careers · job market · jobs · networking

Try on Someone Else’s Life

 
I get asked to do informational interviews pretty frequently, and I think they’re one of the best tools out there for doing on-the-ground research about the kinds of jobs people with similar backgrounds have and how they ended up in them. But it can be hard to convince other people of their value, especially people who are shy, uncertain about where to start with career exploration, or convinced that anything remotely resembling networking is gross. In my latest article over at Chronicle Vitae, I suggest reframing informational interviewing as a way to try on someone else’s life and see if it fits, using the idea of life design conversations developed by Dave Evans and Bill Burnett: 

After a series of these life-design conversations, Evans and Burnett argue, you will eventually have prototyped your way to a career (and a life) that feels right to you. You’ll sit down with someone, and find that imagining doing what they do — living how they live — feels … right. You’ll have landed on the career path you want to pursue in earnest. 

Check out the full article over at Chronicle Vitae!
 

Image, Anna Levinzon, Creative Commons

#alt-ac · altac · flexible academic · grad school · jobs · PhD

Oh, The Things You Can Do (with a PhD)!


Can you believe it’s already the middle of January? As we race full speed ahead to the end of another academic year, lots of soon-to-be finished graduate students are thinking about what comes next. My latest article for Chronicle Vitae shares some strategies for identifying the skills you develop during graduate school and translating them into the language of job postings, which can help you identify the kinds of jobs you can and might want to do:

Employers might not be looking for experts on 19th-Century French literature or CRISPR-Cas9. But they are looking for people who can speak and write effectively, process and communicate high volumes of complex information, create project plans and see them through, work with (and for) a wide variety of people, identify gaps (in knowledge, processes, understanding) and propose how to fix them. Ph.D.s learn how to do all of those things, and much more. 

Check out the full article over at Chronicle Vitae!

Original image: Oh, the Thinks You Can Think!, by Dr. Seuss
#alt-ac · academic reorganization · administration · contract work · enter the confessional · jobs · risky writing · solidarity · strike

Crossing the Lines

I’m taking a break from the #Alt-Ac 101 series this week to talk about the York University and University of Toronto strikes, a topic near and dear to my heart. Despite those strikes being weeks old by this point, I haven’t felt able to address them until now, in large part because I work for York University. More specifically, I work in the Faculty of Graduate Studies, for a Dean who is a key member of the employer-side bargaining team. It has felt distinctly unsafe, in and out of the office, to take any but the party line on the current “labour disruption,” as the university likes to call it. Indeed, any language I use about the strike in the office is prescribed by the university. But I will be a York University employee no longer after today–I’m moving over to the Hospital for Sick Children, where I’ll be running award and professional development programming for the students and postdocs in the hospital’s research division–and so I can now speak as I like.

I had been a PhD student for all of three months when we went on strike in 2008. York University’s CUPE 3903 represents graduate students and contract academic faculty, and it was largely for the benefit of the latter that we went out that year. We knew precarity when we saw it, we knew that the system could do better, and we knew that we were the ones who had to force it to. We struck for months, in the bitter cold, and while we did the university shut down almost entirely. The only cars coming onto campus were those of staff members, or delightful friends bearing sandwiches, thermoses of coffee, and scrap wood for burning. We continued bargaining, although when no agreement could be reached we were legislated back to work and into a new collective agreement. We did at least win some gains in the conversion program, which saw contract academic faculty positions converted to tenure lines. I ended the strike feeling exhausted and disoriented, although far savvier about what lay ahead of me if I ended up becoming CAF myself, and far closer to my program colleagues than I had been before the strike started. I had to trash my parka, because it was so deeply impregnated with smoke from the fire barrel that I couldn’t get the smell out. After months of eating them cold and soggy out of a mittened hand, I could never face the Grad Cafe’s channa masala wrap again. 
This time around, I’m crossing the picket lines daily, because I’m forced to. If I don’t, I lose my job. Students have been given the right to refuse to cross, and faculty can stay away as long as classes continue to be suspended (and are making a case that being forced to resume teaching without TAs compromises academic integrity, and so refusing to is a matter of academic freedom), but I have no choice. I walk quickly, with my hood up, my headphones in, and my hands in my pockets. I want to join my graduate colleagues, to wave and shout encouragement, but from my side of the sidewalk I worry it would look like mockery or a threat. At the office, I’m required to refer to the strike as a “labour disruption,” to point students to statements like “Regrettably, two units of CUPE 3903 representing Teaching Assistants and Graduate Assistants (Units 1 and 3), rejected the University’s offers and remain on strike,” when the only thing I think is regrettable is the lack of solidarity among units. I sit in my office and watch my colleagues be threatened with gun violence on the lines via YouTube, and follow along on Twitter as Senate, amidst strenuous opposition, decides to resume classes while the strike is ongoing. I watch the lines of cars get longer and longer as more people try to enter campus. I watch tempers flare. I watch administration decide that resuming classes is more important than resuming bargaining. I watch the employer-side bargaining team withhold, withhold, withhold until the night before the strike deadline, when miraculously something resembling a decent offer shows up on the table. I watch administration invite Unit 1 and 3 members to return to work despite the fact that they are on strike.

