My move from academia to “corporate America” reminds me of “the transitions” common to fantastic and gothic culture. I would like to be able to draw similarities of my transition to the sexier, more seamless transitions of vampires and zombies. But mine was not that. There was no on-screen bloody death, followed by two seconds of stillness before an immediate re-animation as a human flesh-devouring zombie. No getting bit in a moment of seduction or surprise, slowly falling into a death-like slumber to later awake as a vampire. My transition resembled more the fits and spurts and painful looking-in-the-mirror moments – albeit perhaps in slow motion replay – of the star of American Werewolf in London. I had my share of look-in-the-mirror moments to see strange shoes and blisters appearing on my feet, strange clothes making me look unrecognizable to myself, and strange moments of panic when I could no longer remember what happened in Maupassant’s The Hand. And then there was of course the requisite “hide from humanity” moments where I tried interacting socially with people – from either academia or my new world — but would inevitably feel the change coming on. I’d tug at my uniform or suit jacket, stumble in my responses to the simplest of questions like, “Where do you work?” and then make a beeline for the bathroom.
I left academia for several reasons both personal and professional. I moved back home to New Jersey for a sabbatical and then never returned to my job in California. I remember thinking if I stay in academia, I need to find a job closer to home. But how few jobs there are out there in academia and how many people are applying for those same jobs. My friends outside of academia didn’t quite understand. They were used to looking at a bigger landscape: different jobs, different companies, lots of opportunities. And they were successful. I liked the freedom that promised. I liked the idea of more companies, more potential positions open to me. So I jumped.
For the first few months, I took any and every job I could find. I called myself Odd Job PhD. I worked in a medical office, a non-profit in their sales department, I pitched in-store credit cards, I demonstrated new fangled “pod” coffee machines. While this wasn’t something new for me — I had always found extra things to do, like tutoring, to make ends meet — for the first time, I didn’t have anything to fall back on. So more in-the-mirror transitioning moments.
My first opportunity came out of the blue. Luck may have played a role. But I was ready for a challenge, and I was open with my network about the position I was in – I left an academic position after a decade of preparation and became a temp. I had a friend from graduate school who had gotten her Master’s degree with me, then a law degree elsewhere, and was working in NYC. I mentioned to her that I needed to find something. She said she saw an opening in a compliance training function where she worked and that I should give it a shot. It was a short-term consulting position. I went in for the interview — after adding as many active verbs around my academic experience on my resume. The woman I met with looked at my resume and asked, “How did you end up here?” (a question people still ask me) and then “Can you write?” A glimpse of those wrenching moments of writing my dissertation flashed before my eyes, but I pushed those aside, cleared my throat, and said, “Yes, yes I can.”
And that’s how it all started. I was hired. Within a few months the department was downsizing and being relocated to another city. Before long my position was the next to go. My same friend said she saw another consulting position in another training department. I applied and got an interview during which I answered the now familiar “How did you end up here?” question, and then presented myself as smart, able to write, willing to learn, and eager to start. I was hired and started within a week or so. And the rest, as they say, is history…
I was a consultant for several years after that in the same department and was then hired as a full-time employee with a lot more responsibility than I had when I came in. What I didn’t know then was that consulting positions very often get extended and sometimes – even often – lead to full-time employment.
In many ways, my experience as a graduate student helped me prepare for what I do now. As a graduate student and teaching assistant, I learned and mastered a number of important and transferable skills I still use today. I learned how to research, the value of research, and how to put my research into an “original” work. I learned how to translate complex ideas and present them in a somewhat meaningful way to students who may have had little to no prior understanding or interest in the material. And I learned creative problem-solving. After reading a book or watching a movie for the fiftieth time with the belief there was a connection to “my original research,” I came up with creative connections and was able to present and defend them. The value placed on new and innovative work in academia helped me in the work I do now. I distill content from complex policies and create innovative learning solutions for audiences who may not have the time or inclination to learn.
The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PwC.