Humanities PhDs Discuss Making It in the World of Tech and Business

On September 20th, the History Department hosted an enlightening workshop with several humanities PhDs from the Atlanta area who had successfully charted careers in the private sector.  The discussion was moderated by Dylan Ruediger, a Provost Dissertation Fellow and PhD candidate in History at Georgia State, who helped develop the AHA grant that made the event possible.

During the program, participants discussed the intricacies and subtleties of turning a CV into a resumé, the ins and outs of corporate hiring, and the wealth of skills that scholars trained in fields like History and English can bring to tech companies such as Mailchimp and Verizon.  The fact is that many new PhDs do not know how valuable what they’ve learned in grad school can be.

Valerie Robin led off the discussion.  She currently works as a technical writer and knowledge manager for Société Internationale de Télécommunications Aéronautiques (SITA) at the Atlanta Data Center. Robin received her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition through the English Department at Georgia State University in May 2016, and she was a Student Innovation Fellow for two years while at GSU.

As Robin put it, “There is a job called a ‘knowledge manager,’ and it is as magical as it sounds.”

The transition to private industry was not as hard for her as some graduate students might expect. When she began her job search, she started out by writing out a list of “everything I’m good at,” and then tried to figure out which skills would be seen as valuable to an HR manager at a company. “We have skills no one else has,” Robin observed. “But in academia, you’re surrounded by people who have those skills; when you’re in these jobs, managers will recognize what you have to offer.”

She also stressed the importance of branding yourself and creating a strong online presence, which many graduate students have already created in ways that many other applicants have not. “Make yourself into a website,” she said. “If you were a website, what would you look like?”

We also heard from Laurissa Wolfram-Hvass, who earned her PhD in English Rhetoric and Composition from Georgia State University in 2014 and now leads Research at MailChimp, an Atlanta-based software development company that builds small business marketing tools.  Hvass said her transition from academia to industry was slow. For a long time, she did not know what she wanted to do.  But while in her graduate program, she fell in love with technical writing and usability research, realizing industry was right for her just before taking her comprehensive exams.

Thus, Hvass decided to tailor her dissertation toward getting an industry job.  She proposed doing an ethnographic case study at several Atlanta corporations; though several companies didn’t take her up on it, Mailchimp let her come in and study their processes as a contract researcher. When she finished her PhD, the company asked what her future plans were.  She said she would like to continue working with software, and they offered her a job.

Since working at Mailchimp, Hvass has seen many applications from academics; after all, she said, being a researcher seems like a natural path for a lot of academics. However, she has noticed that many people with advanced degrees seem to assume that they will get the job based on the prestige of their publications or credentials, like an Ivy League degree. “When I’m looking at resumes, I don’t care that much that they have a long list of academic pubs,” Hvass said. “It’s good because it shows they can take criticism and turn a project around, but most hiring managers don’t understand this.”

She also said many academics are not effective in writing cover letters for jobs in the business world, which she personally regards as more important than the resumé. “You need to make a direct argument about why you’re qualified for this particular job in cover letter,” Hvass said. Also, portfolios are important: “Show, don’t just tell people that you’re qualified.”

Mark Fleszar also had many insights for historians looking at the job market. He completed his PhD in World History in 2013, and is now a Senior Writer and Editor at Verizon Wireless.  “What I was good at was writing and communicating,” Fleszar said. “I was good at getting information and relaying that information.”

After six weeks of sending our resumes, Fleszar said, he learned he seen as being “only qualified to teach.” He realized he needed to rework his resume, trying to figure out what was wrong with it—what skills he had, and how he needed to frame them.  Within a short time, he started getting different offers. “If you have one word on your resume, it can put you in a different thing,” Fleszar said. “I found out the job [at Verizon] had been open for a year because it involved different skills. Having a PhD at the time, I couldn’t imagine Verizon being interested in this.”

In fact, his PhD experience involved skills he needed for the Verizon job. As Fleszar pointed out, organizing information is not something a lot of people know how to do: “Look at what you do as a scholar at a granular level. It’s a skill based degree.”  He decided to try to figure out what it was that he knew how to do and try to show it would bring value to any employer.

At his new gig, Fleszar was advised to disregard what the job description said; in fact, the position ended up involving very little that the original ad implied, so don’t be put off by job descriptions that do not seem to fit your skill set or experience.  What you end up doing in a position might be very different than you originally expected.

Fleszar also recommended “branding” yourself, alluding to the iconic History Department professor Glenn Eskew, who is famous for his old-school Southern-style seersucker suits.

Finally, we heard from Alan Pike, who completed his PhD in American Studies at Emory.  He spent a transition year at the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship before working at the academic journal Southern Spaces and moving on to become a Senior Digital Analyst at the consulting firm McKinsey.  When starting his job search, Pike tried working on resume and took advantage of a one-hour session with an Emory career coach.  He learned to make job tasks quantifiable; many people’s resumes are full of skills and experiences, but in a way that is not readily intelligible in tangible terms. For example, he recommended changing a list of teaching experience to say “I taught 20+ workshops over the first year,” or “I taught x number of classes.” You can list five big skill areas at the top of the resumé if you want, Pike said, but not everyone does it.

“You have to be able to own the knowledge you have and admit what you don’t,” Pike said. He sought out informational interviews with a variety of people in companies he was interested in, such as coffee meetings with people at Scoutmob.  After a while, he felt more confident about his presentation, his “abstract”—like any conference presentation or job talk, you feel more comfortable with the material the more you rehearse it and hone your presentation to other people.  In a funny aside, Pike noted that he attended a work event in Houston where someone said everyone here was “an insecure overachiever.”

“That describes everyone in academia as well,” he said.

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Dr. Alex Sayf Cummings is an Associate Professor of History at Georgia State University.  He is the author of Democracy of Sound: Music Piracy and the Remaking of American Copyright in the Twentieth Century (Oxford, 2013): goo.gl/v9KX8y and co-editor of the history blog, Tropics of Meta: http://tropicsofmeta.wordpress.com.