The Work Seminar

Ep. 10: Caitlin McHugh - PhD in Literature Turned Higher Ed Manager

January 05, 2022 Jesse Butts Season 1 Episode 10
The Work Seminar
Ep. 10: Caitlin McHugh - PhD in Literature Turned Higher Ed Manager
Show Notes Transcript

Caitlin followed the script for landing a tenure-track position to a tee. Conference attendance and panels, publication, university service—you name it, she did it. And excelled at it. 

But after four years of her search yielding no viable offers, she shelved teaching and explored the non-academic job market. 

And in the process, she considered her values and strengths through a lens she’d neglected: one independent of the academy.

Now she’s discovered a new passion for leadership and higher ed management, working as an associate manager in the advising department. And Caitlin’s found a professional home that supports her in ways she never thought possible.

Resources mentioned

CliftonStrengths (Gallup Strengthfinders)

VIA Values Assessments

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Jesse Butts:

Welcome to The Work Seminar, the podcast for people with liberal arts advanced degrees considering work outside their fields of study. Hey everyone. And thanks for tuning in for another episode. I'm your host, Jesse Butts. Today I'm chatting with Caitlin McHugh, a PhD in Shakespearean literature and early modern drama from the University of Minnesota. She's now working in higher ed management. Caitlin and I were fellow English majors at Capital University, where she was the unofficial and undisputed Poet Laureate of the class of 2006. Caitlin is now an associate manager at Capella University. Caitlin, welcome! Such a treat to have you on the show.

Caitlin McHugh:

Thanks, Jesse. Total pleasure to be here. I don't know if I can live up to the whole Poet Laureate introduction, but I'll certainly try.

Jesse Butts:

Fair enough. So in the show, before we dive into how work has changed, and specifically for you, how you went from lit PhD to higher ed manager, I'm curious if you can tell me a little bit about what you do. What's the day to day like for an associate manager in your field?

Caitlin McHugh:

Yeah, absolutely. So right now I'm managing a team of advising support reps. So they're kind of like the tier one the frontlines of defense for anybody that calls into an advising department to speak to an advisor. So we do things like handle transactional calls, and then triage students, what we call learners. So I'll slip up and say that, I'm sure, several times today. Get them to the right place. So my day to day with my team, it's a pretty hands on team. So I'm very much focused on like the individual coaching, the management, the day to day performance things. And then I have a co manager and also a senior manager. And the senior manager really focuses more on strategy, I would say, for optimizing our department, because our model is also very new. So just very involved in meeting with individual contributors and one on ones, leading team meetings, coaching people through performance, things like that.

Jesse Butts:

Got it. And does your department, does it handle a specific academic program? Or fields of study? Or is there some other way that the work is segmented?

Caitlin McHugh:

That's a great question. We actually handle all programs across the university. So we're sort of like jack of all trades. And certainly not an expert in any particular program. So we'll get everything from undergraduate learners to advanced doctoral learners, all programs. And then if they have very detailed program specific questions, that's where what we call academic coaches, or the academic advisors, come into play. So they're going to be experts in the particular programs, and then particular learning models, because we have a guided path, which is really more traditional, like structured quarter basis, learning. And then we have flex path, which is sort of like choose your own adventure style learning at your own pace. And you can kind of complete courses and assessments as fast as you can. And it's on a billing cycle model.

Jesse Butts:

And prior to doing this, you were one of those academic coaches, advisors in a specific area, correct?

Caitlin McHugh:

Correct. Prior to starting as a leader in this space, I was an academic coach for PhD psychology. And we had when I first started a different model, where we sort of segmented the learner population throughout their lifecycle. So they would start with just one person for their first year, and then have another person for the rest of their coursework. And then once they got to dissertation, and like the comprehensive exam, they would come to me, so I was the dissertation advisor. And then we went to an end to end model where we held on to the person throughout their entire lifecycle at the university. So worked in both of those spaces, but I would say a huge emphasis on the advanced doctoral space for me.

Jesse Butts:

So some spoiler alerts about what Caitlin was doing previous to this current role, but we'll obviously cover that. So Caitlin, now that we have a sense of your work, I'd really like to talk about the path that that you've taken. So I mean, obviously you have a PhD, you just mentioned that. But I'm curious if we could start with your master's. So when you were an undergrad, what prompted you to enroll in your first round of grad school? Why did you want to go beyond undergrad?

