PhD at 75: Kirstin Phelps

Kirstin Phelps

The PhD degree program at the iSchool celebrates its 75th anniversary in 2023. This profile is part of a special series featuring PhD alumni. Kirstin Phelps (PhD '21) is the associate site lead for the AbbVie Innovation Center.

Where do you work and what is your role?

I currently work with AbbVie, a global biopharmaceutical company, serving as the associate site lead for the AbbVie Innovation Center (AIC), which is our flagship location at the University of Illinois. In this role, I lead our internal technology consulting team and assist with overseeing our site and mentoring the approximately 60 interns we support. More broadly, our team is responsible for helping support, incubate, and prototype innovative digital projects for AbbVie's R&D, so my role is a unique combination of administration, research, coaching, and strategy responsibilities (which I love).

What do you see as the most important impact of your work?

Helping develop the next generation of young professionals by providing meaningful opportunities for students to contribute to real-world problems, safe spaces to experiment and practice new skills, and supportive mentoring and feedback.

Why did you choose to pursue a PhD degree?

I originally decided to pursue my PhD because I was interested in a research agenda that explored the intersection of virtual worlds and leadership behaviors and practices; I was a big gamer and wanted to examine nontraditional opportunities for leadership development enabled through technology. Through the iSchool, I was introduced to a wonderfully interdisciplinary ecosystem that was supportive of individual research ideas. My research interests evolved, but I was always secure in knowing the iSchool supported intersectional thinking while providing top-notch training in what it means to conduct research and contribute to intellectual discussion. I started my journey with the goal of staying in academia, either in research or administration. While I ultimately ended up in industry, the skills and knowledge gained through my time at the iSchool have been invaluable and continue to be relevant in my current role.

What has it meant to you to be an alum of the program at Illinois?

To be an alum means connection and supporting the legacy of the School. Some of my closest friendships have come from my time in the program, and I remain connected with staff, faculty, and my cohort members from the School. I also have the unique privilege, due to my current position, to hire iSchool students into internship roles with my company, knowing the value of the education and training they've received.

What advice would you give to new PhD students?

Academically—take advantage of the opportunities to explore what the iSchool offers in terms of opportunities to connect with faculty, other students, and intellectual pursuits. Whether this means taking classes divergent to your area of interest to expand your thinking or investing time in technical skills or alternative methods, your PhD journey is a magical and unique time to really lean in to learning. Don't be so focused on the end goal that you miss the opportunity to take time to think, explore, and marinate on a topic.

Personally—don't let your PhD be the only thing in your life. It is hard. It is a marathon. It takes a lot of stamina, self-awareness, and grit to go through a process that will test your ideas, your identity, and your mental health and resolve. Make sure you allocate time to self-care and wellness, particularly if you have external commitments that also need your attention. I think it's important to know that you are enough without the degree and that you have something else totally unrelated to your studies to counterbalance the stress and anxiety involved in getting an advanced degree. I got into boxing during my degree program (so cathartic!) and will always encourage others to prioritize some time for a chosen non-PhD activity as well.

Professionally—project manage the degree process. Learn how to advocate for yourself, prioritize and set boundaries, manage your advisor and committee(s), and plan out your goals, tasks, and responsibilities. Matriculating through a PhD program is not just an intellectual endeavor but also an administrative one. You, as the student, have a lot of agency in driving the outcomes of that journey; it is not something that just happens to you. Learn how to manage your time effectively, be proactive, leverage your resources, and you'll gain additional skills that will help you navigate complex processes in other settings. 

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