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Career FAQs: frequent questions about working beyond academe

I'm often asked these questions about my transition to the world outside the university. Contact me if you have others you'd like to see here.

Making the switch

How does my academic training transfer to the business world?
Nicely. In the business world, students are rewarded. Employers value employees who can learn. They want employees who nimbly adapt to changing circumstances, not a Rev. Casaubon frozen in a single field. You distinguish yourself by learning about your industry, your market, and your competitors. The fact that the business world tends to reward effective scholarship with cash and more responsibility is a pleasant surprise for those emerging from the murky world of tenure remuneration.

Geoffrey Moore, a Renaissance literature PhD turned venture capitalist and business writer, told me that in his experience, "having a humanities degree makes it harder to get your first job and easier to get every subsequent one." I agree. Outside the university you distinguish yourself by wedding metaphorical and critical thinking to an insatiable thirst for knowledge. And who is better equipped to interrogate what others cannot see and do not understand than the literature, art history, or humanities PhD?

What if I don't have an MBA or business experience?
Don't fret. You can and will learn business skills. You already have the key ingredients for business excellence—handiness with metaphor and imagination, and a highly-tuned set of critical thinking skills. You can conjure solutions and interrogate propositions that some narrowly-focused MBAs can't fathom. Business distinction is about imagining the unknown and tearing into the multiplicity of voices and texts informing a proposition. Take command of this fact, and you take the first step toward transferring your skills into a career beyond the university. However, you'll need to deliver results a lot quicker than what you are used to. Unless you are prepared to deliver results in business days rather than university research years, the world outside the academe might not be the place for you.

What's an internship, and why should I do one?
If you're thinking about working outside academe, do internships. An internship is a job you do to gain experience. Internships usually don't pay much, if at all, but what you gain in practical skills and opened doors is beyond value. During grad school I did an internship with the Appalachian Mountain Club's magazine in Boston. The internship gave me more writing and photography samples I could show to potential clients, desktop publishing experience, insights on the editorial process behind a monthly magazine, and non-academic references. Your university career center will have information on internships in your area.

What qualities do corporations look for in someone who might not have a formal technical background?
  • Fierce curiosity and unbridled enthusiasm.
  • A positive attitude and tons of self-motivation. Employers will reject the mope who whines through an interview. Instead, they will hire the enthusiast who brims with curiosity and energy. Employers want solutions, not problems. Show how jazzed you are about unleashing your considerable research and analysis skills on whatever world you happen to be entering. And keep any whingeing about the academic job scene to yourself. If you go into an interview and start with a litany of navel-gazing complaints, you brand yourself as a problem to avoid, not a solution to hire.
  • The ability to empathize.
  • A thirst for the new.
  • The ability to communicate effectively with written and spoken words. In other words, teacher qualities.
  • A grasp of visual communication basics. Read Edward Tufte.
  • An interest in technology. Start hitting the library to read The Wall Street Journal and computer magazines. You can also visit Web sites. Because technology changes rapidly, hiring someone with the ability to absorb loads of information quickly is often more important than hiring someone with a specific set of skills.
  • The ability to work smoothly with others. For successful corporations today, this is not an empty phrase the PR flak trots out to keep the ACLU at bay. If you have hang-ups about working with people different from you—whether it be in terms of faith, skin color, sexual orientation, or nationality—you are inefficient. Companies strive to make money as efficiently as possible. They want worker bees who produce without cultural friction. How is that for a surprise? The coldness of capitalism is, in this case, the ally of the humanist idealist.
  • The ability to simultaneously manage multiple projects. Writing papers for four concurrent seminars fits the bill.
  • Information Week asked its readers, "What are the most important attributes of new IT [information technology] employees?" Computer skills don't show up until the end of the list. Self-motivation, keenness, and the ability to express yourself are more important.
  • What Employers Want: What are the most important attributes of new IT employees?
    Ranking Characteristics
    1 Problem-solving skills
    2 Learn new things quickly
    3 Analyze and interpret data
    4 Teamwork skills
    5 Oral-communication skills
    6 Motivation
    7 Innovative thinking
    8 Self-starter
    9 Written-communication skills
    10 Job-specific computer skills
    Source: InformationWeek, June 11, 2001

How do I get a good recommendation from a professor for a non-academic job?
Ask your professor to focus on your creativity and your leadership skills. As a teacher and scholar, your life is dedicated to coordinating people and ideas into problem battering rams. You also spend significant time monitoring progress. To excel at these tasks, you must wed your PhD's persistence to a skepticism about your own assumptions. To be creative is to relentlessly challenge ossified beliefs. Do this well, and you'll find solutions where others only saw unfathomable, unapproachable chasms.

These skills transfer to the work world. Ask your professor to write about your ability to imagine, organize, focus, and keep projects and people moving toward completion. If your letter of recommendation exemplifies your leadership and management experience, it may help disarm those who view scholars as hopelessly abstracted.

If you think your professor will not take kindly to your striking out for the stock-option territories, then be direct. Candidly explain your career options, then assay your professor's response. If the professor is truly repulsed by the idea of your considering other career paths, you might ask if his or her feelings are a response to larger economic forces, or you personally. Hopefully your professor will be open-minded enough to realize that his or her contempt for systemic realities should not condemn your own future. After all, you're expanding your horizons, and that's what universities are meant to do in the first place.