What neither university seems to understand is that this strike is not really about wages. Nor is it about seniority, or benefits, or childcare, not really. It is about the fact that graduate students and contract academic faculty, in Canada and elsewhere (see Boyda for a New York perspective) recognize that the academic employment (and teaching, and research) system is broken. It is about the fact that they feel as though they are the only ones who are going to attempt to change it. It won’t be tenured faculty. It won’t be undergraduate students. It will be graduate students and CAF, or no one, and their chance is now. This is their chance to say “you want to pretend that I only work 10 hours a week and prohibit me from taking any outside employment? Fine–pay me enough to live on.” This is their chance to insist that at least a few of their ranks–a minuscule number, considering that York employed nearly 1800 CAF last year (as compared to not quite 1400 t-t faculty)–have the chance to enjoy at least some measure of job security. This is their moment to seize what is a miraculous surge in positive public opinion and require our universities to be accountable, to step up, to do better. 

Our universities, the people they are made up of, can do better. 
But not by forcing their graduate students to choose between their education and their jobs. Not by using rhetoric that suggests that the only students who matter are the undergraduates, when graduate students are students too. Not by putting them in danger on the picket lines by inviting thousands of people to cross them daily. But by recognizing that once, they as administrators were the graduate students they’re vilifying, the CAF they exploit while hiring ever-increasing numbers of questionably necessary administrators (me included). They can do better by recognizing their own privilege, and their responsibility as those with power to enact change. They can do better by attempting to understand, rather than dismissing. They can do better by getting back to the bargaining table and bargaining in good faith. 
I’m not going to miss crossing the picket lines. But at least now I can speak about it, instead of just watching. 
#alt-ac · #alt-ac 101 · #post-ac · careers · flexible academic · jobs

The #Alt-Ac Job Search 101: Identifying and Describing Transferable Skills

While you’re starting to get a sense of what you might want to be doing as a job, whether it’s through self-assessment or informational interviews, you’re also going to want to start getting a sense of the places where your skills match up well with the ones required by positions or fields that you’re interested in. Doing that seems like an easy task–just compare the skills you developed in all the various aspects of your PhD to the ones listed in the job description.

Except that it’s not easy, at least not at first.

We don’t tend to talk about skills in the PhD, unless you’re an administrator like me, and then sometimes that’s all we seem to talk about. The course outcomes for graduate courses tend to be knowledge based, not skill based–learn a new field or subfield, not a new set of skills. And unless we have really extraordinary course directors, or a supportive teaching centre offering training, the vast majority of us aren’t being taught how to identify the skills we develop in the classroom either. This reluctance to teach PhDs to identify the skills they’re developing while they develop them is compounded by the often myopic perspective on what the skills developed in graduate school are for–often, they’re only imagined as being good for use on the tenure-track. So even if we are able to identify some of the skills we’re developing, we often have trouble seeing the places where those skills could be put to use in other careers.

The good news is that these problems are very solvable, and quickly, too. All it tends to take, for a lot of people, is having someone translate the things they do regularly as a graduate student into the language of skills and competencies. This is an exercise I do often with PhDs in the context of professional development workshops or career transition coaching: I have them list the things they do all the time to me, and then I repeat back those same things, but in the language of skills, the language that shows up on job postings and in resumes. I’ll give some examples below, using the job description for my current role as an example of the language in which skills might be translated.

