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From PhD to Life

Transition Q & A: Susan Marie Martin, independent academic and international educator


Susan Marie Martin earned her PhD in applied social studies from University College Cork, National University of Ireland. She’s currently an international educator at a private school in the Middle East, and an independent academic and researcher. Find her online at and follow her on Twitter @smariem13.

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

I actually re-asked myself that question about six months after I defended. When I started I had no grand illusions about either a single path such as an academic or a consulting career. I hoped to make a comfortable living with sustainable earnings that would allow for me to pursue several independent or freelance roles. I knew that would not mean huge earnings, property ownership, and a new pension plan, but that is fine for the stage I am at in life as I am happy to live frugally.

I know people in academia on both sides of the Atlantic and knew why they had become disillusioned. Based on my exposure to the international business community I knew that, after the financial collapse of 2008, the status quo had, largely, become contractual work instead of permanent, life-long employment in many sectors. Thus, I envisioned a blend of part-time roles or long-term contracts that included post-secondary teaching, policy work, consulting, research, and writing. Part of me really wanted the independence of deciding who I worked for and for how long. I also knew that, if circumstances dictated, I could continue to teach internationally in a secondary post and would figure out how to fit in the rest within the demands of a full-time teaching contract.

What was your first post-PhD job?

My first post-PhD job is the same job I was doing in the final year of my PhD. It is my current job: I teach international curriculum in both the international baccalaureate diploma and American diploma programs at a private school in the Middle East.

I started my PhD in 2010 and was self-funded. I left a full-time secondary teaching post at a private school in the Netherlands to begin full-time study in Ireland. Late in 2011, as the ripple effect of the economic downturn was beginning to be felt across Irish society, I decided that I would have to return to full-time teaching on the international circuit or continue to watch my savings be depleted. I am determined and stubborn, and so I did finish on time while working full-time in the final two years.

What do you do now?

My title is independent academic and international educator. My full-time job finances my research addiction. A classroom is a classroom, no matter the age of the students or the level of academic expertise. I am fortunate in that I teach in the IB diploma program and so the content of my course – language and literature, – is in my field of expertise. I love to engage with young adults in these topics and so do they, particularly when dealing with power imbalances and controversial topics.

I also love to teach research skills and send students out to conduct field work. Anyone can contribute to the body of knowledge in any discipline. When they are following a research question of their choice they are very enthusiastic. I also make it a point to discuss my research with them, share questions I am pondering, and invite their feedback.

Life in the Middle East has opened up research projects for me such as studies of gentrification and modernity, and the impact traditional ways of life, the organization of cities, the plight of the urban poor, and the lives of migrant workers.

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

As an independent academic I tweet and have started my own blog. I have just finished the first draft of a monograph based on a portion of my dissertation; it is currently with the publisher. At present I am preparing two presentations for conferences in July. I am delighted to be a presenter at the UK Social Policy Association conference in Belfast, and the Irish Social Policy Association conference in Dublin.

I also write book reviews, map out and write journal articles, and prepare abstracts for conferences my teaching schedule can accommodate. I provide peer reviews of articles for academic journals. I read and gather data for the many projects I currently have open. I belong to open communities on the internet that are connected to policy, urban issues, development issues, and the European Union. I am also a news junkie, listening and watching for information about events and phenomena unfolding that contribute in some way to the projects I have underway. I do volunteer work with an NGO that advocates on behalf of migrant workers in Bahrain.

Recently I attended the virtual conference Beyond the Professoriate. It was exceptional and I recommend it wholeheartedly. I will now be devoting some time to exploring work within my remit that is available in academia, the media, the public sector, and the private sector.

What most surprises you about your job?

There are no big surprises in my secondary teaching post: I have been teaching since 2001 and all the wonderful things noted earlier continue to keep me hooked. I cannot say that I am surprised, but I am certainly delighted that it continues to keep me engaged and intrigued after 15 years.

