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.
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 excellencehandiness 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
- What's an internship, and why should I
- 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
- 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 youwhether it be in terms of faith, skin color,
sexual orientation, or nationalityyou 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
- 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?
||Learn new things quickly
||Analyze and interpret data
||Job-specific computer skills
June 11, 2001
- How do I get a good recommendation from a professor for a non-academic
- 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
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 isa
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:
- Cut gassy words. I can tell you that reading resumes is a nuisance and a chore. People don't
pore over themespecially 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."
Someone will probably stop reading before they get to this applicant's
"OBJECTIVE: Technical writing position."
- 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.
- If you can, deliver your resume through someone who works at a
company rather than through the human resources address.
- 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
- 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 outhow 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,
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
|I do not weep at the worldI am too busy sharpening
my oyster knife.
-Zora Neale Hurston