Where can a graduate degree from the University of Illinois take you? In this monthly series, we catch up with one recent Graduate College alum and ask the question: "Where are they now?".
Cecily Garber completed her PhD in English (literature) in 2014. Now, she works as a Communications Officer and ACLS (American Council of Learned Societies) Public Fellow at the Council of Independent Colleges, an association that supports small liberal arts colleges. There, she runs social media channels, updates a website, writes and edits, helps organize a large symposium, and occasionally edits video and audio all with the goal of promoting the liberal arts.
What skills, competencies, or experiences are essential to your work?
My position is technically a two-year post-doc. To be eligible for the ACLS Public Fellows program, candidates need to have deposited their dissertations in a humanities or “related social science” field before submitting the application (though they need not have graduated officially; the program is for recent PhDs, who have finished within three years). The job description for my current position was fairly vague—it said that candidates should have good communication and critical thinking skills—but I think what helped me land an interview was the (bit of) work experience and the technical skills that I had acquired in the last few years of graduate school. Running social media channels for an organization (even just for the English Graduate Student Association), building a WordPress.org site and getting familiar with a CMS system, teaching myself how to record and edit audio files, learning Adobe InDesign and publication layout, as well as more traditional grad student experience of helping organize and run a conference were all helpful.
Working for a publisher made me familiar with copyediting and publishing processes, which also has been useful in this job. Many students probably have these skills, but if they don’t (as I did not until I started thinking about alternative kinds of jobs), picking them up and working on small projects is fairly easy to do; time management—balancing academic with other commitments—is the biggest challenge. What helped me most in the interview stage, I think, was confidence that I was making the right choice, that I really wanted this kind of position, that I “had my head in the game."
If you want a post-ac/alt-ac type of job, don’t second-guess yourself.
What is the most interesting, rewarding, and/or challenging aspect of your job?
Teamwork is the most rewarding aspect of my current position. I very much enjoy working with others to accomplish tasks that will affect many hundreds, if not thousands, of people. I also like that my work is varied, that I am always learning new things, and that I have a chance to innovate to try to reach audiences in new ways.
What has been the most valuable transferable skill you gained from graduate school?
I would say that graduate school has encouraged me to be thorough when approaching new tasks, while also helping me understand how to get a good (enough) grip on a new field fairly quickly. For example, when teaching myself about social media management, I wouldn’t read just one book but three or four, and then I would determine which ideas and perspectives were most relevant to my organization. I also think more carefully about what I read and see than I did before grad school. But I’d like to say that what I most value about my experience in the English program is not any transferable skill I gained from it but rather the opportunity to spend many years learning about culture from books and also some very smart people. That aspect of grad school is “transferable” to my whole life, not just my job.
What experiences made an impact on your career choice?
I knew fairly early on that teaching was not my calling, so I consciously sought out other types of work experience while finishing up the degree. However, it took me a long time to admit fully to myself that I didn’t want an academic job, and even when I knew I didn’t want one, it was still very hard not to follow the usual path of testing the academic job market. Taking the career exploration workshop at the Graduate College, reading career books, trying out different kinds of work, informational interviewing, being honest with myself about what I enjoyed and didn’t, and learning about what was wanted on the job market that I would be entering—all of these have been extremely helpful.
What is one piece of advice you would give to graduate students at Illinois?
First I’d give a plug for the Graduate College Career Development Office — we’re so lucky to have it, and students should take advantage of it; many universities have only undergrad-focused career resources.
My second more extensive piece of advice is for those considering non-professorial careers to complete some self-reflection exercises that help you figure out your life priorities and also identify a set of skills that you enjoy using in different settings. I first did these exercises at the Graduate College in a career exploration seminar and came back to them again when reading the career books What Color is Your Parachute (Bolles), Targeting a Great Career (Wendleton), and the first edition of So What Are You Going to Do with That? (Basalla and Debelius; I say the first edition because I’m not sure what’s in the second edition).
The self-reflection exercises completely changed the way I thought about careers. They helped me:
- Narrow my search (veering off the usual academic path seems to open up a million other roads, and it could be hard at times to determine in which direction I should focus my energies and where I should try to gain relevant skills and experience)
- Broaden my search (I could think more creatively about where I wanted to work, using the skills I enjoy most)
- Grow in confidence at a time when it was easy to doubt my choices (if you can identify a skill you have used in seven successful projects over the course of your life, for instance, you begin to truly believe that you can wield that skill successfully in the future).
I know the exercises may sometimes seem hokey, and they do take time and don’t offer immediate concrete results, but I firmly believe that they save time and emotional energy down the line. They can serve as a kind of anchor, or perhaps keel is the better metaphor, in a time of uncertainty and also help you draw a roadmap to use when charting new territory (I realize these metaphors are mixed, but I find self-reflection does help with both stability and movement).
This interview is part of the monthly Grad Life series called "Where Are They Now?" which chronicles the career paths of recent Univeristy of Illinois Graduate College alumni. Interviews are conducted by Laura Spradlin, the Thesis Coordinator at the Graduate College. She is an alumna of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Illinois and studied English and French at Illinois Wesleyan University. Prior to joining the Graduate College, Laura worked in communications and public libraries. In her spare time, you can find her browsing libraries and used bookstores, writing, knitting, or running (slowly).