Reflections from the other side

It’s been over six months since my last blog post, and nearly the same since I started working at Deloitte. I didn’t exactly want to fall silent during that time, but it happened for two reasons that are hopefully understandable. First, and most plainly, I was no longer having the types of experiences that sustained my initial work: I had ceased to be a contingent “visiting” assistant professor, and had finally finished my quest to find a job outside academia. Issues related to both of those things were of course still a concern to me, but the creative juices stopped flowing the moment I was no longer living those experiences day in and day out. Second, and in some ways more relevant, was the recognition that I lacked sufficient experience in my new life to say anything that was worth the time you might take to read it. Ample fodder for a diary, perhaps, but nothing suitable for a public forum.

While a few ideas had already started to percolate at the end of 2017, my thoughts on the second half of that year really crystallized when I attended the annual meeting of the Society for Classical Studies in Boston earlier this month. Despite my career transition, I had three simple reasons for attending the conference: 1) I was finishing out my term as chair of the Contingent Faculty Committee; 2) I was participating in a networking event designed to connect PhD students and contingent faculty with Classicists who had found jobs beyond the professoriate; and 3) I now travel for work about 75% of the time and wanted to avoid going two weeks without seeing my wife, who was herself presenting a paper at the meeting.

The networking event in particular allowed me to distill the lessons I learned during my first five months in business for an academic audience. Rather than let those observations die with the limited group of people who attended, I decided to write them up here in a more permanent form and in a forum with a slightly wider reach.

While you’re in grad school…

At least once a week, talk to somebody outside of academia about what you do. That might be your grandmother, a friend, or a stranger you meet on the bus. The important thing is to get yourself in the habit of talking to people who don’t approach the world with the same assumptions and experiences that you have. This won’t just be useful if you’re in the majority of doctoral students who eventually leave academia: it will also help you express the core significance of your studies and research more clearly and succinctly. All your advisor’s complaints about not saying what your paper is really about until page 17? This is the first step on the path to breaking that habit.

Use every seminar you take, paper you write, or class you teach as an opportunity to learn a new approach or tool. You probably got into academia because you wanted to be a lifelong learner and to grow continually in your understanding of your chosen field. Put that into action by using statistical analysis to supplement a philological argument, building a database to help you sort material evidence, or constructing a website to help students conceptualize a complicated subject in a new way. This will make you a better scholar and give you a broader range of experience with tools that are likely to have analogous uses outside the academy. Whatever you do, don’t just take the same literary theory and apply it to a new text every semester. That isn’t just boring, it’s a sign that you’re intellectually stunted.

Volunteer with a group that you think does genuine good in the world. No, I don’t necessarily mean go out and swing a hammer with Habitat for Humanity. By all means go ahead and do that if you’re already good at swinging a hammer, but if you’re not, realize that you’ll do a group more harm than good if you miss the nail and break your thumb. In truth charities need all sorts of help and almost never turn down an offer. Many of the things your life experience and academic training have already made you good at are always in desperate supply: managing a social media presence, editing press releases, organizing and providing clear instructions to volunteers, developing a fundraising strategy—the list could go on. Doing these things will recharge your mental batteries and give you a stronger sense of participation in your community while also allowing you to develop new skills that can’t be gained from research and teaching alone. Plus it will give you a new group of people outside academia that you can talk to about what you do.

When you start looking beyond the academy…

Build a LinkedIn profile. This seems silly, but I can’t emphasize it enough. LinkedIn will let you identify people you might want to talk to about possible careers, scout the person interviewing you for a job, and present a version of yourself that will likely be the first thing anybody sees when your name crosses their desk. Be on LinkedIn, keep your profile up-to-date, and learn how to use it to your advantage.

Network, network, network. Academics are trained to be deferential, and most I’ve spoken with have a veritable complex about appearing to waste the time of people who are professionally obligated to help them. The rules in business are different. Networking is an essential part of building your reputation and growing in your career, and most people are excited to make a new contact. When you start looking for work beyond the professoriate, use LinkedIn to identify people in your area who have jobs that interest you. Fight the voice in your head that’s probably telling you not to annoy them and send an email asking for an “informational interview,” i.e. a short meeting to talk to them about how they got where they are. Most people will say ‘yes’ quickly, and for the cost of two coffees—yes, you should prepare to pick up the tab—you can get a half hour of somebody’s life. You should try to have one of these meetings at least every week or so. Doing this will help you gain confidence speaking with new people and train you to explain your skills in terms that make sense outside of academia. Do note, however, that you should never enter an informational interview expecting to get a job. That isn’t the point. Instead the goals are to meet somebody interesting, learn about career paths that you might not have known about, and figure out what it took somebody else to land the sort of position you might want in the future. Which leads to my next point…

