Go Ahead and Hire Academics. They Don’t (Usually) Bite.
At the end of 2014, I left a rewarding (and sometimes frustrating) 10-year stint in academia for the fast-paced life at a creative marketing agency. I love my career, and I enjoy telling my story — especially to graduate students in social science who aren’t sure that being an academic is for them. In fact, I hear from these students often.
Although many doctoral candidates started grad school with the goal of becoming a professor, the job market for full-time tenure-track professors ranks somewhere from tough to impossible these days so they are wisely considering back-up plans.
Many are learning already that it can be hard to convince a potential employer that having a doctoral degree is an asset rather than a hindrance. Hiring managers often just don’t know what to make of a person who spent so much time in school. They worry that they’re aloof eggheads or demanding divas or just out of touch with the corporate world.
Fortunately, my company values people with a variety of career and education histories because they see it makes us stronger, smarter and able to bring a variety of perspectives to our clients. Although I hope that I’m a lot more than the three letters behind my name, I do have a different story to tell and unique skills to bring to the table that are a result of academic training and practice.
I believe there are three common traits that you’ll find in any person with a Ph.D. in the social sciences or humanities that could give them an edge for a position (or at the very least, not discounted in your search):
1. People with Ph.D.s are problem solvers.
A main point of doctoral studies is rigorous training in research, analysis and theory. Graduate school teaches you to formulate smart questions or hypotheses in response to a known problem or unstudied phenomena. You’ll take hours and hours of coursework in a variety of research methods and data-gathering techniques. Most courses (at least in my field) required students to write research papers that could be submitted to academic conferences or journals for peer review. Imagine doing this for approximately two or three courses per semester for three or four years of school — and getting feedback on it from experienced professors and peer reviewers.
At the end of three to five-ish years of their coursework, Ph.D. students then are tested in some way — final written and oral comprehensive exams. If you don’t pass these, you are finished and leave without a degree. If you do pass them, you get to propose a dissertation topic, and then spend the next year or ten of your life gathering that data and writing it. If you want to succeed, you have to pose interesting questions and figure out novel ways to gather evidence answer them.
2. People with Ph.D.s are patient and persistent.
They would not have completed the years and years of coursework and analysis, committees evaluating their work, advisers going on sabbatical in the middle of all of it, or the 15 times a year they need to run to the college administration building to have a random form stamped by someone they have never before met without either losing it completely or developing a sort of Zen about the crazy bureaucracy.
Everything takes a lot of time in academia: Recruiting research participants,
getting the university to say it’s OK for them to participate and compiling the appropriate paperwork to even get started, getting research results, waiting months (and sometimes years) for peer reviews on articles or the results of your grant applications. You have to be very patient and persistently churning out work and grant applications or you will lose your funding or your job.
3. People with Ph.D.s are tough and (generally) know how to take criticism.
You have to be not only persistent but tough to compete a Ph.D. Academia is a system built upon anonymity. Have you heard about the “politics” of academia? Arguably, a lot of that roots from the ability to be anonymous in critique of colleagues and peers in your field.
Imagine much of your life’s work being evaluated by anonymous individuals whom you may or may not know. The fellow academics who review articles that you submit to journals and conferences are anonymous (and double-blind, so they don’t know your name or background either). Sometimes blind peer reviews are helpful and truly strengthen your work, and sometimes they’re like the comments section of a political blog coming to life and saying nasty things directly to you.
If you teach, students give anonymous teaching evaluations at the end of the semester or just go online and say what they think of you on RateMyProfessor.com (a site that also allows them to post a chili pepper emoji if they think you’re hot, so you’re not just being judged on your teaching).
Finally, if you’re a tenure-track faculty member, your senior colleagues gather and discuss whether to renew your contract every year (based on your publishing, teaching and committee service record). After seven years, they vote whether to award you tenure or give you the boot. It’s an anonymous, up-or-out vote in which you learn the number of voters in favor of keeping or rejecting you. Usually, they give constructive criticism to keep in mind for the coming year even if they vote positively. Growing a thick skin early on and learning to take criticism is key. (Having said that, Ph.D.s can be the most defensive people you will ever meet, and this is probably because they’re used to having to publicly and privately defend and justify their work all the time.)
Don’t let three little letters put you off. You could gain a persistent, patient problem-solver who is willing to learn and contribute in all kinds of ways to your company’s success.