How do I justify the time I spent becoming an expert on Marguerite de Navarre to employers?
Let the accomplishment radiate. Present your PhD or what it is—a vast and complicated project that you single-handedly directed, focused, and delivered. Managers love enthusiastic, self-motivated, resourceful hires. Your PhD is evidence that you have these qualities.

Also, banish the notion that you need to justify your efforts. Many PhDs I've spoken to are haunted by a notion that their efforts are somehow shameful, and that they need absolution. The opposite is true; your interviewers (who most likely will not have a PhD) may in fact be intimidated by your bagging of the academic Everest. Put the respect a PhD brings to work for you. Read about anthropology PhDs who are doing just that.

How do I write a good resume and cover letter?
Read the The Escape Pod Web site's advice on business resumes and cover letters. A few other tips:
  1. Cut gassy words. I can tell you that reading resumes is a nuisance and a chore. People don't pore over them—especially in the first reading. Consider a resume that begins:
    "OBJECTIVE: I would like to use my background in English, and my communication, interpersonal, editing, research, and organization skills, in a technical writing position."
  2. Someone will probably stop reading before they get to this applicant's true

    "OBJECTIVE: Technical writing position."
  3. Make your work experience salient. Education is important, but it's not as critical as when applying for a teaching position. Couch your PhD at the bottom of the resume, where it can quietly display your ability to follow-through with huge tasks.
  4. If you can, deliver your resume through someone who works at a company rather than through the human resources address.
  5. Proofread your resume. If you can't avoid typos in this, the most important document in your new career, you will distinguish yourself as someone whose carelessness may become an employer's problem later on. As an employer, why risk it? It's harsh but true: when scanning hundreds of resumes, those with typos are the first to be discarded.

The work life

Do you ever regret spending all that time in grad school?
Never! The chance to spend five years immersed in reading is precious. My years in the frantically-evolving software industry make me especially appreciative of a PhD program's measured pace.

It puzzles me that some graduate students feel embittered toward their departments or the MLA for not "getting them jobs." The university grants you the priceless opportunity to focus and expand your mind in the company of experienced mentors. And you get to teach, to boot! There's no entitlement beyond this. The university promises a scholarly environment, not a vocational insurance policy.

How much will I make?
Salary.com gives an idea of what pay to expect for entry-level-and-up jobs in your area. The site's handy job descriptions give a feel for what sort of jobs are out there, and what they entail.

What it's like working for a software company?
Since I began my software career, I've enjoyed smart colleagues who work as a collective, rather than as jealous pods. The health and retirement benefits are outstanding. As long as I get my job done, I'm pretty much free to work the hours I want.

I feel I've worked for employers who understand that employees are their only assets. If we leave, the companies disappear, too. The same equation holds for universities, but because employees choose to hang around no matter how they are treated, universities can get away with handling people with less dignity.

Do you ever interact with university people?
Frequently. There is constant collective endeavor between university researchers and their private-sector counterparts. In the Silicon Valley, Stanford University is especially adept at making sure that research and knowledge gets out of the ivory tower.

Do you miss teaching?
I miss exposing students to the layered richness of literature. I also sometimes think fondly of the ethereal discourse the university engenders and protects. However, the financial and emotional negatives of trying to maintain a professorial career outweigh these positives.

Do you still read?
As much as ever. Only now I read without the pressure to regurgitate the subject as a critical commodity.

What is technical writing and why should I care?
Technical writing is writing that educates people about tools and processes. It's also a way for those with a humanities background to get in the door of tech companies. The Society for Technical Communication is a good place to learn more about this field.

Getting skills

What software do I need to know to be a tech writer?
You'll want at least a passing familiarity with desktop publishing software, especially Adobe FrameMaker and PageMaker. Knowing the graphics software packages PhotoShop and Illustrator is a plus, too. For Web and HTML production, you might want to try Macromedia Dreamweaver. (You can download free trial versions of this software.)

What skills do I need to get my foot in the door?
For technical writers, a solid grasp of writing, editing, and indexing are staples. Because much work is done with desktop publishing software, or is for the Web, graphic design is another talent that writers should gain. Study how magazines and web sites are laid out—how do designers make information easy to find and grasp? Also, read Edward Tufte's books. If you aren't curious, if you don't like being a technical and literary renaissance man or woman, then technical communication is probably not a good field for you.

Classes in cognitive psychology, art history, visual arts, industrial design, and sociology are also good preparation. The more you know about how the mind and cultures process information, the better off you'll be. Of course, statistics and economics classes can't hurt, either.

Exploring potential careers

How do I find out what line of work I might like?
Getting a job is a research project. Every bit of information you collect contributes to your stock of knowledge. This stock helps you make informed conclusions about what you want to do, and where you want to work. Ask friends, acquaintances, and family about their jobs. What do they do? How did they get there? Do they know anyone who works in a field you're interested in? Don't forget internships.

Finally, practice what you preach. Just as the teacher's task is to help students transcend their prejudices about "dusty old books," you should not prejudge a job by its proverbial cover. I went to work for a company that makes tax software. At first blush, it sounds as thrilling as chalk dust. Once I'd opened the cover, however, I found a fascinating and challenging place.

Are there other Web sites or publications about PhD career options?
Yes. Take a look at Sellout's Other Resources page.

I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.
  -Zora Neale Hurston
The Web Just Sellout
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