How I Fail: Jennifer Polk (PhD’12, History)

For this post of How I Fail I’m interviewing Jennifer Polk, a career coach for PhDs. You can find her online at Beyond the Professoriate, a membership site and community for PhDs seeking non-faculty careers,  FromPhDtoLife.com with resources for PhD career changes, Twitter and Facebook.

 

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1. Hi Jennifer, thanks for joining the How I Fail series! Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself?

I am the co-founder of Beyond the Professoriate and also operate my own coaching business under the name From PhD to Life. A side business of mine is Self-Employed PhD. Beyond Prof is my main focus these days. It’s a membership site full of resources for graduate students and PhDs seeking non-faculty jobs. All created for PhDs by PhDs.

2. What does the word “failure” mean to you? Could you say something how your definition of it changed over the years, especially through the experiences of starting your freelancing career and then coaching clients?

When I think about failure what comes to mind most is “trying stuff.” There’s a ton of experimentation that goes into creating and building businesses. Yes, you should be smart about things and learn from others, but ultimately every market is different, ever product or service is unique, every brand will have its own personality. I do a lot of trying these days, which means I also experience a lot of failure!
It can be tricky to find a balance between giving things a shot and deciding to try a different approach. There are so many factors that go into a successful whatever, and nothing I do happens in a controlled environment. Judgment plays a role, as does a bit of patience and a willingness to move on if something isn’t working. You can’t be stubborn and you have to respect your market. It’s challenging, but in a good way, too.

3. Could you say something about the perception that leaving academia can be seen as a failure, by yourself or by others? What is your advice to a person who thinks that?

“Hello, I’m Jen, and I’m a loser with a PhD.” Ugh, but that is how I used to think of myself.

There’s still a very real, pervasive, powerful culture in grad school and academia – and the world writ large! – that a PhD is supposed to lead to working as a professor. Folks who believe this, often unconsciously, aren’t necessarily jerks! They just don’t get that a doctoral degree isn’t job prep, and who can blame them when there’s so much talk of “training” in grad school?! Postdocs are “trainees”! (For what? Clearly, for jobs in bench science/academia. Gross.)
What helped me was realizing that I associated who I was with what I did. My identity was wrapped up with being a grad student/intellectual/scholar/whatever. What I realized over time was that I could still be a smart, interesting, critically engaged person no matter what sort of job I happened to have. That seems so simple and yet it was a huge thing for me.

Practically speaking, what helped was working with a career/life coach; reading and listening to wise women such as Pema Chodron, Tara Brach, Brene Brown; doing informational interview – yes, really; and making new friends on Twitter in the #altac community. Working with my coach, Hillary Hutchinson, changed my life. It was an incredible experience.

4. What are your thoughts about people being more open about sharing failures online? [For example, the “CV of Failures” that are most shared online are of professors at well-known universities, which may create a biased perception of “success”.]

Yeah, I can see why folks can get frustrated hearing about “failure” from people who are big professional successes. I get it. I also think it’s valuable to show that we’re all human, we don’t always get what we want. Ideally, these posts would include some comments that show the authors acknowledge privileges. And I’m aware that a “CV of Failure” could imply that success will come if you just stick it out. That is not always true. Sometimes failure rightly leads to moving on instead of trying again.

A list of “failures” doesn’t tell us anything about what a person did after the rejection. Did they change up their strategy? Get more experience? Call in outside help to write the next funding application? What do they think was the reason behind something not working, beyond “too many applied, too little funding available”?

5. In general, do you keep track of your rejections? Why / why not?

A bit. I do have a spreadsheet where I track potential coaching clients, from when they signed up for my waiting list to when/if they hired me. My rate isn’t very good! But that’s not really a rejection per se, since there are lots of totally legit reasons why someone wouldn’t hire me. I can usually tell during an initial consultation whether someone will end up working with me, so while it’s useful to see it graphed, it’s not something I worry about too much.
I don’t work as a scholar or academic, so I no longer apply for grants, scholarships, or programs.

6. What do you do when you receive a rejection? Do you have some process/ritual of dealing with it?

Nope. But that’s mostly because I don’t “receive rejections” in the way a faculty member might. It’s been a while since I applied for anything! There’s rarely an email I open only to have my hopes dashed. My work just isn’t like that.

7. Can you think of anything you didn’t dare to try, but wish you would have, even if it would end up on your “CV of Failure”?

