13 October 2012

The Versatile PhD

Amid the cooking and cleaning and child rearing, I rarely think about my PhD any more. Graduate school seems like such a lifetime ago - especially considering that, for most of it, I was newly married without children.

When I finished my dissertation, I had all but written off a life in academia. I was sick of the research and writing and endless periods of solitude. Plus, I had applied for several applicable positions at universities in the Denver metro area without any luck. I was quite happy to forego a job at a university. Turns out I entering the job force at the worst possible time - at the beginning of 2009, right after the economic collapse of 2008.

At that time I mostly saw my PhD as a liability. Who would hire me at an entry-level position or a little higher with that kind of degree? But after working in academia for nearly four years, I wasn't qualified for much more. particularly in a new city and in the nonprofit sector. And I was ready to work. When a grant writing position opened at an organization where I had volunteered, I figured it was a good place to start - and they were interested in hiring me.

Turns out that it was a key decision in my professional life. Sure, the pay wasn't great and I wasn't using my PhD. But, I met some amazing people. Like my team:

Tribute 2011, what would be our final event together (minus Mar).
Tribute 2012 ... reunited and all working for different organizations.
And it's not only the people I worked with at Mental Health America of Colorado, but the people I met. By working there, I increased my network in a way that is definitely paying off now. I met many members of the funding community, which has proved helpful for new clients. I also learned about an important issue: mental health.

I started Struckman Consulting mostly because I needed more flexibility in my schedule. When I was offered an adjunct position at the University of Denver last winter I couldn't refuse it. Being able to teach has validated why I got my PhD in the first place. It's wonderful to be a part of a community of learning again - even if it's only part-time. And I feel like I'm actually using my degree ... to a degree.

And you know what, my PhD is no longer a liability. Now it's an asset. When I started working at MHAC, I asked that my degree be omitted from my business cards. My Struckman Consulting cards proudly display those letters - and they do make a difference with new people I meet.

The long and short purpose of this rant is that I'm using this versatile PhD to carve out my own professional track. I won't be that professor who flies all over the world to conduct research or wins awards or publishes a book (yet). But, I am that professor who has a viable career outside of academia that allows me to explore my identity as a professional, as a professor and a mother without feeling guilty that I'm neglecting specific portions of my life.

Plus, but it's pretty amazing to get letters addressed to Dr. Struckman!


Simply Bike said...

Thanks so much for writing this post! As a fellow PhD with no interest in the traditional tenure track route, I really love hearing from others how they've forged a career path outside of the expected. It sounds like you're in such a good place with work and your personal life.

I would really like to work in the nonprofit sector as well doing something that feels meaningful even if it doesn't pay great. Right now though, we think about having a second baby and I feel like my return to work is still ages away. Sometimes I panick about what that will do to my career prospects when the time comes to pursue something outside of the home but mostly I trust that I'm where I want to be and need to me right now. And no part of me wishes I were on the tt job search right now!


Simply Bike said...

PS: Did you ever try to freelance using your degree? And if so, any tips on places to look for freelance writing/research jobs other than Versatile PhD?


Sara Struckman said...

S., I haven't tried freelancing with my degree - other than adjuncting. I'm not even sure where I'd start looking (or if I'd want to). I fell ass backwards into nonprofit consulting. It's a bit mundane, but it's worthwhile work. Things seem to fall into place somehow. Good luck!

Simply Bike said...

Thanks! I vascillate between feeling totally at ease with where I am professionally, thinking that something will surely be there for me when it's time to go back to work, and feeling totally panicked with the thought that I have no idea what I'm going to do and what will be there since I'm not planning on going the traditional academic route. I guess I just have to trust that it will work out in one way or another :) Either way, it's good to hear from others that there is life as a versatile PhDer :)