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Connect with Jennifer on LinkedIn
Jennifer Polk, PhD, and Maren Wood, PhD, are the co-founders of Beyond the Professoriate. In these interviews, they share their perspectives on embarking on careers as entrepreneurs, starting a business, and how their career paths have really surprised them.
Maren graduated from her PhD – and the only thing she ever wanted to be was an educator. She finished in 2009, spending three years on the academic job market at a time when the market had collapsed. After moving to Washington, D.C., Maren began tracking down history PhDs to learn more about where they were ending up. Through networking, Maren consulted for the American Historical Association and held a two-year contract with the Chronicle of Higher Education, learning more about who actually lands tenure-track positions and what sectors PhDs were employed in. Based on that research, she started working one-on-one with PhDs to help them with their career transitions.
Similarly, Jen started with her own business, From PhD to Life, about a year and a half after she completed her PhD at the University of Toronto. She was interested in learning more about where PhDs ended up finding fulfilling careers, and telling their stories. Eventually, she re-connected with Maren, whom she had met while they were both working though their master’s degrees. Eventually, the two were collaborating on projects for PhD career-readiness about once a year, and decided to take their endeavour full-time, collaborating year-round. This was the beginning of Beyond the Professoriate!
Day to day, Maren and Jen take on many different tasks. For example, Jen is responsible for all of the events that Beyond Prof hosts, including career panels, career spotlights, and special events (including Beyond Prof’s new series on the academic job market!). Management and facilitation skills are essential to this aspect of Beyond Prof. When planning events, Jen says she has to think strategically about the types of individuals she wants to involve. “Most of our events are us hosting other people,” she says. “So we have to think in advance, ‘what topics do we want to showcase?’ and who might be the right types of people to present this information?”
Maren focuses on strategic design, product design, marketing, and high level business strategy. For the past year she has worked on developing and designing Aurora, Beyond Prof’s e-learning platform. Regardless of what Maren is doing, it requires research – whether she’s looking into new programs to help the team communicate more efficiently or learning more about platform development. She also has found that her day-to-day work includes analysis and analytic review, and even a little bit of sales!
When asked how their current business relates to their doctoral work, both Jen and Maren are quick to point out that it doesn’t relate to their work as historians at all. “I want that to become much more normal,” says Maren. “I loved being a historian. I liked thinking high-level thoughts. I loved being in the classroom.” Both Jen and Maren found that tracing their values and interests led them to fulfilling and exciting careers. Jen was always interested in people and their stories, and during grad school often found herself organizing conferences and taking on student leadership positions. Maren drew connections between her love of the classroom and designing and developing workshops, while Jen has always been passionate about bringing people together to present their viewpoints.
Maren and Jen both point out that the post-PhD career transition can be really tough. Jen notes that she often felt un-moored, both during and after her PhD. One of the things that surprises her the most about her current career is that she feels more engaged and fulfilled than she did during her graduate experience. The most surprising element of Maren’s career? She remembers saying at a conference in the past “I don’t ever want to run a business.” In retrospect, Maren believes this statement was connected to the safety of her academic identity – which she felt she still held onto, even after she left the academic job market.
Maren and Jen’s advice for those starting out on their own career transitions? Talk to all sorts of people. In the beginning, networking and reaching out may make you feel nervous or anxious, but most people are excited to give advice and want to help you get where you need to go. They want PhDs undergoing a career transition to ask themselves more about their interests. Think broadly about what, exactly, it is about your academic work that energizes you, and try to apply that to other sectors or career paths. “We do want to make change in the world, and in the academic world,” says Jen. “We really support people who have great educations, and who want to harness their educations and all of who they are to make the world better.” If you dig deep, the results might surprise you!