Alana Ballantyne *13 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 graduated from Princeton in 2013 with a PhD in German. My thesis was about mysticism in post-reformation Germany. Currently, my role is Planning Director at a company called VCCP in London. My job is to take commercial problems and make decisions that turn them into something a creative person would find it interesting to work on. So, I take this real-world problem and then wade through data and consumer research to look at what’s going on and think about how best to position the product in the market.
Laying the groundwork
This story really starts when I got to the end of my undergraduate degree and honestly had no idea what to do. I found out that I could do a PhD and get a stipend and I thought, well OK! I’m interested in academia and in studying more so I’ll just do that! When I turned up, I was just about to reach twenty-one / twenty-two. I had had casual jobs growing up to earn some cash, but I never really had a specific career path in mind. So, I turned up at Graduate School without thinking too about the reality of it!
I did find it stressful, but I liked what I was doing. I just hadn’t really thought about what the options out there in the world really were. And so, once I started, and then passed Generals, I started to buckle down and then kind of realised that the reality of being an academic was not necessarily what was I was actually suited for. It was very lonely: obviously you have friends but fundamentally what you have to do is sit alone and read or write by yourself.
There are conferences and teaching – and in fact what really kept me going through Graduate School was teaching. That made me realise that the core bit of the job, the writing, that’s the bit that doesn’t really suit me! I do really like writing but its fundamentally a kind of solitary affair. And that feeling grew and grew and I thought: oh gosh is this going to be me for the rest of my life?
The moment that changed everything
I went on an open-ended search. Growing up you kind of look around and think: what do all these people do all day? You know about the professions (vet, doctor, dentist), but I thought: well, I’m here and I’ve done twelve years of schooling but then what do I do? Do I work in a shop or what? My husband works in the private sector so I kind of got a sense of what he did as a consultant and I just started asking everyone who had the time - what do you do? What do you like and what skills would I need? I wanted to know whether I would be any good at it.
So, I probably had ten or fifteen chats like that. I chatted to someone who worked in re-insurance. Then I actually ended up talking to a friend who did a masters in Medieval English and had then applied to the WPP fellowship - a big media and advertising holding group that used to run this fellowship. You were kind of catapulted into quite senior positions quite quickly. He worked as an advertising planner and I loved listening to him talk about it and why he found it interesting. I realised that there was a lot that I liked in there without academia!
But it took me quite a long time to get into the advertising industry. I was living in the US, but my husband is English, and we moved to London towards the end of the business year when people aren’t hiring. I spent six-eight months doing work experience, struggling to find a job. I was lucky enough that there was a short but paid internship at my first agency. The internship turned into a junior position and then from there you work on more and more things. Now I’ve managed to be in the business for nine years!
One thing that was useful was that I was a bit structured about it. I asked myself: what is it that I like about academia? There were things that I really liked and didn’t like. And I thought: how can I get the things that I like and not the things that I don’t like?
I went along to the Big Four recruitment things, but I thought that one of the things that I like is culture and creativity and all of that. So, I thought: OK, well, I think I’d really miss that if I didn’t have it. And in a way you can think of advertising as applied culture. I do get to work with semiotics in its commercial application. When I see the creative work like a cultural artefact, I have to think: who is this for? What does it mean?
Life beyond academia
Advertising isn’t that easy of an industry to get into, but it did occur to me that it was still a lot easier than get into than academia! But the way in which recruitment in my industry works is very different. For instance, because there is a low barrier to entry there’s no way to tell who is good enough. In the absence of formal qualifications, people tend to turn to their friends and family. Because that’s some kind of filter or social proof: they know them well enough.
There is outreach in the industry that takes the form of work experience – like work with colleges in London or speaking to graduates. But I think that the industry could structure its recruitment far better to get more diverse talent in. It’s very hard to live in London without support. I was looking for work for a few months, luckily, I had savings and husband was working full time. But if you don’t have that or have the option of living at home, it can be really tough.
Best advice for graduate students
One thing I found frustrating was that people would say ‘you have to know what you want to do’. Because if I did, I would do it! But you can break down your frustrations – what do I like and what is graduate school not doing for me? Then cast the net wide. People are very happy to talk to you if you’re not asking for a job. You can say that you are not looking for a job, but just trying to figure out what to do next and ask them to tell you what they do because you would like to know more - just to get a sense of the reality of it.
Academics are very tied to this idea of the life of the mind. They don’t think about the day-to-day. There’s a lot more to a job than intellectual stimulation. Things like: where do I want to live? How much do I need to get paid? Do I need a job that is all about giving back or am I happy to do one that is a little more removed than that? Do I want to work with people or alone? These are all major things that come into it. When you talk to people about what they do, think to yourself: would the day-to-day suit me?
For instance, there are things in my job other people might not like – it is very fast paced, with little time to mull things over slowly. I make decisions and I’ll read a load about something in about three hours and turn it over. Some people say its high pressure, but I find it stimulating and exciting. If you’re clear about your day-to-day, use that as a filter to help think about your options.
This interview has been edited for clarity.