The Intersection Between Luck and Hard Work with Dr. Sharon Belden Castonguay
Dr. Sharon Belden Castonguay [00:20:31] Yeah, so the way that another sort of oddity of my program and again, I don’t know if they still do it this way, but they did at the time, was that instead of defending your dissertation at the end, you defended your proposal at the beginning. Right. And my understanding behind that was that it was to make sure that all the faculty on your committee were on the same page right from the start because they had run into problems with that not being the case that that was delaying people’s graduations. Yeah. So they had this ritual at the time where when it came time to defend your dissertation proposal and it was a lengthy process to write the dissertation proposal, it had to be very well thought out. You have to IRB the approval, you know, the whole thing. And then when it came time to formally go in and defend and your defense was recorded, it was typically done first thing in the morning and you were supposed to bring breakfast for your dissertation committee.
Dr. Russell Strickland [00:21:29] So I went walking up to all of the rich faculty members.
Dr. Sharon Belden Castonguay [00:21:34] Right. So you as a graduate student, in other words, you were all so, you know, I got to finish this to defend the proposal. I went to one of our local trains, au bon pain, and I got on, you know, a bunch of breakfast foods. And I had just started dating this guy who said, oh, he was he had he was a postdoc at a neighboring institution. And he was excited that I was defending my dissertation proposal. So he actually came with me to help carry everything. And we’d been dating for, I think, two weeks at this point. And so he helped me, maybe a month. I certainly know more than that. And he helped me carry everything upstairs and into the library where we were doing this in my committees, looking at him and thinking, wow, you know, you’ve got a guy to help you bring your breakfast. How is your boyfriend? And I was like, that was just some guy just started dating. And anyway, we’ve been married now for over a decade.
Dr. Russell Strickland [00:22:33] So so is that is that the marriage test? If they’ll if they’ll take your breakfast to your dissertation defense?
Dr. Sharon Belden Castonguay [00:22:39] Defense has impressed my dissertation committee, so I want to marry him at the end.
[00:22:48] Yeah, well, I think it’s a good idea to have that proposal defense in there for for two reasons. Number one, it just depends on your institution. But a lot of traditional institutions, the dissertation process, it’s really a master apprentice relationship and. In my experience, students don’t necessarily have a dissertation project that they’re working on persay, instead, they do work with their professor and at some point the professor turns to them and says, OK, let’s package some of this up and get it out the door so you can graduate. And that’s a slow process, which if you want to be in the research community and that’s what you’re going to be doing is great because you’re working at the foot of a master. You’re meeting all those people, making all those connections, publishing often before you actually finish your dissertation on great stuff. But for people who want to go outside of academia, it’s really nice to have a dissertation that’s a project. And you know what it’s going to entail. And to have a defense early on requires that, you know what the beginning, middle and end of your project is what it looks like to finish. And that’s really bodes well for you completing the thing. So I think that’s a good idea.
Dr. Sharon Belden Castonguay [00:23:55] Yeah, no, I agree. And I think what you’re describing, having worked with the candidates across disciplines, what you’re describing is far more common in the sciences. Yeah. Whereas when I was coming in in the social science discipline and not being tied to the research, I think had I been involved like that, going back to my first adviser. You know, I was a teaching fellow for him, so I was very familiar with his theories and had I done a dissertation that was making active use of those theories and I was working with him on his research, things might have looked a little bit different in that regard. But I had very strong opinions on what I was doing and what was just want to look like. And I think that’s one of the benefits of being an older student, is that, you know, you’re coming in with some life experience, you’re coming in with some professional experience. You do have ideas of what you want to do. And you have to make sure that you have an advisor who’s willing to go along with you. And I turned out to be a spectacularly bad advisee. And I’ll do a post apology now to my dissertation adviser, because the reason I say I’m bad advisee is I had a tendency to ignore the advising process until I felt I was actually done with something. So. Proving that point, I think I turned in the first draft of my dissertation something like a month before the deadline, and we gave her a heart attack, you know, because I remember her saying to me like, it’s a good thing that this actually turned out to be good because you really hit on that. And I said, well, I’m just not a draft person, you know, like you’re going to get this. Eighty five percent done. It’s not to say I didn’t have iterations of it after that, but I wasn’t giving them little chunks. Yeah.
