Jennifer Polk is the go-to authority on helping grad students and people with PhDs explore careers beyond professoriate and academic jobs. She writes on issues related to graduate education and career outcomes for doctoral-degree holders, has a PhD in History from the University of Toronto, and is the co-founder of Beyond the Professoriate, and the owner of From PhD to Life and Self Employed PhD.
While Jennifer has now built a career around helping others with doctorates figure out what’s next, she herself is a great example of how a person with a doctorate can pursue and attain career satisfaction outside of the traditional academic path. Here, she chats with me about what she does for people with their doctorate (many of whom, sometimes, have no idea what’s next!), her own journey into this line of work, how she found her community through social media, and the one piece of advice she would give to anyone with a doctorate. Read on for more!
Life After a Doctorate (a chat with Jennifer Polk)
Tell us a little about what you do for folks with PhDs.
Through one of my businesses, (From PhD to Life), I work with grad students, and people with PhDs to answer three critical questions:
- What’s Now
- What’s Next
- What’s In-between
When I take on clients these days, I offer a free initial consultation for half an hour, and I ask those three main questions.
Part of it is so I can figure out, “is it a right fit for us to work together?” From those questions, I have a good sense if someone should work with me, or work with someone else, or I might say “don’t work with me yet,” or “here’s a free resource…”
When someone hires you, what are they getting?
The indirect process of facilitating clients figuring shit out for themselves. I create a structure and a safe space for that to happen. Creating a space where the client can solve their own problems is incredibly rewarding.
What is that process like?
Clients will ask what do I think, and I’ll say, “let’s start with what you think.” They can come up with strategies they’re excited about and will actually implement.
What I most enjoy now, and I didn’t have the vocabulary years before — what I enjoy now is coaching.
I think there are some elements of counseling [in what I do], but I’m not a mental health professional. I’m mostly dealing with people — at least in coaching — they’re not coming to work through mental issues.
What does coaching mean for you?
It means not instructing, or guiding directly, [but] helping [clients] figure out [what’s next] themselves. It’s coaching.
I really enjoy asking questions and having the clients, out of answering the questions, solve their problems. It’s unlike anything I experienced before I hired my coach and unlike anything I was doing in a classroom (though there were hints of that as a teaching assistant).
Even if you ask someone for advice, and you give them advice, they don’t take it. Coaching as a thing and as a process has really blown my mind.
You’re the expert on what to do with a PhD besides pursuing an academic career. Why did you, yourself, get into this work?
I studied Americans running around in revolutionary Russia, I spent time in the archives, I had my dead guys (I loved my dead guys, but they were all dead). I finished my PhD in 2012 — a few months went by and nothing was happening [career-wise].
Eventually, I hired a career coach eventually. It wasn’t something I originally sought out to do, but it changed my life, really.
I worked with Hilary Hutchinson (who is a life coach), and pretty early on started thinking maybe “I want to do this too” — relating to career stuff. So I researched coaching and did some informational interviews, and took a course on how to coach. That was the beginning of later Spring in 2013. A month into that first foundations course, I had my first client.
You’ve put a lot of time and love into building your presence on Twitter as the go-to girl on life after a doctorate. What initially brought you into the Twittersphere?
I wasn’t an early adopter, but I’ve always liked social media. When I was in my career transition and what I wanted to do after PhD to not hate my life, I turned to Twitter to make a community.
In Toronto, I knew very few people who weren’t trying to be Professors.. I knew lots of people, but they were either academic types, or totally unrelated. I found “my people” on Twitter.
A lot of your clients find you through your (very widely followed) Twitter account. Was building your presence on Twitter part of the strategy?
There was no strategy at first — I just wanted to make friends, share things, be excited about it.Later on it became part of the business strategy — having my Twitter account. I’ve put a lot of effort, over a number of years, into building a huge following. So there’s some strategy now, but mostly, it was this is fun and helping me and so how can I help others.
If you had to give one piece of advice to anyone with a doctorate, what might it be?
Network, network, network!
Building a professional network is such a crucial part of the PhD job search process.
Thank you, Jennifer for sharing your story!
P.S. – If you’re interested, a post on what it’s like to be pregnant while in a doctoral program online, and links related to the “Journey” to the Ed.D.