Things I did in the PhD
Job Skills
Teaching tutorials and giving conference papers
superior oral … communication skills,” “tact and diplomacy,” “public speaking skills”
Founding and managing a peer-reviewed online journal; co-coordinating my department’s annual colloquium; taking a lead role on my program’s steering and social committees
excellent organizational, planning and coordination skills,” “demonstrated ability to exercise initiative,” “strong leadership and team building skills”
Writing articles and papers
superior … written communication skills”
Leading tutorials and sitting on department tenure and promotion committees
effective interpersonal and public relations skills,” “tact and diplomacy,” “discretion and [ability to] maintain confidentiality”
Researching and writing a dissertation
strong research and analytical skills,” “articulating and assimilating complex information,” “computer proficiency”
Writing scholarship applications and project reports
excellent report and proposal preparation skills”

All of the language in the right-hand column is taken directly from the position posting for my current job. And I didn’t skip any–the skills the posting asked for were all skills that I’d developed during my graduate training. I just needed to learn how to think about what I did in the PhD in terms of skills and expertise. Admittedly, my job is in academic administration, which might make you think that the skill set needed is skewed more closely toward what we develop in the PhD. That is true, a little, but I’ve recently done this same exercise with people looking for jobs in wholly different fields from academia, and it still works. Employers might not looking for people who are experts in 19th century French literature. But they are looking for people with communication skills, with the ability to process and communicate to others high volumes of complex information, with the ability to create project plans and see them through, with the ability to work with and for a wide variety of people. PhDs learn how to do all of those things, and often much more.

If you’re having a hard time figuring out or describing your transferable skills, here’s what I suggest: if you’ve already done a couple of informational interviews, go back to your notes and see what kinds of skills your interviewees identified as most important. Write them out, then look to your experiences in the PhD and see in what part of your graduate training you developed those skills. If you don’t have a sense yet of what skills might be important to a field you’re interested in, or you’re still exploring fields and positions to see what might be a good fit, you can do this in reverse: identify the skills you developed during your graduate training, and then look at lists like this one find positions or fields that are looking for those skills.

Finally, I’d like to say one thing to anyone reading this who is starting to think about non-professorial careers but still believes, deep down, that being a professor is all that they’re cut out to do: it’s not true, not even a little, despite the fact that the culture of academia leads you to believe it is. For some people, that belief–along with a genuine love of the job–is what keeps them in precarious employment situations like those that have precipitated the ongoing strikes at York, University of Toronto, and UNBC. But being a flexible academic is far less about acquiring new skills than it is about identifying the ones you already have. So get to it!

#alt-ac · #alt-ac 101 · #post-ac · careers · jobs · PhD

The #Alt-Ac Job Search 101: Informational Interviews

In a recent conversation with a PhD student, the topic of informational interviewing came up and the term elicited a blank stare. For people focused on the tenure-track career path, informational interviewing is often not even on their radar. But if you’re still trying to figure out what career path or what type of work environment–business, not-for-profit, academic administration, government–might be right for you, informational interviewing is a powerful research tool. I call informational interviews research, because that’s what they really are. They are not, as some might claim, a disingenuous way to impress people who might eventually give you a job. They are, however, a great way to start getting a real sense of what jobs are out there that might make you feel happy, balanced, challenged, intellectually stimulated–whatever it is that you’re looking for in a career.

What is an informational interview, for those of you who reacted with the blank stare? A brief meeting, usually between 15 and 45 minutes, with someone who has a job in which you’re interested. You get to ask the questions, and the questions are usually aimed at finding out more about how that person got into their career, what their field/position/industry is like, and what their working life is like day-to-day. While general advice about informational interviews suggests that you should reach out to anyone in your network (or in your network’s network) who has a job in which you’re interested, my advice is for PhDs to be a little bit more focused, at least at first–see if you can find people with your degree, in your field, and start out by talking with them about their jobs. It can seem impossible to imagine yourself in any career but a professorial one when you don’t have any examples of what those other positions might be, or any information about how a person with your degree might go about moving from academia into something else.

If you’re really and truly unsure about what else you’d like to do, cast your net wide. Look to those sources of information I mentioned in my last post–your program, your university’s alumni office, your LinkedIn connections–and make a list of people with your degree in all kinds of industries that you might want to talk to. Cold calling people for informational interviews can be surprisingly effective–people like having a chance to talk about themselves–but it is often more effective, and less intimidating, to get someone you know to set up an introduction. I belong to the Toronto VersatilePhD group, and we’re offering each other introductions within our respective fields, and to people we know outside of them. A member of my PhD program has set up a Facebook group where we talk about what we’re doing with our degrees, and somewhere similar is a great place to find targets for an info interview.

