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What’s a Nice English Ph.D. Like You Doing in the Financial Industry? By Karen Paley (Ph.D. 1998)

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Karen would be happy to share her expertise with the Northeastern community, whether to advise about a career in the financial industry or to provide a free financial review regarding savings, retirement, and insurance (even if you already have a financial representative).  Karen is licensed in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

This and upcoming issues of the newsletter will highlight the variety of career pathways of alums of the Master’s and doctoral programs.  For this issue, Stuart Peterfreund, Graduate Program Director, interviewed Karen Paley, Ph.D. 1998, who recently made a career change to become a Registered Representative for Independence Financial Partners/ John Hancock Financial Network.   Karen begins by remembering her first time as a graduate on the job market at the MLA:

KP:   In 1997, graduate students picketed the MLA conference in Toronto in protest over its encouragement to “look outside of academia” for employment. While I was in sympathy with the picketers, I was also worried about getting a job, and very little has made me as mad since. What turned my head in the seventeen- year interim?

In the rest of her email exchange with Professor Peterfreund, she answers this question with thoughts about prior career choices and outcomes and about the ways that her graduate training prepared her for her current position—including the connections, in a financial institution’s orientation toward its clients, between the tradition of Aristotelian rhetoric and the attention to such Aristotelian categories as audience and anticipation of and response to objections.

SP:   Can you give us some sense of your time in the doctoral program at Northeastern?  What drew you to the program in the first place?  How did the encounter go for you?  Do you have any lasting memories of studying at and receiving your PhD from Northeastern?

KP:   When my younger son started his senior year of high school, I enrolled in the Master’s program in English at the University of New Hampshire, where I learned that the protest language of the sixties had been more or less co-opted into “critical theory.”  A year later I applied to the doctoral program at Northeastern University, because it was a commutable distance from my home on the North Shore and I could attend part-time.

“I wrote every paper as well as my dissertation with an eye toward publication.  I had three peer-reviewed articles in hand when I went on the job market.”

While at Northeastern, I felt intimidated by the younger students more up on contemporary literary theory.  But one high point occurred in Guy Rotella’s seminar.  To write an essay on the “revision trope” in the poetry of James Merrill, I had obtained unpublished drafts from the Merrill archive at St. Louis University.  After my presentation, Rotella held up my essay and declared to the other seven members of the symposium (all young males), “This is a publishable paper.” In another high point, with the help of my advisor Professor Kathleen Kelly and reader Professor Bonnie TuSmith, I was the first student to complete an ethnographic dissertation in composition.

Two decisions enabled me to complete the program in five years and secure a tenure-track position within a year of graduation. First, I wrote every paper as well as my dissertation with an eye toward publication.  I had three peer-reviewed articles in hand when I went on the job market.  Revision transformed my dissertation into a book that went under contract with Southern Illinois University Press, I-Writing: The Politics and Practice of Teaching First-Person Writing.

The other good decision I made was to accept an adjunct lecturer position at Boston College instead of becoming a teaching fellow at Northeastern.

I could afford to pay my Northeastern tuition with a small inheritance from my mother.   Thus, instead of teaching two courses a quarter at Northeastern, I taught one a semester at BC, which allowed me to complete graduate work in five years. I also audited a Latin course for free and was the first doctoral student to pass the Latin exam at Northeastern.  Letters of recommendation from established figures in composition at a Jesuit college provided an additional positive perspective on my abilities and helped me land my first full-time tenure line position at Loyola Marymount University (LMU) as Assistant Professor, Director of the Freshman English Program and of Writing across the Curriculum.

SP:   Tell us something of your career in English after leaving Northeastern?—schools, academic titles, and the like.

KP:   Unfortunately, I was underprepared for all the responsibilities of my first position, and instead of asking for help, I poulticed my insecurity with arrogance, made enemies among the powerful, and was gone in two years.  One faculty member described me as “too Jewish, too gay, and too East coast.”  I had acted as if tenure-track meant tenured.  It does not.

