Starting Over

Where My PhDs At?

On October 12, I gave a presentation to some Vanderbilt history PhDs, covering the steps they’d need to take to find non-academic employment. In it, I emphasized the need to network, both because you were never going to get a job with just a resume, and because eventually, you’d need to find someone who would take a chance on what was, in brutally honest terms, a weird resume. I told them to work on their non-academic web presence. Finally, I advised them to accept that serendipity and luck would play a large part in their career path, as Demetri Martin brilliantly illustrated:

And, as it turns out, I wasn’t lying. My research on where PhDs had found jobs conveniently turned into networking for me to get a job. After my serendipitous attendance at a panel on UX and Anthropology, I’d finally found the field where all the PhDs were: user research. One PhD connection at the panel turned into coffee with countless others, and opened up a field that I’d frankly not been very aware of. User research, as it turns out, is a subset of user experience — which was an area I wanted to work in anyway — and it’s based in psychology and human-computer interaction (which is perhaps why, as a humanist PhD, I hadn’t really heard of it back in the day). My coffee meetings encouraged me to think about how best to frame my resume and web presence for a research job, and how other historians might do the same.

And I realized something: when I decided to change careers in 2008, I figured that web development made sense, both because I already knew some HTML/CSS, but also because I’d internalized the same assumption that many of the PhD students I’d talked to: my research itself wasn’t applicable, or even extensible. But talking to all these other PhDs, I realized that yes, indeed, it was. There’s a whole realm of industrial research out there; it’s just a matter of knowing how to present your own research in the right way.

In retrospect, it’s kind of funny that finding this out felt like cracking the Da Vinci code, eight years too late. But it felt good to put my weird linguistic publications back on my Linked In page. And as one researcher told me, user research folks aren’t scared of the “PhD” on your resume, and in fact, probably like it. So I put that back, too.

In the meantime, I was going to meetups, and having more coffees, reaching out to contacts, and refining my digital portfolio and presence. And I’d already begun to identify companies I wanted to work for (large, and run by grownups). And so it was that I got a job at one of them, in user research (more details to come, eventually), because someone was willing to take chance on me. Just like I’d told the students at my talk.

I’m very excited about this next chapter. Meeting with the user research folks felt in many ways like coming home. As much as I enjoyed software engineering, I missed the ability to do research — the thing I’d been trained to do — as its own job, and to know that the possibility exists for others in my position.