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From PhD to Life

Transition Q & A: Katie Vahey-Gaebler, independent consultant


phdtolife-KatieVaheyGaebler-322Katie Vahey-Gaebler earned her PhD in higher education & student affairs leadership from the University of Northern Colorado. She’s currently an academic adviser at the University of Colorado Boulder, and is an independent consultant. Find her online at and follow her on Twitter @drkatieGSA.

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

My early time in grad school was a terminal MA in religious studies at University of Colorado Boulder. Employment for my first two years was a teaching assistantship. Having come from a small liberal arts college, I thought I might pursue a faculty role in a similar environment. During my second year I got involved with CU’s graduate student government, and when my TA contract expired, I took a job as their office manager. Becoming involved in campus advocacy issues related to graduate education, I worked with professional student service leaders across campus, and Colorado government members who advocated for higher ed. I got involved in the National Association of Graduate and Professional Students (NAGPS), and in attending a couple conferences, I volunteered for a year on their national board.

Through this work I learned about the higher education and student affairs leadership (HESAL) PhD program at the University of Northern Colorado (UNC). Core tenets of the higher ed/student affairs profession involve advocacy and identity development which were topics I explored in religious studies, so it was not a stretch to switch fields. By then I thought my career would lead to student services administration.

My PhD coursework mainly involved research methods and examining social equity and access to higher education. In my continued work with NAGPS, I heard many stories, for better and worse, about graduate student life. I loved research theory, and worked on a number of publications on both qualitative research and the graduate student experience. For two years I was employed as graduate assistant to student government for the office of student activities at UNC. I did event planning, wrote newsletters and manuals, but wanted to get into institutional research (IR) and program assessment.

I was offered an internship at CU-Boulder to create a professional development training program for housing and dining services employees. The initial program I wrote was approved for funding and I stayed in that internship for nearly three years. In my time there over 500 people completed the program, and now eight years later it’s still going strong (completion is tied to annual review and promotion consideration). While the topic was not related to graduate education, it was a natural dissertation topic, a great community to research, and continues to have a positive impact for it’s community members. Unfortunately, my funding was cut after my second year and there wasn’t another place for me to be employed within that community.

After my data collection, I moved on to a series of temporary positions, but it was too much to balance. I chose take a loan and finish my dissertation, which was a hard decision and the best thing to do at the time.

What was your first post-PhD job?

Being on the job market after I turned in my dissertation was tough. In hindsight during that time I experienced a quintessential case of grad student poor mental health, and isolated myself, which didn’t help my job search. Most IR positions I interviewed for wanted quantitative focused researchers — something I’m not — and at that point I was in a partnership and therefore chose to limit my search locations. I held a couple of adjunct roles and applied to many traditional higher ed positions. Then I was expecting my son, so as I see it “Momma” was my first post-PhD job.

I consider this my first post-PhD job because no matter what other work I do, I will also have my Momma job, and that’s critical in shaping my career direction. For me being a parent has put a lot in perspective and provides meaning for my career decisions, and I feel that’s important to discuss. And when my son born, literally around the same time, I was offered a position I had interviewed for eight months prior, as academic adviser for CU-Boulder’s psychology department. Given my experience on the job market, even though I had intended to stay home with my son, I took the job. I was in that job for three years and found that type of work to be a great fit.

What do you do now?

Advising at CU has had a total reorganization in my four years here, which opened a possibility for me to go part-time and now I work with history undergrads. It suits me, and I hope to stay in that role and schedule for the foreseeable future. Leading up to moving part-time, I worked with many undergrad students who were interested in pursuing graduate education. Discussing grad school was tangential to my advising job description, and early on I was told not to spend much time on that in student appointments, that I should refer those questions elsewhere. My campus doesn’t offer a resource for that, and my Google searches didn’t result what I was looking for either. That’s when I realized I was qualified to answer questions for potential grad school candidates, and started my consulting business, GradSchoolAdviser (GSA). There were some institutional conflict of interest pieces to work out, which took some time, and now that I’m open about what I can offer I’m excited for my GSA work.

My aim with GSA is to support individuals considering graduate education and planning for the application process. Mainly I work with undergrads, recent bachelor, and masters graduates who are considering further academic focused masters or doctoral graduate programs. I help someone figure out what types of programs are best for their ability and goals, we discuss realistic expectations, prioritize to-do lists, general career prospects, and planning and editing service for their applications. I interact with bright, motivated undergrads that tell me the only career they aspire is as tenured faculty; for them I introduce post-PhD career statistics and altac and postac career options. Grad school attrition statistics are estimated at 50 percent, and faculty job placement rates are abysmal; all applicants I’ve worked with are shocked to know that. Perspective grad school candidates need to be conscientious consumers of their higher education, and I want to be a personalized info resource. I help demystify and navigate the grad ed experience and support people up front in their decision to attend.

