I've been reflecting, lately, about what it means for me to be a reformed academic in the business world. As I look to what the future holds, I've started to take stock of the post academic value proposition in the boardroom, and beyond.
One could argue that completing a PhD in the Humanities is not the most direct path to a rewarding career in business. Certainly, many academics get trapped in academia. It can be like a mirror maze where you only ever reflect the esoteric theories and complicated language of other academics, unable to communicate clearly with the outside world. But there are some academics, myself included, who escaped that cat's cradle. The reasons some of us have escaped are varied, but the outcome is the same: many of us are no longer valued for our mastery of a given subject, but rather the skills we learned along the way to such mastery. As Paula Chambers, founder of Versatile PhD. said in a 2014 Atlantic article, people with PhD.s working outside of academia are “not necessarily being hired for their content expertise, but for their process skills: ability to do excellent research, to write, to make cogent arguments.” We are critical thinkers, communicators, writers, and teachers.
Below are some of the ways I've been thinking about the specific value proposition that a reformed academic has to offer the business world:
1. The ability to write well is more unique than you think, and every business needs great writers in their ranks.
When I moved away from academia to a corporate job, I was surprised that clear and concise writing wasn’t a skill commonly held by my very smart and engaged colleagues. But think about it this way: you hire an engineer to design complex structures, you hire an accountant to work financial models, and you hire a writer to write. Makes sense, right?
Anyone who has a PhD in the Humanities, and literature in particular, will tell you that we write. A lot. Academic writing has sometimes been criticized for being pedantic, pretentious, and generally just difficult to understand for the uninitiated (cue the mirror maze I mentioned above...). These criticisms are perhaps warranted, and I know I have been guilty of such style choices in the past. The thing to consider, however, is that good “academic” writing is simply about understanding the audience. The agile writer is able to pivot between “difficult” academic writing and, for example, writing first year course content: the topic is likely the same, but the approach to explanation and language choices are often different depending on, for example, if the consumer of that writing is another academic or a student. Therein lies a skill that many post academics bring to business – the ability to determine and write to a specific audience.
2. Teacher, often to people who don't want to be there: As a teacher, I had no choice but to become creative not only in my teaching style, but my ability to adapt to the audience such that I could change tack if the room became distracted or apathetic. Now I use those skills when I pitch to a boardroom of people, or when I'm mentoring someone. Who knew that teaching would come in so handy in the business world?
3. The academic is a storyteller by trade: Writing a dissertation in the Humanities is like putting together a multi-channel marketing campaign, but with less excitement and a much smaller potential audience. It takes endurance, organization, and dedication, and it entails synthesizing an often broad field of study into a project that builds a case for a thesis or argument. It's damn hard work, and we come out the other side of it with a knack for telling stories about even the most boring and dry topics. It's just that some of us are better at it than others...
4. The consideration of different perspectives is a requirement for both academics and business: This is true for business in many ways, especially in the marketing department. A marketing campaign that seeks to address potential customer targets and multiple stakeholders across various channels specifically draws on the ability to understand a range of concurrent perspectives, find areas of commonality between these perspectives, while at the same time identitying specific needs unique to each voice. It's tricky business, and it's the heart and soul of academic work.
5. Critical thinking is an integral part of business, and academics are specifically trained to critically engage with often complex concepts and theories.
When I joined the business world, I was certain that my lack of quantitative acumen would be a detriment to my success - but that’s proved only partly true. While having the ability to run complex financial models would definitely be an asset to my career development, that perceived skill deficit is offset by my agile and critical thinking skills honed over years of doctoral research.
What do I mean by critical thinking, and how is it needed in business? Well, here are a couple of important components:
- A critical thinker has learned to question assumptions: In order to be a successful academic, one must become adept at examining the veracity of assumptions. We must ask the “what” and “why” behind every proposition. I know that my training as an academic has fortified me with such rhetorical skills, as well as the need to back up assumptions with solid proof. My supervisor wouldn't let me off the hook otherwise! In my experience working on corporate strategic planning, finding reliable sources, determining assumptions, and asking productive questions of those assumptions have been key to the process. It's the only way to make informed decisions about what markets to dip into, what markets to exit, and so many other strategic considerations.
- Conceptual and innovative thinking: Finishing a PhD requires hours and hours searching for connections between ideas and patterns, and what we end up with (if we are lucky) is often a new way of understanding a given topic. We are comfortable, and some may even say in our natural habitat, with both abstract concepts and objective facts, and see them as key components to problem solving. This makes us very well suited to business because we are able to put together sometimes seemingly disparate ideas and imagine different avenues of inquiry that could lead to new approaches and opportunities.
Leaving the academic world was challenging. It was how I spent most of my time, either researching and writing, or teaching. The challenge, though, was not the life choice of moving away from my research (something I enjoyed immensely), rather it was deciding how to move towards a rewarding career on the outside of the academy. I'm always imagining ways that I can make my career better and more rewarding. I've been fortunate that my professional life, so far, has been pretty great. But I would have appreciated some guidance and advice in the early days of turning my back on the academy. Maybe if you decide to leave the academic path, my blog will help you figure it out.
I'll be posting more about these ideas, and others like them, as I continue to work towards what comes next for me. Sign up for my newsletter so you don't miss out.