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From PhD to Life

Transition Q & A: Melissa Dalgleish


Melissa Dalgleish is the research officer in the faculty of graduate studies and a PhD candidate in English at York University. She researches Canadian literature and graduate education, professionalization, and reform. When she’s not working on her dissertation, you can find her writing for Hook & Eye and #Alt-Academy, where she’s the co-editor of Graduate Training in the 21st Century. Find her online at Hook & Eye and follow her @meldalgleish.

You’re currently a PhD candidate but took a full-time job last year. Why?

I realized about midway through my PhD that I really wasn’t sure that I wanted to be a professor, and that my chances of becoming one weren’t great even if I did. My academic employment options were majorly limited by the fact that I wanted to stay in Toronto and I’m in a field that typically has about two jobs per year. I also came to realize that there are many elements of the professorial life that just don’t suit me. I spent a long time after that realization figuring out what I could do instead, and how I could translate my graduate education and skills into another field. Like the academic I was, and am, I tackled it as a research problem and gathered extensive data and opinions about graduate reform, career development, and professionalization. In doing this work, I came to the realization that those issues — the failure of academia to prepare us for a variety of careers, the treatment of those who don’t land tenure-track jobs like an invisible underclass, the ways that the academy could be reshaped or reimagined so that it met the needs of more people — were what I was really passionate about. I then started looking for opportunities that would let me tackle and create responses to those issues in real and meaningful ways.

Right after I started looking for opportunities to work on these issues, I found a research assistantship in the faculty of graduate studies at my university that let me research professional development programs and graduate reform in the context of what was on offer, and what was sorely lacking, at my university and across the country. It was a phenomenal opportunity, because it meant that I got to find out just what exactly our university was doing to address the reality of the academic job market and prepare its graduates for all sorts of careers, and I got to make recommendations about what we should be doing to better serve graduate students that had a good chance of actually being implemented. What power! When a job came open in that same faculty, one that would let me keep working on professionalization and represent the needs of graduate students at the administrative level, I jumped at it. I wasn’t intending to start looking for a job until I had defended — that was the only job I applied for — but I ended up getting it. I’ve been in the role for over a year now.

What do you do now?
I’m a research officer at York University, one of about a dozen (including Jamie Pratt, who did a Transition Q&A for you a couple of years ago). However, my job is a bit different from that of the dozen other research officers at York, because I support graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in research-related activities, rather than faculty members. I coordinate all of our scholarship and fellowship competitions, develop applications for major grants and awards, oversee graduate research that requires ethics approval or intellectual property agreements, and coordinate graduate research and professional skills events and programs, including the Three Minute Thesis competition and our Graduate Professional Skills (GPS) program.

I have a favourite story about my transition into administration that always makes me laugh when I think about my job title. When I was very early in the PhD, I was walking down a hallway with a group of fellow PhDs, and we were talking about what we could possibly do if we didn’t become professors. We were very much still at the stage in our studies when we all assumed that we’d become tenure-track professors. Janet Friskney, another research officer here, overheard our conversation and tapped me on the shoulder. She then told us about her job and how much she liked it, and that she had a PhD and an active research practice alongside her day job. For a long time, that conversation was a touchstone — evidence that I could do something other than be a professor, but still be an academic, and have a career I love. Janet was exactly right, and we’re now colleagues.

What kind of tasks do you do on a daily and weekly basis?
The only real constant is that I get up at 5:15 every morning to work on my dissertation for a couple of hours before heading to the office. One of the things that I love once I’m at my desk is that no two days are ever the same. Some days I might be reviewing scholarship and research ethics proposals, analyzing data about our application and success rates, and coordinating professional development seminars. Other days I might be talking to groups of students about writing research proposals or making strategic choices about what they do in their graduate degrees to ensure that they have the most post-degree flexibility. Some weeks I spend most of my time writing policy papers and reports on graduate research and funding for the dean, the provost, or senate, or helping adjudication committees make tough decisions about who gets a scholarship. I love the weeks that I get to spend most of my time editing and developing applications for major graduate and postdoctoral fellowships. Other times, I’m off at seminars or conferences in other parts of the country, talking about graduate reform and professionalization to deans, faculty members, or students.