Once you’ve set up an interview, spend a little time doing your homework. Find out what you can about the person and what they do so that you’re not asking questions that can be easily answered by Googling and you’ve got more time to ask the important questions. Decide what questions you’d like to ask–this list can get you started, but think about what it really is that you want to know about their career, and their working life. If you’ve done a skills or preferences assessment already, these can guide you to the kinds of questions you’ll want to ask, and the kinds of answers you’re looking for. If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably want to know about how the person transitioned from academia into their current career. You might also want to ask about the skills the person uses in their working life, and about the skills gaps (if any) they felt they had when they moved into a non-academic career and how they addressed those gaps.

When it comes to the details, treat the informational interview a bit like you would a job interview. Dress nicely, although not as formally as you would for a job interview. Mind your Ps and Qs. Respect the amount of time you agreed on, even if you’re having a great conversation. Get yourself some business cards–yes, even if you don’t have a job–and exchange them with your interviewee. And write a thank you note when you’re done.

After a few informational interviews, what you’ll hopefully have in hand is this: a really good sense of some careers and positions in which you might be interested, knowledge about how to move into a new field, key terms and lingo from that field you can use in job documents, the names and contact information of friendly faces who might just call you up if a job comes around, and confidence in your ability to interact with and impress people in a wide range of non-academic fields. All that for the price of a cup of coffee.

If you’re looking for some more advice or information about informational interviews, check out the links below. And what about you, dear readers–how many of you have done informational interviews? Did you find them helpful for your job search?

#alt-ac · #alt-ac 101 · #post-ac · careers · jobs

The #Alt-Ac Job Search 101: Figuring Out What Else to Do

In the spirit of Aimee’s academic how-to series, I’m consolidating past posts and generating new ones that will form a complementary how-to series on the #alt-ac job search and career. It should be noted that I’m not a career services professional, and you should seek those out at your institution, but my advice is informed both by my own experience and by the work I do with people in career services and coaching for graduate students.

Today, we’re starting from the beginning: once you decide not to go on the tenure-track (or not to finish the PhD, or to look for both academic and non-academic jobs), how do you figure out what the heck to do next?

The data on academics in non-academic careers is very clear: we don’t have a hard time getting into them. Despite the very limited amount of non-academic career support currently built into graduate studies, PhDs do very well at finding jobs outside of academia. With only 18.6% of us in full-time academic teaching jobs (and that includes contract work), the other 81.4% of us are finding our way into something else. And we’re doing it well–PhD holders have the lowest unemployment rate of any group of Canadians. But if you’ve been told, over and over, that you’re developing the skills to do precisely one thing–become a professor–and you stop thinking about other careers, it can be difficult, even intimidating, to start figuring out what other things you can and would like to do. Where do you start?

Whenever someone asks me this question, I refer them to So What Are You Going to Do With That?: Finding Careers Outside Academia, which is now in its third edition. (My university carries So What as an e-book, and many career centres also have copies to borrow.) Written by Susan Balsalla and Maggie Debelius, PhDs themselves who now work inside and outside academia, So What covers a host of the topics to which new PhD job seekers might need an introduction: translating skills gained in academia into terms that employers can understand and value, career counselling, interview etiquette, etc. All of So What is highly useful, but of particular value are the self-assessment exercises that ask you to figure out what it is you really like about academia–the skills you like exercising, the activities you like doing–and then help you see other industries and positions that would allow you to do the things you like doing more. In my case, I figured out that what I really liked was non-academic/theoretical writing, mentorship, research that had use-value, and work that was aimed at helping others rather than myself. Perhaps my favourite thing about So What is the way it helps PhDs realize that there are a number of careers that might suit their strengths and interests better than being a professor, and the way it helps them identify what those careers are. For me, it helped me see that I might like to be a grant writer, or a counsellor, or what I am now, which is a graduate professional skills coordinator and research administrator–which suits me and my strengths better than being a tenured professor likely would have.

