Create Your Way to a New Profession

I have a PhD in history that I finished in May 2016. Since February 2017, I have been working as a Managing Editor for Townsquare Media, which is an entertainment media company. I manage 15 contributors and their digital content across five websites, plan digital coverage for live events, and make strategic plans for the direction of digital content in our market. It certainly wasn’t a consideration when I began my doctoral work, but my work in graduate school prepared me surprisingly well to manage projects and people. In my final year I was without a job offer and looking at a few options: delay my dissertation defense and try to stick around another year to build my academic CV for another round on the job market, try to get by on adjuncting while aggressively apply for postdocs, or just…walk away.

Temporary positions like postdocs didn’t make sense for me and my family. The adjunct treadmill might have worked for a little while, but didn’t seem to open many doors – and we have all heard the horror stories. I could have delayed my defense, but with a finished dissertation and an eagerness to work on something new, I didn’t want to do that either. On top of all of that, a growing distaste for the commercialization of the academy helped me to make the decision to walk away.

I did have one thing on my side: My first year in my program had been funded by an assistantship with H-Net. H-Net is a humanities and social sciences social network, and that assistantship coincided with H-Net’s major initiative to rebuild their platform. I’m going to be honest: at first, I was not happy about this assignment. I wanted to teach. After gritting my teeth through the first semester, I embraced the opportunity to turn my focus to questions outside of my specialization. It was good exercise for my brain and I was gaining a ton of experience in digital media.

I convinced myself that being a central player on a team building a platform for scholarly discussion and hosting digital academic projects would look good on my CV. That assistantship then turned into a job while I was finishing my PhD. It didn’t occur to me until five or six years into my degree that I was also earning the valuable professional experience that would land me a post-PhD job.

Besides the experience, my time at H-Net gave me some other important things for my professional resume. First, and most importantly, it gave me the language I needed to describe why the ‘soft’ skills I had honed as a part of my doctoral work mattered in a professional setting. Second, it gave me a substantial list of deliverables I could point to that showcased how to translate those skills into results.

I realize not everyone is so lucky to have this kind of professional experience fall into their lap. But there are some important takeaways that I hope other grad students or recently-minted PhDs can use. Most importantly, the same skills that allowed me to succeed at H-Net would have been there even if I hadn’t had the experience at H-Net itself. H-Net helped me develop and recognize these skills. My time at H-net unquestionably gave me specific skills, knowledge, and experience that helped me land my current job, but those skills would have mostly been there even without it.

Embrace opportunities to create whenever you can. Employers want to see an ability to deliver and your scholarship itself- while an impressive accomplishment – does not translate easily to many professional workplaces outside the academy. Build a small portfolio of your deliverables, even if they wouldn’t necessarily be big-ticket items on an academic CV. Include your dissertation, which is a hell of a deliverable. Be prepared to talk about these things in an interview.

Don’t underestimate your ability to manage projects and people. A surprising amount of the work we do in the academy falls under the umbrella of management if you are willing to frame it that way. If you organized a conference (however small!) you managed a project. You managed people, and have delivered a service and a product on a deadline. Do not talk yourself out of thinking that is a small or illegitimate accomplishment. Every profession needs independently motivated, focused, generally competent managers. It doesn’t sound sexy, but it may be the foot in the door you need to your next profession.

Last, apply to every job that sounds interesting to you, and do so with confidence. I applied to 41 jobs in a five-month period in 2016. I wasn’t a perfect fit for all of them, but they all intrigued me in one way or another. I didn’t waste my time on jobs I clearly couldn’t do, but I did submit applications for jobs that my qualifications or credentials did necessarily match.

People want to hire great people for their company – and sometimes they don’t know that you are that person when they are putting their posting together. Unlike applying for academic jobs, most professional job applications come with extremely low opportunity cost. You will apply for many jobs you don’t get, but you just need to find one. Alsounlike your academic job search, this one doesn’t have to be (ostensibly) forever.

Put together the absolute best version of yourself for any given job on your resume, highlight your accomplishments, and remember when you go in for that interview – they might actually be a little intimidated by you and your degree. You are more educated than the people that work in most professional settings and that is an asset. In getting a doctorate, you accomplished something only about 2% of people can manage. Don’t be afraid of that. Embrace it!

Doug Priest

Doug Priest received his PhD in history from Michigan State University in 2016. He is currently Digital Managing Editor at Townsquare Media. 

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