Caitlin McHugh:

Honestly, I think I was kind of a weird kid, like I literally showed up for my first, I think it was first creative writing course, first semester, as an undergrad at Capital. Kevin Griffith was teaching that, and I walked up on day one, I said, I want to go to grad school. How do I do that? So I entered undergrad, knowing that I wanted to be, I think, in higher ed in some way. So I knew grad school was the path to get me there. And I'm a very goal oriented person to begin with. And I really love learning. So I don't know how I decided on that. I think I just loved literature and writing and thought, This is what I want to do. And my parents really wanted me to teach, but I really just didn't want to teach kids. That was not for me, I wanted to be in a more adult focused space. So I knew from day one, and I think it's rare now to go undergrad, master's, PhDs, especially for literature. You see more jumping straight into the PhD. But at that time, there were still programs out there. So I had an interest in both Literature and Creative Writing. And I applied to both once I got to the end of my undergrad, and frankly, I just got a better offer for a master's in literature. And that was the deciding factor. So there wasn't that much of a choice that went into it, like, Oh, this is a fully funded offer for a master's. I'm just gonna go with that.

Jesse Butts:

Were you raised in an environment with people who had advanced degrees? Was that something that you were already familiar with before starting college?

Caitlin McHugh:

Yes, my aunt has a PhD in literature from Penn. Definitely a family of readers. So I assume that that's where the love came from early on. Like I was always around books, I was always reading books, I found it very easy and natural. Both of my parents have graduate degrees, but not in the humanities. My dad's a dentist, and my mom has her master's in plant pathology. So the apple fell far from that tree in terms of the focus in humanities. Was never much interested in science aside from a hobby of cooking. But I also had the example of seeing my aunt who taught creative writing and taught literature at Penn, still in Philadelphia. So I probably had more exposure than most to what the options were and what the pathway was to get there prior to starting college.

Jesse Butts:

So while you were in your master's program, did you enter with the intent of that being a pathway to a PhD and a professorship? Did that change at all during your master's program? Or was that consistent throughout your experience? I'm sorry, where did you get your master's? I've forgotten.

Caitlin McHugh:

Oh, no worries, I got it at Kent State. So yeah, I was lucky to get a fully funded masters offer from them, which is how I ended up there. And definitely, when I started, the whole purpose of getting the Masters was the stepping stone to the PhD and to work on those skills that would hopefully get me into a really good PhD program. So I was pretty focused along that way, especially with getting some kind of publication during the two years I was in that program, so that I would have that on my CV to help get me into a place that I really wanted to be. I think the only thing that changed for me during my master's program was my research focus. So I entered it thinking that I wanted to focus in medieval literature. And I had people all along the way saying that I was just really good at Shakespeare, which is a weird thing. I feel like there's like a natural Shakespearean. How was I born this way? I don't know. This is just how I turned out. So I ended up taking a Shakespeare seminar with Don-John Dugas, who ended up really being my mentor there. And his seminar was on Restoration Shakespeare, which ended up being the focus of my dissertation. And for me, that was really eye opening because the field of Shakespeare is quite intimidating. It's heavily saturated. Hard to break into, hard to publish in, and Restoration Shakespeare, I mean, there's like five important books out there. Like not that many looming scholars working on that. So it's kind of an easy in and a really unique take into that field. And frankly, just found it really fascinating because they're not well admired plays, well admired adaptations. So that was what really kind of cemented that focus for me.

Jesse Butts:

Restoration Shakespeare, is that a period of his work? Or is that a critical lens to look through it? I'm not quite familiar with that term.

Caitlin McHugh:

Yeah, great question. So when I talk about Restoration Shakespeare, I'm talking about the period of actually right after his life. So when the English Civil Wars happen, all the theatres close for a period of time, for 18 years. And when the Restoration happens in 1660, Charles II returns to the throne, he mandates that the theatres be opened. So it's not really an option, they sort of have to reopen everything. And there's all sorts of problems, mainly, that there's no theatres, because a lot of them are pulled down because it was illegal to perform during the interregnum. So they don't have any spaces. And if you were caught performing theatre, they would do things like destroy your costumes, destroy your space, so that you couldn't do it. So what they ended up doing was converting spaces like tennis courts into theaters, and then they had to get stuff on the stage pretty fast. So they would take old plays, like Shakespeare old, which is kind of hilarious, since it's...

Jesse Butts:

Like 40, 50 years old at that point?

Caitlin McHugh:

Yeah, after his death.

Jesse Butts:

gotcha.

Caitlin McHugh:

So they take these old plays, and then "fix" them with various problems that they perceive to be happening and then put them on the stage. So we're talking about adaptations of Shakespeare productions, of Shakespeare from about 1660 to about 1705. And the standard line with those plays is that they're bastardizations or simplifications of Shakespeare. And that mostly comedies are adapted and tragedies are largely left the same with a couple exceptions. So that's one of the things that I actually challenged in my project.