So I wear three job hats: entrepreneur, momma, and “traditional” academic adviser. There are days it feels like juggle, and I’m slower to build my business than I would prefer, but all these roles fulfill something different in me. I think I’m better for each job because of the variety and perspective with each position.

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

I aim to keep a consistent weekly routine. Each day of the week looks very different, and having an allocated time to focus on particular tasks helps me feel productive. About 20 hours per week are my traditional advising job. I meet with students, review their records, support course selection and create academic plans, discuss personal issues that impede academics, help navigate campus resources, answer faculty questions, publish newsletters on campus opportunities and registration deadlines, and lots of email. Any additional available work time goes to GSA. I aim for more networking right now, and participating in conversations and presentations about graduate education where possible. I have a couple undergrad honours courses where I will guest present later this term, and hope to do more of that. I offer clients a range of service from a comprehensive package to editing separate application pieces. Individual work with clients includes answering email questions, reviewing personal reflections, creating to-do lists with them, periodic video conferences, and editing materials. As well I work on my website, create resource documents, and write blog posts. My son needs lot of my time, he’s in school part-time and the rest with me, so that requires balance. I cherish his naps, they are my “power hour”.

What most surprises you about your job?

I’m well suited for entrepreneurship, and also working in a traditional academic setting keeps me connected to realities facing university affiliates. I’ve had a lot of experience working independently, and I like being self-reliant. And, I’m grateful for my colleagues at CU. I’m open about the many job hats I have to wear, and I feel fortunate to currently have a supervisor who sees the cross benefit and encourages all my roles. Not everyone I encounter among my traditional university community sees the cross-benefits, so I’m cautious in some social circles to share in entirety what I have going on. But my experiences have allowed me to know how I best thrive, and balancing multiple roles serve different parts of me in the best possible way. I’m excited for the personal growth that in time will come with the current juggle.

What are your favourite parts of your job? What would you change about it if you could?

My favorite parts are the variety, perspective, and helping young adults that are amid big life decisions. I’ve had a number of students that started working with me when they had someone tell them whatever career requires them to go to grad school, but they didn’t know any difference between types of degrees and were generally average as an undergraduate. With regular meetings and their follow through with to-do lists we discussed, each of them separately graduated with great academic records and are pursuing grad programs that are a good fit for them. That’s work I am proud of, it’s fulfilling to know I helped make a difference in the lives of those individuals. As far as what to change, there is always something that needs to be done that is not my best strength. Either you just do it to the best of your ability, or find a way to ask for help. Inevitably there is a fire to extinguish that upends my schedule and requires flexibility, which for me is tough. Or not enough time to finish some project as thoroughly as I prefer. I’m learning adaptability, that’s a work in progress. I try to not get hung up on the tough stuff, and I’m getting better at asking for support when I need it, otherwise it takes away from the pieces I most enjoy.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

Keep building my business, one small step at a time. I’ll continue to create and make accessible electronic resources for prospective grad students, and I have a couple of presentations forthcoming. I want to do more writing and publish, which includes building my social media. When my son is a bit older I aim to take on more individual clients. I enjoy qualitative research and program assessment work, and long term aim to grow those skill sets in what I offer with GSA. I’m not intending to forego my traditional Advising job any time soon, and the location flexibility potential of just doing GSA is appealing. My partner is in science, and for us it’s figuring out balance for a two-career family. It takes effort and work, and I’m excited for all of it.

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

Be kind to yourself during this transition, and use support when and where you need it. Finishing PhD work and moving on to a next life stage is a huge transition and no one needs to figure it out alone. You know yourself best, and following your instinct will be your best approach. Don’t sell yourself short, regardless of your circumstance, and at the same time any post-grad professional experience can be valuable. If an opportunity can fit your situation, even if it seems entry level, take a chance. You never know, what might seem like a small potential today could turn into a life changer down the line.

The landscape of higher ed has changed drastically in recent years, which means three things:

  1. Globally, the higher ed industry is at a precipice, and that means there is ripe opportunity for private market support services.
  2. Most people are not following a traditional PhD path into faculty, so don’t “should” yourself. The altac track is continually growing, so find and define your niche, and talk about the unique talent you can offer.
  3. Among the general public there are plenty of misnomers and stigma around PhD earners. The more productive conversation that takes place about what PhDs can offer the world, the more altac opportunities can open up, and PhD programs can support their candidates early on with better tangible career development. There are tons of forums and resources, join the conversation and tell your story.
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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