Transition Q&A:
Libby Pier

What did you hope for in terms of employment as you completed your PhD?

Although I began my PhD planning to spend my life in academia, it became increasingly apparent to me throughout graduate school that my tenure track job options were limited, and the realities of the day-to-day job of a professor were far less appealing than I had imagined. I decided I wanted to finish the PhD regardless, but I wasn’t sure what I would do with it when I was done. All I knew is that I wanted to do something that would get me closer to applied practice than my PhD research was, that had a semblance of work-life balance, that would pay me a decent salary after being out of the workforce for 6 years, and that would challenge and excite me.

What was your first post-PhD job?

I stuck around as a post-doc after finishing my dissertation. I was lucky to be able to stay on the same project (but with a post-doc salary increase!) while I looked for jobs.

What do you do now?

I am the Research Manager at Education Analytics, a non-profit firm that provides research-quality data analytics to school districts, state departments of education, consortia of schools and districts, and other non-profit organizations. I manage all of our internal research projects that underpin our innovative service offerings, I interface with external research collaborators, and I advance our company’s research presence through helping our team submit conference presentations, peer-reviewed journal articles, policy briefs, and practitioner-oriented overviews of our research. I also am deeply involved in our research on students’ social-emotional learning, so I get to give presentations, co-author articles, network with other researchers in this space, and help drive service and product development in this area.

How did you get this job?

A lot of convincing and persistence! I first reached out to someone via LinkedIn who had a mutual connection with me. I met her for coffee, but unbeknownst to me, she was an undergraduate student who worked at my company as a part-time hourly employee! I decided to take initiative and messaged the VP on LinkedIn. Surprisingly, he responded within a day and agreed to meet with me. He and I met in his office for an informational interview. At the end, he admitted that he initially was skeptical that I would have any relevant skills for their company, but after getting to know me better and learn more about my background, he was interested in keeping the conversation going, even though they weren’t hiring at the moment.

For about 3 months, I met with and interviewed various people in the company so they could get to know me, even though they didn’t have a role for me. Eventually, they offered me a position as a Data Strategist, with the caveat that I had a very different background than what was typical for that position. Much of my role was that of a typical Data Strategist at our firm, but I also began taking initiative to help bring processes and structures to facilitate research project management. Within 6 months, they created a new role for me, Research Manager, which is my current role.

What kind of tasks do you do on a daily and weekly basis?

I find myself in a lot of meetings, but they take a lot of different forms: Check-ins with the researchers I supervise, check-ins with my supervisor(s), management or leadership meetings, research meetings where we dig deep into statistical methodology questions, external meetings with our clients/partners, networking meetings with external collaborators, meetings with funding agencies, presentations of results to our partners, project management meetings, and many others. I also spend time on a weekly basis writing or revising grant proposals, journal article submissions, policy briefs, technical reports, memos, service pitches, and scopes of work for contracts. I often put together or collaborate on slide decks to share results or findings in engaging and innovative ways for both internal and external audiences.

Mostly, I find myself constantly doing new and different tasks that I never would have anticipated (e.g., creating budgets, researching pricing options for different journal publishers, designing systems for tracking time spent on different research projects, analyzing the results of a survey we give to our clients, and much more).

What most surprises you about your job?

That there are people and companies doing rigorous, innovative research outside of academia—but who still publish papers, go to conferences, and collaborate with other academics. You don’t have to be in academia to be an academic.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

The work I do makes a direct impact on students, teachers, and education systems. The applied nature of my work makes it feel much more exciting and impactful than the research I did as a graduate student. I also love how every day and week is different and fast-paced; it keeps things interesting and fresh (even though it can be stressful at times). I get to learn a lot from my colleagues, while still feeling like I have a lot to contribute.

What would you change about it if you could?

Research is hard and it’s messy, so being in charge of managing an inherently complicated process is hard! Because we are starting to build up the management structures for it from scratch, I often feel like I’m flying the plane as I’m building it. That makes it exciting but also nerve-wracking and at times, inefficient as we iterate on best practices.

Although I really enjoy being at the ground floor of building these processes, there are times I wish I either had already done a similar job in another organization where I could bring over best practices, or there were other people in my team or organization who already knew how to do these things. Even though I managed a lot of research as a graduate student, it was always research that I was involved in. Here, I often am managing projects that I don’t have the expertise for or am not directly involved in.

It’s been a wild ride creating a position for myself that I haven’t had before, and though it continues to be incredibly exciting, it hasn’t been easy!

What’s next for you, career-wise?

Our organization is growing — pretty rapidly, in fact. My hope is that as we continue to grow and as I continue to build my own skills and experience in this realm, I can take on increasing amounts of responsibility. I hope to grow with this organization and see where it goes!

What advice or thoughts do you have for PhDs in career transition now?

First, work with Maren or Jen if you can! My work with Maren was totally instrumental in helping me find this company and this role. Second, really spend the time to take stock of your previous experiences, your skills, how you like to spend your time, what kinds of roles you might enjoy, and what kinds of companies you might want to work for. Doing that research and self-reflection is hard, but it made all the difference in leading me to where I am now. The job search only works if you do!

Finally, don’t be afraid to take initiative. The VP of my company told me point blank that one of the only reasons he agreed to meet with me initially, and continued to think of me in the months that followed, was because he was surprised by my initiative at reaching out to him. I thought it was commonplace, but it was totally new to him — and it made an impression on him. Just because you don’t see a job posting doesn’t mean there isn’t a job for you. And you might need to talk to a lot of people before an opportunity pans out, but in my experience, that opportunity likely will be one you have to create rather than wait for.


Libby Pier earned her PhD in the Learning Sciences from the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is now the Research Manager at Education Analytics.

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