Jesse Butts:

I feel like this is a litmus test as to whether I'll have my English major revoked, but I'm trying to...So Shakespeare died in the 1620s, 1630s, something like that?

Caitlin McHugh:

1616. That's OK.

Jesse Butts:

1616. Okay, I wasn't too far off. All right. I think I can, I could still keep the degree then. But anyway, as you were exploring all of this, is this basically how you then entered a PhD or applied to and entered a PhD program with the intent of continuing this area of study?

Caitlin McHugh:

Yes. So what I did, I would say from like, my big project, for my master's was, I worked on an article on a couple adaptations of Measure for Measure. And I did get that accepted for publication. Of course, with how fast things moved, it didn't actually come out until it already started my PhD program. But I really credit that focus in that direction to craft a good piece of scholarship and get that accepted prior to applying as success in the application round. Because I ended up with five offers for the PhD, which is a lot.

Jesse Butts:

Wow, congratulations.

Caitlin McHugh:

Thank you. That's probably, you know, my one claim to fame.

Jesse Butts:

And this.

Caitlin McHugh:

Yeah. Yeah. My mentor at the time, he was like, you know, relish in that, this is a special moment. So I'll toot that horn, so to speak.

Jesse Butts:

When you entered the PhD Program at the University of Minnesota, were you still intent on having a teaching and academic career? What were your thoughts at that point in time?

Caitlin McHugh:

100%. That was really all I ever wanted to do was teach and work in academia. So I worked on getting other publications, going to conferences, really doing everything that I was told would lead to success in the fields like getting fellowships. So getting teaching experience, and I love teaching. I think I was pretty good at it. Always had a good time. So that was definitely the dream that never changed for me.

Jesse Butts:

You had been teaching since you started your master's program, correct? You taught throughout both programs?

Caitlin McHugh:

Yep. So I think, pretty lucky there. Had very good training for teaching in my master's program. They don't have you start that first semester that you're there, you have training, and then you start the second. And then I took a year off in between the master's and the PhD, which was when I was getting married, and I was adjuncting, so I was still teaching at the time. And then taught the whole way through the PhD program, and then continued to adjunct for a couple years after I defended, so really been teaching the whole time.

Jesse Butts:

Okay, so at the time you finish your dissertation, and you defended it, were you actively pursuing tenure track positions? Were you starting to second guess a professorship as a career? What was what was happening at that

Caitlin McHugh:

I wasn't second guessing it. I knew that that point? was still what I wanted to do. I was actively on the job market. And I started on the job market early before I defended, which is pretty common practice. So I think in total, I was probably in the academic job market and applying for jobs for about four years, I think I did it four seasons.

Jesse Butts:

Wow.

Caitlin McHugh:

Which is rough. Because I think what most people don't understand about being on the academic job market, you know, I would hear things like, Keep filling out those applications. And it's not quite the same as applying for other jobs. Because you have to have your cover letter, you have to have a research statement, a teaching statement. Nowadays, usually a diversity statement, you know, abstract, like teaching portfolio. So I think, on the lighter end, the materials that they would ask for would probably be about 40 to 50 pages. And then on the heavier end, I think I was somewhere in the 80 to 90 page range of what I would submit. And of course, it's tailored to each school, and you need to apply, like pay to send it through a service. And apply to every job that you think could be remotely feasible. And just because there are fewer and fewer jobs every year, like now with COVID, I think it's even more dismal. I looked, I don't know a few months ago, and was like, Oh, regrets, didn't want to look at that again. But fewer and fewer jobs. So it's like you're applying to everything under the sun. It's a lot of materials. It's very competitive. I was a finalist, made it to the final stage twice. And then first rounds a few times, including the first year I was on the market. I was an initial round pick for a really good small private liberal arts school, which I was really excited about, since it was my first go at it. And the way that structure looks to is, you have your first round, which is usually at like the MLA conference or something like that, but sometimes a phone interview, and then they'll they'll whittle down from like 400 or some applications to like 10 for that. And then they'll pick three people to be a finalist. And then you come do a campus visit of some sort, usually with like a teaching demo, sometimes a research talk, depending upon the school. So like, all of that, too, is taxing. And every time when I was in those positions, like that job ultimately went to someone who had already had a tenure track job. So it was a lot of lateral movements. So very, like challenging and position to be in. But that's what I was doing. Like for that chunk of time as I was finishing. And then once I wrapped it up.

Jesse Butts:

It sounds like you're caught in that classic dilemma of We need people with experience, but there's no way to get the experience until someone takes a chance.

Caitlin McHugh:

Yeah.

