Beyond the academy: Professional agency and learning in virtual contexts

The global pandemic’s impact on the job market has increased the pressure on workers to build new skills with a renewed focus on lifelong learning in virtual contexts (OECD, 2020). Professional agency is needed to develop one’s work network and to renegotiate work-related identities during changing economic times (Biesta, 2010). The concept of agency has become widely used in learning research, especially as it relates to professional and workplace learning (Etalapelto et al., 2013). Agency is the capability of individuals to make choices and exert control over and give direction to one’s life (Biesta & Tedder, 2007; Martin, 2004). Through changing working life conditions, coping with transitions and managing amid trying times, people need to create subjectively meaningful careers (Etalapelto et al., 2013). In a recent study by Sannino, Engeström and Jokinen (2021), digital peer learning (DPL) through a community of practice (CoP; Lave & Wenger, 1991, 1998) was used as a means to facilitate transformative agency amongst homelessness practitioners (HP) in Finland. Sannino and colleagues found that DPL enabled HPs to recognize and elucidate conflicts, offer each other potential supportive resources, and establish essential connections, ultimately resulting in transformative action. Thus, HPs could cope with working life conditions amid conflict by using DPL to collectively solve problems through their CoP, transforming their professional agency in the process. Educating and empowering individuals to explore and develop their professional agency is a necessary response to the changing economy – made even more pressing because of the pandemic. Since universities and federal policy do not prioritize non-academic career preparation, post-doctoral research fellows (postdocs) may disregard the low likelihood of obtaining an academic job and lack relevant non-academic skills (Hayter & Parker, 2019). The ratio of Ph.D. holders to academic openings is far higher across most disciplines (Hancock, 2021). A recent study from the UK estimates that only 50% of Social Science and 45% of Arts and Humanities Ph.D. holders are in academic roles 3.5 years after graduation. PhDs and postdocs have faced, for at least 20 years, dwindling job prospects for tenure-track faculty employment (Hayter & Parker, 2019). Thus, there is a significant need to educate and empower recent PhDs and postdocs to develop professional agency beyond the academy. 

Over the past year, the global community has become more fluent in virtual communication and more willing to explore opportunities to engage with peers online. As conferences, webinars, courses, and concerts have gone virtual; the groundwork has been laid to continue creating meaningful connections online well after the pandemic is over. When designed effectively, online courses can be an accessible way to help workers gain specialized skills and position themselves for promotions, new careers, and business ownership. Through this SSHRC Partnership Engage Grant, we aim to explore how recent PhDs and postdocs develop professional agency beyond the academy through a peer learning networked community of practice.

Jillianne Code, PhD

Principal Investigator

Andrea Webb, PhD


Erica Machulak, PhD

Project Partner

Kieran Forde

Research Assistant

Made possible with funding from

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