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From PhD to Life

Transition Q & A: John Robertson


John Robertson earned his PhD in medical biophysics from the University of Western Ontario in 2011. He currently works for the Techna Institute in Toronto as a Research Communications Officer. John also recently published a book on investing for regular people called The Value of Simple: A Practical Guide to Taking the Complexity Out of Investing that applied all of his skills at explaining complex scientific things to the field of personal finance. You can also find him blogging at

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

I’ve always had a very fuzzy view of the future. I knew there were lots of things I would be happy doing, including traditional academia, supporting research, teaching or working in industry. Every day I’d picture myself doing something different, and it all seemed equally good, so I mostly focused on learning things, building my skills and keeping doors open.

I originally went into grad school and research for a number of reasons, one of which you could say was to “do good.” So I was hoping to work either on medical technology or in the not-for-profit sector in general, but it wasn’t an absolute requirement for me. I always tried to keep my eyes and options open beyond research, but I was pretty clueless as to the range of things I could apply my skills towards and enjoy.

What was your first post-PhD job? What do you do now?

I did a stint as a post-doctoral fellow, and depending on your definition of job, created side businesses as a personal finance educator or “money coach” and as a freelance writer/editor. I’ve kept these up as side projects, which led me down the path to self-publishing a book called The Value of Simple, which really brought all my skills into play: writing, editing, layout, translating complex information into approachable terms, managing a project to a deadline, and research.

My current position as a Research Communications Officer at the Techna Institute is my first full-time, non-academic job. It involves wearing a number of hats for communicating research in different ways: sometimes I’m translating a recently published paper into a short lay summary for our website or newsletter, while other times I’m editing and structuring grant proposals.

How did you get your job?

After grad school I was looking to move back to Toronto for family reasons, and I actually found this position the old-fashioned way: through a posting and application. It wasn’t until after I had the job that I found out one of the factors in my favour was my personal blog. I didn’t include it in my CV as it’s far from professional, but one of my former supervisors pointed my new boss to it while giving a reference for me. And while the content may not have been professional or related at all to science, it did at least demonstrate that I could write, and that I had been enthusiastic about writing on my own time for years.

So switching from science to writing is something that made a lot of sense for me. I never expected to hold up my personal blog as part of my portfolio, but it was there, demonstrating to the world that I had the capabilities and the interest to make writing the focus of my career – it wasn’t just words on a cover letter.

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

I work on articles for lay audiences and on other reports, but the biggest part of what I do is helping with grant applications. I write, edit and re-write material to try to make things as clear as possible. After all, there is nothing more frustrating than losing a grant because a reviewer didn’t understand what you were proposing to do.

Working on grants sounds like the last thing you might want to do coming out of academia, as it’s often a sore point for faculty young and old. But it’s a very different attitude and headspace around them when preparing the grant is the project, instead of a stressful and time-consuming step on the way to the project you really want to do.

What most surprises you about your job?

I was actually most surprised to find just how valuable a grant writer can be on a research team. There I was working with world-class researchers who already have strong track records for funding, figuring at best I would help free up some of their time so that they could focus on research, but I was actually able to add some value, helping to create clearer, more successful applications. Often just by asking questions; my PhD in a related discipline makes me a non-specialist, but still technically minded – just like many grant review panel members. So if something doesn’t make sense to me, it may not make sense to the people deciding whether or not to fund the grant.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

Definitely the amazing team I get to work with, the capabilities they bring and the positive attitude they have in tackling tasks. It’s a very supportive group, but full of editors there’s always a lot of constructive criticism, so practically everything that comes out of our office gets at least one round of polishing by a second set of eyes. That leads to an attitude of continuous improvement – something you read about a lot but is just part of their personalities here. I’ve also learned a lot about design and layout by working beside them.

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

I could go on about translational skills and developing skills that you may need in any work environment, like communication and writing skills, but everyone’s heard that already – though do be sure to take it to heart, dear readers.

Instead I’ll suggest that you go and build a business or do some freelance work to get some non-academic experience and see how the skills you have can be in demand. Whether it’s editing papers, tutoring, blogging, writing phone apps or mowing lawns. Or do it for free and go volunteer somewhere. It’s a great way to figure out what you want to do, to get some more variety in your life, and to force yourself to quickly learn about things like bookkeeping and filing taxes, or talking with clients and people outside academia. And if it works out really well, it may help you build that transition pathway.

Being an election year I also have to suggest going out and working for Elections Canada. It’s a day or two of work, and it’ll give you a nice little top-up for your pizza fund. But the real reason I’m making the suggestion is that working for Elections Canada is a great way to get insight into processes. They have to put on this huge effort in a short amount of time with a largely unskilled, minimally trained workforce, all while upholding the highest level of accountability to the Canadian people and democracy. And they just do a fantastic job at it. Look at their manuals, their procedures, and soak it all in. Moreover, it’s a great kick in the pants – for one day it’s a good distraction from academia, and you’ll likely come out feeling very competent and reassured of your ability to learn and follow directions. But you’ll also likely realize that whatever you end up doing every other day of your life, you will want it to involve more intellectual stimulation, which can be motivating in its own way.

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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