Jesse Butts:

Obviously, you know, you were trying so incredibly hard for something you really want. And it didn't materialize. I know this might be a sensitive topic. So if you don't want to talk about it, you know, feel free but or...don't. I'm trying to figure out the best way to phrase it. But I mean, putting all that work into a system that I mean, it's so demanding of your time, your money. What were you feeling after that point? And what was...Was there a particular event? Was it a combination of things that led you to decide this isn't the best path for me?

Caitlin McHugh:

I'm happy to talk about this because I don't think a lot of people talk about it. And it's good to know like what that feels like. For me it felt like a death of part of myself to be to be honest. Because it's not just a culmination of many, many years of my life and a passion project not coming to fruition. When you're in academia, what you're essentially taught, whether it's explicit or not, is that your identity is your work. And if you're not working, you should have been working. And your self worth as a person is sort of tied into also your success in the field. And when that doesn't happen, and, I think, especially for someone like me, very much the achiever type, it's really hard when you do everything that you were ever told to do. Like I shared, day one as an undergrad, and this is the goal, how do I get here? Ticked every single box, published in my field, got fellowships, both internal and external to my PhD program, got every kind of teaching experience they asked me to have on my CV. To do it all, and then still feel like this is an impossible environment in which to achieve this goal is really devastating. It's hard to work through. And for me personally, at the same time, I was also in the process of getting a divorce. So sort of, like loss from all sides. And, you know, on the personal, I'm still very good friends with my ex. And I gotta say, academia probably contributed to that as well, like, that's where the focus is in your life. So that's all okay, now. But there's certainly a very like practical factor to of, I need to move out and be on my own. And I also kind of morally object to the adjunct model, I think it's negatively contributing to higher education. And for me, if I wasn't going to get that tenure track job, I also didn't want to contribute to a model that I didn't want to believe in. And I need to live. So that was sort of like the point in which I decided I'm now going to do something else.

Jesse Butts:

Is academia adapting at all to the reality of the ever-shrinking number of, not even tenure track, but simply full-time positions?

Caitlin McHugh:

You know, frankly, I don't know what it looks like right now, because I took such a huge step back. And sadly, I'm not really in contact with like a lot of the people who I worked with, so I don't know how programs are adjusting now. I hope they are, I hope that there's a greatest greater focus on you know, not only a Plan B type of situation, and transferable skills, but also, I would hope that there's a recognition that like, it, this isn't a reflection of your ability or your self worth, because I don't think it was ever said to me, but I do think that the prevailing attitude was if you're good enough, you'll make it. So when you don't get that job you weren't good enough. And like you aren't a good person. It feels that bleak.

Jesse Butts:

I recently read a book, by I think his name was Michael J. Sandel, called the Tyranny of Merit. And he had an interesting, in the book, allegory, or not allegory. But part of the reason he said populism was so popular is that we keep on saying We're a country with merit, but then we outsource jobs. We do all these things that make people feel like they failed, even though the environment was totally against them. And it sounds like that's very similar to what you experienced, where the environment was clearly not set up for a level playing field, but it's still considered a meritocracy.

Caitlin McHugh:

I would definitely agree with that. And, like I said, like that was... I defended in 2016. And I started in 2009. I had to think about that for a second. So between those years, like my program...there wasn't a discussion of the plan B or anything else. And in fact, I would say students who knew that they necessarily weren't going to go on and pursue tenure track, I think were viewed of as lesser. So I don't know what they've, we've done to change that. But I do think it's an elite hierarchical system that perpetuates itself, and isn't necessarily sustainable in today's environment. So I don't know what kind of adjustments they're making. I would say, ethically, schools would need to think about their incoming class, like the size of that, and how they train them. And what options they provide them, and not focus on essentially using grad students for labor. That's cost effective for them at the expense of actually hiring faculty. You're just pulling in grad students because that helps you get your classes taught. So I don't know what that looks like now. But those are some of the things that I would certainly think about.

Jesse Butts:

So kind of revisiting that timeline. So it's 2016 when you defend and you had mentioned you started your search well before that. So once you have decided that this isn't the route you're going to take, what do you? Do you take a little time off? Do you immediately look for some type of work? Are you still teaching to make ends meet? What does that look like?

Caitlin McHugh:

I was still teaching. Because it was money coming in. I had been doing some online tutoring, but I didn't particularly enjoy that because I felt it was very scripty and prescriptive and asynchronous. And it didn't pay particularly well. So I essentially just signed up as a contractor to make ends meet at Target on a real estate data team. So essentially doing data entry and then was promoted to proof the data entry of others because they realize someone with a PhD in literature is very good at reading and detail oriented. So that was essentially what I ended up doing in the interim of deciding maybe what I wanted to do long term. Because that certainly wasn't it. I'd like to say I learned a lot. But contractors there are fairly well excluded. So it was sort of like learning things on my own. I wouldn't say that there's any focus whatsoever on like professional development for people in similar positions to mine.

