Dear PhDs: You do you

I knew from the start of my PhD that I probably wasn’t going to end up an academic. Everywhere I turned in my MA program professors were saying to my cohort, “You’re probably not going to get a job! Turn back now!” I am so thankful for those warnings because though I still wanted my PhD, I decided to build my skills for outside of academia immediately.

I specifically chose the Public History program at Western Michigan University because of the Frederick S. Upton Fellowship that was offered to Public History PhD students. This fellowship allowed one graduate student to work in a museum instead of as a teaching assistant. In this role, I assisted the curator and rest of the staff in cataloguing the museum collection, building new exhibits, and developing educational programs. Though it was a one year appointment, I somehow managed to hold this position for four years.

During this time the museum went through an administrative change that allowed me to move into the permanent role of Curator where I was able to supervise staff, volunteers, and interns. I did all of this while doing coursework, exams, and my dissertation proposal. I enjoyed every minute of working in the museum and came to realize that I was arriving to class energized when my cohort was stressing over publications and job applications to other institutions.

I developed my network. From day one, I knew that this would be my lifeline to wherever I wanted to go with my career. Both inside and outside of the university, I was deliberate in making contacts and stewarding those relationships that I knew would be helpful to me in the future.

This didn’t mean that I didn’t still have an eye on academia. I was committed to my dissertation and the research I was doing, but life outside of the university was fun and I enjoyed the work I was doing by interacting with the public. My supervising professor and mentors were very supportive in my career aspirations. In fact, when I nearly quit (as a result of a horrible dust-up in my program), it was my “village” within the university that encouraged me to keep going and rebuild my program.

I also examined what I wanted out of my life. To be frank, I wanted to be a mom and I wanted to stay in Michigan near my family. I did not want to bounce state to state with temporary positions. I wanted to set roots down and begin my life. Truthfully, I also read the literature about women in academia and how having children can seriously hurt a career and the prospect of obtaining tenure. It’s utter crap, but it’s true.
Then I got pregnant. At this time, I was working full-time at the museum and teaching a course, writing, and about to have a baby. Something had to give. I chose to leave my position at the museum and focus full-time efforts on finishing my dissertation. I gave myself a year to write, evaluate, and get back into the field.

It took a little longer to get to that coveted final draft of my dissertation, but I stuck to my promise. After a year, I knew that I still wanted to be in the museum field. In July 2016, I was working full time, had a two year old, and successfully defended my dissertation. It was an incredible relief to be finished and already have the career I wanted.

My final advice to PhDs who are thinking of leaving academia is: You do you. Evaluate what you want and seek out a path that you will help you get there. I was extremely fortunate to have a program that encouraged my pursuit of a life outside of the Ivory Tower and supported my efforts with funding and tools. Frankly, I think every graduate program should be that honest with their students and provide the tools they actually need to succeed whether inside or outside the professoriate.


Caitlyn Perry Dial earned her PhD in Public History from Western Michigan University. She’s currently Executive Director of the Michigan Women’s Historical Center and Hall of Fame.

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