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From PhD to Life

What’s it like to work beyond the professoriate? Six PhDs explain

What to expect in a non-academic workplace when it comes to dress code, vacation time, work hours and hierarchy.


In part 1 of this series our PhDs answer questions about workplace policies and norms, including what to wear and working hours.

  • Raj Dhiman, PhD (chemistry, University of Toronto), is an inside sales manager (small business) at Rogers Communication.
  • Monica A. Evans, PhD (educational policy, Michigan State University), is a workforce analyst at the U.S. department of labor.
  • Niem Huynh, PhD (geography, Wilfrid Laurier University), is manager of graduate student recruitment at Concordia University.
  • Brad King, PhD (history, University of Toronto), is a vice president (organization and strategy, museum learning) at Lord Cultural Resources.
  • Rachel Leventhal-Weiner, PhD (sociology, University of Connecticut) is the data engagement specialist at the Connecticut Data Collaborative.
  • Josh Magsam, PhD (English, University of Oregon), is director of community success at

What am I going to have to wear? Am I going to need to wear a suit?

Raj: No one ever complained about someone being dressed up too much. Invest in a good, professional wardrobe regardless of what everyone else is doing. You can always add pieces to it as you bring in more income.

Monica: I typically wear a dress and a cardigan. I add a blazer if I am going to a meeting with officials or the public.

Niem: The appropriate wear depends on the office culture and expectations. I’ve worked in a department where some colleagues wore sandals or clothing suitable to their fieldwork, as they were spending considerable time outdoors collecting data. Observe the practices at your new workplace and ask colleagues – it’s a great way to break the ice.

Brad: Business casual is the rule in our office. But sometimes more formal business attire is advisable when meeting with clients.

Rachel: Dress codes will vary from organization to organization and industry to industry. The level of formality of dress also varies depending on your role in the organization. The norms may vary for women and men, so it’s important to ask and be firm about equity. Men get away with casual dress more easily than women, so be sure to ask rather than assume.

Josh: Office casual is the norm these days, and even that varies quite a bit depending on your industry / whether the position is customer-facing, and so on. At my tech company, it’s jeans and hoodies on a daily basis – I go with slacks and a button-down shirt if I’m doing a planning session away from the office.

How does time off work? Vacation? Doctor’s appointments? Who do you ask, or how does that get scheduled?

Raj: Ask your manager and they will accommodate you accordingly.

Monica: I let my manager know when I need to take leave. I accrue hours each pay period.

Niem: The policies may differ between employers. Check with your direct supervisor or the HR office to know the full details and what your responsibilities are to make up lost time due to doctor’s appointments. In my various roles, it was sufficient to let my supervisor know about any upcoming appointments and how I plan to make up the time. For vacations, discuss the dates with your supervisor before making any concrete plans. There might be busy periods where all hands are needed on deck and vacations during that time are frowned upon.

Brad: Staff have a certain number of paid vacation and personal days per year as per Ontario’s labour legislation. Time off is scheduled in advance via our HR coordinator. Staff notify their supervisors when they need to take personal days and receive approval from the supervisor for vacation requests.

Rachel: Many organizations have policies outlined in their handbook or they have an informal understanding of the work day. When you are negotiating your job offer, be sure to ask about the timing of the day and if there is flexibility. If your job involves a long commute, you may want to ask about a flexible work arrangement. How you handle personal commitments will vary from place to place. Organizations with a rigid schedule/structure will probably have you “make up” the time either by using personal time and adding on hours. This can make you feel like you’re being micromanaged so it is important to know in advance. Ask the person who would be your direct supervisor about how they handle those appointments/tasks. Sometimes even in the same organization, you could have two supervisors who have different styles.

Josh: High flexibility with my company – four weeks / year, upped to five weeks after five years with the company. Two months paternity / three months maternity, spent when and how you want (all at once, parceled out over months or a year, etc). Remote work is always on the table, so for basic errands, doctor’s appointments, etc, just put it on your personal calendar so everyone knows you’re busy, and maybe drop a reminder in the company chat system that morning. For longer time off, requests go directly to your manager, and usually there’s only going to be discussion if your request overlaps with another team member’s, if you’re asking for an extended period of time (2+ weeks) and there’s a big project in the works – otherwise approval is pretty quick.

