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From PhD to Life – Interview with Jennifer Polk, PhD

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You can read my story about leaving academia in Doctoring: Building a Life With a PhD–Available on Amazon.

Jennifer Polk, Ph.D. is a career coach and an expert on careers. She launched from Ph.D. to Life, a career coaching and speaking business, and blog, I should add, in 2013. She currently writes on graduate education and careers for doctoral degree holders. She’s also a guest speaker on university campuses and academic and professional conferences throughout North America and beyond. Her University Affairs blog is a three time gold winner from the Canadian Online Publishing, Awards and Jen did her Ph.D. in History from the University of Toronto.

So, Jen, welcome.

Jennifer Polk: Yeah, thank you. All true. Sounds fancy, but like no lie detected. Thank you so much, Chris.

Chris: No, my pleasure. It’s really fantastic to have you here and be able to have this conversation. So I asked you a few months ago to have this conversation, and we had both kind of chatted about what we were going to talk about. And I think it’s a little more often when I do these interviews with people who have left academia, it’s like kind of a career story. And I think what we’re going for today is a little more kind of broad because obviously both of us are thinking a lot about how to support PhDs as they’re leaving academia. So maybe I will just get you to do a little bit of like your own backstory and I’ll ask you some questions about it. But then maybe we can kind of move into some kind of more thematic thematic things. So where we’ve got you started on this journey of I think it’s been almost this 2013, you launched the blog, correct?

Jennifer Polk: So, yeah, so my career journey begins in 2013, correct. So I finish my PhD in 2012 and it took me a while to get there. And after that, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t think that it was going to be academia because I thought that was what I was supposed to do, but I couldn’t actually imagine doing it. It’s not a very ringing endorsement of that career path for me.

What else? I didn’t know.

I eventually hired a career coach and that was not something that I ever thought it would do, but it’s sort of the opportunity came up and I could afford it and I did. And that was really life changing. And it was in the context of working with Hillary, her name is Hillary Hutchinson that I started to think about how maybe I wanted to do what she did. say like that because I felt very sheepish about it. I was embarrassed, but I eventually, like I admitted to her, like “Maybe I would like to do what you do.”

And she was really encouraging. So in the course of the next few months, I continued to explore like possibilities and–I roll my eyes–I came back to myself. I figured out, like, who I was as a person and what I wanted. And I learned about coaching. And eventually I I took a coaching class, so I signed it for my first coaching class. This was not part of a longer strategy. It was just that, well, I know that I could use these skills in life. I don’t know whether I want to do this as a job, but in life.

And it was in the context of that course that I had my very first client because part of the course was like, you should get practice, folks. And I was already at that point, I’d started my website From PhD to Life, which started as a blog almost exactly eight years ago. And I was on Twitter eight years ago today, apparently. Thank you, Twitter. And so that’s that’s when I started to have my very first clients and ended up building a business and then ended up building a second business and did that full time with a business partner for a few years. And now I’ve I’ve shifted back to full time self employment. So I only do my own thing now.

And, long story short, change is ever present and I am scheming now what to do next year. But yes, it’s all been around. “What do you do after a year?” Yeah, and that’s not all of my clients. But essentially it’s your first year, an academic type and you’re doing a big thing on your own, whether that’s building a business or finishing a dissertation or changing careers or or or growing in your academic career. I have clients who are professors. So long answer to your question.

Chris: No, no, that’s great. And I’m curious to know, like, have you seen evolution in terms of the needs over the last seven or eight years or has it been pretty consistent?

Jennifer Polk: It’s interesting because I think, OK, what have I seen shift? Well, I there’s always been a need. that there is need is not the same as market for any particular products or services, but there is always a need for them. I do think that there has been a shift over the years, over this last decade. There are more positions within universities, jobs as administrative staff, jobs in student services, and like in career centers and in faculties of graduate studies and in other places on campus that are that focused more on graduate student professional development and in some cases, specific professional development. So there are more of those jobs within universities than there were before. I think still it’s an under-served population from that perspective. But that’s been an interesting shift.

I think sometimes it would seem like there’s more conversation around this and maybe that’s true. But I, I it’s possible that that’s just coincides with the growth of academic Twitter. So it seems like there’s more, but there’s just more of academic conversation happening online in public. The conversations around what do you do after a PhD? You know, as people that have looked into this, those were happening in the 60s and the 70s and 80s and very frequently they’re really the same kind of stuff. The specifics differ, but largely the same kind of stuff.