Jesse Butts:

What were the things you were trying to learn that you found, or that you experienced an impediment in improving in?

Caitlin McHugh:

You know, I don't I think I was just looking for any type of job, which is something we can get to later. I'm sure you're gonna have some questions on that, which was probably not the right approach. So I don't think I honestly at that point, even knew the types of questions to ask other than, I want to stay, here are some things I think I could be good at because I'm very adaptable person and very quick to learn. So I think for me, just exposure to business was something that was helpful, just to see a model. And then just talking to people helped. But examples I can think of where anytime I saw an opportunity for process improvement, it was essentially shut down. So that's not like a fun environment in which to work because it's just like they just want you to essentially be a cog, at least in the position that I was in. I liked the people that I worked with, but it just....Yeah, there's no opportunity or room to grow. And then no opportunity to contribute beyond just getting the task at hand done. And that's very boring for me.

Jesse Butts:

How long were you at Target where you started really thinking about, Okay, this is a dead, and what do I want to do? What should I be looking into for something that I'll enjoy?

Caitlin McHugh:

I think in a lot of ways I got lucky. I was there over a year. And at first I was just trying to focus on internal roles because I was there and I thought, well, if I can get a different type of role then I can grow and I can contribute. So I did interview for some roles, which I didn't get. But more often than not, when I would set up informational interviews with people and connect and ask about open roles, the barrier that I encountered was, Well, we really only hire internally. It's like, Well, I'm a contractor, but I've been here for over a year. So that was a very strange attitude that I thought. And then, so I started pretty much looking for anything. And Capella came up, because I actually knew a couple different people that worked at Capella. And I started thinking about it. And I realized that could be a really good fit because it's back to higher ed. And higher ed has really always been my passion. You know, from day one I wanted to be in higher ed. So even though it's not on the faculty side, I thought that could be really cool. And they had that opening for a dissertation advisor. And this was in 2018 when I applied and started at Capella, and I never thought about the possibility of working with grad students, because that would be a research institution tenure track type of job like in my head. So I always figured, more likely than not, I would just be teaching undergraduates if I stayed in higher ed as a faculty member, which I was fine with. So when I thought about that, and thought about the opportunity to advise people through the dissertation phase of their program, I realized that my own experience, the fact that I'd lived, it would make me, I think, an asset to that role because I didn't need to be trained on like things like advanced doctoral mindset, because I had already been there. So I had a shorthand for all sorts of things that I needed for that role. And the passion to know that it's a difficult experience, and it was hard for me. So being able to help someone through that was very attractive to me. And I had now been at a large corporation. So I was coming in, it's kind of I think, like a perfect fit with corporate experience, plus tons of higher ed experience and a unique lens, and that I've lived the experience of that population, but also have insight as to the faculty side. So I got really lucky with finding like the perfect job for me right off the bat.

Jesse Butts:

How long was your search?

Caitlin McHugh:

Not long. I think once the Capella opportunity was presented to me, like that started moving very quickly. But I do feel like it was months. I'd probably been it at Target about six months when I started trying to get in there. And then also interviewed at some other local corporations for technical writing and things like that for a corporation that does medical things and got slightly edged out because someone applying had a PhD in neuroscience. So that beat out the PhD in literature. Like, wow, like what odds there. So I think it was a few months, but it was under a year and then I found the right fit.

Jesse Butts:

So as you started the precursor to your current position at Capella, which we foreshadowed earlier, but what was that day to day like? What was that adjustment like for you moving to that type of advising role?

Caitlin McHugh:

It was good. There was some problems in the dissertation advising space that, of course, I wasn't aware of as a new employee. Like a lot of room for improvement. So it's a little bit trial by fire, because we had a lot of complaints and what the day looked like, was, I'd say, about half on a phone queue. So incoming calls, and then half was appointment based. And then you know, you have team meetings and professional development and things sprinkled in there. But most of your time is devoted to serving your learner population. So for me, like I said, I'm really an adaptable person. So I was in it, like leaning in from day one, and really enjoying those conversations, even though a lot of them are difficult. We have a big emphasis at Capella on transformational advising. And I think, in the advanced doctoral space, you have fewer transactional calls and more calls of, I'm not getting along with my dissertation mentor. Or, I didn't pass comps on this first attempt, now what do I do? And coaching people through that experience, and their locus of control and how to really take charge of their education, so that I found to be really enjoyable because every call is different. Every call is is a challenge. And really the thing for me with Capella was it was the first supportive workspace I think, maybe I'd ever experienced in terms of my own development, and I didn't really realize how many broken spaces I had been in until I was in one where they actually encourage you to talk about your goals from day one, and then support you in that. It just sort of blew my mind. And I think as someone who's always been an achiever and a high flyer, you're very often left alone in that space. It's like you're doing the thing, you don't really need help, so no one pays attention to develop you. So to have that level of attention, and then have people that mentored me to help me work on other skills when I decided leadership is ultimately my goal was just phenomenal. But I think that was the biggest adjustment, if any, was, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, because I kind of didn't think it was real. And then I was like, Oh, this is actually real. This is phenomenal. Because the last place I was adjuncting, there was no guidance, no support. There were like 400 adjuncts, and one office with like, four computers trying to support students. So yeah, that's probably what ultimately pushed me...I'm sure this will come up later to...into being interested in leadership, because professional development to me is very much teaching. So I was very drawn to that. But I'd say that whole mindset adjustment to being in a supportive space was by far like the biggest switch for me once I got Capella.

