Trailblazers Beyond the Tenure Track: Colette Johnson *18 (ENG)

Written by
Max Horder, GS (ANT)
March 15, 2021

Colette Johnson *18 (ENG) interviewed by Max Horder, GS (ANT).

In the Trailblazers Beyond the Tenure Track series, current Princeton graduate students interview graduate alumni pursuing a range of careers beyond the tenure track. Collectively, these stories help graduate students develop a vision of the journey ahead by exploring the experiences of trailblazers who have gone before them. 


At Ithaka S+R, I am Director of Strategic Initiatives. Included in my role are things like business development, revenue generation, day-to-day operations like our contracting process and overseeing a portfolio of strategic initiatives that support our mission. This includes developing new areas of our portfolio as well as looking at initiatives that are more internally focused. I completed my PhD in English at Princeton in 2018, and my dissertation studied the rise of child psychology in the 20th century.

Laying the groundwork

Before my PhD, I spent a year working and teaching in a special-ed program. It was kind of a start-up environment, and it was also the first year in which it was in operation. As part of a team of teachers I was lucky enough to help launch the initiative. It was a transition program, meaning that it was built for students with special needs in order to help them transition to adult services. For instance, we might help them move onto continuing education or into the workforce.

It was a formative experience for me, and it instilled a desire to do more service and public-good orientated work. Much of the work was of the problem-solving kind. At the same time, it tended to be very reactive. For example, we might have a student come to class, on a cold, rainy day, in just a t-shirt and shorts. With this weather, they really should have had a jacket. And they’ll say something like: my mom and dad lost my jacket and we couldn’t afford a new one. So, working with these types of problems could be a bit difficult, because while we were helping people, we were not really getting to those systematic issues that were causing the problems themselves. It sparked my interest in ethical questions and trying to figure out the larger systems that created problems like these and how those systems interact with one another.

The moment that changed everything

By the end of my second year at Princeton, I certainly thought about tenure-track jobs. But I was pretty certain by that point that it wasn’t really for me. Coming to Princeton was a dream: to be able to read books all day and have conversations with interesting and intelligent people. But it often also felt quite isolating and removed. After a while, it felt like the pendulum had swung in the opposite direction, in terms of what I wanted from my career. Publishing books and articles wasn’t the impact that I wanted to have. Plus, in the humanities, it was mostly individual work. I really missed my time working on a team. I came to appreciate how different it was to be able to contribute with others on a much larger project. That day-to-day side was a major factor for me when I decided to leave academia after I graduated.

Life outside academia

There are a couple of main differences. The first thing, like I said, is how different it is working in a team. Just having different colleagues to interact with is a major change. I had a lot of similar experiences prior to my current role, but in much smaller organizations – perhaps teams of 10 people maximum, or 6 or 7 people working together. At Ithaka, there are close to 400 people. Within S+R, we have around 30 employees. Even though it’s a slightly bigger team than I had experienced previously, you still get to know your colleagues, their work preferences and their work styles. It’s so great to have deep relationships with them – and I’ve formed really important relationships with my colleagues.

In the humanities in academia, the incentives to collaboration are slightly different. Each person is working on their own manuscript. Co-authoring, while more popular than it perhaps it used to be, is still not the norm. Whereas here, every single thing I do is co-written. It’s a very collaborate environment – not at all competitive like trying to get an article into a journal.

Another thing is the pace. Things move so much faster in the working world than in academia. I’m on email all day long – I respond to emails the same day. In academia there is a different culture about how connected you are. Plus, the goals are structured by much longer time periods. Here, for instance, everything is done on a weekly or quarterly basis. Things move a lot faster. Not like a dissertation, where things are structured along the lines of semesters or even years. Personally, I much prefer a fast-paced environment.

Best Advice for Graduate Students

My main advice would be that, if you’re seriously thinking about a career beyond the academy, you have to do the work in terms of looking for it. It’s not exactly like a plan B: if I don’t get a tenure-track, then I’ll just do a job in research. Landing a job beyond the academy requires a whole skillset and you have to put in the work to get it. But it’s also very fulfilling - so think about it more in terms of two plan A’s! Take it seriously and talk to someone at the Graduate School as a great first step. And keep an open mind to different things! In some ways my job is quite administrative, but it is not clerical. It is incredibly strategic and exciting.

Second, talk to as many people as you can. I spent something like two years doing informational interviews! I had only a vague notion of the kinds of careers available to someone with a PhD, and I didn’t have the business vocabulary to put it into words in a way that made sense to someone in industry. It’s a good idea to put in the time to build your network and also learn the business vocabulary that you will use later on.

This interview has been edited for clarity.