Yeah, it’s interesting, I came across a report a few months back from the 70s, it basically said like, oh God, we’re overproducing PhDs, we better stop and we have to do something. We’re going to have an employment crisis. And anyways, that’s what 50 years ago I want to talk about, like individual PhDs themselves, like as you’re working with clients one on one. Have you seen an evolution of the needs and expectations there, or has it been pretty much kind of stable across the board?

Jennifer Polk: Yeah, so, you know, yeah, I think from my experience, in some ways it’s frustrating because every year there’s a new crop of people who don’t know the same things as the people here before them didn’t know. And of course not. Right. That sounds pessimistic. But, yeah, I I don’t mean to sound pessimistic at all, but I there is always there was always room for those conversations like informational interviews. They’re awesome, right. And yes, you should network and let’s reframe networking and what are your skills and what is transferable skills mean and do we like that phrase?

Yeah, I don’t mean to sound like a jerk, but yes, I think the same kinds of information is always there’s always a new group of students who well, I’m sure there are there are more students who are getting more help than they used to. But there is there are always lots and lots and lots more students who aren’t so much. And for whatever that doesn’t I don’t mean to say I don’t mean to blame anyone or anything. When I say that, it’s just that’s what happens for whatever reason.

How HigherEd Can Support Careers

Yeah, so I want to ask you. OK, so so let’s take this in a bit of a different direction. I want to think about basically what it’s like for a university right now at the edge of a pandemic that is recognizing that they can’t keep doing things the way that they’ve been doing it? What would you say? Kind of based on working with people? Like what would you like to see built into programs in the future? What would you like to see? What kinds of support would you like to see added? Or even on a personal note? Like what would you have liked to have had in your program that you think would have helped a lot to to help your transition out of academia?

Jennifer Polk: I think there’s there’s lots of different good ideas that tackle the challenge in different ways, at different levels and for different groups. And so just to say that, let me highlight one possibility, but I think all of the things are potentially good and each come with their own challenges, as does the thing I’m going to talk about.

So I have one thing I think that would have been really useful and that I think that would be really useful now for departments and individual faculty members. But I think these are things that can certainly happen at the department level, is to engage your own alumni, engage your own alumni, and those can even be undergrads. But when we’re talking about PhDs, you can bring back folks that did master’s degrees and PhDs and who, maybe who are currently enrolled in your PhD programs and have jobs or who did not finish those degrees and have jobs and get them actively engaged. And you’re going to have to figure out a way of how to engage them in a way that makes sense for them and for you and for your students.

So you might have to rethink what is what is the purpose of the work that you’re doing or at least, you know, kind of add something to that so that it makes sense, because I want faculty members to be engaged with their own former students and other local folks, you know, in the community. However, they would define their community that have similar backgrounds. I want current students. I want postdocs to be actively in conversation with folks that have shared academic backgrounds, because I think that actual interaction with folks starts to break down these myths that you might have and these these thoughts that you might have that you don’t even recognize that you have: that working outside of academia is lesser than. That folks are sellouts if they work in a corporation. That people are have left their intellectual endeavors behind or that they were never true scholars in the first place.

And I think when you actually get to be interacting with people, you start to call bullshit, I hope, on those thoughts. So I think that, and of course, from the perspective of giving you a meaningful network. And of course, that network can include people that go and do different kinds of academic work as well. All of your alumni, celebrate them, and don’t just do it on your placement page (although please do).

But yeah, there’s lots of things that that can involve. Your department hosts a LinkedIn group. I don’t know if LinkedIn group sort of thing. Your department has a blog and the blog has a broad mandate, where you invite guest posts. Yes, from professors. And yes, you celebrate the book prize that your professor got. But that you also give alumni news, all of your alumni, your newsletter, your physical newsletter. You do this. You have events. You have breakfast networking events on Zoom. You have evening party, whatever. And everybody’s invited. It’s part of community building. And I think, if your discipline changes along the way, good. If we think that there’s value in those disciplines. Yes. Let’s change them a little bit. Not to, not to reject what we already doing that we think is good but to add more vitality to them.

If every professor sent one, once a year an email to their former students and their current students. Right? I mean, give me your update. Where are you at? And it was friendly and it was like and here’s my updates. And I really would love to share and I would love to hear for myself. But with your permission, I would love to be able to share your news with my current students and recent grads… And this could just be part of department culture, ideally, where, you know, at some point in the year in July, everyone is encouraged to reach out to all their former students and it becomes just part of a department culture of celebrating and updating and etc..