Jesse Butts:

From what you said earlier, it sounds like, previously, if someone asked about your goals, and you laid them out, the answer would be, Well, if you work hard enough, they'll come true. Verus you're somewhere now, where if you lay out these goals, someone will actually say, Oh, these, you know, these are great, here's how you can learn this. Let's set up a plan. I'd like to see you do X by this time, that type of environment.

Caitlin McHugh:

Yeah, I think that's fair. I mean, it's not that there weren't goals in academia. Like I said, with things like, go to these types of conferences, get these types of fellowships, heavy emphasis on publication, it's like, Yes, I get that. But then there's not necessarily coaching on your own feedback and skills and performance. And I feel like it's really tied into both actionable things, but then mindset work, and there's like none of that in academia. I don't know if that last part made sense.

Jesse Butts:

I'm not familiar with mindset work.

Caitlin McHugh:

Mindset work, is what I would say is my biggest transition into my current role in leadership. I had to really learn to think like a leader. And I don't want to say that academia broke me. But I was hesitant to speak up in certain spaces, because I was very fearful of kind of crossing some invisible line, like in some kind of hierarchy, because I feel like that was the model I came from. Whereas at Capella, we really have a model of leading from below, so leading without a title. So I was very afraid to cross that line, because it's like, Oh, I've been set up with with this very hierarchical model, where there's just lines that you don't cross and you defer to people with more experience and authority. And that's not the case here. So I had to learn to recognize that and then develop new habits in how I was thinking through different situations and responding to them.

Jesse Butts:

You mentioned you identified leadership as a goal. And obviously now, as we discussed earlier, you're an associate manager. How did you move up to this spot?

Caitlin McHugh:

So I started talking about that as a goal. And a big part of that goal for me was the common thread of loving teaching and learning and professional development. So I really saw an opportunity for me to have a greater impact, like beyond my individual contributor space and what I can do for individual learners, like if I can develop strong teams and help them with their professional development, I can have a greater impact. And to me that kind of coaching and working with my team is very much a form of teaching. So it really gets back to the heart of things that I've always loved and privileged. So that's kind of what inspired it and then to get there, it was a lot of work with career bravery around my mindset. But then also a lot of, We have a set list of leadership behaviors and things that we work towards. So I had a tangible list of, here are behaviors that I want to exhibit as a leader and as a model. What are different ways that I can approach that? So thinking how I could show up without a title as a leader on my team, thinking about how I could be visible across the company and make an impact and help contribute towards different initiatives. And then also, like I said, that mindset piece, like being really brave and then learning about myself and developing a vocabulary to talk about my skills and be able to connect my skills and my values and my goals into spaces where like I could contribute. So being very strategic about where I spend my time, not taking on a project just to take on a project, but taking on a project because my particular skills are going to be well suited to that and be a value add for everybody. And myself.

Jesse Butts:

Did you advocate for the position you have now? Did it open up? How did...what were the mechanics of getting to where you are now?

Caitlin McHugh:

A lot of hard work. A lot of like taking feedback and acting on it. And I was interviewing for lots of leadership roles across the university. So not just in advising, the department that has now always been my home and where I ended up, but also in our Enrollment Department. And in our records, like an operations department, things like that, which, to me, like it was very targeted in leadership. I want to lead, I have these skills, I can coach people, this is what I want to do. So it didn't much matter during the search where I ended up as I was doing it, although I do feel like staying in advising and getting the team that I got was the absolute best choice and best fit for me. So it was a lot of talking to people, applying for any leadership role that opened up. And then we have, very much have a culture of if you don't get it, you set up a post interview meeting. And you're like, Hit me with your feedback. What went well? Where are my opportunities that I can learn from? So getting a ton of interview practice and a lot of feedback about how I was perceived. The types of examples I was bringing up like. Like what wasn't like quite the right fit. And it also just helps to know what you did well, too, that you can keep doing. So I did a lot of applying, I did a lot of learning. And then when this particular role opened up, there hadn't been a leadership role open in advising for a while. And it was a really new team. And our support reps, we've had support reps in various...but they haven't always been as fully integrated into the department as they are now. So honestly, my experience of being a grad student, and being in work roles where I felt overlooked and wanted more development. This was the type of team that I wanted to lead because I've lived that experience. I wouldn't want that for anybody. So I know that that's one place where I want to make an impact, is to have such a strong focus on professional development for an entry level role. So I think it was all the right things at the right time.