Dr. Russell Strickland [00:25:46] And you were spectacularly lucky that you had a well adjusted mentor because a lot of mentors, just the fact that you didn’t get their opinion and incorporate it back in your work, however superficially, would have been a death knell for you because.
Dr. Sharon Belden Castonguay [00:26:03] Well, yeah, and there was some of that often goes it’s not like she had no idea what I was doing because, again, they had they had signed off on my proposal, which was very detailed. So, I mean, they knew exactly what my interview protocol was. And she had very strong opinions about that, exactly what these were going to look like at some point. I had shared the the coding that I was doing. And it’s not like they didn’t see anything. But in terms of like the right of the actual product, I waited until and I knew I was confident enough in my writing and in the I was following a preordained structure, you know, I felt OK about it.
Dr. Russell Strickland [00:26:45] But I just go several, several committee members and chairs who if they didn’t tell you, well, this is good, but why don’t you do X, Y or Z and X, Y and Z didn’t show up in a later draft. It wouldn’t have happened. It doesn’t matter how. You know, incremental X, Y and Z would have to work. It would have been critical as far as getting the approval. Again, marginal to the work, but critical to the approval of the work. And that’s that’s where the well-adjusted mentor comes in to not need that sort of sense of self aggrandizement that they contributed in a meaningful way to your work.
Dr. Sharon Belden Castonguay [00:27:24] Yeah, I know. And there were definitely things that I ended up having to add and subtract and even some of the later editions needing to subtract because of committee members saying, well, I want to see this now. I want to see it’s not like that didn’t happen. But I actually think one benefit of pushing this to fairly late in the game was it forced them to make decisions as opposed to stringing me along because they wanted to see the same graduation date that I was trying to have.
Dr. Russell Strickland [00:27:49] And that’s also a good stroke of luck because a lot of times committee members don’t care.
Dr. Sharon Belden Castonguay [00:27:54] I think they were under pressure to get doctoral students out more quickly. I mean, I was already at the seven year mark by that point, and I was so close that it was like, OK, you know, let’s let’s just make sure this happens.
Dr. Russell Strickland [00:28:10] So you mentioned defending the proposal. Is was there a final defense for the dissertation to that that happen as well? Not at all.
Dr. Sharon Belden Castonguay [00:28:19] No, it was just the way they did. And again, I’m not sure that they do it the same way now. But at that time, you didn’t you didn’t do an oral defense again at the end, obviously, they were signing off on the written document and you were having a fair amount of back and forth about that. And there was actually a formal process that you had to go through with the administration and the bureaucratic red tape.
Dr. Russell Strickland [00:28:42] That’s not I like the fact that it wasn’t a I wasn’t a traditional defense. Now, a lot of a lot of universities will have a defense. Some of them, it will be a real defense. But a lot of these days, it’s more of a celebration. It’s expected you’re going to pass. And I like that kind of ritual of, you know, having the wine and cheese and the congratulations and all of that sort of thing as being a nice capstone to this whole process. What was it like to just sort of unceremoniously have them sign your paper and push it over?
Dr. Sharon Belden Castonguay [00:29:17] Well, I mean, I I wasn’t living on campus at that point. I my now husband, then fiancee had by the time I was getting that close to graduating, he had been teaching in upstate New York. So I actually wrote my dissertation in upstate New York, which is a great place to live and a graduate student stipend. You know, that was the year that I will get you little, you know, because you can live on a small amount of money in the middle of nowhere. Right. And that was nice. But what I remember being the big closing was commencement. You know, we I mean, the full regalia, I bought my regalia. I still have it. I have I it’s you know, we had a beautiful day in its all day ceremony after ceremony after ceremony at a big university like that. And I just engaged in all of it. And I remember it very fondly. And it did feel like closure.
