When I was invited to share my typical week on PhDs at Work, my first reaction was that my PhD is part of a former life, not this one. But the more I reflected on what I do today and particularly on what I like most about my work, the closer the old PhD felt.
My PhD happened back in 2001, following a lot of work but not a lot of planning. When I went to college I actually had a PhD in mind, just a different one. I studied physics with the intent of becoming an academic, not knowing what else you did with a physics degree. After four years I entered a PhD program and soon realized that there were people a lot more focused on physics than me, from my fellow grad students vying to work in the labs of the school’s Nobel laureates to the postdocs I worked alongside who were grinding through their second and in some cases third fellowships waiting for a tenure track slot to open up.
Realizing that my physics ambitions were not strong enough to compete with all that, I collected a Master’s and decided to try something else. At an early age I wanted to be a designer. I was in fact obsessed with it until math and science and the advice of my high school counselor took over. Thinking I had missed something, I enrolled in a graduate program in architecture and industrial design, which satisfied my creative itch, but I eventually discovered that designers do research, too, and as I got into that, I branched out and started working with psychologists, computer scientists, and cognitive scientists. Fourteen years after enrolling as a freshman, I found myself with one bachelor’s, two master’s and one doctorate spanning two disciplines, with no concrete idea of what I was going to do with it all.
I briefly tried the academic route in cognitive psychology, the last of my many focuses. I spent several months working with a professor in New Jersey, but after coming up empty on my first attempt at a NIMH fellowship, I started to think that the relatively short time I had spent working in the discipline was going to make things difficult. With a new mortgage and plans for a family, I started listening to headhunters, one of whom thought I would be a great fit for research positions in architectural firms in New York. After a few interviews with a few very high-end design firms, I interviewed at a small architecture-related consulting firm. The headhunter was cryptic (as usual), but in her clues I immediately recognized the research of someone I admired and who I knew was working as a visiting professor at MIT. I just had no idea he had a consulting firm in New York. I had no idea, moreover, that there was a business and career to be had in the intersection of my two apparently conflicting desires – to be creative and to do research.
The rest is history. I accepted an offer, and I was immediately thrown into adventures (sometimes stomach churning due to my lack of experience) with clients whose problems I was asked to solve. In most cases their goals were to create better workplaces, ones that better supported how their people worked, changed how they worked, changed their cultures, saved money, or all of the above. We studied their organizations, drew conclusions, and conceived plans – sometimes simple, sometimes extremely complex – for how to design, implement and operate new workplaces. Initially, we just called ourselves consultants, but over the past 14 years, we and the growing crowd of people who do similar work, are now more commonly called workplace strategists.
What I do today would not likely pass academic muster, simply because academic rigor is not realistic. At the end of the day, I help organizations solve business problems. We study how organizations work, using both quantitative and qualitative data, and we try to understand what factors are most important to their future success, to achieving their mission. We also study how workplaces themselves influence how people and organizations behave. Collectively, these insights lead to ideas for how new kinds of workplaces could help organizations perform better. A lot of what we do is investigative, and we’ve developed some interesting methods to tease out useful information. My success in this area is due in large part to my academic background, but I’m far from an academician. Business moves too quickly to wait for controlled or longitudinal studies to be completed, and in any case our data-backed insights will get stirred with business hunches and creative impulses before a solution gets fully baked. From an academic perspective, this is messy, but it’s one of the best things about my job. The business world is one big, fast-moving laboratory, with rigor coming cumulatively in the progress of whole industries.
My success is due in large part to my academic background, but I’m far from an academician.
I really love what I do and feel lucky to have stumbled into this nexus of research and creativity that also somehow manages to generate a paycheck. Sometimes I wish there was more time for reflection, something for which business is not very patient, but I imagine if I were sitting in lab instead, I might be wishing the opposite, that there was more action. My job has also taken me to all parts of the world and to all types of organizations. While I might spend weeks immersed in one organization, I’m always happy to go off and see a different culture, a different discipline, and a different business challenged.
My work is quite varied and has evolved over time. Since taking my first job, I’ve worked at one of the big consulting firms and most recently I’ve joined CannonDesign, an architectural firm with offices around the world, to build a workplace strategy practice from scratch. I now work with colleagues in many different locations in parallel, traveling frequently but still calling New York my home for work. My blog postings will give you a sampling of what I do and the ups and downs of workplace consulting over a week in July.