Jennifer Polk

Coach at From PhD to Life

My Patchwork Post-Academic Community

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Jennifer Polk is a budding career coach and blogger at From PhD to Life. In her columns for Vitae, she's chronicling her transition from grad school to life as a post-academic entrepreneur.

I value the independence I have as a self-employed person. It was one of my favorite things about being a Ph.D. student, and later about being a freelancer. Although I considered working full-time for an employer, the closest I ever came to that was when I took on as many shifts as I could at the bookstore during my summers as an undergrad.

I love having the freedom to arrange my own life and labor. As long as the work gets done, the details are largely left up to me, always. When I work, where I work, how I structure my workday are all things I can control, and this has been true for me for many years.

But while autonomy is king, being the master of my own work domain can be lonely at times. Which is why community support is so crucial, too. As much as I want flexibility and control over what I do, I also want to know that I’m not alone in doing it.

Community can be hard to find. When I first got serious about leaving academia and exploring a different career path, I felt largely alone. Many of my best friends were academics who wanted me to stay, so I had to look elsewhere for support and guidance.

Naturally, I turned to the Internet. I discovered MITACS, a Canadian nonprofit that offers professional and entrepreneurial skills training for graduate students, and signed up for their workshops. I reached out to Ph.D.’s in nonacademic jobs for informational interviews. I found these people through friends, by checking the bios of employees at companies that interested me, and on websites such as #alt-academy. I began reading posts on Versatile PhD. I also found a career coach—a job title I’d never heard of! But, hey, I needed whatever help the world was offering.

All of this was really helpful, and I felt I was becoming part of a community that, up to then, I had little inkling existed. Chatting online and in person with Ph.D.s beyond the tenure track, and working with my coach, got me feeling much better about my situation: I was a smart, creative, resourceful woman who just happened to be undergoing a career transition. I was excited about what I was learning and experiencing. And I wanted to start some conversations, to learn about different careers, and maybe to help others in my situation.

So in December 2012, I launched my blog, From PhD to Life. I’d used blogs to build community in the past—my previous blog, Narratives, covered the Toronto music scene—and I was excited to meet other Ph.D.’s who felt isolated and lost on their own post-academic journeys. (At the time, the term “post-academic” wasn’t yet in use, but I would soon be an active proponent of it!)

Then, in January, I had coffee with Natalie Zina Walschots, a self-described “freelance writer, promiscuous wordsmith, poet, journalist, editor, reviewer, music critic,” among other things. We’d never met face-to-face before, but we had many friends and acquaintances in common in Toronto’s local music scene. I messaged her on Facebook (we were “friends” there) and asked her out to coffee. I’d wanted to meet her because of her success as a freelance writer and editor---both roles I’d considered taking on myself---but it turned out that Natalie knew something about being an academic.

“Once upon a time,” she writes on her website, “I was a much more scholarly, bookish, and cripplingly anxious young woman. I planned to earn a Ph.D. while still in my early 20s, lock myself away in the ivory tower and never come out again. After earning my Master’s degree in English Literature and Creative Writing, I suddenly found myself divorced, medicated for generalized anxiety disorder, and about to turn twenty-five.” Well now! Clearly, this was a person I needed to speak with.

After our coffee date, I realized that I wanted to share Natalie’s story, both the highs and the lows, on my blog. She was willing and wonderfully forthcoming about her struggles, and the resulting Q & A post includes lots of great tips for aspiring freelance writers. This post turned into the first of a series of transition-oriented Q & As with graduate-degree holders who are happily employed beyond academia.

Speaking with Natalie was important for another reason, too: She urged me to get active on Twitter. She told me about how she’d connected with editors and other freelance writers on social media, and about how doing so had helped her build relationships and get her work published. I wasn’t sure freelance writing was for me---Natalie pitches story ideas every day!---but she inspired me to make better use of my Twitter account.

These days, Twitter is not only where I get a lot of my news, it’s where I hang out with so many members of my academic and post-academic world. AsJo Van Every says, “Twitter is where I do what people who work in offices do in the hallways, coffee room, etc.” It’s my post-academic water cooler, so to speak. I learn new things, share my interests and growing expertise, and reap the creative rewards of the site’s 140-character-a-tweet limit.

And I meet people. One of the first people I followed on Twitter was Liana Silva-Ford. Her tweets on being a recent Ph.D. in an alt-ac job drew me to her, even before I realized she was active elsewhere online. A few months later, I butted in on a Twitter conversation between Liana and Liz Covart, another Ph.D. survivor who’s self-employed, and got myself invited to an informal Google Hangout they had planned to talk about freelance writing. Since then, the three of us have regularly gathered in front of our webcams to chat as friends and support each other as entrepreneurial-minded post-Ph.D. colleagues. These hangouts remind me that I’m part of a larger group of once-upon-a-time-academics out to make the world a better place, each in his or her own way.

I feel excited, energized, and inspired when I take part in these kinds of online conversations. And there’s no getting around it: In-person connections with colleagues are harder to come by when you’re working from your bedroom desk or your dining room table. More than anything else, that explains why my online life is an essential piece of my post-academic experience.

It explains why you’ll often find me emailing, speaking on the phone, Skyping, or otherwise interacting online with graduate students, academics, adjuncts, administrators, consultants, and coaches; and why I host and participate in Twitter chats, including my biweekly #withaPhD chat and Jeffrey Keefer’s #adjunctchat. And, of course, it’s why being a coach is the perfect job for me.

Engaging with other people in a significant way---asking questions, listening deeply, being empathetic---is one of my needs, and one of my strengths. If it’s one of yours, I’d strongly recommend pushing through any social-media skepticism you might have and looking to make some connections online. It’s fun and energizing. All it takes is a computer and a little work.

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