Maybe You've Already Found Your Next Great Career

I don’t know that I ever formally chose not to pursue a faculty career; I was “on the market” for a number of years, actively applying to tenure-track roles related to my doctoral research in Victorian literature. Working in student services, including a number of part-time and temporary contracts in career services, began as a kind of placeholder while I pursued tenure-track roles. However, as I came to enjoy my career development work more and more, I began to utilize a simple rule: I would only apply to tenure-track roles if I genuinely believed I would like that job, and the accompanying life, as much or more than my current work and life. 

Applying this rule immediately slashed the number of academic jobs I applied to down to a tiny pool, and within a year, I realized there were no longer any academic positions that met that criteria! The recognition that my goals, priorities, and definition of career success had all gradually shifted led me to realizing that I had already started down a new path, and retroactively embracing a decision to work in a non-faculty role.

These days, success for me looks like the opportunity to learn something new every day, and make what Gloria Steinem calls “the radical act of listening to others” central to my professional life. I also love working in a field where cultivating relationships and rapport (a strength of mine!) is recognized as a marker of success. Interestingly, I feel like my life is intellectually richer now than it ever has been: for me, clear boundaries between work and life (for example, maintaining a set schedule, minimal working on evening and weekends) have freed me to guiltlessly pursue exploring art and ideas ranging from lecture series to local theatre to reading for pleasure and curiosity.

 I’m better to integrate aspects of civic and community involvement that are important to me, but which were extremely difficult to find time for while working in academia; for example, I’m currently exploring opportunities to serve as a board member with a not-for-profit or cultural organization. I’m also fortunate to have a freelance “side-hustle” where I write study guides and supplemental materials, often related to literature. This work offers me a great opportunity to directly apply the skills I learned during my PhD in a flexible way that provides a nice balance to my primary job.

For anyone interested in working in student affairs or higher education more generally, I’d strongly advise gaining experience while you are still a student. Many institutions offer a plethora of part-time and volunteer roles, work-learn/work-study opportunities located within student affairs units, and peer program opportunities. (I got my start in career services thorough a peer to peer resume review service.) 

The bar to entry for these roles is often quite low, with curiosity and a willingness to learn being some of the biggest criteria (and co-incidentally, traits PhDs often have in spades). Moreover, many of these roles are designed explicitly to support career development and learning, with an explicit focus on mentoring, networking, and feedback built in to the design of the role. However, most of these roles are earmarked for currently enrolled students, and pursuing work in student affairs after the completion of your degree can be much more challenging without some related experience. Either way, student affairs and higher education are areas where informational interviews are very common, and connecting with individuals doing work you might be interested in is also an excellent strategy if you would like to work in the field.


Danielle Barkley earned her PhD in English Literature from McGill University. She currently works as a career development educator at the University of British Columbia. Learn more about Danielle’s career by renting the Student Affairs Panel.

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