What most surprises you about your job?
One surprise was just how much I use the skills I honed as a graduate student — analysis, synthesis, writing, teaching, evaluation, research, project management, editing — and how important they are to being able to do my job well. Reviewing and editing grant proposals is not all that different from grading a stack of assignments, although I enjoy it far more. I’m good at helping others develop funding applications now because I learned how to do it well as a graduate student, and because my English training makes it easy for me to teach others to identify and reproduce rhetorical techniques and organizational structures that are key to a successful research proposal.

Another surprise is how much my day-to-day experiences as a graduate student make my job easier and make me better at it. Although I didn’t interact much with the faculty of graduate studies as a graduate student, coming into the research officer role knowing how the university works, how all of its parts fit together, and the right people to talk to about various issues has made my job so much easier. Having doctoral training and a successful track record of winning grants also gives me quite a bit of additional credibility with students and faculty, which only makes my job easier.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is just how much I love my job. I didn’t realize until I started working in the faculty of graduate studies how much mental and emotional energy I was wasting in trying to negotiate a lifestyle that just didn’t suit me. Despite being an introvert, I thrive on working in an office with other people, rather than at home alone with my cat (as I was when I was writing my dissertation full-time). I love the structure of a 9-5 schedule, particularly the freedom to leave work at work when I go home. There is no boundary between work and life as a PhD student, and those are boundaries I need. And I get to do things I love every day — writing, working with graduate students, researching, and finding ways to make graduate education better.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

There are lots, but I’ll list just three:

1) Demystifying grant writing for students: I love being able to break down the key components of a research proposal for students in a way that makes sense and is adaptable to the specifics of their project. We don’t often do a good job of explicitly teaching graduate students how to do the core work of being an graduate student — writing research proposals, writing the dissertation, giving presentations, writing articles — and doing what I can to change that is very rewarding.

2) Representing the graduate student perspective to senior academic administration. As I’m still an active graduate student — I’m planning to defend this coming summer — I also have the opportunity to make sure that the needs and experiences of graduate students are represented at the upper levels of administration, a perspective which sometimes gets lost when decisions are largely being made by faculty and staff long out of school. I work with a dean who is very forward thinking about the future of graduate education, and about the ways in which the academy can better serve its students in an era when the majority of them don’t remain in academia, and I love thinking and talking about what those changes might look like, and working toward ways we can enact them. A great example of this is a talk I gave this fall at an academic administrator’s conference: I was on a panel about graduate professional skills development with two graduate deans, and I got to talk about my experience as a graduate student who advocates for those services, used them in her own career development, and now coordinates a professional skills program. There would not normally be a representative of the graduate student perspective at that kind of event, and as professors and administrators, I don’t think we can effectively meet the needs of the graduate community if we don’t listen to what they are.

3) Working directly with students on developing their fellowship applications, especially helping them figure out how to describe complex research in ways that make sense, and are compelling, to people from outside of their field. We have some extraordinarily brilliant and accomplished students, and it’s such a pleasure to help them succeed at securing funding and recognition for the groundbreaking work they’re doing.

What would you change about it if you could?
I would like to wear fewer hats, and to have more time for reflection and analysis. All of the critiques in popular media about the expansion of university administration are valid, but that expansion is happening at levels far above mine. There’s just one of me, and I support 59 graduate programs and 6,000 graduate students, so I’m spread pretty thin. This is the case for everyone in the office of the dean, where I work, and across the university — we all seem to be doing more with less, and it doesn’t leave much time for that big picture thinking and analysis of the ways that we could do things better. It’s disheartening to feel like we could be doing things so much more effectively, if only we had the time and resources to carefully assess how we do things and implement better processes and systems. I’d also love less email to answer!

