I work with different people, ideas, research, and global trends about the future of work and learning. The environment is collegial, intellectually stimulating, and folks are devoted to social impact. That’s a win-win-win by my definition!

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

Do not consider your “transition” to be final. One of the biggest mistakes we can make as dynamic and ever-growing individuals is to assume that one decision will set us on a specific course that we can never adjust. It’s simply not true. I don’t consider having stepped away from academia at this moment to be my forsaking it forever. I still study, learn, and teach, and I continue to write in the hopes of publishing. I believe in the possibility, at some point, of returning to the college/university sector in any number of capacities: professor, student affairs, teaching and learning, experiential education, etc. Our contributions to education are only limited by our own drive to serve and our capacities to develop as professionals and as people!

I see the challenges, I see the turmoil, and I see the frustration that academics are experiencing — I am right there with you. However, do not — for one second — believe that you are no longer an academic if you adjust your path. A life of the mind is about fluidity and agility. It’s about moving in ways that enliven your curiosity and fire up your soul. Predetermined definitions about “success” or what we “should” be doing with our degrees are sure-fire ways to demolish confidence and to push intelligent, vibrant minds to lives of anger and unfulfilled potential, and losing those thinkers leaves a gaping wound in our humanity. You have earned your place in the academy, even if your daily work does not appear to be the same work that we have been taught to revere.

Academic institutions and society are built on individuals doing thousands of different tasks and thinking thousands of different ways in order for people — students and others — to develop their whole selves and to contribute to global society. Only a tiny percentage of that work is found in the office of a tenured professor. If we want to encourage higher-order thinking and high-level awareness of our world, then working intellectually, regardless of where that is and what it looks like, is the best use of our credentials.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

I feel great about my current work, but at some point I could also see going back to the classroom or even taking on another type of role at a postsecondary institution. That’s the point I’ve been trying to highlight: I choose not to box myself into a specific role. I believe that academia is open to all of us and it’s clear that the world is evolving exponentially these days. I can’t imagine that my vision of academia from when I first jumped into it over twenty years ago is still valid. My belief in growth and agility are what keep me working. That, and the drive of knowing that purposeful and deep education are absolutely necessary to keep this world afloat.

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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