Student to Staff: Pauline Kerschen

March 14, 2024

“Student-to-Staff” is a series featuring stories from Cal alumni who are now career employees in One IT. This series was created to show the importance of investing in our student staff, and how vital their work is to the university and its mission.

Pauline Kerschen came to UC Berkeley with the goal of getting a Ph.D. in English literature, and today she’s a software developer for Research, Teaching, and Learning (RTL). Learn about her unlikely journey, and what inspired her to change course. 

Pauline Kerschen2What led you to apply for your first student position at UC Berkeley? What was the title of the position, and what was the application process like? 

I went to UC Berkeley for grad school. I was a Ph.D. student in the English department, and the job was more like an apprenticeship - it was meant to prepare us for a faculty or faculty-adjacent position. In our third year, we started doing teaching assistantships, then we moved on to designing courses. I started a little earlier because I needed some extra income. So during my second year, I signed on as a reader for a lecture course. A reader is like the lighter version of a teaching assistant. We didn’t lead discussion selections but we attended lectures, graded papers, and held office hours. We were available to help but we weren’t instructors of record. As far as the application process, grad students were informed that a certain number of these positions were available and we signed on to do them with a faculty member who was working in the field that we were interested in. In my case, that field was twentieth-century literature. So I signed on with a professor who ended up being my faculty advisor! Those were the early stages of that relationship.

Did you stay in that position for a while, or did you move to other positions on campus during your time as a student?

During my third year, I was assistant teaching for discussion sections. By my fourth year, I started designing courses and teaching reading and composition, which is pretty standard for humanities departments. In my fifth or sixth year, during the end of my time in the Ph.D. program, an opportunity came up to do some technical work with software support. Through my hobbies, I’d picked up some software technical skills, which was rare in the English department. I think there was just a need for it, and I needed the income. A few professors started roping me in to moderate a mailing list, then I was asked to work on the English department blog, a WordPress site that needed some customization. To be honest, that felt more like a student job than my previous jobs in the English department.

Do you have any tips for how students can balance the time and energy demands of school and a job?

Get a digital calendar and a to-do list, I think those are the two essential things. When I was working and going to school at the same time, I always felt that was too much to keep track of. There were so many small tasks to remember. I know there are a million apps to help you keep track now, but a calendar and a triage to-do list are what works for me. I couldn’t manage my life without them!

Pauline Kerschen1Did you transition from a student worker to a full-time campus employee? What was that like? Was it a big adjustment? 

Not immediately. I work in software these days. I’m a software developer for the Research, Teaching, and Learning department (RTL) - which is not what I was trained to do in the English department! But when I started doing more technical work, I realized I enjoyed it. It allowed me more time to do creative projects and other things that were important to me, and it also allowed me to stay in the Bay Area. The experience of doing those technical tasks made me realize this was something I was interested in, career-wise. By the end of grad school, I went all in. I was teaching myself to code, a friend graduated around the same time as me, and we both became freelance software developers. We did that for about five years, but we wanted more stability. I got word through some friends of mine who worked at the university that there were software developer positions open. So I applied and let them know I was a student here, I still really like this ‘place, and though I no longer want to be faculty I still really identify with the educational mission and I’m interested in a position. So I joined in 2015 and I’ve been here ever since.

Do you feel your time as a student worker prepared you for full-time employment? If so, how?

The software position I have now involves a lot of independent work. It certainly requires a good amount of self-motivation and self-organization. The student work taught me a lot about that. It wasn’t until I started to do some technical work as a student worker that I even realized I could make a living with this. It had always been a hobby, and now I’m getting paid. Being able to join that with the academic arena, which I’ve always enjoyed, is the icing on the cake. 

Since then, what positions have you held at UC Berkeley? 

I’ve become more senior within the department, so now I’m a supervisor. I lead a team of about four people. I’ve been in the same department doing the same thing broadly for about eight years, I’ve just taken on more responsibility.

What do you enjoy the most about working at UC Berkeley?

When I came back to work here I was absolutely delighted to get my library card again. I spent a lot of time in the Main (Gardner) Stacks as an English Ph.D. student, so being back there was nice. When I first came back we were at Dwinelle Hall and it was great to be right there, immersed in student life. These days we’re just off campus at 2850 Telegraph. I live up in Richmond, but I like getting to campus when I can. I also like the people I work with in software development. It’s really a self-selecting group of people who, for whatever reason, don’t want to work in the start-up scene, don’t want to work in the private sector, and actually care about working for a public university. The personalities it tends to attract are people I find very congenial. It certainly feels much more like home than the start-up environment I experienced early in my career. 

What advice do you have for students who are considering a career with UC Berkeley?

Don’t assume that your academic studies need to fit with what you end up doing in a career. I made a very significant switch from Humanities Ph.D. student to software developer and it’s been great. I don’t regret not studying computer science academically, and I don’t regret not working in the Ph.D. humanities. The Humanities Ph.D. program was a great place for me to be then, and software development is a great place for me to be now. There are a lot of soft skills, or Humanities skills, that are important in software. Whatever you’re studying academically at Berkeley, you’re learning to think critically and creatively and with a certain level of abstraction. That transfers over much more broadly than I thought it was going to when I first started. The lesson is - you can do more than you might think!