There are lots of risks it took me a long time to take. My own “imposter syndrome” has definitely gotten in the way of me acting on an idea, whether it’s raising my fees or saying “no” to an opportunity. It’s important for me to work out what’s a savvy move and what’s procrastination or failure to commit to what I know is the right thing to do. So much of what I do is about taking small risks, so it’s not such a big deal if it doesn’t work out.

I think the biggest failure here might be my declaration – via a dedicated blog post for University Affairs – that I was writing a book. I was… until I wasn’t. That felt very silly or foolish of me for a while, but as time passes I’m less bothered by it. Still, it’s a fairly public fail and that’s never awesome.

8. How about something that looks like a success on your regular CV, but perhaps didn’t feel like it?

I do try to acknowledge – at least to myself – my own successes, however small. But! I have done things that I publicize but don’t feel awesome about. No one needs to know, though.

9. And, on the other side of that, something that felt like a success, but you wouldn’t generally find on a CV?

I don’t have a CV these days. There is an enormous amount of information that doesn’t appear on a CV, or wouldn’t take centre stage on one. When I was a grad student, for example, I did a lot of “service” and admin work within and beyond my department. That stuff was really energizing and interesting a lot of time, but isn’t nearly as important in the academic world as publications and teaching experience. The weirdness of academic CVs compared with resumes is something that trips a lot of PhDs up when they need to craft the latter. These are completely different documents.

10. When something is successful, do you have a celebratory ritual? Who do you share the news with? Do you have some ways in which you reward yourself?

After a big win of some sort, I have done things like taken myself out to dinner or for ice cream! That makes me sounds very lame, I know, but there you have it. I think there is something to interrupting the norm, and for me that means treating myself in ways I normally wouldn’t. The difference marks the occasion.

11. Is there something we can all do to improve how failure affects others in academia?

I’m not sure. I know that in the work I do now is rewarding on a regular basis. Every day there’s something I can point to and say, “yup, that was good.” That could be a coaching session with a client, an event I host that goes well, an email I write that earns a high click rate, having a new member join Beyond the Professoriate, and so many other things. For me having these small wins all the time helps lessen the blow of big things that don’t go as planned or how I hoped they would.

For big things, it helps that I tend more toward optimism than pessimism. Beyond the Professoriate produces an annual online conference and every year my business partner (Maren Wood, also a history PhD) and I worry sales will stagnate. But it hasn’t happened yet. When our instinct might be to freak out, we remind ourselves to look at the historical data: sales always peak in the few days before the event starts! Attendance has gone up each year, and while we can’t predict it will continue to do so, there’s no good reason to think it won’t.

My income also comes from a few different sources, so if I have a business failure in one area, it’s less problematic than it might be because I have other ways to earn money. There’s always a new idea, a new client, a new collaboration, a new marketing strategy possible. I take risks and try new things – and thus fail in many small ways – all the time.

I think my own success so far comes from doing things that faculty members can also do. My advice is to cultivate a community of colleagues who will support and champion your work (and vice versa), know your strengths and key skills and then focus your work on activities that draw on these, continue to learn and develop as a professional, and ask for and receive help on a regular basis from a variety of people and services. If something drastic happens – you don’t get tenure, for example – the network you cultivated and the knowledge you’ve gained about yourself will help you transition into a new job or career.
I know that this advice is all about individuals and doesn’t speak to structural challenges or outright discrimination that is unfortunately a reality for many who work in academia. I’ll let others tackle that.

12. What is the best piece of advice you could give to your past self?

The biggest piece of advice I’d give myself is, “Figure out what’s really important and then try to live your life according to your own values, priorities, strengths, and interests.

In academia there is so much implicit and explicit pressure to value certain things above others, to prioritize the job over a geographical location, etc. Those are fine in and of themselves, but they may not be fine for you. So the challenge for individuals in academia – and here I include graduate school – is to try to separate who you are from what you do. If it turns out you actually don’t care that much about higher education or historical scholarship, well, that’s perfectly alright. If basic research isn’t really your thing, it’s not a problem! You’re not a lesser person for wanting to spend your energy on other endeavours. There is SO MUCH important work to do in the world, and academic work and scholarship doesn’t take precedence. We each get to decide where we can best contribute.

I’d also like to tell my younger self that the work I do now has much greater impact, is more meaningful and rewarding, and is lots more fun than most of what I spent my time doing in graduate school. There is life outside the ivory tower, and for me it’s wayyyy better than I ever imagined it could be.

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