A Winding Road to Finding My Niche
Putting a PhD to Work in Local News
Less than two years after defending my dissertation on Soviet history at Michigan State University (MSU), I traded research in the former Soviet archives for Freedom of Information Act requests, department colloquia for school board and city council meetings, in my new career as a managing editor for a local news publication. As a high school student, I had wanted to become a journalist, but my college career steered me toward earning a history PhD. Now here I was, a journalist, and little did I know that my experiences digging for answers and focusing on disparities between migrants and Muscovites would be the perfect training for managing a local news publication.
After defending in May 2019, I decided to keep one foot in academia while exploring other career options in a variety of fields. My experiences in grad school made me qualified for a variety of positions, and at one point in early 2020, I juggled five part-time jobs before settling on journalism for my career path. I realized that I had specific hard skills—the ability to teach, research, and write well—coupled with soft skills like balancing collaborative and independent work. I cast a wide net when applying for jobs, and each position allowed me to better understand what I actually liked as I searched for a second career.
That May, my teaching experience parlayed itself into my first post-PhD job: a position running an after-school program through a local literacy coalition. While I was used to coming up with lesson plans and teaching in a more hands-on way, it was a new challenge to teach children ages 5 to 12. What I found most rewarding was mentoring my teen assistants and working with them to help the younger children, but I learned that classroom management is very different with young children versus the young adults I taught at MSU.
Even though I was leaning toward leaving academia, I also took on two adjunct positions—one in the fall of 2019 at Kalamazoo College and the other in the spring of 2020 at MSU. I initially felt ambivalent about taking on adjunct work as I searched for my career beyond academia, but in retrospect, it was a good thing. While I thought teaching was my passion, my experiences in the after-school program and adjuncting helped clarify that I enjoyed mentoring students more. Research was my true academic love, and writing—particularly breaking down complex ideas into understandable narratives—was my biggest strength. These realizations helped me refocus my job search.
Casting a wide net yielded listings for a variety of jobs and helped me identify what I really enjoyed doing. Yes, filling out application after application was difficult, but quickly, I found a rhythm. I realized that I did much better when applying to smaller places where someone read every application that came in. I had a lot to offer employers, but I was still learning how to get around HR digital algorithms that sort through applications. Some interviews were duds. I still shudder when I think of the small history organization that asked whether I had a man at home to support me if hired for their underpaid on-call position.
My job search outside academia also allowed me to find employment at places where both the mission and the work were meaningful to me. As I scoured the Michigan Nonprofit Association’s job board, I came across an ad for tour manager for Building Matters Ann Arbor. I was drawn to the company’s mission of seeking equity in a gentrifying community while also offering history tours. I ultimately did not get the job, but the founder remembered me and my interests and sought me out to perform research that would form the basis of tours.
By January 2020, I found work that relied heavily on my research and writing skills. I started as a reporter at large for East Lansing Info, took up a position as an editorial assistant for the Historical Society of Michigan, and enjoyed my short stint as a freelance researcher for Building Matters Ann Arbor.
What I found most rewarding was mentoring my teen assistants and working with them to help the younger children.
It was frustrating at first to realize that perhaps I could have landed these nonacademic jobs with a bachelor’s degree, but earning a doctorate gave me experience that helped me move through the ranks quickly in my new positions. At the Historical Society of Michigan, which publishes two history-focused magazines, I moved from editorial assistant to special sections editor in less than five months. I know that some of the tasks that I completed and skills that I used while writing my dissertation helped me land and excel at my job there. I remember at my interview being asked whether I understood copyright and getting permission to republish photos. I had done that (in Russian) for my dissertation.
At the historical society, I realized that teaching writing had been just as important as writing my dissertation, particularly since the main part of my job was editing work initially written by others. When I worked with students on writing, I was teaching them to make an argument clearly and persuasively or to tell a story. Similarly, when I was editing, my job was not to rewrite a story to make it the one I thought was best or most compelling. My job was to fact-check, tighten writing, and make the text adhere to specific style guides, all while maintaining the author’s voice.
A soft skill that really helped me excel there was my ability to balance individual work—editing and writing articles—with collaborative work. Alongside colleagues, I helped to decide which stories to accept and include in an issue, wrote article titles, and consulted on where to find photos and experts for fact-checking.
I worked as a freelance reporter for East Lansing Info throughout my time at the Historical Society of Michigan, where the skills I learned in graduate school were essential as I moved from freelance reporter to managing editor. As a reporter, I found that my research skills, including knowing where to look for information, really paid off. I filed Freedom of Information Act requests, quickly read through the information provided, and pulled out the most important points. I was comfortable cold-calling people for interviews and knowing which questions to ask and how, something I had done during my dissertation research in Moscow, Russia. Obviously, the work I produce for East Lansing Info is dramatically shorter than a dissertation—most articles average 800 to 1,200 words—but I knew how to foreground an argument and back it up with supporting evidence.
As a reporter, I found that my research skills, including knowing where to look for information, really paid off.
Soon enough, I was putting in 60 to 70 hours a week combined as special sections editor for the Historical Society of Michigan and managing editor for East Lansing Info. While I enjoyed my time with the historical society, I knew East Lansing Info was the place for me since it allowed me to do the things I enjoyed most, like digging into my own research and writing up what I found on a quick turnaround.
I sometimes describe my job as managing editor as “dean of the reporters.” I meet with our publisher regularly to discuss which stories we need to pursue and then assign them to reporters. I edit their articles and prepare them for publication. I hold office hours where I can meet with and mentor young reporters and learn from those who have been in journalism longer than me. My job is a mix of the things I liked about academia, such as flexible hours and doing work that I find meaningful, and new things that I find exciting—namely, the ability to change the topics that I report on on a weekly and sometimes even daily basis.
There is also unglamorous administrative and managerial work that comes with my position. I have developed a resources page for our reporters, respond to countless emails, keep track of the Freedom of Information Act requests we make, and determine our publication schedule. The list goes on and seems to grow with each passing month.
A huge perk of my job as managing editor is that I still get to do reporting. In my journalism, I’ve been able to focus on a topic that was at the heart of my academic research: social disparities and their implications. My articles cover racial disparities in the city’s governmental workforce and health care inequities. My work doesn’t result in immediate change, but like academic research and discussion, it can spark conversations and influence social change.
Part of what I like about East Lansing Info is how it differs from other news organizations. We are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and in addition to providing the news, we serve our community in other ways. Nearly every day, readers use our contact form to ask questions about navigating problems that they are facing. During the pandemic, for example, I helped some of our readers understand and navigate the process of registering for vaccines. Being able to give back to the community makes my work feel more meaningful to me since I feel that I am making my small corner of the world a better place.
After two years and a winding search, I have found my niche. Sometimes, I find myself missing work that focuses on Russia, but perhaps the next act in this play will merge these two interests.
Emily Joan Elliott is managing editor of East Lansing Info, a local online news publication. She tweets @elliottemilyj.
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