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From PhD to Life

Transition Q & A: Jennifer Askey, YWCA project coordinator


Jennifer Askey earned her PhD in Germanic languages and literature from Washington University in St. Louis and then worked as an assistant, then associate professor of German at Kansas State University, followed by stints as a special project coordinator at Wilfrid Laurier University, and associate professor in Humanities at McMaster University. She’s currently working part-time as a project coordinator at YWCA Hamilton and building Energized Academic, her academic career coaching business. Find her online at and follow her on Twitter @jaskey.

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

phdtolife-jenniferaskey-312My PhD program, like most in the humanities in the 1990s and early 2000s, was entirely focused on placing graduates in tenure-track positions. I learned about the job application process, interviewing, and positioning myself within the field of German studies. There was absolutely no expectation in our department that people would seek employment outside the professoriate.

What did your academic career look like?

Adjunct teaching positions at Wesleyan University and the University of Connecticut. I had small children and was on the job market and these universities were within driving distance of my home. After a year of this, I got a job as an assistant professor of German at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. I stayed there for six years, receiving tenure in 2011.

My husband also worked at KSU but found his career prospects there much less satisfying than I found my own. We had the classic “two-body problem.” When my husband was offered a position with greater opportunities for professional success in Hamilton, I took the plunge and resigned from KSU to follow him.

I wanted to keep teaching but that was easier said than done. After five months in Canada, I took a staff position at Laurier’s Brantford campus, which introduced me to Canadian academia and taught me a great deal. After two and a half years in that position, my husband was able to negotiate a short-term, renewable teaching position for me at McMaster. I taught across three disciplines in the Humanities for two years at McMaster. My contract wasn’t renewed after the initial two years. At that point, I knew I needed to redirect my professional energies. I hired a coach and began to explore what I wanted the next chapter of my professional life to look like.

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

I currently work part-time in employment services at the Hamilton YWCA. It is a contract position centred around report writing and follow-up on a government grant. I found my way into this role after beginning weekly volunteer work at the YWCA after the end of my contract at McMaster.

Additionally, I am building my own academic career coaching business, Energized Academic. I am working on my International Coaching Federation certification and taking courses through CTI.

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

At the YWCA, I do a fair amount of writing as well as editing of written material associated with the project I’m working on (advancing women in non-traditional occupations). I also presented the research and resources associated with the project to various industry, educational, and community groups. I joined the project near its end and had to quickly get up to speed with what had already been taken care of and what still needed to be done. Understanding a bit about how grants function helps here, as does the willingness to ask questions and state clearly what you think you need to do.

The YWCA appreciates my editing abilities and my fearlessness when it comes to speaking to groups of people — skills I honed during my years in academia.

For my coaching business, I write a blog post about three times per month, in which I cover either a practical (what does your CV look like?) or the visionary (what do you want your job to feel like?) aspects of coaching for academics. I set up bi-weekly phone conversations with clients and prepare for those. I am going to begin a series of book reviews on my blog in the new year, in which I review academic self-help and career planning books, so I’m trying to get a jump start on those!

What most surprises you about your job?

Training to be a coach has required me to articulate very clearly my vision for my career and its place in my life. The process of slowing down and looking inside myself for answers to some pretty big questions has brought up lots of pleasant surprises for me!

Working at the YWCA has also brought a few surprises: I’ve learned so much more about the depth and breadth of the employment services they offer. I’ve begun referring women I know who want to start businesses to my colleagues here. As a volunteer, I edited a dozen or so business plans from a women’s entrepreneurship group. I was doing this as I thought about going into business for myself as a coach. Getting insight into how a business is run was a surprise bonus for my volunteer hours!

What are your favourite parts of your job?

This is an easy question to answer: My favourite part of working at the YWCA is that I get to work with a team of interesting women who are doing what I believe to be good work in the world and in our community. Our offices are located downtown, which gives me a different lens on Hamilton than I had when I worked on the university campus. I find the atmosphere there enriching and will miss it when my contract is up.

My favourite part of working for myself as a coach is also easy to identify: I LOVE talking to smart, committed people about their goals and their frustrations. One of the best parts of being a faculty member, for me, was collaborating with colleagues. Coaching professors, graduate students, and people looking for alternatives to the tenure-track gives me ample opportunity to collaborate on building a future with inquisitive, fun, creative people.

What would you change about it if you could?

Right now, the only thing I want to change is my status: I want to finish my training and get certified. I also think I’m ready to stop working for others once my YWCA contract is up, so that I can invest all my time in growing my business.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

I’m committing myself 100 percent to pursuing coaching as my new profession. In addition to working one-on-one with clients, I plan on developing presentations and workshops for PhD students and faculty members at universities. I’d like to expand the services I offer to include leadership coaching; I’d love to work with deans and department heads who are tasked with the unenviable job of steering the ship through uncertain financial and political waters.

There are so many ways I can see my career growing from this point. It’s an exciting place to be!

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

I agree with all of the people who’ve said that your first post-academic job does not have to be a perfect fit. There are plenty of jobs that can teach you something and move your career forward. I also would encourage you to take a long look at your “reserves.” Not just your financial reserves (assuming anyone transitioning out of academia even HAS those!) but your emotional, physical, technological reserves, as well — what is your capacity to weather bumps in the road? If you build your reserve capacity up, by building supports and safeguards into your daily life, then you are likely to be more able to weather any stormy times that may come your way as you leave one industry for another.

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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