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Responsibilities May Include

Questioning your Plan A(cademic)?

Don’t overlook the benefits of working in a non-faculty role at a university.


It was a chilly December morning at work. I was sipping on my first coffee of the day, reading my emails and making my plans for the day, when an email notified me that one of my publications had been referenced. No way! It had been almost eight years to the day since I defended my PhD thesis and I had long stopped adding research publications to my resumé. Still, it was exciting to find out someone referenced my research.

Or…maybe not. Upon further reading I discovered the article was not referencing my contribution to science, but instead noting that some of my results were unfortunately an artifact of the tools I had used (which were common to my field at the time).

This moment could have made me feel like a complete and utter failure. Instead, it became the moment I knew I was 100 percent comfortable with my choice eight years ago to pivot away from an academic teaching career.

I’ll admit, I was preparing to profess right up to the end of my PhD. That was my Plan A. Who am I kidding? It was my only plan! I fell in love with the idea of being a professor through teaching biology and anatomy labs in my Master’s. Although I loved teaching, as I researched I realized university teaching positions can be few and far between. Still, I started planning the next logical step of securing a postdoctoral fellowship to tide me over till a teaching role came along.

I might be working as a postdoc now had it not been for the addition of a faculty member to my PhD committee one year before I defended. What seemed like a minor event at the time ended up being the primer of my pivot away from the traditional academic teaching life towards one of university administration. After conversations with this faculty member about my future, she presented me with a job description for a version of what ended up being my first position outside of research – managing and developing a new graduate program. To this day, I credit her with opening my eyes to the fact that there are rewarding roles at the university that want and value people with graduate degrees.

 Pros of working in non-faculty roles at universities

Below are my top three reasons for why I love my administrative career within the university.

  1. A comfortable first step. Graduate students spend six to 10 or more years in a university setting and enjoy being a part of an environment with constant learning, discovery, and innovation. If you’re considering moving away from research, working in another role within a university allows you a smooth transition by staying in the environment that you’re familiar with. It’s a great opportunity to see how your skills translate, and to gain the confidence that your academic training has prepared you for numerous careers outside of formal teaching and research. There is also a great deal of room for growth in the university environment.
  2. Allows time to explore a life outside of your job/career. Having time to spend with my friends and family, and on my hobbies, is one of my core values. As a graduate student I spent much of my time in the lab or reading articles. If I wasn’t working I felt guilty that I should be. To focus on my PhD I put my life on pause and participated less in my interests outside of school. In my first post-PhD job, I remember carrying over that feeling of guilt for not taking work home with me. It took a few months before I realized I had free time to re-discover my personal pursuits! I took advantage of being able to take free courses at the university and started a management certificate (to strengthen my managerial skills) and graphic design certificate (just for fun). I also began teaching dance again (something I had put mostly on hold during my degree). What would you do if you had more time?
  3. You will make an impact. Another personal core value is to make an impact through my career, big or small. Instead of formally teaching large classes, I now play a key role mentoring students individually, and in groups. Something as standard as the admission process may not seem significant, but in my first role a few graduate students told me how they appreciated the time I took to help them and make them feel like a unique individual throughout the process. This was my teaching and coaching skills being put to practice!

More recently I’ve had amazing experiences working on larger projects such as developing internship programs, and providing input into the strategic direction of the future of professional development and career training. The projects are always changing, and the work is rewarding.

There are many positions at a university where the unique skill sets of those with graduate degrees are respected. Through roles like policy development, program support, and more you will help many students. Other jobs to explore include grant reviewer, academic coordinator, fundraiser, and teaching consultant, to name a few.

To learn more about these roles, regularly check university HR pages. Even before you are ready, it is helpful to assess the different types of jobs available. Also, connect with individuals at your university and ask them about their experience. Not sure where to start? Talk to your program administrators, university career services, and alumni office. They can direct you to people with grad degrees working at your university – some of them probably have grad degrees themselves!

So, if you’re nearing the end of your degree or in a postdoctoral fellowship and wondering if the formal academic life is really for you, I encourage you to check out the myriad of jobs available to you at a university. You might just find yourself expanding your Plan A(cademic) to include non-faculty jobs within the university!

Tara Christie
Tara Christie is the manager of My GradSkills, the professional development program for graduate students at the University of Calgary. She completed her PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Calgary in 2008.
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  1. Deidre Rose / March 19, 2018 at 23:47

    Thank you for sharing your experience. Sounds like you found a good fit, and I am glad that you did not allow yourself to feel like a failure. I bet you inspire a lot of young scholars.

    • Tara Christie / March 25, 2018 at 18:38

      Thank you Deidre! I am very much enjoying my role, especially when I get to directly connect with and mentor graduate students.

  2. Melissa Dalgleish / March 21, 2018 at 13:03

    Thanks, Tara, for sharing an experience that many of us have but don’t talk about all that much. I couldn’t be happier in my academic admin job, and I also feel like it’s an awesome use of the skills and experience that I developed during my PhD. Will be sharing with my students and fellows!

    • Tara Christie / March 25, 2018 at 18:39

      Thanks Melissa, and thanks for the share!

    • Leanne Wybenga-Groot / March 28, 2018 at 08:57

      Thanks for sharing this with us, Melissa, and for your article, Tara. I, too, have found a rewarding role off the academic track. I appreciate my work-life balance and the fact that I still get to contribute to science in a meaningful way. This message needs to be heard by the many discouraged PhD’s and post-docs!