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 currently work as a UX research manager at Google. I manage two teams--one quantitative and one qualitative/mixed-methods--for some of our publisher advertising platforms. I have a Ph.D. in Sociology from Princeton University; my qualifying exams were Crime and Punishment, Economic Sociology, and Political Sociology.
My path is actually not too unique-- but for those interested in making the transition it means there are some common themes that may also work for you.
I was on the tenure track market in the USA and having a relatively great interview season. Unfortunately, job offers were not forthcoming, and I was beginning to get the feeling that I wasn’t going to get the academic job I wanted--and needed to live. I knew I needed to start thinking outside of the academy if I was going to get a job.
The major consulting firms recruit from our campus, and McKinsey had a special session for those folks getting PhDs, and there were the expected representatives from the STEM fields, but there were also folks from English and other backgrounds. It gave me a glimmer of the possibilities, so I got to work.
Laying the groundwork
I met with Amy Pszczolkowski. Truly, it was life changing. Amy was knowledgeable, confident, and completely aware of my situation--in ways that I wasn’t. She knew that professors and departments generally looked down--or outright blocked--transitions outside of the academy. And she knew I was clueless. She had a plan, the resources, and she got me to work straight away. I’ll never forget her words: “I know you can thrive outside of the academy. I have helped many, many students get there and I know you can do it.” She made it clear that no one was going to hand me my dream job on a silver platter, but with dedication and work I, too, could successfully make the transition.
One critical piece of information she shared was that an estimated 70% of jobs are not advertised. This meant that making connections, developing a network, and making my skills and interests known were going to be critical to my success. I’ll cut to the end here--I got my first non-academic job through a network connection. The importance of having and using your network cannot be overstated.
She connected me with an online portal, Versatile PhD, specifically dedicated to being a warehouse of stories, training, and job search materials (sample resumes and cover letters) by PhDs who had successfully gotten jobs outside the academy. I poured over the materials, looking for how to translate my vita into a non-academic audience. She also got me started on fine-tuning my LinkedIn profiles, auditing my current stage of readiness, and tutoring me on what informational interviews were.
I went to more consulting for PhD sessions and decided this was something I wanted to shoot for. I also started making known to select colleagues my plan to look outside the academy for work. One was immediately supportive and started connecting me with their non-academic network. I began information interviews, taking busses to DC and NYC (I was living in Philadelphia at the time) to meet face-to-face with people.
I also joined a campus club to practice the case studies that all consulting firms require you to take during their interview process. These were superficially not hard, but I had zero background in business education. Standard formulas and frameworks were new to me. But the PhD recruiting process had paved the way for an interview. I submitted my resume and got my first interview (with Boston Consulting Group) right away.
The moment that changed everything
I went to NYC and had what can only be described as a disaster of an interview. I thought I was prepared, but I was woefully so. I didn’t wear a blazer, I didn’t have a folio or paper, I couldn’t answer the case study with anything like confidence. I was well out of my depth.
But while I was there in NYC I texted a network connection to say I was available for lunch if they had time. That lunch turned into an informal interview, which turned into a real interview a month later, and then my first non-academic job as a management consultant for IBM. Let it be known, for that second formal interview I was prepared. I practiced with friends, dug deep to understand the business, got background information about who was going to interview me and found out what impressed them. And I landed the job.
Life beyond academia
As a managing consultant for IBM I flew all over the country and all over the world, worked with teams of people who inspired me with their intelligence and work ethic, and learned about how business and careers work. My colleagues all had MBAs or better from the top ten schools in the world. Being a consultant was like getting my own MBA. I learned that communicating my ideas to executives was critical--no more academic jargon, no more pages and pages of build up, no more months putting together peer-workshopped data. I had to translate my skills of rigorous attention to detail in new ways, and I had to seriously rethink what it meant to create new knowledge that our clients could use to make serious decisions about their business.
Since that first year at IBM I have been recruited by a variety of companies. Boutique consulting firms, all the major tech firms, and all the major financial firms. Living in the NYC metro area was critical, having a PhD from a recognizable university, and having the title of consultant at IBM gave me the credibility and desirability that I never felt while in the academy.
I loved my work so much at IBM that I didn’t leave when Google first approached me. But eventually they came one day with a position and a team that really felt right. I’ve now been at Google for over two years and I love my job.
Best advice for graduate students
Prepare your materials. Spend as much time and effort “peer reviewing” and workshopping your job materials as you would a journal article or paper.
Build and activate your network. Be authentic in your relationships and connections, but don’t be afraid to accept help and an offer when it’s given.
Be focused. I know it seems like you can do anything, and everything seems like it would be just fine if you got the job. But--and this is serious--a lack of narrative, focus, and clear skill set that apply specifically to the positions you are aiming for are immediately evident. Your PhD in anthropology of ritual and femininity in Nigeria have absolutely nothing to do with the job you are applying for. Evidence-based skills are essential. This means that you must make different resumes and cover letters for different jobs.
Have hope and drive. It can and will happen. I have seen many people make the transition from the academy to industry, and I know you can make it, too.
This interview has been edited for clarity.