What’s next for you, career-wise?
Finishing my PhD will open a number of doors, career-wise, so that’s first on the priority list. I’m lucky to have bosses who see the value of a doctorate and are helping me — through an adjusted schedule, mentorship, and flexibility about time off to write — to finish as soon as I can. This supportiveness is definitely at least in part a function of still working in an university environment, but given that a PhD is not a job requirement for my current role, I’m so appreciative that they’re looking out for my future.

Ultimately, I’d like to end up in a more senior role that will let me shape graduate education, locally or nationally, in ways that are responsive to the changing purpose of graduate school and to the needs and lived experience of graduate students during and after their degrees. The PhD is no longer an apprenticeship, not for most people, and our job now is to figure out what needs to change and how, and how to make changes to graduate education that aren’t reactive, but that will serve us and our students well now and long into the future. What that role might be, and where, I don’t know yet — it might be in university administration, it might be somewhere like the Council of Ontario Universities, or it could be a government role.

Wherever I end up, the number of possible positions I could move into, and the diversity of those positions, is exciting. The career path of a tenure-track professor is extraordinarily linear, and I think I would be bored by it. I used to fear not knowing what would come next, but now that I’ve started down a different path that feels right, I’m totally open to the possibilities.

What advice or thoughts do you have for ABDs or PhDs in transition now?
I’m actively against the doctrine of “do what you love,” because I think it traps a lot of people in unstable and low paying jobs, like adjuncting, because they love what they do so much that they’re willing to accept inequitable and exploitative working conditions. But I do think that one of the first steps toward transitioning out of academia is identifying the things that you’re good at doing and that you like doing, and then figuring out what kinds of jobs would let you do those things. The book So What Are You Going to Do With That? was one of the major tools I used to figure that out for myself. For many people in transition, a real turning point is the moment that they figure out that there are other jobs they might enjoy as much as, or more than, being an academic. That has definitely been the case for me.

The other crucial step in transition is learning how to identify the skills we develop as graduate students and then learning how to translate those skills and experiences into terms that make sense in the working world. We develop an extraordinary range of skills as graduate students — project management, research, analysis, synthesis, community engagement, teamwork, critical thinking, writing, public speaking, and on and on — but we don’t develop the ability to talk about our skills in terms that make sense in the non-academic world or in the terms that show up in job postings. And unlike in the academy, it’s rare that your subject-specific knowledge is going to be what gets you a job outside the tenure-track — it will normally be your skills and competencies that gets you in the door, and that’s quite different from how we’re trained to think about what we learn in grad school.The ability to identify and translate our skills is not what we’re trained to do, but learning how to do it is crucial to figuring out what we can contribute, identifying where we might to put our skills and knowledge to use, and getting interviews. Luckily, our graduate training teaches us how to learn, and how to pick up and use context-specific language, so doing that skills-translation work is often quite easy once we get started.

My last bit of advice is aimed at people who are preparing to transition but are still in the PhD, and this post I wrote for Hook & Eye is a good place to start. Take advantage of every resource available to you at the university before you leave. Take all of the professional development workshops you can, especially the ones offered by Mitacs and others that teach skills that aren’t emphasized in the day-to-day work of grad school. You may not actually learn too much new in these workshops — most graduate students have already picked up quite a lot of this along the way — but you will learn how to talk about your skills in non-academic terms, and you’ll be able to put that skill-specific training on your resume. Find out if your university’s career centre has a graduate-specific counsellor — many do — and go see them for help with resume writing, networking, and interview prep. Find out if your program or university has alumni connections you can call on, especially as a way to find people whose transition stories you can learn from, and as a way to set up informational interviews with people who are in fields you’re interested in entering. One of the major barriers to exploring other career options is a lack of knowledge about what people with the same degree you have are doing off the tenure-track — see if your program or university can help you find out, and if they’re not collecting that data, push for them to start. Use the time you have left in the PhD, hopefully while you still have funding, to build your network and make plans. That way, when it’s time to leave, you’ve already laid the groundwork for a smooth transition.

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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  1. Sandy / November 20, 2014 at 02:09

    I appreciate the sharing and shedding light on the realities that we encounter. As well, I will use your approach to see where possibilities can lead me.

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