After a year as visiting professor at California State University in San Bernardino, I returned to the east coast at the urging of one of my sons.  I had two job offers at the time.  The University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa used what they called a “full-court press” to recruit me.  Fearful because of my dismissal at LMU, I took a safer route and accepted an offer from Rhode Island College (RIC).  The written offer from Tuscaloosa did enable me to negotiate a higher salary from RIC.

Things went awry before I even began to teach at RIC.  During my campus interview, both the dean and the chair told me that the current writing program administrator, my future supervisor, was “too controlling.” I was asked how I would feel about taking over the writing program in six months.  Foolishly I told the current director what had been said to me in the interview.  She went from being my champion to my foe and was the key player in my tenure denial five years later.

I had made many poor decisions after leaving graduate school, and it was not until mid-tenure process that I learned there was a sizable but benign cyst on my frontal lobe that limited my left-brain capacities, heightened my anger, and precipitated a cavalier disrespect for authority.   Writing on the Edge (WOE) published my essay about the experience, “Impaired Faculty: Tenure, Treatment, or Termination?” (24.2 Spring 2014). Another scenario might have been referral to the Employee Assistance Program and being put on medical leave.  Another narrative of my quest to find out what was wrong with me when things were deteriorating at RIC appears in the online Yale Journal for Humanities and Medicine, “The Third Circulation: A Torrent of Voices” (http://yjhm.yale.edu/essays/kpaley20120804.htm).

Six months after an unusually successful brain surgery on 11/24/2009 draining the cyst, I began work as a per course instructor at the University of Rhode Island.  Due to my publications, I was treated more like a visiting dignitary than an adjunct.  In the four years I was there, I kept revising and submitting my second book-length ethnography, “Caring for the Whole Student: A Look at Some Writing Assignments in the Disciplines.”  It was in and out of contract three times, lastly with Parlor Press/ WAC Clearinghouse.  I went on the job market in my third year at URI but failed to receive offers from the two schools where I had been a finalist.

“Much of what I learned in graduate school prepared me for this career.”

SP:  What prompted you to leave a academia to train as and become a financial planner?

KP:   The turning point in my career came in February 2014.  I had been managing my own portfolio of socially responsible investments (primarily in alternative energy).  The day after my annual asset inventory, I happened to see an article in the Boston Globe that showed me I managed my money well.  When friends told me I could turn this hobby into a career, I networked my way back to a former financial advisor who had “fired me” for refusing to put all of my assets into his institution.  He told me that a company would sponsor me while I went through months of studying to pass exams and get licenses.  Responding to just a handful of ads for financial representatives or wealth managers led to three companies offering to sponsor me.[1] I passed all my exams on the first attempt and became Registered Representative #1707.  I felt the same pride as when members of my dissertation committee called me back into the room after my defense and congratulated someone named Dr. Paley.  I chose Independence Financial Partners, a John Hancock Financial Network firm, because of its “open architecture.”  It offers the products from a lot of other carriers as well as its own.

SP:   Is there “a moral to the story” or any other insight you would like to share with the English Department’s current graduate students and/or faculty?

KP:   Much of what I learned in graduate school prepared me for this career.  While still bearing signs of my academic career, such as forgetting to give my business card to new clients, I have proven adept at “prospecting” and bringing in new people to meet with me and a senior member of the insurance and investment team.


Contributed by Professor Stuart Peterfreund and Karen Paley (Ph.D. 1998). Karen is a Registered Representative for Independence Financial Partners/ John Hancock Financial Network. She is licenced in both Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Karen can be contacted at kpaley@jhnetwork.com, 401 691 4165 (w), 401 714 3569 (h).

Securities offered through Signator Investors, Inc, member FINRA SIPC. Independence Financial Partners is independent of Signator Investors Inc. 935 Jefferson Blvd, Warwick, RI 02886, 401-732-4800.  121-20141125-208822

[1] I chose Independence Financial Partners, a John Hancock Financial Network firm, because of its “open architecture.”  It offers the products from a lot of other carriers as well as its own.