Another resource I recommend for people doing the fundamental work of figuring out what they could do next is Strengthsfinder 2.0. (My university library also has this one as an ebook, and yours might too.) Although not aimed at an academic audience, Strengthsfinder offers a more robust sf diagnostic and analytic tools than So What that are aimed at helping you figure out what you’re good at doing and what jobs would let you do those things. The book is complemented by online testing that generates reports about talents and strengths you might want to explore in more depth, testing I found both accurate and helpful. One of the many challenging (and awesome) things about moving into an #altac career is the flexibility and openness of the non-tenure career path; the challenging part is keeping an eye on where you are and where you’re headed, and assessing if those two things still match up with what you want from a career. Occasionally redoing the tests from Strengthsfinder (and So What) is a useful way to see how my skill set has changed as I’ve learned and developed on the job, and to assess where I’m at in my career development.

The last thing I’d suggest for people trying to figure out what to do after they’re done is finding the unit at your university that keeps track of what PhDs are doing after they graduate. Some graduate programs–more and more of them–are tracking the post-degree placement of everyone who graduates from their program with a PhD, whether they’re going into a tenure-track job or not. Alumni or advancement offices also often keep track of what PhD alumni are doing, and can often provide you with that information, or put you in touch with people in your field. Many universities, through graduate programs, the Career Centre, or the Faculty of Graduate Studies, put on regular career panels featuring PhD alumni in non-academic jobs. However you find the information, see if you can figure out what people with your degree, in your field, are doing now. PhD transition stories, like those that Jennifer Polk collects in her blog From PhD to Life, are also a good resource. It can be difficult to find out what PhDs in non-academic jobs are doing, simply because universities have tended to track only t-t placement rates, although universities are realizing the necessity of collecting this kind of data and large-scale post-PhD tracking projects are getting underway. But it’s a lot easier to figure out what you might want to do, what you could do with your degree, if you know what others who were once in the same boat are doing.

Next up, we’ll talk about what to do once you’ve figured out a job or industry (or a few) that you might be interested in and that might suit you: the informational interview, also known as research.

#alt-ac · collaboration · community · emotional labour · jobs · student engagement · transition

On Care and Connection as Guiding Principles

It’s almost six years later, and we’re still at it. Every three weeks we gather with wine, pounds of cheese, our laptops, a baby or a couple of cats for company, and we talk words. The prompt is usually simple: does this section make sense? is my tone consistent from the material you read last time? I need to cut this article down by half–help! By the end of the night, we’ve usually figured it out. The people whose writing we’ve critiqued feel heard, and talented, and like they know what to do next. But more importantly, we feel connected. We’ve caught up on all of the personal and departmental gossip. We’ve traded recipes. We’ve talked boyfriends and girlfriends and spouses and coming out stories and faculty crushes and teaching techniques and upcoming conferences and why today was a good day. We go home feeling a little glowy, a little giddy, and not all of it is from the wine.

Losing that connectedness was one of the things that I feared most about leaving the PhD, but it was also the thing I knew I didn’t have to fear at all.

Creating more of those connections–a community of care, of support, of mentorship, of collegiality–is one of the best parts of my administrative job. It’s also one of those that I’m most committed to. I was collaborating with one of our technology services people on a project today, and he asked me if my role was “student facing.” It took me a minute to get what he meant. When I did, my answer was that in the past it really hadn’t been, but that’s something I’ve been working to change. In the past, the person in my role would most often act as a liaison, or as an enforcer of procedure, or as a conduit for feedback coming from on high. I do those things, but I question the effectiveness of the arms-length approach. I prefer to work with students one-on-one, to coach and to guide and to support. In my portfolio of graduate professional development and the cultivation of our graduate research culture, I rely on graduate students as sources of knowledge about important skills, knowledge that can be shared with other students, and as examples for the rest of the university community of how dynamic and cutting edge graduate research can be.  I love talking to our students about their work. I love cultivating their involvement with the university. I love providing them with opportunities to do more, to do better. I love providing them with chances to create new communities. And I love when the barrier between me as an administrator, albeit one who is simultaneously a student, and them as a graduate student breaks down, and we talk to each other as people, as emergent scholars, as part of the community that shares a passion for ideas and discovery and knowledge.