Jesse Butts:

Nice. What have you found most enjoyable about being in leadership so far?

Caitlin McHugh:

Oh, coaching and connection, hands down. I don't think anybody signs up to be a leader to performance manage, even though that's certainly a big part of it. So, you know, being able to connect with my team, and know that I'm creating an environment in which they feel safe to not only share with me but also to learn and know that this is kind of a low-stakes learning environment. And I'm here to support them. That has been by far the most rewarding piece. And it's also amazing because unlike teaching, this can be way more long term. You know, you can be with people for quite some time. We do have a lot of movement because it is an entry level role, but you're still with people for a longer amount of time. And watching them grow and people get promoted within the company, and then you see it and all the great things that they're doing. And so that's really rewarding. And fun to see beyond just having a student for a semester. That's cool to see too. But yeah, I appreciate that aspect of it a lot.

Jesse Butts:

You've mentioned a few times you're a very goal oriented person. Where do you see yourself going in this line of work? What do you want to be next?

Caitlin McHugh:

That's a good question. I think, right now, I'm enjoying this space, because it certainly...I think any new leader will find that it's trial by fire. There's no baby stepping into leadershi. You step into a team that already exists. And you have to deal with what's there. And I've had challenges that I didn't expect to have this early on. But I feel like it's, again, the right place at the right time. Because if I didn't have these challenges, I wouldn't be learning so quickly. So I want to stay in leadership in some form, for sure. If I could get myself to a place where I'm leading leaders and coaching them, I think that that would be really fun for me because I've had some great mentors, and I'm all about the teaching and the professional development. So I could see that as being very satisfying. But I think that this is a good space, because it's not a team or department that you can really coast in. I'm not a coaster. So I like to be...

Jesse Butts:

Clearly, yeah, we've established that.

Caitlin McHugh:

Yeah. Yeah, I'm very much a person that leans in. So it's like, all right, give me a difficult one to start. And then we'll see where I learn and where I can go with that. But I'm really enjoying leadership, even though it's hard. Yes, clearly love hard things. So stay in that space in some form.

Jesse Butts:

So looking back a little, what did you have to learn about yourself to find work that fits you that wasn't in teaching, in academia, when it sounds like something that you know, was for 15 or 20 years, what you considered the goal?

Caitlin McHugh:

I would say, I'm a naturally fairly self-aware person. But I had to be very intentional about getting more self-awareness and getting a vocabulary to talk about my strengths and skills in a way that was beyond one particular role. And I don't think that's what academia really trains you to do. So it was hard, because I would have friends who are in business, like when I was at Target, and I was searching, and they'd say, Well, what do you want to do? And like, literally anything. The one thing I wanted to do, I can't do, so something else. And I didn't really have the knowledge to really be able to sell myself. So when I started doing leadership work, I did a professional development program at Capella for leadership training. So I did the Gallup Leadership Strengthfinder to get my top leadership strengths. So that gave me a lot of self-awareness but also vocabulary to talk about what I was good at, and how I can be a value. And then values assessments to be able to talk about what's important to me. And to also know that none of it's surprising when I saw it, but like I said, it just gives you a vocabulary as to, I'm good at this, here's how I'm good at it. So being able to identify it, and then attach examples to ways that you actually lead. The "how" was really important to me. So I just don't think I had any sort of training, vocabulary, or awareness as to how to have those conversations and then see, Oh, here's this role that I'm interested in. Here's my strengths and how I would contribute to this role and be able to explain that really effectively.

Jesse Butts:

Passion has come up a few times in this conversation. You've mentioned both a passion for teaching and, I'm fairly certain, passion for higher ed in general. And obviously, you're still in higher ed. But I'm curious, do you personally need to love a job? What is the amount of interest you need for a job to to check the box for you?

