The disastrous landscape of the academic job market is hardly news. Like most other aspects of the economy, the pandemic has exacerbated trends that were already in place long before it struck. Even those who are currently in stable positions may face threats to their jobs. The outlook for higher ed employment — already grim in January of this year — is grimmer than ever before. Most of my friends in academia react to the news that someone got a tenure-track job with the sort of surprise that normally accompanies a lottery win.
Given this situation, large numbers of extremely smart and motivated people are either un- or underemployed. A lot of the (not bad) advice for those seeking alternative-academic employment (alt-ac for short) emphasizes the transferable skills that one acquires through graduate school. These folks have concrete, marketable skills that equip them to make great contributions to any number of subfields in the tech economy with relatively little specialized training: product and project management, content creation and marketing, operations, data analytics, human resources, and many other areas. The crux of the problem facing these potential workers, however, is that hiring managers may not see their skills as transferable. Unfortunately, I think the perception of grad school in the broader culture is that it’s more about the acquisition of a large body of knowledge to develop subject-matter expertise than cultivating skills.
As a person with a doctorate in theatre history and performance studies who is very happily employed with a tech company, I want to dispel that myth. Graduate training in any subject involves building skills that have immediate value in the tech economy. I like to think of all of these skills as “invisible expertise,” by which I mean a suite of concrete but not obvious skills conferred by life in the academy. By better understanding what someone with an academic background is capable of doing rather than knowing, tech companies can tap into a pool of highly motivated, skilled professionals that they might otherwise ignore.
More Than Just Facts
As a historian and performance scholar, my research falls into three broad categories: cultural history of the British empire in the 18th century, applications of analytic philosophy to theatre, and sports as a type of performance. Developing the ability to write informed scholarly articles on these subjects obviously necessitated a great deal of reading and memorization. But there’s more to producing useful scholarship than just knowing a lot of stuff. Scholarly writing requires a particular skill set.
Producing history doesn’t involve committing a textbook to memory. Instead, historians apply various analytical methods to a body of facts. To write my dissertation, I had to visit archives at the University of Texas, Harvard University, the British Library, and Oxford University, among others. I had to sift through huge amounts of information to find the relevant sources, catalog and index them in my own files for later reference, develop a theory based on the evidence, and then shape all those facts into a coherent narrative about the topic. At each draft of the project, I had to incorporate the advisory committee’s feedback in revisions. Throughout, I also had to be mindful of deadlines and regularly seek out grants and other sources to fund the research.
A few of the skills required for the project were so discipline-specific that they’re not highly applicable. I hardly ever do paleography in my current job, for instance. Far more of them, however, are things I do every day. I had to get good at tracking deadlines; managing databases; closely reading and parsing documents, often in difficult or obtuse prose; diagnosing and fixing problems in a project; applying analytical frameworks; crafting readable and lively prose (I will concede that not every academic is good at this, although I like to think I am); and collaborating with other professionals in the field. Almost every macro-level skill I developed as a scholar serves me in my day-to-day. The same would go for anyone with a graduate degree in most fields.
Someone with a Ph.D. in sociology is an expert on the subject, sure. But someone with a scholarly background is also an expert in producing new knowledge. That turn of phrase may be grandiose or even pretentious, but I think it captures the amount of work that goes into producing scholarship. A lot more work goes into a book than what shows up on the pages. Not only does it require keen habits of mind to notice patterns and trends to develop a good, supportable argument, but it also takes a lot of logistical acumen. Those logistical skills are applicable across a much broader range of careers than one might traditionally assume.
Besides research, the other pillar of academic life is teaching. Here again, the popular image of this part of the job distorts the reality. Think of the ways teaching is represented in popular culture. On one end of the spectrum, you have Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off droning on about voodoo economics as his students sit glassy-eyed, and at the other is Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society, inspiring his pupils to appreciate literature and live life to the fullest. Either way, the perception seems to be that teaching is about an expert delivering a recitation of long-ago collected facts to an audience, like pouring water from a pitcher into an empty glass. The only meaningful variable is how personally interesting the teacher is or isn’t.
