John Tully *12 (CLA) 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.
I’m currently Associate Director at Delivery Associates, a public sector consultancy mostly in Asia and Australia. We advise governments on the establishment of delivery units and the implementation of system-wide education, health and economic reforms. Previously, I was a management consultant at Boston Consultancy Group in New York. I graduated from Princeton in 2012 with a PhD in Classics.
Laying the groundwork
I was at Oxford for four years, then Harvard for two at the start of my graduate education. I followed my supervisor and switched to Princeton after that, which meant that I did my general exams one year into Princeton but really more like three years into my PhD overall. At the beginning of my fourth year, I was essentially in my sixth year. By that point, I had already started thinking about how my research was applicable to the modern world. I was working with difficult data and trying to put together a story which wasn’t just for antiquity. But I didn’t really know how far people outside of academia understood that.
The other thing was that I had something like a ruthless awareness of how things worked outside of the academic world. It’s true that it’s a competitive market, but that’s also true for just about all jobs with an interest. When I knew I would be going on the job market, I didn’t want to be penniless either. I was also looking for flexibility and excitement – and much of the world of management consultancy had that attraction for me. I had looked into this path in my undergrad so I kind of knew what it was like. I knew that it was an environment in which I would be surrounded by smart, dynamic, thoughtful individuals, and many of the US schemes have a distinct career pathway for PhDs. But you also have to show these companies that you have an interest in working there, rather than just applying as a one-off thing. I was very targeted, and I wanted to apply for a couple, to see what sort of feedback I got and then move on.
The moment that changed everything
After applying, the mechanics were all quite automatic. I was invited for interview at BCG, I did my research and I prepped from books like Case in Point. However, during that period I didn’t tell anyone in the department or in the consulting club. When I got the job, I thought (perhaps naively) that I had the whole of my career ahead of me if I ever wanted to come back. But the truth is I did get a job offer in academia two years later, but still didn’t come back.
When I received my job offer from BCG, I was very transparent with my department. They didn’t criticize me in the slightest. We debated whether I should take it or not – and we decided together that ultimately it was a wonderful opportunity and something which augments my research. They helped to give me speedy feedback, so I got the PhD done, which prepared me for my life at BCG. We had those conversations about the company: its politics and how it might operate on the inside. And I sat down and churned out a chapter every month for four months. I did the final revisions in time until I started in August later that year.
Life beyond academia
There are many similarities. I deeply believe in capacity building, and coaching is central to everything I do, just like in academia. My role was always empowering others to lead, that was the thing that made me excited. There is a massive similarity about training and graduate work, and that’s what inspires me now: the day-to-day coaching and mentoring of senior leaders to help implement their visions better. There is an emphasis on prioritization, how to use data, and what assumptions to agree on. This involves listening and understanding user needs effectively. My entire day-to-day is structured around that, advising and working with ministers, coaching, leading and so on. I try to use an empowering approach that goes against treating people like robots.
Best Advice for Graduate Students
One thing I think is important is to just pause and write down all the amazing things you’ve done over the past five years. Including the fact that you’ve gone to Princeton! People will assume that you’re thoughtful and intelligent, just from your degree. Recognize that. The second thing is, before any of these discussions, take a blank sheet of paper and write down three questions or seven words. Why this career, why this company, why me? Make sure you cover all of that in your first discussion and interview. Do that first, so you’re convinced of the story. You can never assume that people know what’s in your mind. Nobody is more invested in your career than you are, and your job is to create a story that they can take to other people.
This interview has been edited for clarity.