Muddling with Intention: On Moving from the Academy to the Academy

As the end of my PhD was drawing near, I started to worry, like many grad students do, about what would come next? How would I transition from being a doctoral student in the academy to the world of full-time work? As a grad student at McGill, in addition to my PhD work, I was teaching, editing, organizing workshops on writing and publishing, and raising two young children. I was developing skills, knowledge, and networks that would support a transition from the academy to whatever came next. And, what came next was a new way of being a part of the academy. Now, I am writing from my desk in the James building, wearing my fairly new hat as Academic Projects Officer in GPS.   This position in university administration comes on the heels of almost a decade of graduate studies at McGill (MA and PhD, Faculty of Education), which included a year “off” between degrees to teach in Cegeps, and 2 yearlong maternity leaves during the PhD.

I will admit that when I started my PhD, this was not where I imagined being post-PhD. I entered my doctoral program with the same idea most of my peers had – that the degree would lead me to an academic position. Naïve, I know. But, there I was, knowing that not all of us could possibly get academic positions (simple math explains this, not to mention job markets and tight financial times – see the White Paper on the Future of the PhD in the Humanities), yet somehow thinking I’d be one of the “lucky” ones. (Why do we think that only the ones who land those jobs are the lucky ones?)

This is not a post about luck, however, but how muddling with intention[1] as a graduate student allowed me to look beyond the singular academic post-PhD path. You might think that muddling suggests lack of focus and direction. Perhaps. But muddling with intention is a strategic and explicit approach to developing and exploring a breadth of educational opportunities, such as those mentioned above, while working towards an end goal (completing my PhD). And this involved a great deal of focus, planning, organization, and setting clear expectations with my supervisor. Let me give an example. At the beginning of my PhD, I met with my supervisor and sketched out a backwards timeline for my doctoral program. Working backwards from when I aimed to graduate (which coincided with when my funding ran out – as a grad student with children, I was determined not be an unfunded student), we blocked off chunks of time for the different phases and milestones of my program. I deliberately worked in some wiggle room to allow for life happenings. By muddling with intention throughout my PhD, I honed skills that are highly valued both in and out of the academy: refined research and analytical skills; time, task, and project management skills; leadership skills; and the ability to be self-directed as well as collaborate with others. This approach has landed me a job in the academy, and rather than cutting me off the academic world, I find I have a foot firmly planted in both camps. I continue to teach, publish, and engage with my research community, and this informs how I approach my role as an administrator for grad studies.

Is the post-PhD path a singular one? Not at all.   Graduate students need to be encouraged to take a step back from their muddling, and cast their skills and knowledge into a wide pool of future possibilities, either within or beyond the academy, or, as in my case, to transition from the academy to the academy.

[1] I would like to acknowledge the late Professor Ellen Aitken, who used this expression in a workshop on Women in Academia to describe her experiences of moving through the academy.

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