Wellness, Productivity, Balance for Graduate Students and Beyond

Should I Work Outside of my Grad School Focus?

In today's edition of Should I, I walk you through what I think were the pros and cons of working "outside" of my PhD. I often wished that someone could walk me through these same concerns while I was in the thick of my degree. It was stressful and scary and exciting trying to balance preparing for my post-PhD career while finishing the degree itself, so here I am now to be the guide I wished I had.

Some background: For the purposes of this post, I am not counting work that I did in the scope of my degree, which includes, most significantly, my teaching load.  This concerns my paid employment - some jobs inside the University, but some outside - that I did during my five years as a PhD student and then candidate. Here is a list of the positions that I held during that time, with a brief description of how much time they took:

  • Web designer - did some very low level freelance web work, maybe 100 hours total over the course of the five years.
  • Sample Salesperson for a gluten free baked goods company - 4-5 hours, three weekends a month for about a year. 
  • Pet sitting - As the resident animal lover/person who was researching animals, I did quite a bit of pet sitting for faculty in the department. Varied from drop-in feeding visits and dog walks to weeks spent living in faculty member's houses. 
  • Program Coordinator, PFF Seminar - After completing this program as a participant in the summer of 2014, I was asked to interview and subsequently hired as the grad student Program Coordinator, which ranged from 5 hours - 40 hours a week from December - June. I had expressed interest in professional development as a possible career to the leaders of the seminar when I was a participant, which was my foot in the door. I held this position in 2015, and again in 2016. 
  • Program Coordinator, PFF Conference 2015 - After a successful seminar as coordinator, I was asked to stay on and help to manage the one day conference version of the seminar. This job ran from July - late September, and probably averaged 20 hours a week. 
  • Teaching Consultant (General and Digital Pedagogy Focus) - To round out my professional development resume, I interviewed to become a teaching consultant. I planned workshops, observed teaching and gave one on one feedback. With training, consultant round tables, and client work, I probably averaged 10 hours a week in the school year of 2015-2016. that's a lot of work! Here is my list of what I think I gained and lost throughout all that:

What I gained:

  1. A ton of experience. When I started to put together my resume after I graduated and was on the alt-ac market, I could make a respectable list of employment without needing to list my teaching or research as the top of my employment history. I could also point to projects I lead, conferences I managed and a variety of "hard skills" needed to do those jobs. Because my committee was unevenly supportive of my alt-ac plans (more on that below,) working in so many capacities also gave me a "deep bench" of letter writers and references for those job applications.  
  2. A sense of financial independence. Although my program was very well-funded comparatively, I enjoyed a little bit of extra cash to fund things like my nail polish habit. 
  3. Teamwork. I love working with other people, and I found the process of writing my dissertation isolating. Having a place to go where I could work on a shared project, talk with other people about their teaching, and generally bounce ideas off other humans was an important outlet for me. 
  4. A place where I felt valued and accomplished. Praise and big milestones can be unevenly dispersed throughout the PhD process, and graduate school in general, so my other jobs did a lot of work to shore up my sense of achievement during those "dry spells." Having other people count on me to deliver products, and deliver them well, helped to counteract the "why am I doing this does anyone even care will anyone read this???" moments of writing my dissertation. 
  5. On the job experience in a field I was interested in professionally. Working at the same organization (the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at UMich, in my case) in several different position gave me the most valuable kind of data on the field and the job: time. Working at CRLT (in different positions) for more than two years gave me a chance to see many different sides of the organization, the field of professional development, and to actually do (parts of) the job of a full time professional. 

What I lost:

  1. Time to work on my own research. Although I did manage to get a few (small) publications out while I was in my PhD, this was the biggest thing on the chopping block for me. I couldn't do it all, so publishing while also writing the dissertation was the biggest professional sacrifice. This absolutely impacted my CV, and my future prospects for post-docs and other positions. 
  2. Chances to network in my academic settings. Because I was always occupied with other tasks, I often couldn't volunteer for the intangible networking opportunities, like taking visiting scholars to dinner, or go to talks on campus. This severely limited my exposure to scholars outside of my campus and in my field, as I only really got a chance to interact if I was at a conference. 
  3. The opportunity to be fully open with my advisor and committee. I got mixed signals from my advisor and some committee members about my work outside of the department, especially with the teaching and learning center, so I kept very quiet about how much I was working there. This made it difficult for a number of reasons, but especially when I was trying to schedule and then meet my deadlines for my dissertation. It is hard to ask for flexibility in hitting deadlines when you aren't being above board about your time pressures. I also lost the chance to have my department celebrate in some of those successes with me, and to have other graduate students see my work, and how I built a path through the degree that suited me and my values. 
  4. Time. But at the end of the day, the biggest sacrifice was just the time itself. I always viewed my outside employment as above and beyond, which meant that if I was working at night or on a weekend, it was almost always because I needed to catch up on my outside work. This cut into my personal life, and to be honest, at times made me a little bit bananas and led to my complete burnout at the end of the program. 

There is no real point in "regretting" my choices - the time is spent and I got what I got from those experiences, and so much of it was completely valuable and worthwhile. As the conversation grows around alt-ac and post-ac careers, and how to build skills during grad school to serve a wide range of career choices, more and more people will invariably be working alongside their research and teaching. I had very few people that saw the "full picture" of everything that was on my plate as a graduate student, so hopefully by sharing some of what I was up to will help others make more informed decisions about what to take on, and when, while in their degrees.