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From PhD to Life

Transition update: Heather Steel, research administrator

Ms. Steel explains that the days of staying at one company for an entire career are gone. So accept it, take risks, always learn, and see where it leads.


Heather Steel (MA, history) contributed to the Transition Q & A series in March 2013. Read her interview here. She was then a researcher at the Institute of Canadian Citizenship. Heather is now a research administrator at York University.

After my original Q & A piece, I stayed at the Institute for Canadian Citizenship for another four years. It was a rewarding experience, during which I deepened my knowledge base in citizenship and immigration and conducted meaningful research that had – I think – a positive impact on our stakeholders.

But the time came for a change. I felt that I had hit the ceiling at the ICC and was no longer growing professionally. I also realized I wanted to shift away from doing quantitative research. I thought that an ideal position for me would be one that helped facilitate research and cultivate a positive research environment. One in which I could stay in a research environment, but not actually do primary research myself. When a research project administrator position based at York University opened up, I thought it looked like a pretty good fit. I applied and got it! (Also, yes, networking is important to the job search, but if a job posting looks like a great fit for you, apply. You never know.).

I began my new role earlier this summer. I’m the administrator on a SSHRC partnership grant involving a number of Ontario universities and community organizations and seeks real policy change, the two things I love about it. My tasks are diverse, including financial reporting, budgeting, human resources, communications/knowledge mobilization, and just generally being on top of everything. I love it!

What new piece of advice or insight do I have to pass on four years down the line? Changing jobs is scary for a person who is a creature of habit, and craves stability and certainty. I would have thrived in the 1950s job market! But in this day and age, you need to be consistently thinking about the skills you are developing, the skills you want to develop and where you want your career to go. Gone are the days of staying in one company for an entire career; moving every three to five years is becoming the norm. So accept it, take risks, always learn, and see where it leads.

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. Karim Abuawad / August 26, 2017 at 15:46

    Thank you for this fantastic post.

    I noticed that the author puts the part about networking in parentheses, which is, I think, quite misleading. It seems to me that getting a position that fits perfectly on one’s career trajectory is next to impossible without knowing the right people. When it comes to a career shift, the need for networking becomes all the more pressing.

    It’s crucial to highlight this point, especially to those highly qualified applicants who seem to never get to the interview stage, so they don’t begin to believe that something is really wrong with them.

    • Heather Steel / August 30, 2017 at 15:32

      Yes, networking is absolutely crucially important. I didn’t want to really talk about it in my update since I always harp on it, but I wanted to point out – based on my experience – that it IS possible to get a job by just applying to the posting without knowing anyone at the company/institution. I think sometimes job candidates can get down on themselves thinking they have no shot or that there is automatically an inside candidate (guilty here!), so why bother? But if the job is a great fit for you, you just might have as good a shot as anyone else.

      My first job I definitely got because of networking, while this one I didn’t.

      • Jennifer Polk / August 30, 2017 at 15:35

        I tell folks that when they really can make a strong case for themselves *on paper* then applying “cold” can definitely work — and you’re a great example of this! Many recent PhDs will change careers, and in that case they may find it harder to be convincing solely via their job documents.

      • Karim Abuawad / August 31, 2017 at 11:46

        Thank you, Heather and Jennifer, for the response.

        I agree, it’s certainly possible to apply and get in based solely on credentials and experience. The important question is what is the likelihood? I’m all for trying irrespective of the answer, but one should be aware that the odds are probably not in one’s favour.

        In addition, the issues of how treat inside/outside candidates and blind recruitment are hugely important. These issues don’t seem to get the attention they deserve.

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