Dr. Russell Strickland [00:30:19] Yeah. Now, that’s good. That’s a good point. That’s one of the reasons why I always encourage a lot of our students, their commencement is months after their graduation, after they’re done and they have their transcript, they could have their degree. But the commencement comes later. And I encourage folks to do go to that because, you know, it’s all this silly, cheesy fun, but it’s good, but it’s worth it. You know, have a wonderful commencement speaker or you’re going to make snarky comments about your speaker, though. You get to see the people that advised you sometimes for the first time. When I went to my commencement, my adviser saw me walk across the stage, did a little mental snapshot, and then found me at the reception. And that is the first time we’d ever met because I did my work remotely. But before the rise of of everyone’s picture being on the Internet, video conferencing and all these other things. So we just did everything via phone and email. And it was literally the first time I had ever, ever met him was when he came up and shook my hand at commencement. So definitely a good way to to to to in that that that endeavor. You mentioned that kind of going on past that dissertation journey. You mentioned that two thousand nine was a year of change. What? That sounds interesting.
Dr. Sharon Belden Castonguay [00:31:40] So that’s actually the year that I graduated, so I like doing what I do in career counseling. We talk a lot about change and transitions. And I always like to talk about 2009 because I got engaged on New Year’s Day. My husband proposed first thing in the morning on New Year’s Day 2009, and he had been invited to a conference at St. Simons Island in March or the end of February. I take it back was the end of February. So I gave myself a deadline of finishing that big first draft of my dissertation before that trip because I wanted to be able to just say that I had finished it, sent it off to my advisor and then enjoyed that trip. But then my dissertation was basically done a month later. Yes, I walked in June. We got married in July, moved to New York about two weeks later because he had accepted a tenure track position at a school just outside New York City. OK, I did some consulting work in the fall, but then ended up starting a new position as the director of a business school career office the first week of December. And I found out Christmas week that I was pregnant with our daughter.
Dr. Russell Strickland [00:32:51] OK, and what was the change in there?
Dr. Sharon Belden Castonguay [00:32:54] Yeah, so it’s like every major life change you can have right there, pretty much all in one calendar year.
Dr. Russell Strickland [00:33:03] Events in life, basically the moving, the marrying, the having a kid that changes all in all at once. I love it all. You you got most of the dissertation done before you started doing all that stuff.
Dr. Sharon Belden Castonguay [00:33:14] Yeah. I mean, that was the beginning of the year. I mean, I it was actually really nice timing in the sense that I did my dissertation and actually got to just take a few months to relax and plan my wedding, which was nice.
Dr. Russell Strickland [00:33:27] My my first born was born in at the very end of December, and I defended my dissertation in April, but it was essentially all over, you know, except for the officious pro forma stuff when he was born, which I thought was very, very smart of me because otherwise I didn’t know what would happen.
Dr. Sharon Belden Castonguay [00:33:50] So, yeah, I mean, what was tricky was, you know, basically getting pregnant my first week at a new job. It was a little tricky because, you know, I was a level employee, but I’m going to need some time off and about there. You know, it was it was kind of like, oh, didn’t think that was going to happen fast, you know? And, you know, I’m managing a team. I ended up my maternity leave ended up coinciding with the very first recruiting season that I was responsible for because I was, you know, working with MBA students still at that point. It was very awkward timing. But, you know, that’s life, right? There’s always going to be awkward timing. And I’m sure that a lot of the folks you work with find that as well. You know, there’s never a good time in life. There’s just a time.
Dr. Russell Strickland [00:34:33] Exactly right. There’s never a good time. You just have to decide what’s important and make some great work, get your priorities together and and figure out how to make everything work. Because we have so many students that are juggling kids and career and they’re being they’re married. Sometimes you’re caring for parents in some way, shape or form. I mean, there’s a lot of things that happen in life, as you know, that we as adults have to face. I tell folks that you plan, but you never know what’s going to happen. I have not had a single year of my adult life that went exactly the way I would have the script would have scripted it on January one, just doesn’t happen. So forget about it. Do the planning so that you can riff off the planning and have some sense of intentionality, but also understand that things are going to be happening. You know, that that make you change those plans.
Dr. Sharon Belden Castonguay [00:35:23] Yeah, I think everybody learned that in twenty twenty, right.
