PhD Perspective: What I learned at Mitacs Step workshops

Jennifer Polk is a PhD graduate who founded From PhD to Life, an academic and career coaching business based in Toronto. Jen learned important lessons about her potential skill areas in two Mitacs Step workshops:

In the fall of 2012, I was working as a freelance researcher and virtual assistant. I had graduated that June with a PhD in history from the University of Toronto, and I was increasingly frustrated with what I was doing—and what I wasn’t. I was feeling like a loser with a PhD and decided to step up my job search efforts.

As a part of my action plan, I signed up for two Mitacs Step workshops: Practice Your Interview Skills and Discovering the Entrepreneur Within. Both helped me think about my skills and interests, and how I could translate them into earning a living. They also got me thinking about myself in ways I didn’t anticipate and I left with some surprising insights.  

Like others in attendance at Practice Your Interview Skills, I listened keenly and took notes. I asked and sometimes answered questions. But I couldn’t help thinking, “Maybe this is something I can do.” The facilitator, Linda Allan, was wonderful and I was impressed. Watching her, I wondered if I might be able to one day do this sort of work. What an inspiring, unexpected takeaway!

The Discovering the Entrepreneur Within workshop reinforced this thought—delivering workshops seemed like a fun thing to do. It also inspired a different insight: I can sell things. Although at the time, my insight was closer to “I can sell things?!?!?”

I was the only humanities PhD in a room full of STEM graduate students, recent PhDs, and postdocs. As we divided into small groups to work on an exercise, my teammates quickly singled me out as the person to present the results of our work. I was very nervous! And I made mistakes. But my group members were onto something.

My experiences since then have confirmed these insights. After working with a career coach for a few months and signing up for a coaching course, I launched my own coaching business, From PhD to Life, in July 2013. I don’t yet facilitate workshops, but I use my facilitation skills every day.

Even though I’m not in sales, I spend a large part of my work week engaged in marketing my professional self, my coaching business, and other ventures. I don’t make venture capital pitches like we practiced doing during my Step workshop, but I regularly talk with potential clients and business partners. I believe in what I do and take as many opportunities as I can to invite others to join me.

In the coming years, I’ll continue to experiment with and grow the facilitation and sales skills I learned in my Step workshops. Thank you, Mitacs!


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