Danielle Barkley graduated with a PhD in English in 2015. Her dissertation focused on the nineteenth-century novel. She is now a career educator, working primarily with graduate students, at the University of British Columbia.
Q: What made you interested in doing a PhD in the first place?
During my undergraduate degree, TAs and instructors started saying that I should think about graduate school based on the quality of my academic performance. Hearing that from people who were in a position of authority made graduate school become part of the narrative of what I was expected to do and encouraged to do. I had been interested in teaching for a long time and, as I came to the end of my undergraduate studies, I had in mind either teaching high school or becoming a professor. What was solidified for me, not in a particularly sophisticated way, was that people kept telling me I should go to graduate school and become a professor. So that’s what I did.
Q: How did you end up in your current position as a Career Educator at the University of British Columbia?
Throughout my PhD, I had the expectation of pursuing an academic path. I also had some misgivings about it, but I didn’t really know what else to do. It felt like there was a sunk cost at that point and a fear of diverting from the academic path. Incidentally, probably around the third or the fourth year of my PhD, I went to career services at McGill as a student seeking advice and support. One of the recommendations they made was volunteering for a peer editing service run out of their office. As a student, I started providing resume feedback on a volunteer basis for a couple hours a week. As a result of being in that environment, I got to meet a lot of folks working in the student services world. A number of opportunities came up unexpectedly and I started to get some short-term opportunities. As I transitioned out of the PhD, it became more and more clear that I was not getting offers of academic work, and I was getting more and more embedded in the world of career services. I was getting good feedback on the work that I was doing and I liked the work that I was doing. Eventually, I made the decision that I wasn’t going to continue to apply for any more academic positions. In 2017, I applied to and was offered my current position at the University of British Columbia.
Q: You mentioned that during your PhD you started to have some misgivings about following an academic career path. Can you elaborate on that?
When I started the PhD there were a couple of things I just didn’t fundamentally understand about what it meant to be a professor. It took me until well into the PhD to realize the extent that research was going to play in getting an academic job. Although I did go to research institutions—I did my undergrad at the University of Toronto and then my graduate studies at McGill—in my mind, what a professor did was teach, and it really wasn’t until I got to see more of the internal workings during my PhD that I came to understand how big a role research would play. That changed my perspective because I had really gone in to the PhD seeing my dissertation as a “one and done” model. I thought it was comparable to a lawyer writing the bar or a physician writing their boards; it was a thing you did to get credentialed and then you went on to be a practitioner. When I realized that I was going to have to wrap up my dissertation and then promptly start writing another book-length project, I started to really wonder whether that was something I wanted to do.
Q: Did anyone in the Department of English ever talk about alternative career paths?
The sense that I got was that no one in the department was attached to what I did after I graduated, either way. I didn’t feel like I was under a lot of pressure to get an academic position. It just felt like it was the Department’s role to get us through the program and what happened after that was kind of incidental.
Q: What do you value most about your time in graduate school?
Learning resilience and adaptability. Now in my professional life, people will often say things like ‘you’re so autonomous’ or ‘you’re just very willing to figure things out for yourself.’ I think some of that comes from needing to take the initiative and work autonomously in graduate school. Also, a sense of responsibility. I started graduate studies at a pretty young age and then, through TAships, it gave me a sense of confidence in being able to assume positions of authority and voice my ideas. Also, a lot of the time, grad school was pretty fun. It was an opportunity to enjoy myself in ways that I certainly don’t regret.
Q: What were your biggest challenges during your PhD? Especially when you were finishing?
I hit a wall with my dissertation project intellectually and emotionally and I was just ready to be done and move on to something else, even if it wasn’t clear what the next thing was. That was a really hard phase where I just felt frustrated and stuck and it felt like I was being asked to move commas around for no reason at all. I wanted a sense of closure so I could stop thinking about it. And then, the sense of frustration and failure as I started sending out academic job applications and not getting a response. I felt that I must have done something wrong.
Q: What were the biggest challenges for you after you graduated?
Probably the two years after graduation. On one hand, I was very fortunate in that I was able to step into a number of different roles and a varied portfolio of work and an abundance of work, but because I had so much anxiety about the instability, I definitely overworked after graduation. I think there was a sense of scarcity, there’s a sense of fearfulness that you have to take every possible opportunity that you are offered. At the same time, I really valorized the idea that the only job that really mattered was one single permanent, full-time job that paid a salary. In the absence of that, it felt like I was failing, even though I was also working many hours a week. I think the combination of those two things simultaneously—feeling effectively unemployed, but also completely overworked—was frustrating.
Q: What advice would you give to someone working on their PhD?
Play the hand you’ve been dealt. You will have different opportunities and different challenges from your peers. Try to focus on that rather than looking at the experiences that other people are having, because comparison, either positive or negative, will generally make your experience harder. You are the person in charge of this experience. Ultimately, you’re doing this because it serves you in some way, whether that’s professional advancement, or personal fulfillment, or both. If those factors change, you don’t really owe it to anyone else to do this because you’re the person who’s either going to profit from it or live with the consequences. Because the PhD is a long degree that tends to cut across a portion of life when a lot of other things might be changing, your priorities are quite likely going to change over the course of the degree. That’s not a sign that anything’s gone wrong. That’s just a sign that you’re not who you were when you started this degree.
Many thanks to Danielle for sharing her PhD narrative! You can find more about her on LinkedIn. In addition to Danielle’s work with UBC students and alumni, she is currently pursuing accreditation as an organizational coach with the International Coaching Federation, and is available for pro bono coaching. Reach out through Linked In if you are interested in learning more.
This interview took place in April 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.