Angela Rooke, manager of graduate and postdoctoral experience, launched GRADventure in 2015 shortly after she began working in Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs. Though Angela has been part of GRADventure since it's beginning, we haven't yet profiled her on the blog. Recently, Angela was interviewed as part of the TRaCE PhD project, and shared about her PhD experience and her career path. Here are some of the highlights:
What factors led you to enrol in the PhD program in history in the first place?
I did my Master’s degree at York, and the program was strong in Canadian history and gender history. I was probably only a few months into the MA program when I had to decide whether I was going to continue, and I was enjoying my research and could see how I could expand it into a PhD project. I was also able to continue working with my supervisor; I had a really strong relationship with her.
What kind of career advice and support did you receive during your PhD?
There was certainly support and advice when it came to academic careers, especially because I was the last student of my supervisor: I witnessed all her supervisees going through the process of applying to postdocs and jobs, and I could read their application materials. So I received lots of informal training and mentorship on the academic career side.
I also sat on the hiring committee for a tenure-track position, which was a crash course in understanding the academic job market. Ultimately, I chose not to pursue an academic career, but I did feel relatively prepared to do so had that been what I decided to do.
As far as career advice and training for non-academic careers, at the time, there was virtually nothing to support people looking off the academic track. One of my mentors was really supportive of the idea, but didn’t have personal experience off the academic path, so she couldn’t offer concrete support.
When did you decide to pursue a non-academic career?
It was about mid-PhD when I realized that I didn’t want a faculty career. I was in the depths of the writing, day in and day out by myself, and I was pretty miserable – I realized I was a people person; one of my favourite things about grad school was engaging with people, and sharing and debating ideas. But those opportunities became increasingly infrequent once coursework was done and my supervisor’s other students graduated and moved away. So, I began to wonder why I was pursuing a path that was really solitary.
How did you end up working in the area of graduate and postdoctoral experience?
Another colleague realized [they didn't want a faculty career] about the same time [as me], and we started asking: why isn’t anyone talking about this? How can we support students interested in other careers? We started to advocate for change: we did a survey of students in the department to gauge their feelings about their career prospects, wrote a report and shared it with the department, and ended up presenting our findings and recommendations at a faculty retreat.
This experience ended up being one of the most important things that I did during my PhD; it translated into something I could put on my résumé and led to my first position. Equally important, it highlighted to me that I cared deeply about things other than historical research; I cared deeply about improving the culture of academia and the graduate school experience.
I didn’t think at the time that I would end up working in this field, but I eventually realized that if I’m spending my free time advocating for this, perhaps I should pay more attention to why this kind of work appealed to me.
Do you feel like your doctoral work contributes to your current position?
Not the topic, but the skills I gained as a history PhD are crucial for everything I do. We are fast learners and effective at finding information quickly. We learn to think critically, which is important, but we can also position ourselves in relation to a document and read it from a different angle. How do you put yourself in someone else’s shoes? It makes you a natural marketer and communicator, because you can think about your audience and the context in a different way.
Looking back, what is one piece of advice that you'd give yourself before you started your PhD?
Sometimes grad school can be really competitive, but try to find people who can support you and understand what you’re doing. It’s crucial, and I’m lucky that I found that.
Angela Rooke received her PhD in History from York University; her dissertation focused on the religious lives of Protestant children in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Ontario. She is currently the Manager of Graduate and Postdoctoral Experience in Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs at the University of Waterloo.