Jessa Chupik, Executive Recruiter
-BA (Hons), Indigenous Studies, Trent University
-MA, Frost Centre for Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies, Trent University
-PhD (ABD), Disability and Medical History, McMaster University
Executive Recruiting Associate, Odgers Berndtson
I “met” Jessa via Twitter a few months ago, and was immediately intrigued to see that she had left her PhD in History (ABD) to pursue a rewarding career as an executive recruiter. I was curious to know more about her career path, and how she transitioned from her previous life as a historian to working in recruitment. Jessa was kind enough to agree to answer my questions, and I’m pleased to announce that she is our first profile at Life After the PhD.
Could you tell us a bit about your graduate work? What was your area of research?
I attended Trent University for my Master’s degree in Indigenous Studies and Canadian Studies. During that time, I was a researcher on John Milloy‘s book, A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System – 1879 to 1986. A National Crime is a national bestseller and was selected by the Literary Review of Canada as one of the 100 most important books in Canadian history. After my MA degree, I was the first researcher at the Sheridan Elder Research Centre (SERC) at Sheridan College.
After a year of work with SERC, I decided to do a PhD in health and disability history at McMaster University. My dissertation explored the complex relationships between confined children and adults with intellectual disabilities, their families, and the Orillia Asylum from 1900-1935. It challenged the dominant historical interpretation of Canadian asylums for people with intellectual disabilities which was traditionally understood by historians (and thus society) as “dumping grounds” used by families, physicians and the state for unwanted and unproductive women, men and children. In contrast, closely examining a 20% sample of 2235 patient case files (n=450); I argued that families used the asylum strategically and reluctantly after numerous years of familial and community-based care.
In order to prove this argument, I demonstrated that families accessed a variety of medical and alternative treatment prior to admission, they petitioned for asylum committal, influenced diagnosis, negotiated aspects of care, and made decisions about probation and discharge from the institution. Significantly, this research challenged the arguments by other historians about the ‘hegemonic’ control physicians had in the process of confinement and reveals a fascinating and much more ‘family-driven’ interpretation of the asylum.
You worked as a research associate for Janet Wright & Associates while doing your PhD. How did you balance working and doing a PhD? Would you recommend it to another grad student thinking of transitioning away from an academic career?
While I was in my third year of my PhD, I was lucky enough to be interviewed for a number of tenure-track positions at universities in Ontario. But I had a gut feeling that being an academic wasn’t the right fit for me. After careful reflection, I realized the part of academia that I excelled at and enjoyed the most was when I was at academic conferences and I was networking with other academics. I spent a lot of time connecting people to others working on similar grants and telling people about jobs that seemed to be a good fit for them. I discovered that Janet Wright & Associates, an executive search firm focusing exclusively on the public and not-for-profit sectors, was searching for a research associate. I met with Janet (editor’s note: another PhD who has pursued a career beyond the walls of the ivory tower) and others in the firm and I discovered that the work that they were doing was exactly what I wanted to do. I tried very hard to continue my PhD writing (I only had a chapter left to write for my dissertation – the rest had been published), but it was very challenging.
I have no regrets that I left my PhD program, however, I would strongly recommend that if you are close to finishing, you should wait on pursuing an non-academic career.
After leaving McMaster, you worked as a Corporate Recruiter for BC Public Service. How did you find that first job after your PhD? Do you have any suggestions for networking while still in grad school?
I made the decision to leave Janet Wright & Associates and move to work for the BC Public Service to gain more senior level experience. My intention was always to return to executive recruitment in the public and not-for-profit sectors. However, the BC Public Service allowed me the opportunity to work for the same employer and hold progressively more senior roles focusing on talent management and building research partnerships between post-secondary institutions and government. I co-led a research team of twenty-five new graduates providing ministry clients with affordable and responsive internal research consulting services. I also developed partnerships with applied researchers (faculty and students) from British Columbia’s post secondary institutions to increase decision support capacity and enhance expertise and objectivity of research. I thought it was quite important if I was recruiting senior leaders that I should understand the reality of being a leader/manager.
Networking while in graduate school is critical. I’d recommend that grad students access their career centre and counselling services. There are some excellent resources at University Affairs, Charity Village, and on Twitter. I’d try to meet with others who have left academia and find out about their career path. Listening is key. When I network, I spend less time talking about myself and listening to that person’s story.
You are currently an Executive Recruiting Associate at Odgers Berndtson. Could you tell us a bit about this position? What drew you to this work?
It is a pleasure to work as an Executive Recruiting Associate/Consultant at Odgers Berndtson. Odgers Berndtson is Canada’s premier international executive search firm, specializing in recruiting services for top-level executives. With offices coast to coast, our collective resources, vast experience and extensive industry knowledge enhance the ability to deliver outstanding leadership talent to our clients.
During my career in executive recruitment, I have worked on searches for presidents, vice-presidents, deans, and other senior administrators at numerous post-secondary institutions. I also focus on recruiting senior leaders at hospitals and not-for-profit organizations.
Essentially, I lead the delivery part of the search process. I spend time with clients and stakeholders getting to know their organization and the type of leader that they need. Then, I develop a strategy to find the right candidates. I interview candidates and help my partner present the best candidates to our client. It is a highly collobrative process and I am part of a larger team that works together on searches. We also develop strategies for business development and marketing.
How did you explain your academic background to prospective employers? Did you find it a help or a hindrance?
Basically, I tell the story from question 2. I think that executive recruitment is a lot like being a historian. I gather people’s stories, get to know them, gather evidence, and make recommendations.
Even though I didn’t finish my PhD, it was never a hindrance because I had accomplished a lot during my academic training and published some well-received academic papers. Because I recruit for post-secondary institutions, my academic training is such a benefit to our clients and candidates.
Many students might be loath to leave the academy because they enjoy certain aspects of the job. How have you managed to integrate your favourite parts of the academic experience into your current job?
Gathering stories is what I loved about being a historian. Trying to piece together someone’s life from documents is what I did on a daily basis during my PhD. Now, I spend a lot of time doing the same thing, but I actually get to meet the individuals that I’m interacting with. I also get to do research and write a lot.
You know that rush you get when you find a document or uncover a pattern when you are doing research? I get that rush/excitement every day as an executive recruiter in the public and not-for-profit sectors.
What do you like best about your career path outside of academia? Is there anything you miss about the academy?
On a daily basis, I get to help shape the most important institutions in Ontario. I also love being able to interact with fascinating leaders and help them as they explore a new career opportunity. In addition, I get to be a part of a team at Odgers that is highly intelligent, collaborative, and productive.
I miss long days at the archives and using microfiche. A very odd thing to miss, but it is the part that I long for the most. I also miss meeting up with my history of medicine colleagues at conferences!
If you could go back in time and have a chat with yourself while you were in the midst of your PhD, what would you tell yourself? Is there something that you’d do differently if given the chance to do it over?
I would have told myself to take time off when I had my daughter during my second year. I kept teaching, doing research, and writing.
Do you have any final words of advice or encouragement for current graduate students who are considering making the transition into a non-academic job career path?
Listen more. Ask every person you meet about how their career path. People love to tell their stories. Ask to job shadow someone in a non-academic career. (Editor’s note: When asked how one should go about setting up a job shadow, Jessa replied that the best way is to “just send an email to someone they’d like to job shadow explaining why” you’re interested, and assured us that “usually people will be quite open to helping out”.)
I absolutely love my work in executive recruitment. I recognize that my MA and PhD training helped get me this point and I’m grateful for the experiences that I had in academia.