Effective teaching, much like good writing, requires a lot more than just memorizing things and then repeating them to any interested parties. Instructional design and pedagogy are complex processes that require careful attention and a great deal of thought. Putting together a good class involves a tremendous amount of work. First, the instructor has to determine what the students need to know in order to develop both as burgeoning professionals and as human beings. This involves distilling a sprawling subject to a digestible amount of information, selecting relevant readings, ensuring the workload is manageable, and building meaningful assessments that gauge how much the student has learned and may also give them practice in the field as well. Teaching a college-level course — and especially an advanced one — is way more than just telling the students everything you know and then giving them a test where they write it all down.
Many, if not most, teachers also revise and update courses each time they teach them again based on the course evaluations students completed at the end of the previous offering. The entire process is like running a series of experiments to find the most effective way to deliver information. As with all aspects of the professional world, this process is increasingly data-driven, meaning a lot of academics are much more data literate than one might assume.
Outside of these instructional design components, teaching also confers a host of other skills. Most obviously, anyone hoping to avoid a Ben Stein-like somnolence in their teaching presence needs to cultivate top-notch presenting and public speaking abilities. Excellent teaching also requires the creation of a suite of collateral content. That means PowerPoint or Keynote slides, worksheets, information packets, posters, and other visual aids, among other materials. Every class also needs a syllabus, which functions as a binding agreement between instructor and students to establish course policies and guidelines. In many cases, the syllabus also has to incorporate specific language from governmental and university authorities about learning outcomes. All this speaks to an ability to understand and navigate a complex system in order to deliver a great end experience to the students.
Finally, course management requires an academic to develop excellent interpersonal and conflict-resolution skills. Grading student work requires giving constructive criticism that will allow the students to understand their strengths and growth areas. Despite what a lot of students think, teachers generally don’t like giving bad grades (reading a bad essay is a truly painful experience) and want to help them improve. Ensuring the integrity of grades also necessitates that work get returned to students in a timely manner while also maintaining rigorous organizational and privacy procedures.
Beyond formal grading, teachers often also offer one-on-one coaching and mentoring during their office hours. Many students also reach college having regularly excelled in school only to find the transition difficult. The first time students get a graded assignment back, they might melt down either because they’ve never gotten a bad grade before or because they’re worried about maintaining a certain GPA for scholarship or graduate school reasons. In these situations, the instructor has to be a skilled negotiator, carefully defusing any strong emotions to help the student overcome shock, anger, and anxiety so that they can see how to improve. Overall, good teaching requires way more than just knowing a lot about any one topic.
Although research and teaching form the bulk of the academic experience, one final aspect of the work bears mentioning here. A broad range of activities is collected under the catch-all term “service.” This term can denote both service to the university, including serving on departmental and university committees, and service to the profession, which means running any of the myriad learned societies that exist to promote scholarly research.
The responsibilities of a committee might involve developing a university-wide protocol for some procedure, university governance, writing curriculum, designing a major, or the financial stewardship of a professional organization. These tasks mean each individual academic will have unique skills depending on their particular service commitments.
I’ve participated in a pedagogical intensive program that dealt with instructional design and currently serve on a committee of the American Society for Theatre Research, focused on developing and recommending best practices for graduate education in the current academic climate. Ultimately, all of these service opportunities entail managerial-type experience and cross-departmental collaboration.
I don’t mean to imply that graduate school somehow confers arcane skills or ennobles the soul more than any other type of education or training. I also don’t think that formal education should even necessarily be a requirement for job placement. What I want to illustrate here is that folks from academic backgrounds — although they might not be the most obvious candidates for openings — are already prepared to thrive in a range of careers in tech. With some additional job-specific training, the possibilities open up even more. So the next time you see an unconventional resume, take a closer look — you might just find your next great employee.