Make your own luck. The academic job market is painfully cyclical. Tenure track jobs get listed in the fall, contingent jobs are posted in the spring, and if you don’t make the cut you need to wait another ten months before you get the “privilege” of applying again. Through the course of a graduate program you see enough people go through this that you come to think of it as normal, when in fact it’s an extreme aberration. Outside the professoriate new jobs get posted every day, and even if you’re being picky you can easily find five or ten new jobs a week to apply for. Beyond that you can learn about opportunities through your network. Proverbial wisdom is that your direct contacts will never get you a job, but that they’re likely to recommend you when somebody they know has an opening. The point is that you can increase your likelihood of getting hired simply by building a strong network and maintaining it over time. Check in with people every 6-8 weeks while you’re looking for work, and make sure to tell them about ways you actually took their advice from your first meeting. Eventually, one of the pieces of spaghetti you’ve been throwing at the wall will actually stick.

When you’re actively applying beyond the professoriate…

Don’t bury the lede (or lead). You’ve probably heard popular complaints that academics don’t know how to get to the point. Looking back from the outside, I’m afraid to report that this criticism is well deserved. Throughout my time at the SCS meeting, I was struck by how slow people were to say what they meant. There is a consistent tendency to say what you know, then how you know it, and to end with why it matters. But if you want to keep somebody’s attention—especially somebody whose help you need—you should start out by telling them why what you’re about to say matters to them. If you want to ask for an informational interview, put ‘Informational interview’ in the subject line and make sure that ‘ask’ (business-speak nominalism for ‘request’) is also in the first line of the email: “We haven’t met, but I’m hoping you’d be willing to meet for coffee so I can learn how you ended up in your current position. Although I’ve been working in academia for the last five years, I’m seeking a new career path and yours looked interesting when I found you on LinkedIn.” And this isn’t just true in emails. Any time you present yourself to other people—in person, in a cover letter, wherever—you should do your best to be direct.

Talk about how you work, not what you study or teach. This is an extension of the point above. If you tell somebody you study how a Latin poet attempted to innovate within the epic genre while struggling under the psychological weight of his predecessors, you’re going to pigeon-hole yourself pretty quickly. Instead, train yourself to talk about your skills in ways that make sense outside academia. In the case of teaching, you might talk about how you’re really good at keeping conversations on track while recording the most important comments made by participants. This is something you do every time you lead a class discussion—but it’s also a critical skill for somebody who wants to lead an efficient meeting. For research you might say that you know how to summarize competing points of view and synthesize a conclusion that gives appropriate weight to each. This is equally useful for a non-profit that needs to balance the opinions of various donors and a team that can’t decide how to make a pitch to a potential client. And don’t forget about emotional intelligence! For all that academics are caricatured as awkward and bumbling, we actually need to navigate extremely complex social situations every day. In the course of three hours, you might go from introducing the Latin dative case to an 18 year old to giving career advice to a 27 year old to discussing the nuances of Hellenistic history with a 65 year old. Whether you realize it or not, you’re extremely good at couching ideas in terms that are appropriate to radically different audiences. That makes academics a natural fit for jobs in market development and related areas. I’ve even cast the times I had students crying in my office after a rough test as a strength: more than most, I know how to calm somebody down, set forth the options they have in front of them, and point out the relative merits of each. When the stakes are high, you’ve been working late into the night, and nobody in the room is functioning at 100%, managing individuals can be the thing that makes the difference between failure and success.

Prove you’re serious about your career change. One of the most consistent hurdles I faced when looking for work in New Orleans was the misconception that I had only ever wanted to sit in a library and do my esoteric research. In truth, I got into Classics because I found the material exciting, enjoyed discussing it with other people, and fell in love with teaching the moment I stood in front of a classroom for the first time. None of that mattered. There were simply some people who didn’t want to or couldn’t believe that I was serious about doing something new. The only way to clear that concern—though I confess with some people I was never successful—is to point to concrete actions you’ve taken to pave the way for a career change. That might be work you’ve undertaken with a non-profit, but it would be even better to talk about a new skill you’ve been developing that’s clearly relevant to business. In my case, I used my tuition waiver to pursue a Certificate in Management through Tulane’s School of Professional Advancement. Other possibilities include online courses in areas like accounting, finance, and social media marketing. It doesn’t really matter what it is, so long as you’re doing something that can convince an employer it won’t take you a full year to get up to speed in a new job.

Nearly six months into working at Deloitte, I’m happy to report that I feel comfortable in my new role and can’t even imagine accepting a tenure-track job over what I do now. Even so, I’ve continued to take networking calls from people leaving academia and have been seeking new ways to stay engaged with the academic community that indisputably shaped me into the person I am today. This blog will likely be a part of that—however less frequent my posts end up being—as will the Society for Classical Studies and a consortium I founded to advocate for contingent faculty issues. That future promises to be radically different from the past that preceded it, but by all accounts it promises to be productive.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: