Career and personal planning

Flowers in Wadham College

While it may seem premature for someone with a year left in a master’s program, I have been thinking a lot lately about what is to follow Oxford. There seem to be two major possibilities, each with numerous sub-options. The first is to proceed directly into a doctoral program, provided I can get accepted. The second is to work.

Keep studying

The possibility of doing a D.Phil at Oxford is not one that appeals to me. While they are shorter than degrees in the United States – probably three years compared to five or six – they don’t include the near-automatic funding that is part of PhD programs at good American schools. Another consideration is the relatively small amount of teaching experience that is usually part of a D.Phil. Applying to work in an academic context, which is one of several possibilities I am considering, would almost certainly require such experience, in the form of a PhD or post-doc. A final consideration that I will mention here is the weak integration between the Department of Politics and International Relations at Oxford and organizations like the Environment Centre.

For a number of reasons, my top choice for a PhD program at the moment is Columbia. The idea of living in New York is appealing, especially if it would be for such a long period of time, and everyone I’ve spoken to says that Columbia has a good integration between policy and science departments. Naturally, I would need to investigate much more and choose a specific program before applying. Other appealing schools in the United States include MIT, Stanford, and Harvard. Again, I would need to do a lot more investigation before choosing a specific school or program.

The appeal of the PhD option is partly in familiarity. I’ve been in school for twenty consecutive years now, if you count French pre-school. Also, I am concerned that if I go off and do something else, I won’t be able to muster the will to return to academic study.


Work is a much more uncertain prospect. I’ve had a huge number of jobs in my life, all of them fairly menial, I’ve been a janitor, worked in a juice bar, worked as a cashier, sold computers, photocopied and faxed documents for a law firm, worked in a bird sanctuary and for two summer camps, delivered newspapers, conducted telemarketing for a number of charities, done research, soldered components onto circuit boards, assembled and configured computers for an office, sold alcoholic drinks, and served as the subject of scientific experiments. Last summer, I applied unsuccessfully to work at Starbucks. Through all that, I’ve never had a ‘real’ job. By that, I mean a job that I didn’t have the intention of quitting at some pre-specified point in the future. Also, a job with any kind of prospect for advancement.

Fields of interest to me are governmental, quasi-governmental, and journalistic. Examples of each would be working for Environment Canada, the United Nations Environment Program, and The Economist, respectively. I have my doubts about how well I would do in a very bureaucratic context. During the more stressful and frustrating times at Oxford, journalism has seemed an incredibly interesting option. It would allow – indeed require – writing and traveling, and it would probably offer a substantially different perspective on things.

The appeal of the work option is that it would let me try something other than school. It would probably allow me to start paying down whatever level of debt I ultimately take on from Oxford. Also, it would give me a bit more balance and make me feel more equally experienced with the many people in this program who have worked for banks, the UN, or some such place.


I’ve told many people so far about my eight year plan for things I mean to do before I am thirty. The key planks are to finish school, travel to almost everywhere, and write a book. Naturally, there is some tension between the three. Doing a PhD in the right way could allow for all three things to be done. Likewise, leaving formal education at an M.Phil and starting to work for an organization that involves a great deal of travel. All this should be kept at least in the back of my mind over the next year, so I’m not simply left in Vancouver in the summer of 2007, with no plan for what is to follow.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

10 thoughts on “Career and personal planning”

  1. If you want to hear my input, I have two suggestions. One, is don’t be afraid that if you leave school for one year you will lose all drive…I really can’t see that happening to you. In fact taking a break between Mphil and PhD might just strengthen your ability to combine academics with a practical application of all you have learned. Some programs value non-academic experience too.

    Two, journalism is for dumbasses who can’t write. You are WAY TOO SMART to be in journalism, and you spend way too much time trying to write well to waste it all in a profession where weak, trite and unoriginal writing is a requirement. To be successful in journalism you do not have to be a good writer or even intelligent. Yes there are exceptions…maybe you dream of being the next Dr Foth, or writing for a smart publication like the Economist, but realistically you would have to start at the bottom and work your way up. And intelligence is unlikely to get you there. Being opinionated and controversial will. Stupid people like Barbara Amiel and Margaret Wente succeed in journalism and column writing for those reasons.