Dr. Russell Strickland [00:35:26] Oh yeah. Yeah, my son’s my son’s fifteen now. His new favorite movie is Forrest Gump. And you know, at the end he asked something about some deep philosophical question about life, whether it’s, you know, Lt. Dan says that everything is just know random and and know his mother says that that it’s all planned and preordained and and he stops and says, well, I think maybe it’s both. But he’s got a bit of a point that they plan and then you you change your plans as the situation dictates. So how does that tie into some of these career decisions that that adults have to make? What sense of planning versus serendipity do you think comes into these career decisions?
Dr. Sharon Belden Castonguay [00:36:14] Yeah, it’s a great question because I find when I’m working with folks who are a bit older, let’s say people who are in their 30s and they’re starting to think…
Dr. Russell Strickland [00:36:27] You sound liek my kids. Old in their thirties.
Dr. Sharon Belden Castonguay [00:36:28] Well, I’m well beyond that. I’m just saying, like people, in other words, who might already be on their second or third career or maybe they stumbled into something after they graduated and they’re not really happy and they’re not sure why. It’s often because they he didn’t really unpack all of the things that were influencing their career decisions early on. And most of my career, up until I took my current position at Wesleyan, was working with graduate students and working with mid career folks. And part of the reason that I wanted to go back to my roots, I’m a graduate of a liberal arts college. I work for one now was to nip in the bud some of what I was seeing with people who are in their 20s, 30s, 40s, etc., which is its work. You know, you’ve got to do the work to figure out how do I go about making these decisions and what are all the things that are influencing these decisions. You know, there’s a lot what are all the different identities that I’m bringing to bear? How am I internalizing all of these cultural influences that I might be receiving from my parents, from my peers, from the institutions I attended, from American culture, from my culture of origin, if that’s, you know, relevant. I work with a lot of international students or people who don’t identify with the dominant culture in the US and having to really think through. What are all of these? How are all of these things motivating me or influencing me and positive or negative ways? And if you don’t do that, it’s really easy to follow the path of least resistance. And I talked about this in my dissertation. You know, my. My dissertation looked at people who graduated during the down job market in the early 90s, right. And when I interviewed them, they were on average about 15 years out. And this was before. You know, the big crash in 08, 09, when I was talking to them, so on paper, they were actually all doing very well. But when you asked them to go back to when they graduated from college, a lot of them were doing things like, you know, I was a cashier in a liquor store. I was a bank teller. You know, they had taken these, like, jobs that were not matching up with their degrees. And a lot of what was coming out of those narratives was serendipity, which, you know, I like to describe. It is the intersection between luck and hard work. You know, you can’t just rely on things falling into your lap, nor can you expect that every single thing you try to do is going to pan out. Right. So that that’s really serendipity. But being open to new things, new experiences, because while I found that virtually everyone that I interviewed started out on the path of least resistance, OK, well, I’m graduating in a crappy job market, so I’m just going to take the first thing that comes to me. You know, some of them were really thoughtful about, OK, well, maybe I’m going to take a temp job, but it’s going to be a temp job at a company that really interests me. And while I’m here, I’m going to go ahead and make a point of trying to develop relationships with some of the people who are here and really learn about what are some of the things that are going on. So maybe I can be on the lookout for when things improve and their hiring freeze lifts. Maybe I can eek my way to an entry level position. And it wasn’t always that straightforward. You know, sometimes people talk. Well, then I took another job that wasn’t that great, but I learned something from the experience and I made another contact that exposed me to this other new thing. And a lot of it was about how people made sense of those experiences and how much they’re reflecting on those experiences. Was that reflection piece that was really important. Could they actively think about how am I reacting to this work experience that I’m having? And what is that recursive relationship between what I am doing and what I am thinking, what’s happening at this organization and then think, OK, well, if I’m not happy with what I’m doing, is it because of a bad fit with the functional area? Is it a bad fit with the organization? Do I need to be doing a complete rehaul or is there some piece of this I can keep and being able to be actively engaged in that act of reflection? It was what’s really important, and that’s what I think is the basis of the work that I do now as the director of a university career center is really encouraging students to develop those mental tools to be actively reflecting on what is it that I want out of life.