On Those of Us Who Support PhD Career Transition

Jennifer Polk: Hopefully there will be more and more folks at universities who are there to help graduate students when they’re graduate students and postdocs as well. Postdocs are vastly under served. So that’s really important. But there is always going to be always going to be a need for services after that, because the transition that if folks go through the transition to working outside of academia, that very frequently happens, they no longer have access to university services. So just to say that I, I we all fully and totally support on campus services and think that there should be more of them.

I think we’re all in this together, even though we in some ways have very different careers. I’m with you. Like I think that there are lots and lots of different kinds of things and there are lots of different angles and twists on different types of work and that there is so much that we could contribute to each other. And I think it’s I mean, my one of my kind of vision, a vision that I have and I like a vision. It’s it’s vague is I think it would be so cool to have all of us, like, really robust, sustainable businesses doing different things and and partnering formally and informally together over the years.

And what’s neat is that this makes space in the world for this kind of work. Like, it sort of it justifies it. Right? And and one person, one person coming up, like you coming up and and getting in the conversation and getting there for people that resonate with you and your message, getting them involved in the conversation, that helps all of us because it legitimizes this type of work. I think when Karen Kelsey started (she’s The Professor is In), her focus has shifted a little bit over the years. But I think that she was pretty new and this kind of industry didn’t exist and she sort of created a market. I think that market grows. And it’s really interesting. And there is so much need for this, whether you’re working with professors, with institutions, with individual students, with folks who want to start businesses. Right? You and I are both interested in helping folks start businesses with folks that who want to be better teachers. Right. There’s a whole industry around that. Faculty development consultant. Yes. Let’s all work together.

Informational Interviews

Chris: I’m just going to ask a question really quick, because there’s a question in the chat. So the question is, how do you recommend getting and setting up informational interviews? I’ve noticed a lot of people are hesitant to cold email people in the field they haven’t met.

Jennifer Polk: I would say that this is, if not the number one, one of the number one stumbling blocks for the folks that I’ve worked with and interacted with over the years is that they are really hesitant to talk with other people. And I say it that way because that’s all it is. You’re just talking and maybe you’re not talking, but you’re interacting in whatever way with other people.

I think the first thing is to recognize that it’s it’s not cold. If it’s truly cold, you might find somebody else, but it’s not cold. If you have a PhD and that other person has a PhD, that’s a connection. Right? That’s a meaningful connection, probably for most people. If you if you’re reaching out to management consultant and you were in a management consulting club in undergrad, that’s a connection that you could point to if certainly if you studied the same thing or you’re any any person that connects you with that other person.

And then so it’s first of all, for you to do the work to figure out who you want to talk to and why you want to talk to them and what’s your connection to them and to think broader about what is a meaningful connection. And then also to keep in mind that this is a good thing to do. It’s good capital G. Right. I’m going to put that value on it. It’s a good thing to do. It’s a regular, normal, everyday thing to do. It’s common. It’s expected, it’s expected. People will will welcome it, especially anyone who has had a career shift and anyone who is working in a job where they haven’t been in there for forty years.

Because anyone who has had any kind of shift in their career that has changed companies or job titles, they have done informational interviews. They might not have called it that, but they will have done them and they will have recognized the value of building their network. And oh, yes, the last thing I think is really important is to normalize following up. Yeah, you are probably going to have to follow up. And it’s not because somebody is ignoring you. It’s not personal. People are busy. Email is a mess. I have three hundred connection requests waiting for me on LinkedIn and I just I’m going to declare bankruptcy. I don’t hate you. I just can’t. I get busy and I got Netflix to watch and my email is a mess and that is my own failing. And it’s not because I don’t like you.

How to work with Jen…

So if if somebody wants to work with you, I know you do you do coaching. As I mentioned in the introduction. Could you just tell maybe just a little bit about like kind of how that works, the type of work and support that you offer and kind of what people would expect if they want to if they came to get some coaching from you?

Jennifer Polk: Some of my favorite clients are the folks that are like, “I don’t know. I really don’t know. I don’t know what I want. I’m not I’m struggling. I’m not doing it. I feel lost.” Some of my favorite clients are those, but that doesn’t describe all of them. My clients are also people that are trying to do a big things. A career change is a big thing and it’s largely up to them to do right. So, OK, great coaching is great. Coaching is all about action. That’s the work that I do. The whole point is for us to figure out together what are you’re going to do. And then really the point is for then for you to do it. And if you don’t, then that’s because I suck. Your life happens. If anyone’s curious. Yeah, just go to my website.

You can read my story about leaving academia in Doctoring: Building a Life With a PhD–Available on Amazon.

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