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From PhD to Life

Transition Q & A: Maura Elizabeth Cunningham, social media manager


Maura Elizabeth Cunningham earned her PhD in modern Chinese history from the University of California, Irvine in 2014. She’s currently social media manager at the Association for Asian Studies in Ann Arbor, MI. Find her online at and follow her on Twitter @mauracunningham.

phdtolife-qa-mauraelizabethcunningham-300What did you hope for in terms of employment as you completed your PhD?
I was a little bit unusual, in that I knew even before I applied to PhD programs that I didn’t plan to end up on the tenure track. I wanted to be a historian and writer; I didn’t, however, want to spend my career in the classroom. I chose the program at UC Irvine because the professors I talked with there — especially my advisor, Jeff Wasserstrom — understood this from the beginning and did everything they could to help me build up my alt-ac resume while also hitting the regular benchmarks expected of any PhD student.

By the time I finished six years later, I had edited a group blog, The China Beat, and been part of the editorial team that launched ChinaFile, an electronic magazine. I had also written material for a couple of world history textbooks, worked on the editorial staff of two of the major academic journals in my field, built up a decent freelance writing portfolio, done copy editing for cash, and taught at a study-abroad program in Shanghai. I most enjoyed writing and editing, but I was really hesitant to be a full-time freelancer after I finished; I wanted a steady paycheck and a real career, rather than a hodgepodge of short-term jobs like I’d had in grad school.

What was your first post-PhD job?
A month or so after I filed my dissertation, I was hired as a program officer at the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, a non-governmental organization in New York that promotes constructive engagement between the two countries. As a program officer, my primary job was to co-direct the committee’s Public Intellectuals Program, which trains mid-career academics to engage more with the public and policy makers. I also wrote a couple of grant applications, worked on a national day of educational programming about China, and helped get 50 years of committee papers moved to the Rockefeller Archive Center, where they’ll be available to researchers in a year or so.

What do you do now? (How did you get this job?) 
Working at the National Committee was incredibly interesting and taught me a lot about policy making, which hadn’t been a big focus of my previous education. (I also got to be part of a group that rang the opening bell on Wall Street one day, which I never imagined might be something I’d do!) But it involved a lot of travel and long working days when we were gearing up for programs, and I found myself continuously burning the candle at both ends as I tried to find time to work on my own writing and research. I realized that I had to choose which element of my career I was going to focus on — advancement at the committee, or writing — and I decided that since writing had always been my primary passion, that’s what I was going to pursue. But I still needed a “real” job, both for boring practical reasons (health insurance, retirement savings) and because I work more efficiently when I have some structure in my life.

Just about when I was having this epiphany, I heard that the Association for Asian Studies (AAS), the major scholarly organization in my field, was looking to hire a new director of outreach. I applied for the job and was interviewed, but I didn’t get it. However, a couple of weeks later the association came back and asked if I’d be interested in working for them as their social media manager and editor of a new online publication they’d been thinking about launching. These were things that we had talked about during my job interview and represented new initiatives for AAS, and they drew on the skills that I had developed during grad school. I asked if the position could be three-quarters time, which would give me a couple of hours each day to devote to writing, and they agreed, so over this past summer I moved to Ann Arbor and joined the AAS staff.

What kind of tasks do you do on a daily and weekly basis?
Right now, my time at work is mostly split between identifying and setting up our social media posts, and planning for the online publication we’d like to launch in the spring, which will be a blog about Asia with posts written by scholars for a general audience. There are a lot of little pieces to that project that I need to line up — like a name for the blog — so trying to anticipate and plan for everything keeps me pretty busy.

But before I get to the office every day, I have about two hours at home to work on my own projects. I’ve done some short pieces of freelance writing and have been getting back to blogging at my website. Most of my writing time in the past couple of months has been spent on the third edition of a primer on China that Jeff Wasserstrom, my grad advisor, and I are co-writing. And I signed a contract with Oxford University Press two years ago to write a graphic history (part of a series put out by their higher education division); I’ve done some work on that but want to turn my full attention to it in early 2017.

What are your favourite parts of your job?
Although my degrees are all in Chinese history, I’ve never just been interested in China, so I like that working at AAS introduces me to scholars who cover all of Asia. I enjoy finding out what people who specialize in other countries and fields are doing; my books-to-read list grows with every week. I just wish I had time to read everything!

What would you change about it if you could? 
As much as I love and need structure in my life — otherwise I could easily spend entire weeks just watching The West Wing (again), cooking, and knitting — alt-ac jobs rarely account for the “ac.” If I wanted to go on a two-week research trip to China, or present my work at a conference, I’d have to save up my vacation days and forgo using them to do things like visit my family. You also have to be much more pragmatic in your choice of research topic: my next book can’t be something that will require burrowing down for a year in archives across China. Having the possibility of something like a sabbatical after X number of years of working would be really nice.

What’s next for you, career-wise?
I certainly plan to stay at AAS for a while. Aside from that, I’d like to wrap up the writing projects I have in the pipeline right now, most of which have been languishing there for far too long, and move on to some new ones. I’ve been jotting down ideas and am itching to turn at least one or two of them into reality.

What advice or thoughts do you have for post-PhDs in transition now?
Take an accounting class! I’ve had to learn so much more than I ever expected about program budgets and really wish I had come into the workforce with a more solid understanding of how those things work.

More seriously, it bothers me (SO MUCH) when I hear grad students say that they’re “afraid” to tell their advisor that they don’t want to pursue a tenure-track job, or that their advisors would be “mad” if they knew about the student’s blogging or other side hustles. First of all, I have absolutely no patience for the (self-)infantilization of graduate students. But more pragmatically, it’s getting harder and harder to score that tenure-track job, even if you really want it. Developing other skills is just smart these days, and those side hustles can help you make connections that might one day lead to gainful employment. If something truly appeals to you, don’t be afraid to pursue it; it could yield something really great.

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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