By Michael Zimm
A year ago, I was on the hunt to land a tenure-track job. I’d just made it through a doctoral program at Yale University without any major hiccups, and was now a trained classicist with expertise in ancient Greek history. I had received a competitive fellowship, published a peer-reviewed article, and delivered talks at large conferences. I was convinced that, come Fall 2016, I would have a comfortable postdoctoral fellowship or, better yet, a tenure-track job.
By February 2016, I realized that I had grossly underestimated the plight of the academic labor economy. Although I applied for multiple tenure-track openings, I did not receive a single interview. My wife has a good job, and we have a young son, so it was impractical to think about uprooting them or myself to pursue a visiting assistant professorship somewhere on the other side of the country. We had bills to pay, so I didn’t even entertain the drudgery of becoming an exploited, poorly compensated adjunct.
At the age of 33, I found it was time to move on with my life. But what was a classicist to do?
I now find myself entering 2017 having landed a dream job. As you’ve no doubt surmised, it isn’t a teaching position. But the work is intellectually fulfilling. My colleagues are some of the most creative, warm, and brilliant individuals I’ve ever encountered. The compensation is fantastic (meaning solid pay and outstanding benefits).
The story of how I arrived at my present occupation and the lessons I took from the experience will, I hope, be useful to graduate students and other Ph.D.s who are contemplating their exit strategy from academe. Some of you may think that you are trapped. So did I — until I decided to explore the larger world outside the ivory tower.
Some Ph.D.s will risk years of earning potential with the faint hope that, maybe, next year — or the year after that — will be different and they will finally secure a permanent faculty position. Once I made the decision to opt out of that madness, I had to decide what to do instead.
I must have sent out dozens of applications and job inquiries over five months. I conducted a strategy of emailing, networking, and cold-calling companies in consulting, med tech, biotech, ed tech, and academic administration. I lost track of how many applications or inquiries I sent out. Finally, in late September, I found the company that I had been searching for.
How I got here. I’m a "creative strategist" at Digital Surgeons, a marketing design company with headquarters in New Haven, Conn. How does a business that designs brands and digital experiences utilize my skill set as a classicist? Well, to be honest, it does … and it doesn’t.
Back in September, I noticed the building’s logo while driving by on I-91. The snazzy logo and industrial building frame intrigued me enough that I decided to visit the company’s webpage. Not surprisingly, there was no career opportunity specifically seeking a liberal-arts Ph.D. — let alone a classicist. However, there was a link for "I don’t see my title," which I clicked on since I had nothing to lose at that point. It took me to a blank space that said, "We’re not big on titles, so hit us up even if yours isn’t here," and asked me to provide some basic information about myself.
I filled it out. Within a few days, I met with Pete Sena, founder of the company and its chief creative officer, and Jason Rose, a traditional journalist turned digital-content strategist.
It’s amazing how a brief meeting can change your life’s trajectory. During our conversation, I explained the field of classics and how my understanding of history, linguistics, and storytelling could be valuable to the company. Fortunately for me, Digital Surgeons practices "design thinking," a framework for design and innovation that cultivates empathy, curiosity, creative thinking, iteration, and cross-functional collaboration. The collaboration piece is particularly relevant for me, since its essence is that development teams should not rely exclusively on tech specialists (like a group of coders to build an app) but on people with diverse skills (say, for example, a classicist).
At the end of our meeting, Pete said that he didn’t know what job I could do in the company, but he saw "the why." He then gave me a writing assignment: Critique and write up a report of a client’s digital experience. Fellow Ph.D.s: We are researchers and writers; doing that type of assignment is in our DNA.
Pete liked my analysis. I was hired for a three-month creative apprenticeship. Assuming I was able to deliver value, my position would become permanent.
Over the next three months I immersed myself in content development, inbound marketing, search-engine optimization, and web analytics. The work is demanding and exacting — the sort of thing that Ph.D.s are built for. My apprenticeship concluded at the end of December. About two weeks before it ended, Pete told me that my internship would become a full-time position, effective January 2.
What I’ve learned about the job hunt. It took about five months from when I decided to leave academe until Digital Surgeons hired me. I’m not an expert on nonacademic careers, and certainly I was lucky that things came together in the end. But in the process, I have learned some important lessons about what it takes for a Ph.D. in the liberal arts to take the leap into the private sector. Here are the key lessons I would offer other Ph.D.s facing the same life choice.
- Yes, you will face months of unanswered emails and/or rejections. And yes, the chances of you being hired for any one position are quite low. But the odds of you eventually getting a job are quite high. Play the numbers game. Don’t be discouraged if you get shot down.