I like to think that my work is fundamentally informed by an ethics of care. I worry that that’s a feminized approach to my job, that I’m falling into the trap of mothering my students, that care is a bad polestar to guide a career. But I got into graduate admin because I cared about the mental, financial, emotional health of grad students like me, who struggle with negotiating between what the academy thinks it is, thinks is happening for its students, and what the reality of life after the PhD looks like. I opened my office doors to any student who wants to see me because I believe that the personal should take precedence over the procedural. I focus my attention on initiatives that build community among graduate students, primarily because I know first hand what a difference it can make to know that someone cares who you are, how you are, how your work is going. I mentor. I coach. I cheerlead. I give tough love. It’s hard work, choosing the path toward the personal, the intimate, the connected. It takes more time, and energy (particularly emotional energy), and effort. It requires that more effort is focused on fewer people, that energy is concentrated rather than diffuse. It leaves you open to being disappointed, or frustrated, or angry.

But then I think back to the wine, and the cheese, and the babies, and the faces that have surrounded me since the day I stepped through the doors of my PhD orientation. I’ve been so very lucky, and I can’t help but believe that I have a responsibility to help others cultivate the community I’ve been so fortunate to have, to be a part of that community and invite others in. I don’t have to worry right now that my goals for my larger career and my goals for providing students with community, connection, care are in conflict; it might become an issue one day. But until then, I’m leaving my door open and letting care and community-building be my guide. I can’t help but hope it’ll do some good.

balance · day in the life · jobs · organization · productivity · time crunch · transition · work · yoga

Relearning How to Get Things Done

For the year between my Master’s and PhD, I worked as a sales and marketing coordinator for the Canadian branch of an international academic publisher. As a coordinator, a lot of what I did was, well, coordinate–organize meetings, provide people with support, do marketing and outreach and answer customer emails. There was always a lot going on, a dozen voicemails to be responded to, and I got used to juggling All The Things and making sure that none of the balls got dropped.

And then I went to back to grad school. And instead of All The Priorities, my workload shifted to just about five: reading and writing for each of the three classes I was taking, teaching, and my service commitment (which was often, pleasingly, party planning). Instead of focusing on how to juggle an ever shifting and constantly growing list of things to get done, I was trying to reclaim the focus and concentration I had worked so hard to develop during my Master’s. Fast forward to the dissertation writing phase, and my major priorities narrowed even more: writing and teaching. Life seems pretty simple when your to-do list, on many days, says “work on Chapter Three.”

Fast forward to now, and I’m back where I was when I started my PhD, but in reverse. I’m so used to working on a few large projects, ones with not terribly many moving parts (or with far more people to share the load), that juggling the myriad priorities and tasks of my very busy job can often be overwhelming. And I’m not good at overwhelmed. Overwhelmèdness tends to turn into anxiety, which turns into procrastination, which turns into guilt and more anxiety, which…you get the picture. And can’t afford to be overwhelmed, or anxious, or behind, or guilty–there’s too much to do! And for those of you who are old hat at juggling All The Things as a matter of course (I’m looking at you, parents), and are smiling wryly at my fledgling attempts to seriously Get Things Done–I salute you.

It’s taken me a fair bit of trial and error over the last five months, but I’ve finally figured out a few things that can help take my 9-5 from crazed to calm(ish). Being a bit of an app junkie, some of these solutions are technological, but some are about as low-tech as you can get:

