Elena Peregrina-Salvador *15, interviewed by Max Horder
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.
My current role is as Principal for Strategy and Planning at Vodafone Group. I devise strategic advice for technological companies in order to secure long-term growth through the development of new products and services for customers, while I am also involved in the financial planning process. I graduated from Princeton in 2015 with a PhD in Spanish. My dissertation examined the interplay between literature and photography – how photography redefined the way we think and approach memory, history, perception, time and core notions of our understanding of life.
Laying the groundwork
It was during the last year of my PhD that I realized that the actual lifestyle ahead might not make me happy. This was key. As committed as I was to the intellectual journey, I wasn’t sure whether the life afterwards would be enough. There were quite a few variables here: I wanted to be in control of my own life, where I would live, what my work would be like. This just isn’t really the case when you’re an academic. If you’re lucky enough to get a job, it probably won’t be in the place you want to live. There is something about wanting to be in control of certain decisions that is just not possible in academia.
Then there was the next question: what else could I do? In my own personal journey, I had never really done anything non-academic. There was a big question-mark for me: can I work in business? Outside the Ivory Tower?
Nevertheless, when I was facing the last year of the PhD, I was very pragmatic. I needed a job. I still needed to eat three times a day even after my funding would run out in June! So, first I went into the academic market, thinking that I need a job, and this is the path that I am allegedly better suited to. At the same time, I was having informational interviews with alumni to find out what other things I might be able to do.
When I went into the academic job market, I actually was very successful, or at least as successful as you think you’d be. I was interviewed for many campus visits and didn’t exactly have a bad time. But I still had many doubts about this road and kept exploring alternatives.
The moment that changed everything
When I began to think seriously about non-academic careers, I initially started with the obvious choice of careers more aligned with my PhD. This consisted of things like art galleries and publishing houses. I also heavily considered becoming a paralegal and going to law school. But in the process of these informational sessions, I realised that I didn’t actually like them as much as I thought I would. I did not think I would like the day to day in any of those jobs and in that context, academia was more personally fulfilling.
I also thought about working in things like a foundation. I reached out to a really big Spanish foundation and they said that I needed a Masters in Cultural Management. And I thought: you want me on top of a PhD from Princeton to do another Masters even though I already have experience organizing conferences, fundraising, managing budgets and running communications!
But the other point is that I did all of this while I was trying to finish my PhD. This was a mistake. It’s hard to juggle three things at once – I should’ve made the decision earlier on. Doing the PhD and the academic job market or the PhD and looking for other jobs works well. But trying to focus on all three (PhD, academic market and professional job market) was too much and probably meant it took me longer to finish some of the dissertation chapters and possibly finding a job. In hindsight it wasn’t the best!
When I realized that I needed a different challenge, I started applying for completely different things. I wasn’t quite sure what to do because I had missed out on the window for consulting, which would have been an easier exit (even though getting the job is hard). So, I just kept continuously applying for different roles.
The moment that changed everything was when a friend of mine who transferred from a PhD in History to a job in a start-up in London said she could refer me to a job in the same company. That’s how I got my first position. Understanding and harnessing your network is a major part of getting into a professional role outside of academia.
Life beyond academia
When I began at the start-up, I felt that there was a lot to learn – which also came with a very high thrill of day-to-day getting things done. I had to immediately take decisions which would have either a positive or a negative impact. You would automatically see what is working and not working. There was a thrill that you don’t get in academia that I just loved. During the first six months I spent a lot of time just learning the mechanisms and everything.
Before entering the business world, I suspected that I could do it – I knew I had it in me. But at this point the world has already told you many times that since ‘you’ve never done this before; you don’t do numbers’! And sometimes there is little voice inside you that doubts whether you could actually do it well. But I never really felt outside of my depth. I just had to go through the process of actually learning it. I had literally never even opened an excel before! And in the first three years, I had become one of the most analytical people in the office. Although I was not nearly as good as some of my peers who were experienced with data, I was getting there fast. I’ve loved the learning process - even learning how to use excel!
Best advice for graduate students
Don’t worry about how your supervisors may be distant or uncaring about your change in path, nor if they make you feel uncomfortable about taking a different route. These situations could be a bit messy and many academics still have a hard time understanding that you may want to do something else, something different to what they chose for themselves. They seem to believe that a different career option questions your intellectual commitment to the field and your research and that is a mistake.
The problem is also that the world is telling you that you can’t do it. That you won’t be able to do it because you’ve only done academia. That it’s too difficult. But it’s not true. Compare yourself to the undergrads. They graduate in History and Public Policy and get recruited into hedge funds, but nobody thinks that they can’t do the job because they did a History major! But with the grad students it’s a different story. When you start looking for a job outside of academia people will put you in a hole with what you have done before. But there is no reason why you can’t do it.
And I’ll be honest. Not only can you do it, you can do it really well. Nothing in my professional life compares to how hard my dissertation was. Not even close. If you can finish your PhD at Princeton, you are more than capable of developing a new career trajectory even if it seems wildly different from what you specialized in at Grad School!
This interview has been edited for clarity.