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Exploring New Paths: Back to School After Working in the Academy

Center for Women
July 31, 2018 Anna Valiavska University of Missouri

In the fall of 2014 I decided that it was time to start exploring a PhD. When other five-year-olds were talking about being firefighters or doctors, I knew that I wanted to have a PhD. In a more practical sense, I wanted to develop deeper knowledge about the ways organizations function and have a terminal degree that could help me take the next steps professionally. I have always loved learning and felt the pull of the classroom, so I took a few courses as non-degree seeking student and applied for admittance into the Organizational Communication PhD program at University of Missouri. After completing my coursework, I realized that in order to fully embrace the dissertation process, I had to commit to the PhD process full-time. This blog post will share my reflections, a few valuable pieces of advice I have picked up along the way, and a few resources others can use to help with a PhD transition.

One thing that I found challenging immediately and have struggled with extensively was the transition from a full-time professional with 10 years of progressively challenging work in the field to being a full-time graduate student. I spent four years as a Hall Coordinator and six years as a Coordinator of Freshman & Transfer Interest Groups, and it was a big shift for me to step away from that work. At times it was hard to explain to others (whether it was my parents or my colleagues) why taking time off full-time work was the right step for me. Creating a new narrative is hard work! Our narratives of professional success do not often include stories of putting careers on hold and going back to a student role. I found it to be a particular kind of challenge to take a step that seemed both necessary for my own development and did not have a clear narrative of success.

Reflections on the challenges I faced:


Networks: My network of colleagues shifted and changed tremendously – while the campus was busy with the hustle and bustle of Summer Orientation and move in, I was quietly preparing my classes, researching, and writing. I saw my old colleagues engage in familiar patterns of welcoming students while my role was very different. I experienced longing for that ease and excitement that comes with doing work that is familiar to us. I have decided to stay involved as possible with a few previous committees to maintain some professional networks. I will discuss that below.


Learning & Discomfort: I felt a sense of surprise and stuck-ness the first time I sat down to write a paper. This feeling did not simply evaporate with time – I had to consistently and intentionally learn and re-learn how to write and think as a scholar. I started my PhD program with 10 years of practice constructing emails, presentations, and trainings – these skills are useful, but are not easily translated into academic research-based writing. I read books, articles, and experienced a profound joy and hard work of learning a new skill. It remains humbling. It gets easier.


Finances: There is no denying that there were specific consequences of walking away from a full-time salary to a student stipend. I have been able to make things work with savings, another line of income (see below), and some limited loans. Financial changes are a reality that is important to consider in this process.


Advice that worked for me:


Treat your PhD as full-time job: One of the most valuable pieces of advice I’ve received is to approach the PhD process as a full-time responsibility. For me that meant setting up specific times for writing, research and teaching. I have also worked on setting up writing groups to help me and my peers remain accountable to each other and to ourselves. I have a projected completion schedule of my projects and work hard on staying on track to accomplish them.

Build avenues of income that help with professional development (if possible): One of my weaknesses in the transition process was that I had very little teaching experience. I used that as an opportunity to gain more and applied for various adjunct jobs around the city I live in. Sometimes, when jobs are not available, I send an email with my CV to the department head and express my willingness to fill in on short notice. This approach accomplished two things. One, it made the financial transition a smoother one; two, it allowed me to experience teaching, campus culture, and student engagement in a variety of settings. Because of my adjunct teaching experience, I am now much more informed on the priorities and lived experiences of an R1 campus and non-traditional students enrolled in a small local Evening Program.


Stay connected to the university and community networks: I received a great piece of advice about staying involved in the field by participating on committees and reaching out to set informational interviews with professionals whose skills I admire or who have jobs similar to what I want to pursue in the future. I looked at my resume and identified the gaps and used community involvement (in my case with an arts-based organization) to fulfill them.


Research what you care about: While this may seem pretty self-evident, it took me a long time to realize that there will be pressure to pursue research topics, theories, and questions that are currently popular or considered critical in my field of study. While that is a great approach if one is also interested in those topics, it is nevertheless challenging if these topics do not truly motivate you to write and ask questions. In my work I have found it important to connect the what I learned from practice as a student affairs practitioner to the theories I was learning about in Organizational Communication. For example, I knew that there were specific particularities about the ways male and female senior student affairs officers talked about their positions, so I designed a study that examined the ways male and female leaders conceptualize power in their positions.


What I read to build a virtual scholar community: The PhD path can be a lonely experience: the transition is challenging, the learning curves are steep and impostor syndrome is very, very real. However, it is also a process that can help build virtual and local communities of support. I have learned a lot about research and writing by reading good advice and following very smart and generous scholars on social media. Here are a few Twitter feeds to get you started:  


-Raul Pachero- provides excellent writing advice

-Joli Jensen- Write No Matter What- shares ways of setting up a sustainable writing practice

-Alt Academcy jobs


Are you thinking about a PhD? Reach out and let's chat!

Anna Valiavska is a PhD student at the University of Missouri studying organizational communication. Her research and professional interests focus on the ways we organize around access, power, gender, and race. You can find her on Twitter @AValiavska.