  • I do yoga and/or meditate as soon as I get up in the morning. A friend posted this image on Facebook the other day, and that’s precisely the effect I’m going for with my daily mindfulness practice–less mental clutter to wade through, less anxiety, less distraction. If I also want to do some meditation practice while I’m in transit, I quite like the Buddhify guided meditations that are designed specifically for commuting. 
  • Anything that needs to get done goes in Remember The Milk the very moment that I think of it or someone asks me to do it. It is the only to-do list program/app that works for me. Everything gets tagged by which area of my life it belongs to (Work, Academic, Personal), which project it belongs to, what priority it is, and when it needs to get done. Life is so much lower stress when half my brain isn’t taken up with trying to remember the things I think I’ve forgotten. I subscribe to the Pro version (about $20/year), which means that I can easily view and add tasks on my phone and tablet and they’ll automatically sync to my web and desktop to-do lists. 
  • I keep my desk clean, and I close all my files and turn my computer off at the end of the night. Arriving to a messy desk and a messy desktop makes me feel behind before I’ve even started, whereas a lack of visual clutter (and a pretty desktop background) lets me start the day with a fresh mind and fresh eyes.
  • I check my calendar and my to-do list as soon as I turn on my computer, but I don’t check my email. I’m a morning person, which means that I have to be careful to protect the early part of the day for serious thinking and/or writing work. I try not to schedule meetings in the morning for the same reason. The world is not going to end if I don’t check my email until 10:30 (emergencies are what phones are for), and so I often don’t. I’ve also turned off all of my email notifications, which means that I pay attention to my email only when I choose to.
  • I don’t send emails to people in my office. Ever. Unless they’re working from home, or I need to send them a file. One of the things I love best about my Faculty is the culture of in-person communication. From the Dean down, if someone needs something, they come see you to get it. My Associate Dean and I can often be heard carrying on conversations to each other from our respective sides of the hallway (I like to think everyone else in the office thinks it’s charming). But it helps cut down on inbox clutter, it gives us a chance to connect on a personal level every day, and the walk down the hall is a great change of scenery and of pace (literally).
  • Coffitivity + Songza form the soundtrack of my days. Coffitivity plays coffee shop white noise (which is phenomenal for both creativity and concentration) in the background, while Songza plays whatever I want over top. I work in a traditional-concept office (i.e. my office has a door), but we all always leave our doors open and it’s nice to be able to block distracting chatter (or my colleague’s 70s rock radio station).
  • I take an actual lunch break at the same time every day. Sometimes I spend it chatting with my colleagues in the kitchen, sometimes reading, sometimes going for a walk, but I never eat at my desk, and I never work through lunch.
  • I use the Pomodoro technique, especially when I’m trying to power through a whole bunch of little things that are swarming around my to-do list like a cloud of mosquitoes I’m desperate to escape. It’s amazing how many one-paragraph emails you can send in 25 minutes, and how blessedly uncluttered my to-do list and mind suddenly become.

I imagine that my Get Things Done routine and techniques will shift and change as I continue to more fully inhabit my new role, and as I discover things that work better for me (or stop working). But for now, this combination of tools and strategies leaves me feeling competent, calm, and in control at the end of the day. Or most of them, which is the best I can ask for.

Have any productivity and time management tips and tricks you’d like to share? What keeps you from feeling like someone put your brain through a blender? 

jobs · reform · transition

So What Can You Do with That, Exactly?

Skills translation is a major issue for us—for those of us who are still in search of post-ac jobs, and for those of us who teach in non-professional programs. It’s a major issue for our students, who are going out into the world in search of meaningful employment, a world that can’t seem to figure out what to do with people who don’t fit neatly into a career that you could find in a Richard Scarry story. Translating their skills is a major issue for us too, for both our students’ success and the public perception of our disciplines–particularly for those of us in the humanities and social sciences–is at stake. How do we communicate what we do in the university–as undergraduates, as graduate students, and as PhD holders–to those outside of that system? It’s obvious, outside the academy, that someone with an engineering degree has been equipped with the skills to become an engineer. Same goes for nursing. Or social work. But English? As the old quip goes, you’ll either be found behind a teacher’s desk, or a McDonald’s deep fryer. I imagine the more up-to-date version subs a Starbucks espresso machine for the deep fryer. There is no one obvious career path for someone with a degree in history, or English, or biology, and that’s both a major strength, and a major challenge, of non-professional undergraduate degrees. The same goes for people with grad degrees seeking post-ac employment, with raised stakes–many years of missed earnings and retirement savings, delayed pregnancy or adoption, many years of accumulated debt–and a new set of challenges–public prejudice against PhDs, perceived over-qualification, and a professional network that probably resides mostly within the academy.

We and our students have skills, and valuable ones. But how do we get those beyond our classrooms to acknowledge the communication, collaboration, analysis, research, time-management, project-management, critical thinking, and technical skills we’ve honed in the university–and, for many of us, taught others? This issue is increasingly pressing given the social and governmental pressures to make everything countable, reportable, and monetizable. A humanities education, because it doesn’t neatly fit one into a slot in the business machine, gets dismissed as irrelevant. But as Max Bluow, the president of the Council of Ontario Universities argues, that’s not what we’re here for: “Universities are not, and should not be, in the business of producing “plug and play” graduates – workers who can fit immediately into a specific job in which they will spend the rest of their lives.” The world where people enter a career and stay in it for life has come and gone, and yet the university is, perhaps for the first time, being asked to produce those people. We don’t need programs that help people fit into one of those slots. We need the programs we have, and the tools to communicate to the world that what we do, and who we are, is of far more value than they probably realize.

