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From PhD to Life

Transition Q & A: Niem Huynh, manager of graduate student recruitment


Niem Huynh earned her PhD from Wilfrid Laurier University in geography (geography education). She is currently enjoying her role as manager, graduate student recruitment at Concordia University where she works with stakeholders to implement timely and meaningful connections with prospective graduate students.

Niem is an explorer of career opportunities, having worked in the high school, university, and non-profit sectors. You may find her weaving between crowds of people, lending her ear to acquaintances who share their employment trajectories. Niem’s interest in supporting graduate students, whether searching for a fitting graduate program or meaningful career, and was ignited by her own journey. Professional work took her to Texas, for an assistant professor position. This was followed by leaping to a research role in a non-profit organization in Washington, DC. Feeling like the Canada goose, she traced her roots back to Canada where she has since enjoyed being a career adviser, working primarily with graduate students. Today, Niem leverages her suite of transferable skills to manage graduate student recruitment.

©Concordia University; photo by Lisa Graves

Tell us about your work experiences since graduating from your doctorate degree?

I have been tremendously fortunate in my employment history. Part of this is meeting wonderful mentors along the way and taking risks to try new things.

After my doctoral defence, I was busy packing my bags and working on immigration documents for an academic position in Texas. For a geographer, this was the perfect transition. In this new geographic location, I soaked up the physical environment, food, and local cultures. Although I was growing personally and professionally in my academic post, I wanted to explore new work environments outside of the academic world, where I could use different sets of skills. So, I took my first risk, leaving a tenure-track position to pursue research at a non-profit organization.

Once in Washington, DC, the new job offered me a platform to conduct research, attend conferences, and meet with many researchers in geography. My first lesson here is that I could still be part of research and spend time with academics outside of a university setting. My second lesson is that I could engage with learners differently, outside of the formal classroom. I enjoyed this interaction where the power of knowledge was more equalized and learners interacted fruitfully. For example, I co-presented networking workshops at national conferences and talked to high school students about mapping and food deserts.

Like the Canada goose, this productive adventure led me full circle back to Canada.

How did you find a job upon returning to Canada?

When I returned to Canada, my new home was Montreal. Living in a new city was a deliberate decision and the second risk that I took.

I leveraged my geography network and asked if anyone had professional contacts in Montreal. Supportive geographers were especially generous and introduced me to members of their networks, which helped me secure even more informal meetings. These encounters provided me with important information about the city, what makes a candidate stand out, and where I might look for opportunities. None of these information interviews led to a job, but they opened my eyes that people were willing to share their time and valuable information.

Spurred by these productive conversations, I went in search of organizations I wanted to be part of. The process was not random: I reflected on my skillsets, environments where I have thrived and would like to work, and challenges I wanted to grow from. I mapped out the location of these organizations and meticulously approached each one for an information interview.

Information interviews may not result in an immediate job offer, but if done right, the face-to-face meeting could be a fantastic opportunity to showcase your skills. One interviewee remembered me and sent me a notice of an upcoming opening. This was the beginning of a very happy work experience with graduate students in a staff position.

Of the skills you developed as a graduate student, which have been most useful to your professional positions?

There is an opportunity to learn in any given situation. I credit both my academic and personal activities (e.g. Graduate students association, private tutoring, spending time with family and friends) for helping me accumulate a complementary set of hard and soft skills.

  1. Public speaking. As I was writing my dissertation, a friend introduced me to a public speaking club. We congregated weekly, spoke to strangers, and received constructive evaluation. I am still part of Toastmaters International and have benefited from being a member in many ways. One element of my work is to communicate to prospective students the value of our programs, so it is really valuable to listen actively and give compelling reasons to consider Concordia.
  2. Negotiation and persuasion. I learned these skills while serving the graduate students association, dealing with student complaints, health plan providers, etc. Colleagues have different portfolios and responsibilities, and to respect this it is important to reach agreements that satisfy both parties.
  3. Writing. Practice writing for different audiences in addition to academics, whether blogging, writing a column for a magazine, or a technical report. In the workplace, it is important to be able to write concisely and to the point.
  4. Ask questions. As researchers, we are well positioned to pose questions. The key is to know when and what questions to ask (e.g., to gain information for clarity or to move the project forward).
  5. Thinking in various scales. As a geographer, I am trained to think in large and small scales, moving seamlessly between the two. This has been incredibly useful in all of my positions. When I ponder a new initiative or an obstacle, I think about it from multiple scales (e.g., from the perspective of the students, administrators, or colleagues) to tease out the core issues and potential solutions.
  6. Attention to detail. Part of this predilection also comes from my geography training. Having created and looked at maps in detail, I zoom in on small details. As a manager, I am responsible to ensure that data and information are correct before passing them to my supervisor, who may well make decisions grounded in my analysis.

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

Take risks and try new things! My biggest gains were achieved when I moved to unfamiliar environments, met people outside of my usual circle, and worked in positions I had not previously known. Take your time to assess the landscape before you jump.

Ready? Here are two places to start:

  1. Conduct information interviews: Use your warm (people you know) or cold (someone in a company you do not know, perhaps in person or through social media) contacts to learn about the hiring process, their employment trajectory, and their suggestions for you. Powerful “insider” information could be gained here.
  2. Visit the career centre on campus: It is never too early to see a career adviser. Your career centre has pertinent resources and professional expertise to help you prepare for your job search. Key items to have in your toolbox:
    • Be familiar with your strengths, limitations, and fears (do not let fear hold you back);
    • Learn about the vast world of positions in private, non-profit, government, and university sectors;
    • Ask about salary ranges for specific employment sectors and how they might differ by location and years of experience;
    • Prepare and be ready to deliver impressive interviews;
    • Create templates of a resume, CV, and cover letter for different employers and positions.
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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