As an independent academic, each day, typically, provides some source of surprise as the dust has barely settled on my parchment. I defended 15 months ago, and received the stamp of approval from the university six weeks later. The nod from the publisher came one week later, and I immediately launched into the manuscript. This is still very new and the surprises come from considering the opportunities for employment that I did not know that I had.

There are also surprises from the pathways that opened up across my dissertation. When I started I thought my focus would be educational policy and the marginalization of working class youth, but by the end of the first year it was how economic policies shape educational policies. By the end of the journey it was on how macroeconomics shape strategies of governance and, ultimately, the lives of the urban poor through modernization, gentrification, and other classed and gendered initiatives.

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

Life as an independent academic is so new that I still have those days when I question what I want to do, and if I want to bother doing any more than I am now. Then something new crosses my path. This is not to say that I am subject to optimistic mania on a regular basis, but a new, seemingly random opportunity that will extend my experience and skills is very exciting. The key is to remember that those moments do happen and happen regularly.

I published three peer-reviewed articles in the first three years of my PhD. I published three book reviews for the LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog in the final year while I was writing up and editing my dissertation. In the months after I defended I have written more journal articles, several book reviews, began peer reviews, mapped out the draft of the monograph, and completed a book proposal. That is a lot of work and such a frantic pace that has often left me feeling like I was spinning my wheels without any movement forward.

Then I stopped for a while, left myself some time to just blog, tweet, and write the monograph, and then I posed the question you posed earlier: What did you hope for in terms of employment as you completed your PhD? It was at then that knew I that while I don’t want to be subjected to and disillusioned by the exploitation of academia, I do still need to continue with academic work, and to find the type of engagement found in an academic setting. This is helping to shape plans for the coming years.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

Building on my response to the previous question, I plan to apply for a part-time online lecturing post and see what I learn from that experience — both the application/rejection part, and the application/you got the job part. Online is best not simply because I divide my time between the Middle East, Ireland, and Canada, but because I find the so-called digital nomad life very appealing. I have also enrolled in a course on MOOC development.

I have a meeting on the horizon with the acquisitions editor of an international academic publisher for another book. That proposal is in the works and all I can say at this point is that it is taking me off into the new interdisciplinary territories I discovered by the end of my dissertation. I want to pick up the book reviews again because I do love the challenge of the shorter deadlines, as well as keeping up with the latest publications. The exposure and conversations that are opened up when you write for LSE are incredible.

It is still early days: I am told the post-PhD dusting off period is about five years, and only one year has passed in this phase for me. That said, I am still haunted by the deadlines of read-think-write days that so consumed four years of my life. Beyond the Professoriate gave me some perspective on that feeling and, like many participants and presenters, I realized that it does not hurt to accept that I must just slow down to at least focus, and settle fully into the role of independent academic and researcher.

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

I started my PhD in my late-40s and so my life and material needs may be different from those of someone younger. That said, I know that the ability or desire to be mobile is critical no matter what your age. This will dictate and limit or facilitate the options available.

Never underestimate the job that pays the bills, no matter what it is. It provides exposure to a variety of situations that spark new research questions, or provides data for a project. If not, it provides funds to pursue passions. Some people love to come home and watch movies, cook exquisite meals, plan a trip, or pursue a hobby. Everyone has something in their life that they live for outside of the workday, and it is very likely that the job finances that pastime. I love to read, write, think, and explore research questions. Digging in the archives is the hobby that sustains me. Even when I am on vacation, my fieldnotes travel with me.

Read more of these “Transition Q & As” on From PhD to Life. In particular Sarah Kendzior’s post tells it like it is. You simply must get up daily and, as we say in Ireland, “do the business.” Opportunities will follow. That is what is working for me at the moment. Do what you know you want to do, what you must do, and see what comes your way. Be clear on what you want, what are you willing to settle for, how much money you need to be happy, and be willing to regroup and revise the plan as needed. Remember, you have gotten to this stage, and that means you are clever, resourceful, and diligent.

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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