How do we fix this, then? This being the mismatch between the skills we develop in the university, and the translation of those skills beyond the university? How do we translate our skills into terms that are meaningful to others, and that will land us work that employs, acknowledges, perhaps even applauds those skills? Bluow argues that it is employers who need to do the changing: “If indeed the statistics don’t bear out a serious mismatch between skills and jobs in Canada, the conversation should move away from turning universities into job training centres and toward the role employers can play in preparing graduates for jobs.” This includes, I should think, training employers to understand the skill-set that someone with a history degree, for example, could bring to the table. In “How to Get a Job with a Philosophy Degree,” The New York Times profiled a number of American universities that have created career-services programs specifically geared towards liberal arts students, ones that are designed to help both students and employers identify the ways in which their training and their needs match up. These schools highlight the unobvious degree-job matchups that happen post-graduation—the German major working at Deloitte, for instance—and profile successful graduates with quote-unquote useless degrees. My brain is full of useful and useless facts, but one that’s always stuck with me was that a past-president of BMO had a B.A. in English. Skills translation is a major priority for these centres; at the University of Chicago, “Michael S. Roth, the school’s president, says he wants the career program ‘to work with our students from the first year to think about how what they’re learning can be translated into other spheres.’”

For graduate students, the resources (at least where I’m standing) are far fewer on the ground, and the options potentially more difficult. There’s always the DIY route—So What Are You Going to Do With That? is a good place to start if we want to become fluent skills translators. My university offers a workshop on reframing academic skills, and I’m hoping to develop more of them as part of a professional development workshop series I run. Aaron Kotsko advocates for the creation of a “shadow resume”—working outside of the academy while studying and teaching in the academy so that you graduate with both a doctorate and a well-developed professional network. However unrealistic he might be about the feasibility of working two jobs at once (it would have been impossible for me, since my university prohibits us from taking any non-teaching employment while studying full-time), his point about our skills is spot on:

You have research skills. You have writing skills. You are basically an information processing machine. You hopefully have some language skills. Depending on your discipline, you might also have some advanced math or stats skills — in any case, you probably know how to use standard office software better than the average office worker does. You’re almost certainly anal-retentive when it comes to grammar and usage. These are things that don’t take any pre-existing special skills, and there are plenty of companies that need help with all of that. 

But what most of these options ignore is the dual-participant nature of translation. It doesn’t matter how well we translate our skills—we need to live in a world where the people we’re translating them for are willing to get what we’re saying. In an ideal world, they’d meet us halfway—the people with jobs would already know the value of what we were offering them, the value of a degree in English, or German, or gender studies. Indeed, they probably already do, although it doesn’t feel like it. It doesn’t help that the rhetoric around the humanities is working to exacerbate that feeling, and to frighten people into abandoning those fields that don’t lead to obvious careers. There’s lots of fulfilling work out there for us and our students—but how do we bridge the gap between the people who want the work, and the people who have it?

So, dear readers, over to you. What challenges do you face in translating your academic skills in your search for post-ac employment? Or in helping your students translate theirs? What issues around skills translation get your goat, or make you excited?

jobs · people pleasing

Exits Should Be as Classy as Entrances

I am in the process of quitting my job that I have worked at throughout university. It has been a fun little job with opportunities to travel, sharpen my skills and spend some time with like-minded people. The truth is, I was ready to quit. I was feeling cramped with the idea that I knew everything about my role and there wasn’t much more I could do in the way of professional betterment for the role. And then a greater opportunity came up.

I admit, despite knowing I was ready, it was not and still continues to not be as smooth as I hoped it would be. By my very nature, I am a people-pleaser. I would rather make myself uncomfortable than impose on somebody else. I recently shared this with a friend and she quickly responded “That is because you are a female.”

Because I am a female?

Society seems to celebrate this people-pleasing feature in females, and it would seem, young females.
One of the more memorable things a university professor ever said to me was to finish my sentences firmly, without lilting or raising it in a questioning tone that allows for people to assume that you have no idea what you are talking about and in some way, worth less.

I still battle with untangling my dreams and goals from the expectations of other people, but I can confidently say that it is not because I am female but because I am having these experiences for the first time. Disappointing people never gets easier, but when I think it is possible to focus less on that and more on what is necessary for you as a person.

I am more confident as I head into my new position that I will be more focused on what is necessary for me to feel balanced and when it comes to an end, not be apologetic, but grateful for opportunity.

What have your experiences been in leaving a job?
Any other people pleasers out there? What have you learned to assert what you need in a situation?