Caitlin McHugh:

I think I'm a naturally very passionate person. Yes, I do need to love the job to be in it. But I think adaptability has come up a lot. I'm very easy to lean in and to love the space that I'm in, and to advocate for that. So passionate, you know, I was always passionate about literature and passionate about teaching. I'd say I'm now passionate about coaching and being in this leadership space, and it's connected to all the things that I value, like learning, education, also values like honesty and communication and things like that. It ticks all those boxes for me. So I don't really think I could be in a space...like, I was not passionate about online tutoring. I was not passionate about real estate data entry. There's some spaces where I don't know that I would be passionate, but for me, being in a space where I do have the opportunity to give it my all and lean in... I'm an Enneagram type three achiever. I have workaholic tendencies. I'm always gonna be all in. So I need a space where I can be all in and contribute. And this definitely gives me that and connects to all my values. So...

Jesse Butts:

And if there are any listeners out there who have a liberal arts master's or PhD and they are passionate real estate data entry professionals, I'd love to have you on. I want both sides of the story. So my small pitch there. But I'm curious, I mean, are you still reading any Shakespeare scholarship? Are you doing anything related to what you studied at this point?

Caitlin McHugh:

Honestly, no. And I think part of that, for me was like part of the death and like the mourning process, and it was, it was certainly traumatic. I couldn't even read for a while. So I think it was maybe in 2019 I picked up a book for the first time in a while, which is sort of embarrassing to admit. I mean, I would read things for work and things online, but reading for fun, it wasn't a pleasure to me anymore because it made me very sad. Shakespeare for me shows up still in ways. I was a trivia host pre-COVID for many years. So I always love trivia. So it'll show up in nerdy trivia moments. Lots of like Zoom meeting jokes. If I can work in a Shakespeare joke, I'm gonna do it. I'm like, that's gonna happen. So that's, I would say, part of my brand is a nerdy culture and nerdy humor. So we all know this about me. It shows up in those ways. Like I keep looking over to my right, because all my books are there. So I look at them and see them every day, but I don't touch them for the most part, I think just because of the trauma of that experience. I've watched a few Shakespeare films and with meeting a new group of people, they asked me sometimes about my project, which always kind of like wakes me up, because I'm like, Oh, I haven't thought about that a long time. So sometimes it's nice to talk about it and think,Ooh, still got some of it. But in large part, I'm only slowly getting back into that being an enjoyable part of life again.

Jesse Butts:

I think a good note to end on, and I end a lot of interviews this way, but for someone who has been in similar situations to you where they, they've done well in their PhD program, they've went all in on pursuing careers in academia, and it just doesn't seem to be panning out, or they're really questioning is this even what I want or worth it anymore...What questions should people in those scenarios be asking themselves?

Caitlin McHugh:

I very much think growth and learning is connected to self-awareness. So asking themselves questions to create that, to figure out like, for me, passion is a big thing. It's like, knowing what energizes you will go a long way because you don't necessarily have to be passionate about your job. But if there aren't pieces of whatever your current role is that energize you, I think that's going to be very hard to sustain. Because it's just going to be a drag. You're gonna have trouble showing up doing baseline things if there's not something there that you can get that energy from. So probably the first question I would ask is, What energizes you on a daily basis? Where are things that you get that momentum and you get that joy from? Even if it's something small. And then I think honestly doing assessments...like they sound dumb to do these little assessments, but I forget what it's called, it's some kind of like values assessment, like VIA or B or something like that values assessment, I think is a good one. Because that identifies what you find to be very important in work and life. And strengths assessments, so that you know what you're good at is like, where could I contribute? Where would I be valuable? And assessments like that give you a vocabulary for those things like outside of one very prescriptive role. So it really becomes like a conversation of, What am I good at as an individual? And what brings me joy? And where can I apply that more broadly than this is the only thing that I can do? I don't know if it's a question. But I would strongly encourage everyone in that position to think about and question the assumption that your self-worth is tied to a particular goal. And I think that that's a lesson that was hard. A hard one for me to learn, especially as a success-driven, goal-oriented person, I drank the Kool-Aid hard. And then that was really challenging to come out of that. So I would just question that assumption, and learn about yourself and then think about ways that you can target that because there are transferable skills, absolutely. But you also have skills beyond that as a person with who you are, that can help you succeed in a variety of areas.

Jesse Butts:

All right. Well, Caitlin, this has been a really fascinating conversation. I appreciate your candor and honesty and I think it's going to help a lot of people. Thank you so much for joining us.

Caitlin McHugh:

Thanks for having me.

Jesse Butts:

Thanks for listening to this episode of The Work Seminar. If you like what you've heard, please take a minute to rate the show on your favorite podcast app. If you know someone who'd be a great Work Seminar guest or have a suggestion or two for the show, you can reach me at Jesse@TheWorkSeminar.com, or @TheWorkSeminar on social. And special thanks, as always, to Jon Camp for the music and Isabel Patino for the cover art and design. Until next time, never cease from exploration.