    I say, look for a job that appeals to you (or an internship?), get out of your comfort zone a little bit (I sense that academia is a bit of a comfort zone for you, even though you work hard), and then do a PhD and write your book. That way, you can write what you damn well want for an audience of relatively intelligent people.

    Awesome. It’s so easy to give other people answers to their problems…now you tell me what I should do with my “Plan Gone Wrong” life…

  2. Kerrie,

    I don’t think journalism is worthy of such scorn. While I definitely wouldn’t want to write for a good number of the publications out there, there are plenty that are interesting and worthy of respect. It seems a lot better than being some drone in a UN or DFAIT cubicle who probably won’t make any impact whatsoever.

  3. I like today’s photo. It’s a nice demonstration of colourful Oxford spring.

  4. Due to a number of unforseen circumstances which I don’t want to discuss here, I took a year off after my last Master’s degree, before I came to Oxford. I taught and worked for a year (you can get a job as an adjunct in the States with a Master’s Degree) and I can’t begin to tell you how much I got out of that year. The pay is not great, but the experience more than makes up for it.

    And who knows…while you’re there, you may decide to collaborate with some faculty to produce some articles or conference papers. That, too, is a learning experience I wouldn’t have had if I had not taken a year off.

    I don’t think the teaching opportunities are too plentiful in the UK if you have a Master’s Degree. Head for the States, and decide where to go from there. Trust me, should you decide to head back into academia, you’ll fall back into it very easily.

    Good luck!

  5. Kaitlin,

    Thanks for the comment. I don’t think teaching in Canada is possible without an education certificate, such as the one my friend Sasha Wiley is working on, or such as my brother Mica is planning on getting once he finishes his BA.

    Regardless, it’s good to know that leaving academia, even for a moment, doesn’t risk undermining my ability to ever return.

  6. I like today’s very summery photo. It’s my new desktop background.

    As for the work/school question – I’d definitely advise doing something non-academic for at least a year or two, even if it makes getting your PhD extend beyond the eight year deadline. I agree that journalism isn’t a bad option, if you can find somewhere cool to do it. At the same time, it probably requires more networking skill than you seem to have.

  7. hi milan,

    we all struggle with these questions.

    i for one have always been a huge proponent of mixing things up. i took two years “off” between highschool and university during which time i worked and traveled and read and thought. when i did end up back at school, i didn’t necessarily know what i wanted to do exactly, but i did know that i wanted to be there.

    but academia has never held much promise for me. i have always searched beyond its borders. in the summer of my 4th year i took a job at the vancouver community network, a small, local, not for profit. i ended up staying there 2 years and was the community access program coordinator for the lower mainland by the time i left. this position granted me access to both community organizations as well as industry canada big wigs (i was especially close with western canada’s regional director, and met with then industry minister david emerson a couple times) . i can’t tell you how invaluable that experience was. even though it was stressful being both full time at school and full time at work during my 5th and final year, i think the payoff was worth it. i am now working at stats can as the field ops supervisor for the census in the downtown eastside. it is a very interesting and challenging position, as i straddle the front-line and ivory-tower worlds. its pretty interesting to see how the statistics that academia relies on are generated in the first place, especially in such a contentious neighbourhood as the DTES.

    now i am out of school again, and staring down the barrel of my upcoming masters. i will be moving to toronto in the fall to do a masters in poli sci at U of T. it seems so far off from what i am doing now. i am a reluctant and unlikely academic.

    so in conclusion milan, i am in full support of leaving academia to pursue other interests, if only temporarily. working in the world (in whatever capacity you choose) will give you new perspectives and experiences which will inform and enrich not only your academic pursuits, but also your life in general.

    and i think journalism is a wonderful idea. you write so well! why not try propsing some freelance peices to a couple places? its really not that hard. i have a friend who freelances for the globe and mail and she doesn’t write nearly as well (or about nearly as interesting subjects) as you.

    good luck with life and things.


  8. Rachel,

    First off, thank you for posting such an extensive response. As you one of the three Rachels who I know personally, to some extent?

    I will definitely keep your comments in mind while I am puzzling over what to do over the course of the next year.

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