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From PhD to Life

Transition Q & A: Rebecca Dirnfeld, career consultant


Rebecca Dirnfeld joined Ryerson University’s career centre in September 2014, and acts as a career consultant in the faculty of science. Additionally, she offers guidance to students and graduates on the job hunt through social media and via her website, Graduates in Transition, providing students a space to share personal experiences in developing their career pathways. Rebecca is a recipient of the Michael Cooke Student Leadership Award (2014) and the Career & Work Counselor Student Leadership Award (2014) from George Brown College, in recognition of her efforts to enhance students’ engagement in their career development. She holds an MA History, University of Ottawa and BA History, University of British Columbia. Follow her on Twitter @rdirnfeld1.

Rebecca-Dirnfeld_263You left a PhD program. What happened?

When I began my PhD in 2009, I knew I did not want to stay in academia forever and become a professor or researcher. I had trouble identifying the application of my education (and my focused dissertation topic) to future job prospects. After working as a teaching assistant and volunteering as a peer mentor, I realized I wanted to help other students, like myself, figure out their career pathways. I had struggled to find adequate resources as a graduate student to assist me in making my own career transition, and had colleagues who experienced the same. Feeling very passionate about addressing this issue motivated me to withdraw from my PhD program after three years and pursue a new career goal in student advising.

What did you hope for in terms of employment?

While I was interested in transitioning into student advising and mentorship, I was not familiar with the various other departments in universities and colleges that assisted students. I hoped to get my foot in the door in a university or college through an administrative position and learn more about advising roles. However, I also wanted some hands-on experience and educational training that complemented my years as a teaching assistant and peer mentor – something that would tie it all together. I registered in George Brown College’s career and work counselling diploma program. This program met my criteria in three key areas for my professional growth:

  1. Focused learning on a topic I was passionate about and intrigued by.
  2. Hands on skill development taught by industry professionals.
  3. Two opportunities for experiential learning and networking in practicums – one of which I did in a university setting.

What was your first post-diploma job?

I’d like to say that my first post-diploma job was creating and publishing my website, Graduates in Transition. Although this was not a paid position, I consider it my first professional venture into the field of career counselling. Soon after graduation I began working for a company called Eisen Consulting (outplacement services) as a career researcher and client services administrator.

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

In the fall of 2014 I began working at Ryerson University as a career consultant. I work in both the career centre and in the faculty of science, as part of a faculty-based career development model. I applied for this position as an external candidate.

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

My role consists of a variety of tasks – I never feel like I repeat the same day twice! Centrally, in our career centre, I facilitate workshops, career chats, and meet with students for 1:1 appointments. I also work on a number of ongoing projects. In faculty, I collaborate with student course unions and groups to run career related events and workshops, as well as in-class presentations. I also liaise with industry professionals and faculty members to plan a variety of events for science students that speak to their professional development and career planning. Administrative work is required to stay organized and ahead of the game.

What most surprises you about your job?

Working with students. Students are amazing. They can be eager to learn, focused and goal oriented. They can also be lost, distracted, disinterested and anxious. I’m drawn to both sides of the coin, because I’ve experienced both. There were times during my university studies that I felt disengaged and lacking agency. There were also times when I felt empowered, motivated and accomplished. What surprises me about students is their ability to overcome their challenges and celebrate their successes as they happen over and over again. I see myself in each student, and this makes my job so worthwhile.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

Again, working with students. Although I must say, I work with a fantastic team. I’ve always been drawn to learning. I think most students who pursue graduate level training find something magical about being in a higher education setting. Being able to collaborate on projects, sit on committees, and engage with faculty members and staff in my profession is a dream come true. I’m also lucky enough to share my learning and doing with colleagues across the country and the United States – another favourite part of my job. Presenting and networking at conferences is something I’ve always loved about academia, and I continue to be supported by my director in showcasing the work I am doing and meeting others who are doing the same.

What would you change about it if you could?

There is no way around a busy school year! There are times when it can be hard to balance the workload. I don’t think I’d change it though, because that’s the nature of an academic and co-curricular learning environment.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

Continuing to build my professional portfolio as a career consultant at Ryerson. I look forward to growing in my role as a faculty consultant by initiating new programming and working with industry partners. Being a part of Ryerson student affairs (#RyersonSA) has opened my eyes to the different ways we work with students, and I continue to be surprised by the interesting work others are doing around me. Collaboration is always on my mind.

What advice or thoughts do you have for ABDs and PhDs in transition now?

From my experience, transitioning has both its challenges and successes. My advice is to not be overwhelmed by either. Work through the challenges, step by step. Don’t be dismayed if success doesn’t come right away, and when it does come, acknowledge it, however big or small it is. I remember feeling a wave of success wash over me when I walked into my diploma program after three years of doing my PhD. For some, this would seem like a challenge (and for even others, a failure) because I had walked away from a high level graduate degree to pursue a diploma, with no guarantee of a career. Yet in my heart and gut I felt confident this was the right choice for me, and that, in and of itself, was a success. I listened to my needs, created a plan and followed through.

Transition isn’t easy. Be mindful of what you are feeling, what is triggering certain emotions, and how you are coping. We can’t always be strong when faced with challenges. It’s OK to feel what you are feeling. Just remember, there is support out there. There are people to talk to. Most importantly, there is always a new path that can be taken.

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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