Am I going to have to work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m? Do I get lunch?

Raj: Sales is about chasing your target every month and/or quarter. You put in the hours to make sure you hit your goal. Some days you start early, some you work late and some you do both. Thus, the job forces you to be efficient with your time.

Monica: I have a floating schedule, meaning I can come in starting at around 6:30 a.m. and leave as early as 3 p.m. or as late as 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. without needing special permission. I typically work 9 a.m.-6 p.m. though…or 9:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m. if traffic is backed up.

Niem: The time of work may be negotiated with your supervisor; discuss this rather than guess. My workday is generally eight hours (e.g., 9 a.m.-5 p.m. or 8 a.m.-4 p.m.) with a lunch break and maybe a break(s) in the morning or afternoon. In some positions, there may be overtime required during the high season. Ask if the overtime can be used towards upcoming doctor’s appointments or to take time-for-time off.

Brad: Our office is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and everyone is required to put in at least eight hours per day, but there is flexibility. Some prefer to start earlier (at 8 a.m., say) and some prefer to go later (10 a.m. to 7 p.m.). But we do prefer that the bulk of your work occur during regular office hours.

Rachel: You may have to work a predictable schedule – I call it a “brick and mortar” schedule. At first this can feel taxing and frustrating especially if you have worked independently for a long time (as I did for close to a decade). What I have discovered, though, is that I am able to compartmentalize my work and personal life and when I walk out the door at the end of the day, I rarely worry about work. This is a big change from the academic lifestyle where the expectation is never stop working and always be connected. The lunch question is a fun one. I have worked in offices where the norm was to take lunch together. Sometimes a lunch is built into the workplace arrangements. I don’t take a lunch usually and then cut my day a bit shorter as a result.

Josh: My company expects people are generally available for meetings and project review during “core hours,” but no one is punching in or out. We have team members around the world, so some days I’m online and talking to people at 6 a.m., then taking off part of the afternoon before a late follow-up at 6 p.m. (Amsterdam, Tokyo). Other days, I’m on / in the office roughly 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., or before / after rush hour. Lunch – yes! People generally take around an hour – some people go offsite with coworkers, some pack it in, and folks at home usually just signal that they’re breaking for lunch whenever they want to.

Does work stay at work?

Raj: If you have the discipline to be 100 percent focused when you’re at work, you shouldn’t have to bring your work home; I got better at this as my sales career progresses. When I became a manager, I chose to send/respond to emails off hours only because I love to get the job done right away and not let little tasks pile up.

Monica: I telework one day a week, but when I am off-duty, I do not check emails or do work.

Niem: This is usually the case in my experience. If one is in a management position, there may be times when unexpected things or deadlines come up that could use attention even if it is not within the usual work hours.

Brad: Not always! We operate in a competitive environment and service to clients – wherever they may be or whenever they need something – is our primary value.

Rachel: For me, my work stays at work. I administer every aspect of my public education program from the scheduling to the registration to making copies to prepping content. But I keep really meticulous lists and never take work home. There may be a big event or multiple competing deadlines that require me to work at night, but most weeks, I leave my office, check my email once at night, and table all work for the “work day.”

Josh: I think this tends to be “no” across the board, but not necessarily in a negative way. Example: I may be working from home for a few days to help balance out my wife’s schedule and take care of our son, so I’ll put in a few evening hours planning and sending emails, then take video meetings in the morning before breaking midday for childcare and errands, then back for video meetings. Work is always present – but it’s not in the sense that “the boss sent work home” or “my project is out of control and I need to put in overtime to complete it.”

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. Nicholas Dion / July 4, 2018 at 10:46

    Interesting responses but a disappointing lack of Canadian content, both in terms of where the interviewees got their PhDs and where they are working.

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