- Brainstorm a list of your personal values. To switch out of the academic economy is to embrace not knowing how the next 40 years of your life will play out. Find out what your values are, write them down, and then start looking for a company that embraces them.
- Ph.D.s can write and do research. In many companies, those skills are in high demand and low supply. Most young scholars, whether in STEM fields or in the humanities, engage in deep learning. We immerse ourselves in material for years, producing detailed analyses and generating new knowledge. Any company would be lucky to have such skill sets in their employee inventory.
- Reach out directly to small companies. In big companies, the HR office will act as a buffer between you and the decision makers. Small businesses, however, tend not to have HR divisions. That is good for you. The chiefs at a small company or start-up will be more inclined to take a risk on an out-of-the-box candidate. When I asked Graham Brodock, the CEO of Kris-Tech Wire, a copper-wire manufacturing company, whether he would be open to hiring a liberal-arts Ph.D., whose skills did not directly relate to an advertised job opening, he enthusiastically replied in an email, "Absolutely, yes. We hire on proven talent, but also perceived future impact. Part of good leadership means keeping your eyes open for talent, especially in nontraditional (and thus less obvious) forms, like someone with an academic background. If you find someone who proves to be a cultural fit and has the talents needed to succeed (grit, initiative, communication skills, etc.), the rest will fall into place." In case you are skeptical about Brodock’s claim, check out his company’s careers page.
- Focus on getting an internship, paid or unpaid. For a company to hire a humanities Ph.D. is to take a gamble on the unknown. Help a company minimize the risk by offering to work as an intern. If you do a great job over the course of a short internship, you’ll prove that you are worth keeping for the long term.
- Create a personal story. Don’t be defensive or offended if a manager or the head of the company asks why you spent so much time in what they might consider an esoteric career (i.e., classics). Be confident. You are probably a passionate person. Passion is an asset. Don’t be afraid to show it in a meeting or an inquiring email.
- You are smart. Don’t forget that. Many of the employers I spoke with in writing this said that skill sets are the least important factor when hiring. The intangibles — grit, innate intelligence, and social talents (aka "people skills") — are more important than anything else. As James Dowd, creative director of my company, wrote in an email to me: "Will over skill. We have skill, every one of us. But skill alone doesn’t matter. It’s the grit, the fire in us, the desire, and the capacity to act decisively and deliberately, and it’s not something that can be taught. It’s a resilience and the ability to adapt and overcome hardship, and it’s up to you to find it within yourself. That will be the secret to growing into something great — all of us finding our grit, our will to succeed against all costs."
- You may think it’s too late for you to leave academe, that you’re too old. That’s probably not the case. How do I know? Look no farther than my own career trajectory. I invested 13 years of my life in classics (from the moment I decided I wanted to enter the field until I decided it was time to move on). I left at the age of 33. In fact, one of the people who inspired me to pursue a new career was another classicist who once held a tenure-track position at a fairly well-paying liberal-arts college. In his early 40s he left academe, beginning a new career in the finance industry (yep, he is still happily employed as well and has no regrets about leaving higher education).
- Seek out advice from former academics who transitioned into the business world. During my job search, I discovered a shadow world of former academics who are now happily employed in the private sector. They became my brain trust. They shared with me their personal experiences and gave me advice about the "dos and don’ts" of applying for nonacademic jobs. I am forever grateful for their warmth, support, and guidance during a tumultuous period of my life. Seek out such folks. They’ve been where you are now.
Life on the other side. I am proud of my Ph.D. I have no regrets about where my personal journey took me. I am forever indebted to Yale for supporting me for six years while I studied and taught the history, literature, and philosophy of the ancient world. I also thank my advisers and department for creating an intellectual environment in which I flourished for six years. During that time, I met the love of my life and my son was born.
"You need to create your own story that shows how you will fit in with the company’s values and mission."
Leaving academe was one of the toughest and most emotionally difficult choices in my life. But once I made the decision, I never looked back. Graduate students and Ph.D.s should know that there are other companies out there that need you. They just might not realize it (yet).
Don’t be shy about contacting companies directly and telling them about your unique skills. The onus isn’t on company managers to understand how you can contribute to their business — it’s on you. You need to create your own story that shows how you will fit in with the company’s values and mission.
Digital Surgeons has taught me the importance of branding. One of the company’s core missions is to help other businesses design "better brand experiences." For those Ph.D.s who want to transition into the private sector, it is time to start building your own brand.
Is it risky to leave academe? Sure, but no more so than risking years of your life waiting for a tenure-track job that will probably never come.
Michael Zimm, who earned a Ph.D. in classics from Yale University in 2016, is a creative strategist at Digital Surgeons, a marketing design and innovation company.